The Wonderfully Eerie World of SOMA Ian Hipschman September 17, 2015 Developers, Games Industry, Interviews Soma so·ma (sō’mə) pl. so·mas or so·ma·ta (-mə-tə) The entire body of an organism, exclusive of the germ cells. The axial part of a body, including the head, neck, trunk, and tail. The body of a person as contrasted with the mind or psyche. 1 “What you have is a word that stands for both the physical body and the immaterial mind,” says Thomas Grip, creative director of Frictional Games, who next week will release SOMA. SOMA is a science-fiction horror game set in an underwater research facility containing machinery that believes it is human. Following the release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent in 2010, Grip and co. have been hard at work on SOMA, which will release on the 22nd of September. Grip’s journey into the games industry began at university. “After making my first game on my own at the beginning of the year 2000, I started on another game which attracted the attention from some students from another university, who decided to help out,” he says. “However, that game didn’t pan out because it was using an engine from another person, who kept updating it, rendering it obsolete. I gave up on the project after two years.” During his fourth master’s year at university, Grip teamed up with Jens Nilsson, with whom he would later found Frictional Games. They soon began work on Penumbra, though they weren’t satisfied with the game’s performance at a competition. As a result, they gave the game away for free, and it was downloaded more than a million times. “At that point,” Grip says, “we decided to make something commercial out of Penumbra.” “Once we released Penumbra: Overture as Frictional Games, I guess you could say I was in the industry, even though it still doesn’t feel like it, because I’ve never had a proper job in the industry,” he explains. “In fact, I’ve never had a proper job at all. I worked as a dishwasher for a few months, and that feels like more of a proper job than what I do now. Even though we’ve earned more, I’m just sitting at my desk, by my computer, getting shit done.” Frictional Games is headquartered in Sweden, which has fostered a vibrant game development community. There are, according to Grip, a number of reasons why this is: “One is that you’re paid to go to university in Sweden. When you’re at university, you can spend an awful lot of time doing things in your free time, especially if you feel as if your studies are not too difficult,” he says. “For me, my program wasn’t too hard, it was a bachelor’s, so we didn’t have much of the hard physics subjects. It was mostly programming, so I had plenty of free time to work on my own stuff.” “I think many projects start off as school projects,” he continues. “In the US, if you do a project for school, it belongs to the school. In Sweden, if you do a project at school, its yours.” “On a more minor note, Sweden has very good Internet speed. Communications is integral to game development, so a high Internet speed makes Sweden ideal for game development.” Gamers and industry professionals alike are immensely looking forward to SOMA, especially my colleague Patrick Klepek, who according to this tweet is quite excited for the game. Touted as a psychological horror experience, Grip dives into the game’s narrative: “Basically, you have a set up, and the premise for this set up is still secret. We’re keeping this secret because we want players to go into the game and get this question of, ‘Shit, what happened here?’ There should be some sort of philosophical conundrum, and it’s very important that that come fresh,” Grip explains. “Otherwise, you’ve got Simon, who’s our protagonist. Contrary to Amnesia, he has a proper backstory and a proper personality from the get-go. You start playing as Simon as he’s in this place that he doesn’t know much about, and his situation is unknown to him. He finds himself in a run-down underwater base, where this weird black goo has penetrated the walls, and seems to be taking over stuff. You see these strange robots walking around, some are outright monsters, some think of themselves as human.” “The narrative is that Simon needs to figure out what is going on here, and he’s going to need to get an understanding of his place there. He’s on a certain mission that he needs to get completed.” “As a tangent, when people played our alpha in its early days, when they got some of the early questions answered, they felt like everything else was pointless. Normally, you’d say, ‘Well that’s a bad premise,’ but I was glad because they should be feeling like everything is pointless,” Grip explains. “At the same time, we don’t want them to stop playing the game, so we needed to reconcile these two things. Later when we had a beta test, no one complained about this, some simple tweaking seemed to solve the issue.” There are certain themes that Frictional Games are including in SOMA, all of which boil down to philosophical conundrums. One of these themes, as Grip explains, is, “how do you deal with this thing? I think this is an interesting theme to explore in video games, and horror is sort of driven by this. In a game, you need to be the person that progresses the storyline, even if that is simply pushing a button to move you forward.” “In Silent Hill 2, you need to reach the hill, which is a very scary route, but one that needs to be completed. Just this act of doing something is very connected to how games work on a narrative level. It has been interesting for us to explore something of, ‘Okay, I need to start moving forward’ but you need to think about, ‘Why am I moving forward? What is the reason here?’” “The player needs to confront this feeling of ‘Is everything meaningless right now?’ There’s obviously a very fine line to thread here of making the game playable, but from what we have so far, I’m confident we can achieve that.” Connected to these themes of pointlessness, SOMA will explore major themes of consciousness and identity. The earliest example of this comes in the form of a choice: “We have a robot who truly believes that it is a human,” Grip begins. “The player is then faced with the choice of either putting that robot in a situation which will cause it a lot of pain, or to do something else where there are clear warnings not to do. The people of the station have left clear instructions not to do this think, which puts the player in a hard place. ‘Is this robot really feeling pain?’ the players will ask themselves, ‘I mean, he’s just a robot.’” Throughout the game, Frictional will crank up the creepiness and the difficulty of these choices. Oftentimes, these types of decisions will be connected to puzzles, which are themselves connected to the narrative. Grip explains one of these puzzles, and the thought that went into creating it, in depth: “Early on in the game, you’re going to have to power up a door, which makes sense in the world. You need to just power up a machine and the door will power up and you can continue. At the same time, you need to ensure that the player is doing something they will feel rewarded for. You need to make sure that the puzzle is not ‘Push this spot and then the puzzle is done,’ but at the same time, you don’t want it to be, ‘Solve this month-long puzzle in order to progress.’ You need to have the right type of difficulty.” “The next thing you need to think about is to have a goal that feels narrative-based. Obviously going through the door to experience more of the story is narrative-based, although that feels very meta. It’s like; ‘I’m doing this purely for progression,’ which is not very exciting.” “What we have done instead is say that the power source is always also going to power up a communication device, and unless the power is on, you cannot communicate. At this point of the game, you’ll be thinking, ‘what the fuck is going on? A communication device? Someone is trying to reach out a communication device.’ Now you have a narrative reason for opening the door.” “The next step is to have something that’s called a narrative background; you need to figure out, ‘Is there anything that we can do so that while you’re solving the puzzle, you experience some narrative?’ For us in SOMA, what we did is have a robot that’s lying on the floor which has cables connected to the machine. It is the robot which is preventing the machine from working. You’ll need to pull out the cables connected to the robot in order to solve the puzzle.” “As you do that, however, the robot will plead for its life. When you eventually pull the plug, it will be quite sad. Now, you have something to think about as you’re solving this puzzle. Something is happening that is connected to the story, the player will feel, ‘Shit, I’m not solving a puzzle, I’m killing a robot and I feel like a bad person because of it.’” “Then you also have a so-called fourth layer, which is that you want your puzzles to reinforce a mental model. In our case, one of mental models is that you need to fear monsters. The player should wonder, ‘What is a monster in this world?’ We’ve got a robot lying on the ground, and the player can be fearful. ‘Should I really pull the cable? Perhaps it’s going to jump at me.’ The overarching idea here is that the players feel as if they’re facing a philosophical conundrum, rather than simply a puzzle.” This puzzle contains 4 layers, which is a design approach Frictional Games have applied to SOMA. The idea behind having layers to puzzles comes from the notion of being in ‘puzzle-mode’. See a locked door and the players first instinct is that they have to solve a puzzle to get through the door. Some games do puzzles well, while some are atrocious. There should not, for example, be a sliding box puzzle in a Resident Evil game, it just has no place. The 4-Layers approach is broken down as follows: Think of a basic puzzle connected to the game. IE, unlock a door Determine the correct difficulty that will leave the player feeling rewarded for having solved it Add a narrative-based goal and narrative background to the puzzle Reinforce a mental model In the case of SOMA, this 4-Layers design approach contributes to the game’s creepiness, its fear factor; it is a physiological horror game, after all. SOMA, like Amnesia before it, feeds on fear, which is not an easy emotion to elicit. “The most profound challenge associated with creating a psychological horror experience is constructing mental models of fear for the player,” says Grip. “The player should be constructing mental models out of very few hints. If they see a shadow, they must believe that a monster lurks near. You want them to build this vast, interesting mental model of the monster, and you want to show as little as possible of the monsters, both mechanically and visually. But in order for the player to go beyond having something like ‘It’s a huge monster and it’s going to hunt you,’ you want to go a little bit deeper. It gets a lot harder to have a good mental picture that comes from small meanings without being too mechanical about it.” “If you go too mechanical, the player will have a very mechanical view of the monster. For instance, there are ghosts in Super Mario, where if you don’t look at them, they come after you. This is a good horror mechanic, but in Super Mario, it’s mechanical. It’s a system that you play with. It’s not a creepy ghost that lurks beyond your vision. It’s very hard to reconcile these two, because if the player gets the wrong idea, and if you’re aiming for a specific experience, then it can be very hard for them to play it. They won’t understand. It just becomes a frustrating thing to go through instead of an interesting thing. We have tons of problems with that.” “Connected to that is how you deal with player death. If you don’t have consequences for being killed, or being caught by the monster, the players will not feel frightened. If the consequences are too dire, though, players will feel as if the worst thing that can happen to them has already happened, which will also remove the fear aspect.” “Striking a good balance between these two things is no easy task. One solution some horror games have used is to make the game really fucking difficult. Alien Isolation, for instance, uses this method. After a while, you lose the fear of the unknown, but your last save was ten minutes ago and the alien will murder you if you come near, and you can’t help but feeling tension in this situation. People, in this case, will start gaming the game, trying to optimize their path, and this can result in a loss of fear from the psychological component.” Sound design and music are two of the most overlooked, yet vital elements of any game. This importance is especially heightened in horror games, where sound design and music have the potential to make or break the aesthetic. “Hearing a footstep from a monster will always be more powerful than seeing a monster take a footstep,” says Grip. “You use sound to emphasize events, just try playing a shooter without the PEW, PEW, PEW sound. It will be very boring. Sound is an effective mechanism for feedback, and it can also emphasize certain materials. If a metal ball hits wood, and sounds like that, the player will believe the metal ball is indeed a metal ball and the wooden surface is a wooden surface.” “When you’re doing this in a horror game, it’s at a higher level, because it is emphasizing that something is approaching, and the player starts building up tactics based on you’re emphasis. You’re making the world believable and building up a proper mindset for the player.” In terms of music, Grip provides a relevant anecdote: “I remember reading a review of the first Silent Hill, and the reviewer says, ‘There’s not a lot of music in Silent Hill 1, it’s mostly background noise.’ When I play the game, there’s music all of the time! The music makes the game. There’s tons of music all the time, but he didn’t perceive it that way, this reviewer. It just became part of the experience, whereas if you’re playing Mega Man, its music is obvious. There’s a track playing, it’s very easy to separate that track from the game.” “In SOMA, the music is more to emphasize what is happening. Initially, we didn’t have a lot of music, because we thought that it would be more realistic that way. What we did, was that a certain area would have a certain ambient tune, and we just let that ambient tune be, regardless of whether or not there was an enemy encounter.” “Jens began to question this, and as we added more music, we realized it made a world of difference. The music subliminally tells you, ‘Now is the time to be scared.’ If this is done correctly, and works, as it did in Silent Hill 1, the player will not notice on a high level. It’s not explicitly telling you, ‘All clear, no monsters near,’ or ‘Monster is coming, be afraid.’ What it does is build feeling, build tension, and keeps the flow up.” Grip then begins another anecdote, which CONTAINS HARRY POTTER SPOILERS “In one of the Harry Potter films, Dobby dies, as Harry holds him in his arms, says some cheesy line to Dobby, and then he dies. There’s this music, and it becomes a sad moment – I’m almost feeling teary-eyed. And then I think, ‘Why the fuck am I feeling sad about this? This is cheesy sad, not sad sad.’ The reason the scene feels so moving is because of the score; the music adds emotion.” “I think it has to do with the fact that music can affect us emotionally by pulling certain strings. There’s this phenomenon in psychology that if you’re feeling something and seeing something at the same time, you will project your feelings onto that thing. Take this experiment as an example: “People walk across a bridge, causing their heartbeat to go up. Immediately afterwards, there’s an interview, with a person of the opposite sex to the walker acting as the interviewer. The purpose of the experiment is to see how many felt attracted to the interviewer. People that walked across the bridge felt way more attracted than people that just took the questionnaire in an ordinary environment, because they projected their feelings of raised pulse and things like that. ‘My pulse is racing. I’m seeing a woman. I must be attracted to this woman.’” “It’s the same with horror games, ‘This creepy music is playing, what the fuck is gong on? I must be in a creepy situation.’ Then you have a feedback loop, where is you hear a certain tune during a certain situation, hearing it again produces a Pavlovian response. ‘It’s that music again, time to be scared!’ Also, if people do not actively recognize this music, but it is still having an effect on them, they’re going to be even more prone to projecting it onto their experience with the game.” SOMA will release on September 22, 2015 for PC and PlayStation 4. Be sure to check back to TheWayfaringDreamer Monday, for part two of our chat with Thomas Grip, in which he discusses the nuances of pricing and choosing a release date, catering to different audiences, how game designers see games versus how consumers see them, and more!