Known for their terrifying and immersive horror games, Frictional Games have decided to be true to form with the development of their next game – SOMA. Set in a science fiction universe, SOMA brings Frictional’s trademark combat-free horror to a completely different type of setting. We had a chat with Frictional Games’ creative director and co-founder Thomas Grip about their incoming fright-fest, and how it captures what made their previous games so special.
SOMA begins as the remote research facility Pathos-2 suddenly becomes isolated from the rest of the world. Strange things start happening, influencing the machines in the facility, and slowly turning the place into a “nightmarish world.” While the story details are scant, Grip did reveal to us that SOMA aims to explore deeper themes of consciousness and existence. “Our intention” Grip told us, “is to use the game’s fantastic setting to give a subjective exploration on what it means to be a conscious being. This is done by having the player journey through this hostile world filled with creatures that reflect various philosophical questions.” The player’s struggle to survive Pathos-2 will bring them “face to face with unsettling concepts.” It’s a deeper kind of horror, more sophisticated than basic fight or flight – instead the monsters will represent a more symbolic type of terror.
While Frictional’s previous works have had clear pseudo-scientific and Lovecraftian overtones, SOMA is more solidly founded in the genre of science fiction – more specifically modern science fiction. The shift towards sci-fi started from the simple fact that that was “the kind of game [Frictional] wanted to do.” A part of that vision is narrative in nature, and Grip wasn’t so keen to spoil those elements, but he did tell us that having a science fiction world allowed them to “make a world that, while fantastic, also feels sort of believable.” Science fiction has a long tradition of reflecting aspects of humanity, and it seems SOMA is no exception here. “Having it as sci-fi” Grip told us, “allows us to tap into the real world and the personal experience of the player in different manner than what a fantasy setting can.”
With the new genre brings new challenges. The science fiction setting is requiring a slightly different approach for the team at Frictional, and that’s complicating development. “I think the biggest problem with sci-fi has been to keep coherency.” Grip said. “In order for the game to work, the player must be able to think deeply on the stuff that happens and a requirement for that that is to have a coherent world. And this has really made life more difficult for us.” SOMA’s development has required a different approach to Frictional’s last game Amnesia to maintain this internal consistency. “In Amnesia we could just throw almost any stuff we liked in. Doors suddenly opening, creepy sounds, flashbacks, visions, you name it, it all works in the game. But for SOMA we needed to make sure that everything makes sense to the story and that there is some reasoning behind the happenings.”
“This is a really hard job and is causing revisions to happen all the time.”
Modern sci-fi literature has played an influential part in the conception and development of SOMA. The SOMA website itself sports a Philip K. Dick quote, symbolising these science fiction influences. Grip explained that the works of Dick are a big point of thematic overlap between literature and SOMA. Further sci-fi inspirations include the works of Greg Egan and China Mieville, both of whom are known for their works exploring the nature of consciousness, sentience, and posthumanism. Building on these interpretations of the modern strange and self-examining sci-fi genre classics, SOMA is positioned to explore the nature of the individual through the interactive medium of games.
If you’ve played any of Frictional’s previous games, you’ll already know the team are masters of the horror genre. From creeping atmospheric discomfort to tense chase sequences and quivering in the dark hiding from disfigured monstrosities, Amnesia: The Dark Descent and the Penumbra series had players thoroughly browning their pants. While SOMA will include some of these aspects, Grip is hoping to convey an even deeper sense of horror.
“In Amnesia we saw how the very slow building atmosphere made people react to the slightest noise and constantly make up theories where the next danger might be. Our idea [for SOMA] is to takes this concept way further, and use it to force players to ponder these really disturbing subjects.”
Frictional are aiming for the same amount of horror, but approaching it in a “very different way”, according to Grip. While Amnesia was scary due to basic concepts, such as fear of the dark or the helplessness of being hunted, SOMA is a much deeper type of fear. “The real terror should come from the player being immersed in this strange world that tells them something about their own existence.” Grip told us. “I do not want players to just scream at jump scares or get scared by distant footsteps. I want them to really ponder some issues and leave the game feeling this heavy lump of existential angst in their chest.”
“[P]layers should start to become more and more immersed in the happenings in the game, to think about them more closely and then get really connected to them. [The best] way to explain it is if you have ever gotten this sort of really disturbing revelation where you have gotten to know something about you existence that really shook you up. Now imagine being forced into that a world based on that state of being and to live and act within it. It is no longer just this unsettling thought in your mind, but a place that you now have to reside in. You cannot push it away, but have to face it straight on and take the consequences. That is the sort of feel we are after.”
Grip recognises that this particular approach may fall short for some people. SOMA’s existential horror requires a “certain amount of understanding” from players to fully engage with the more esoteric, introspective approach. “[T]here is a bit of a risk involved in all this but that is also what I find so exciting about the whole thing.”
But SOMA will still have a strong horror basis, using techniques typical of the genre. “The game will still need the primal scares though, so rest assure that it will still have its fair share of dark corridors, lurking dangers and distant cries.” Grip said. “We want the game to have strong foundational level of terror. But we do not want to stop there and only see that as a stepping stone for the stuff that is supposed to truly affect you.”
SOMA’s gameplay will be familiar to Frictional fans, sticking with the much loved immersive physicality of interaction that made Penumbra and Amnesia famous. “At its core it is quite similar to Amnesia but with a few changes and overall it is a lot more varied.” Grip said. There will be puzzles to solve, clues to find, “contraptions” to mess with, and, of course, there will be monsters to hide from. But these are ancillary to SOMA’s real focus – “each of these elements [are used] in order to tell the player a story and that is our main concern at all times”. Grip expanded, “[a] puzzle is not just a roadblock for the player but a device to make the player an active part of the narrative and tool we use to make the story come across.” The main point of departure mechanically is not the way the player interacts with the environment, but how the monsters behave. “[t]he monsters that you come across will work very different from how they did in Amnesia.” Grip told us. “So the variation does not come from changing the mechanics, but changing how the systems in the world work.”
Levels will be bigger, too, with SOMA’s areas “much bigger” than anything found in Amnesia. Some areas will require the player to spend a long time in them. Grip currently expects the game to be the same length as Amnesia, but estimating the completion time at this point is “really hard”. Part of that has to do with the nature of the game itself too, with individual play style impacting game length. Add to that the fact that the later levels of the game have not currently been designed and total game length may very well end up being more than Amnesia. With that said, Grip is not too concerned about the length of the game – “we have a very specific journey in mind for the player, and the game should take the time it needs to deliver that. Not more, not less.” Grip admitted that, towards the end, Amnesia: The Dark Descent got a little repetitive. SOMA will be different, and “activities and challenges will be constantly kept fresh.”
However long SOMA ends up being, Grip and the team are determined that it will not contain any pointless filler. “It is important to keep in mind” Grip told us, “that the game will be completely free of filler.” This approach is a philosophical one, based on Grip’s personal beliefs. It’s a tension, a conflict of priorities surrounding game length and consumer expectation. Grip explained – “[i]f you feel that the game you have bought is supposed to be your core entertainment for a while, then I can understand people being pissed if it is really short. This is how I played games when I was younger. You had a ton of free-time and you wanted to games to last. Also, at that time, I did not see long combat sequences as filler. That was just a way for me to get more skill and I could get a lot of satisfaction from simply becoming better at a game.”
“Nowadays my time is very limited and do not see any fun in filler material. I just want a game to deliver the best possible experience and skip anything that does to contribute to that. So for me, a game’s length has nothing to do with quality. In fact, it is more of the opposite, as longer games tend to have a lot more filler and there is a less chance that I will have time to complete them.”
Frictional’s history with making single player games is a strong one, and SOMA is no different. But Grip sees the potential with a more social approach to games. “I love the idea of the kind of multiplayer that you see in Journey and Dark Souls.” He told us. “I think there is a lot that could be done with that.” It has a lot to do with the progression of technology. Increased memory ceilings allow for more focus on open worlds, Grip told us. “And by that I do not just mean big worlds like you see in games like Skyrim, but big world where everything is saved and simulated.” According to Grip, there is plenty of potential for massive worlds with persistent object placement. “This is a design direction I find very attractive: games where you are basically just playing one giant level. For instance, picture a horror game where the monsters can never be escaped by just progressing to the next level.”
SOMA is using the latest iteration of the studio’s proprietary HPL Engine – HPL 3. While there is apparently “a lot of new stuff since Amnesia”, Grip downplayed the changes, stating that he’s not sure there are any “really noteworthy” upgrades. The most significant addition to the engine, according to Grip, is the implementation of HDR, which, “once [Frictional] got used to it, has been a great tool to craft atmospheric environment.” Other touches like improved SSAO and colour grading have also helped the team create their mood. “It is not bleeding edge stuff,” Grip said, “but it is really, really helpful.” Target performance on an average PC is the 1080p/60fps standard that we all know and expect, and the team are hoping to hit this target on PS4 as well, although whether that will be achievable on console is “too early to tell.”
Frictional aren’t currently targeting Oculus Rift support for SOMA, since the game uses “a lot of effects that would not work very well on a Rift.” But they haven’t completely ruled out VR support, with Grip telling us that it would “still be interesting to do something. Perhaps some VR specific extra. We’ll see.”
Whether SOMA will have user generated content tools available is unclear. Amnesia already has a rather extensive toolset that enables creative players to make their own content for the game, but whether that will carry over to SOMA is not confirmed. If creation tools are included, they will almost certainly not be included in the PS4 version, since the team’s tools “are very specific to the PC.”
It’s still early days for SOMA, but so far Frictional have found working with Sony for a PS4 release has been a smooth process. With the consoles only being new, Grip and the team haven’t had much experience developing for the PS4, but “[s]o far so good”. That goes for working with Sony through their indie programs too – “[s]o far it has been pretty smooth”, although Grip did say they hadn’t yet had much experience with the process to form a “proper opinion.” SOMA is currently only focused towards a PC and PS4 release, with Grip expressing that he was “unsure” if there will be time to bring it to more platforms “for release.” He did state that he did not currently know enough about the ID@Xbox system of indie self-publishing for the Xbox One to have a “proper opinion” on the matter.
For those of you hoping for a next-gen console release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Grip did have something to say on the matter – “We have been in discussions about it and would like to do it, but SOMA is taking up so much time right now that it is hard to devote time to it. SOMA has taken a long time to make as is, so do not want to get sidetracked anymore.”
Frictional are aiming for a 2015 release for SOMA, ideally in the first half of the year. The team do know that what they are attempting is ambitious, though, and recognise that there is a lot of “risky design” involved, so they don’t want to stress on an exact release date. SOMA is currently announced for PC and PS4. We’ll be bringing you all the news on the sci-fi horror world of SOMA as it comes to light. Many thanks to Thomas Grip and the Frictional team for taking the time to talk to us.