SOMA is a different game in 'Safe Mode' -- a better one
Warning: This article includes major spoilers for SOMA, which you should absolutely play before reading this.
Frictional Games released SOMA in late 2015. It is now the end of 2017, which is perhaps too late to review it in a meaningful way. However, the game was recently re-released on the console I own (Xbox One) with an additional gameplay mode that I found fascinating: a “Safe Mode,” inspired by a popular PC mod which makes the enemies non-hostile.
So, I fired up my Xbox One and I now have thoughts on a two-year-old title that I don’t feel bad spoiling in order to talk about accessibility in games.
Or that’s the idea. This game gave me Guilt Nightmares and I didn’t sleep the night before writing this. This is also my highest recommendation for a game.
Simon Jarrett is a nice Canadian boy. He and his girlfriend Ashley are in a car accident and she dies, while he suffers brain damage that will kill him slowly. He goes to a student researcher attempting experimental brain-scan technology that might help unscramble his brains before he dies. After the brain-scan, Simon wakes up in an underwater research laboratory in the future after an asteroid strike has devastated the planet. Now he’s completely alone in a crumbling technological marvel at the bottom of the sea. Imagine if Bioshock was even sadder and that’s where we are.
This first-person game invites you to explore the shattered space. You learn how to break through glass to explore new areas, and you begin to use a device called the OmniTool to unlock new areas. That’s when monsters start hunting you. This is a Frictional game, after all, and the folks behind the Amnesia series are always going to put you in a horrifying location where you have no ability to fight back against a creeping terror, short of hiding and praying you aren’t discovered.
And that’s when SOMA goes completely off the rails.
You’re solving puzzles in a dystopian science fiction hellscape, while also discovering that you have a weird set of powers which allows you to recall the final moments of dead folks from technology installed in them, literally called black boxes. And while some creeptastic cybernetic monstrosities are stalking you amidst your attempts to figure out what century you’re in, you run into a robot that wants to talk to you. He thinks he’s a person and you’ve already found his mutilated corpse in another room, but he knows that he’s alive and still a person. And then, in order to preserve your own life, you have to violently and brutally murder this robot while he screams curse words in a torrent of unimaginable pain.
SOMA is less about the monsters and more about what you can sacrifice and still consider yourself human.
And this is what SOMA is. It is less about the monsters hunting you than about encountering different degrees of “life” or “humanity” and making decisions about what you can sacrifice and still consider yourself human. For every Ken Levine game that wants to spring the twist in the final act that Perhaps You Are Actually the Villain, SOMA does it from the start.
While there’s a fantastic degree of mystery remaining in the game (along with tons of in-world subtle hints I’m sure I need a third playthrough to unearth) there is also an unyielding tension which exists in the close quarters of the submerged laboratory spaces but also on the vast open seabed itself. The monsters of this game, which pursue you to various degrees, are all robotic crimes against humanity with various degrees of living awareness fueling their continuing existence. This is to say that humanity is almost entirely dead, but how consciousness lives on is in percentages of constant, unyielding pain.
There are precious few horror games throughout gaming history where the antagonists have emotional resonance on par with the player character. SOMA is the only time I’ve wished I could kill myself so that someone(thing) else could live, because no matter what form my living matter takes, why push forward with this level of guilt?
This new release of the game includes that aforementioned modification, the “Safe Mode.” Monsters still exist and hunt you, but they cannot hurt you. Well, this is a slight misnomer: monsters still exist and still hunt you, and they can even still attack, but your scale of health is not in play as it would be in the normal game. The straightforward version includes degrees of visual distortion reflecting damage you’ve taken, not just from monsters but from electrical mishaps or falls, that can only be repaired by connecting your physical body to nodes of the rogue Artificial Intelligence that has overtaken the facility.
SOMA is a horror title in structure, but in execution it is a classic science fiction parable.
So. This is goddamned cool. SOMA is a horror title in structure, but in execution it is a classic science fiction parable with a story that drips with feelings and pain and pressure and genuinely clever twists. It is almost annoyingly human and that experience should not be locked off from players who do not have the constitution (or interest) to suffer a few hours of jump scares and panic visualizations just to experience the completely constructed world that Frictional has to share.
The studio seems very aware of the choice it made. This is a time where critics, writers, and fans are all pushing for more accessibility in games; everything from options for color blind players to content adjustments and gating so a player won’t run into something they didn’t sign up for. Degree of difficulty is another huge discussion point when we talk about accessibility, and honestly this argument seems hilarious considering that I write about videogames for a living -- and yeah, I too wish Cuphead was easier. This shouldn’t be a fight. Who cares if people want to experience an interactive story in a different way? We don’t yell at strangers who watch movies with the subtitles on. (And if you do, you’re a jerk.)
So what does the Safe Mode offer to players in SOMA? A pretty excellent alternative. I had feared that the version of the game lacking the ability to kill me might remove the monsters altogether, but the decision to leave them (and their often darkly comedic dialogue) within the game means that anyone playing on Safe Mode knows exactly what SOMA is all about. You aren’t missing anything by not being forced to restart from a checkpoint just because a shrieking sentient tower of flesh figured out what room you were in. And SOMA employs a visual fear distortion mechanic that lets you know monsters are close by really f’ing up your whole sight and sound sensory inputs. This is to say: merely hanging out around monsters is just as unpleasant an experience as being attacked by them. You’re not about to just stroll through SOMA for fun. But if screaming unholy husks tearing you apart would have kept you for exploring the excellent tale of SOMA, please enjoy the screaming unholy husks that won’t tear you apart.
I’m sure there’s a few of you reading this that think this isn’t The Way people should experience SOMA. But I refuse to believe that anyone who experienced this bleak yet life-affirming and criminally underplayed title would not see that creating an opportunity for more players to experience this is a good thing. It is. It is undeniably a good thing, implemented well, and in an evolving gaming world looking for new ways to include outsiders: this is a triumph. And I’m just as haunted by the horrible things I’ve done as I would be otherwise.