Horror games are fundamentally different than any other type of horror. A horror novel might keep your attention as you read it then disturb you later in your day-to-day. A horror film might give you wild thrills for an evening, but when it’s daylight you might forget about it. Horror games differ because they intend to be horrifying, but if they’re too successful then the player simply stops playing them. After all, we can only handle so much (alternatively, our sadism only goes so far).
For me, Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent, was a horror game that was too successful at horror. As much as I love Lovecraftian themes, which Amnesia is strongly reminiscent of, the mood was so incredibly depressing I found the sense of dread inescapable. Despite the countless stories I’ve read such as The Dunwich Horror or At the Mountains of Madness, something was missing from Amnesia that pressed me to continue on. I’ve always chalked this up to a character flaw in myself. I’m pretty green when it comes to horror games, so maybe it just “wasn’t for me.” But I’ve found since Amnesia’s release, and even more so since Frictional’s new game SOMA’s release, that there was a little more going on than just my cowardly tendencies.
There are a lot of logical reasons why you would stop playing a game if it wasn’t mechanically sound, but an overbearing sense of loneliness is an abstract reason why some player stop playing games, and it’s not unique to the horror genre. A Reddit thread in /r/truegaming about loneliness in games mentions a few different games: Shadow of the Colossus, Dark Souls, Metroid Prime, Half Life, etc. What these games all have in common, and what they have in common with Amnesia, is that they lack world interaction. Whether it’s NPCs, or any meaningful cut scenes, these games hinge on plopping players into a world and leaving them there. Games like Dark Souls and Half Life have some NPCs but very rarely are they actually helpful, and they usually only have one line of dialog which contributes to a sense of lifelessness in the world. Still, those few NPCs might be considered salvation compared to Shadow of the Colossus and Metroid Prime which are devoid of any interactable characters at all.
These games also happen to be relatively difficult. While a game like Dark Souls might be infamous for its difficulty, anyone who’s played Shadow of the Colossus or Half Life will remember failing quite a few times. Games are meant to be challenging, but in some of these worlds there’s literally nowhere safe. Knowing that once you start the game you’re constantly in danger can be grating on your psyche, even if it is “just a game.”
Speaking from personal experience, I tend to finish almost every game I play, but Metroid Prime and Half Life are on the short list of games I’ve never finished. Unlike other games where I might have gotten stuck and couldn’t continue, these games I put down at some point and couldn’t bring myself to continue. Something about going back to that world was unappealing. It was like I had an allergy to them and didn’t know it, it just didn’t feel good. Again, at the young age that I played these games I told myself they just “weren’t for me,” but as I’ve read other people’s experiences, it seems this sense of hopelessness is not uncommon. I had the same experience with Amnesia. I liked the game. I thought it was well made. I admired the developer. I wanted to play their game, but I couldn’t do it anymore. I barely made it two hours.
So what’s different about SOMA? Well, a lot.
Amnesia’s opening scene is the player walking down dark stone corridors and immediately being introduced to the insanity mechanic, which explains if your sanity drops too low it’s game over. It’s dark, tense, and you expect something to pop out at you the entire time. If that’s not bad enough, you’re informed by the narrator that something is “following you,” and it isn’t made clear if that something is literally following you in a mechanical sense and you should keep moving, or if that’s just something in the story that will come up from time to time. Amnesia’s introduction is stress, death, and darkness.
SOMA’s introduction by comparison is leisurely paced and full of intrigue. The player starts in the main character’s apartment where they are free to do whatever they like and get familiar with the world and the controls at their own pace. After that the player rides the subway where they’re surrounded by other NPCs. This subway ride shows that the game has the capability of showing other humans to them and they won’t be totally alone, unlike Amnesia. The player also takes a phonecall while on the subway which has a few jokes. From there, the big events of SOMA take place, but it only takes another thirty minutes of play for the player to meet an important main character to give them the objective of meeting up in person and giving them a purpose.
All while this is happening, the player is never in any significant danger. The first enemy of the game is introduced directly after the first contact with another main character. From there the game ramps up its horror, but at that point, the player has made a connection to someone in the world, and is already engaged. They have a purpose, they have someone to latch onto, and things don’t feel so hopeless, for the time being…
SOMA’s design choice to show players why they’ll want to persevere on instead on introducing them to the unique horror concepts convinces them to tough it out when things start getting freaky. This design choice is echoed in other horror related games. Although they’re not strictly classified as “horror,” games like Resident Evil 4 and BioShock introduce the player to a radio buddy before they show them a horde of Las Plagas or a Big Daddy. This choice might seem counterintuitive since most games want to show you what’s unique about their mechanics as quickly as possible, but since horror deals in causing misery to the player, the analogy to use might be like a torturer giddy to show you all their new tools. There’s probably a BDSM joke in here somewhere but I can’t think of it.
I haven’t finished SOMA, but I’m pretty confident I’ll see it through to the end because it’s got my hooks in me. I’m invested in the story and that investment has gotten me through a few different times I’ve wanted to “NOPE” out of the game, hit exit, uninstall, and never play it again. That’s my cowardly tendencies talking, but what’s there is so compelling, I want to see it through. But I would’ve never known what was there if I didn’t have the motivation of a friendly face reminding me I wasn’t alone.