SOMA's design team nearly made a 'wuss mode' of their own

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March 15, 2016 by Kris Ligman

At the Game Developers Conference today, SOMA design lead Thomas Grip discussed the game's protracted development, its focus on story over gameplay and yes, that he's just fine if players want to turn off the scares.

As horror games go, Frictional Games's SOMA is more of a 'creeping existential mindscrew' piece than a hide-in-the-closet spookfest. So it's little surprise that enterprising modders created a 'Wuss Mode' which disabled most enemy encounters, allowing players to explore the derilect undersea research station at their own pace.

Speaking at the Game Developers Conference today, SOMA creative director Thomas Grip said the team could not be happier with the existence of this 'walking simulator' mode -- in fact, they almost released one of their own.

"It was great, because it was something that people wanted," said Grip during the Q&A portion of his design talk, 'Crafting Existential Dread. "We were actually on the verge of adding such a mode before releasing the game as well. But it felt like, if we had done that, then we sort of undermined the rest of the experience. It was such a big choice [at the time]. It might have been a bad decision, now that I think about it, but we may have had the time."

Achieving Coherence

A recurring theme of Grip's talk was the emphasis SOMA places on its story and setting, a decision which -- the developer admits -- sometimes ended up coming at the expense of its gameplay. Though the team had set out to follow up their previous game, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, with something that better unified player interactions and the story they wished to tell, what ended up happening was a protracted development period in which systems and enemy design were left on the back burner. For actual, literal years.

"During those years, our focus was on solving those open questions -- how are we going to get these ideas across, how are we going to do the engagement, that sort of thing." said Grip. "Other stuff, like the AI and death system, we worked on those [but] never finalized them during those three and a half years. Once we started them -- after those three and a half years had gone -- it was very hard to fit them in. We had some ideas, but we already had a precreated structure [...] the idea of going back and redoing a lot of that stuff was not very tempting at this point, so we just had to try and fit it in as much as we could."

If you've played SOMA, you have probably experienced this for yourself. Its story is unusually strong for videogame science fiction, and the way it tackles its big reveal moments were finely tuned -- the team's test builds had to be fully polished with voice acting and sound effects for Frictional to even know if their narrative cues were effective for players -- but its enemy encounters aren't really groundbreaking in the same way Amnesia's managed to be back in 2010.

But according to Grip, it was never really in the Frictional playbook to create another Amnesia. "We weren't really sure it was going to be horror," he said. "I remember discussing that perhaps we should have a mellow Sigur Ros soundtrack."

In other words, Frictional were at one point contemplating an interactive version of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

Embodying, Post-Humanity

We learned some other great tidbits from Grip's talk, including that the player was originally not cast as a human (of a sort) but a swimming robot "with a kind of claw mechanic." Of particular note, Grip discussed where the idea came from to (spoiler warning) place male protagonist Simon Jarrett's digitized consciousness into a body we later learn had belonged to a woman.

"It was a long process. The idea at first was that he was just going to be this black goo. [And then the character] Imogen Reed died while we were making the live action episodes," Grip explained, referring to the promotional videos the studio produced which serve as a sort of prequel for SOMA. "At some point it was like, you know, 'Simon should have a body, so why can't he have hers?' 'Oh, that's a good idea!' It just came up when we were having a meeting as a team. Several people mentioned that it would be cool."

What's interesting is that (spoiler warning again) when Simon uploads himself to a different body later in the game, he is again placed in a deceased woman's body. I'm not saying it's necessarily a trans narrative the Frictional team went and stumbled upon, but you could certainly interpret it that way if you wanted.

Lastly, you know those psychological surveys the game has you take at the beginning and end of SOMA? Don't worry, Frictional doesn't track that data. "I'm very sad that we aren't," Grip confessed. "It would have been very fun to collect." Uh, heads up for the studio's next game, I guess...

Kris Ligman is the News Editor of ZAM. Their real body is in The Wired, the physical copy is just a hologram. Interface with their brainmeats on Twitter @KrisLigman.