Horror is difficult.
It’s not that it’s really all that hard to scare someone, anyone can yell “boo!” and jump out from behind a corner and get a reaction. Hell, that’s most of what passes as horror these days. That’s not to say that jump scares don’t have their place, they are a common trope of the genre for a reason and even some of the best examples of horror across multiple forms of media use them. It’s when a work becomes overly reliant on them or is incredibly lazy and “cheap” with them that it’s a groan-worthy issue. You can have your jump scares, but you gotta earn them. Unfortunately it is this prevalence of jump scare dominant horror that has lead to the collective mindset that if you aren’t jumping out of your seat every five minutes a movie isn’t “scary”.
I think a great recent example of this is the absolutely brilliant 2016 film “The VVitch”, a personal favorite. This was a slow burn, very classic style of horror. I recall getting into debates at the time around release where I argued that “it’s not a scary movie, it’s a horror film” and I think that rings true; it also applies to the game we will be discussing here today.
In 2010 a small Swedish gaming company, Frictional Games, released Amnesia: The Dark Descent on PC. While not entirely new to the scene, their previous Penumbra series was quite good, Amnesia was the first time Frictional really got brought to mainstream success. This is mostly because of the advent of Youtube and the rising popularity of Let’s Plays and reaction videos, most especially the kind where the player would flail around screaming at the slightest jump scare. Now I do intend to talk about Amnesia more later, but I want to note that this is a big part of why I feel Amnesia found far more success than SOMA did when it finally released five years later.
I have been a horror fan for the majority of my life, I grew up with it, I have immersed myself in it, I live and breathe it. My favorite film of all time is a horror movie, my favorite novel is a horror novel (arguably), my favorite day of the year is Halloween, my favorite place to go is Knott’s Scary Farm. I don’t want to paint myself up as more than I am, but I kinda think that when it comes to horror that I “get it”. A lot of developers do not “get it”. A lot of that comes down to what I said at the start of this, horror is hard. I don’t want to repeat myself too much, like I said, scaring people is easy, but horrifying them, leaving them with thoughts and feelings that will persist, true horror, something even the greatest minds in the genre don’t always nail, that’s fucking hard to do.
SOMA is not a game that is full of jump scares, it doesn’t have a bunch of monsters constantly pursuing you or making your life difficult, at least not all the time. That’s not to say that there are no monsters, there are no jump scares, there are no moments like that, because there are and I feel the game uses them well when it does, but SOMA is so much more than that and the horror of the game comes from so much more than that. It doesn’t need the crutch that so many games in the genre fall back on, it knows when to let the tension build, when to let the atmosphere do all the talking for it, when to just pause and let the player stop and think. There are so many quiet moments, chances for you to just reflect and let everything just sink in. Not many games, especially in the horror genre, do that and it’s a shame because I find them to be some of the strongest moments in SOMA.
There are a lot of games that deal with morality, black and white, good karma and bad karma, the whole trope of helping an old lady across the street versus pushing her in front of a moving vehicle. Most games are super heavy handed and binary with it and the reasons you make those sort of choices are so damn shallow. SOMA on the other hand, here’s a game that so seamlessly implements these moral choices that you actually do have to stop and think about them, you’re not choosing blue or red, deciding if you rather get rewards now for being bad or waiting to get better rewards later for being good. This is a game that actually puts your morality to the test, and this is hard to really convey well without getting too into spoilers as some of the best examples of this in this game are incredibly spoiler heavy and I do wish to avoid ruining it as much as possible. This is somewhat frustrating for me because this really is something I feel the game absolutely nails and they are the sort of choices that stick with you, that you reflect upon, they add so much emotional weight to the game.
I’m going to get a little..buzzwordy here, I do apologize but let me get it out of the way. Mood, tone, atmosphere, this genuine sense of existential dread and these dark, haunting environments, these horrifying creatures, the isolation even when you have a companion, the game is depressing and heavy.
Another strong point is, as I mentioned, that the game leaves you with these questions, it makes you think. And the things it makes you consider and think about, how you question consciousness, what makes you you, what makes you human, that just chills down to the bone and it does not just go away. If you really dig into some of the philosophical ideas that Frictional presents here, the idea of the self, it is just such an effective tool for horror to make you stop and think about that. What makes you “you”? There is so much to it that I won’t be touching on (seriously, please go play the game), but just as a taste: if your body is constantly losing and replacing cells, is the you that is here now really the same you from years ago that is made of entirely different cells? I can’t really articulate the concept as well as the game does (I sure as shit wasn’t a philosophy major), it really does put the entire idea in a much much more well delivered fashion, and there’s much more to it than that, but I hope it gives some sort of idea at least of what the game wants you to be thinking about as you explore the Pathos II facility.
The story is incredibly intriguing. Where it starts is so far removed from where it ends, and the journey to get there is a mentally and emotionally draining one. There are some great twists including an ending that just floored me, it’s my favorite ending to any sort of horror media ever, it was absolutely perfect and I could not think of a better way to have ended the game. It was utterly horrifying, perfectly executed, haunting. It left me absolutely speechless. The best thing, it was a twist that in all honesty wasn’t even a twist, and yet it managed to feel like it came out of left field and hit hard.
Few other random thoughts before I move onto talking about Amnesia and the shadow it’s success cast over SOMA. The environments are gorgeous, detailed, dark, creepy as hell. Phenomenal sound design, walking around on the ocean floor is incredibly frightening, especially as you go deeper and deeper. Some great voice work, the cast did a great job, lots of emotion, very well delivered moments, very powerful moments.
I know I haven’t really delved too much into the specifics here, SOMA is a game best experienced as blind as possible, especially when it comes to the story. Something like The Surge, which was the subject of our last “In Retrospect” (check it out here: https://www.thegrandgeekgathering.com/in-retrospect-the-surge/), I could definitely go into more detail with and feel like I wasn’t going to ruin the experienced for you. I just can’t do that with SOMA. SOMA is a game that needs to be experienced and it needs to be experienced in the most personal way possible. So again, I implore you, go play this game and see for yourself all the things I can only tease at here.
So, moving along. Amnesia is by far Frictional’s most successful game. I loved Amnesia, it was a fantastic, scary, atmospheric horror game, something Tomas and Jens have proven time and time again they are experts at.
However, Amnesia does lean more towards that sort of horror game that’s become more and more popular with the Let’s Play Youtuber crowd, the kind that gets the big reactions and jump scares and hide and seek moments and everything. It does have its quiet moments, some of the strongest sequences of the game come from these. I still think the section where the invisible water monster chasing you and leading into you escaping into an absolutely beautiful, quiet foyer is one of the highlights of the game.
That said, a lot of the horror of Amnesia does come more from those sort of monster encounters, that sense of powerlessness against the horror, and that’s perfectly fine. I don’t have anything against that style of horror, but when you compare it to the more thought provoking and philosophical horror of a game like SOMA, it just feels..lesser. I also think SOMA had a far, far more interesting story and better characters. It was a much more cerebral type of horror, and while I loved Amnesia and Penumbra, I found it more effective than those, which were more scary or panic inducing, rather than unsettling and horrific. SOMA legitimately made me stop and contemplate the concepts and ideas and morality it was presenting and was utterly chilling.
If you want a game that is going to scare you, by all means play Amnesia. It is a great game, I would never want to be misconstrued as badmouthing it. That being said, if you want a game that is going to horrify you, one that is going to stick with you even after the lights are back on, one you will reflect on even years later, please, please check out SOMA.