If you’ve read any review or impression of Frictional Games’ SOMA, you probably know how it isn’t really a horror game. People call it a straight-up adventure game where monsters show up every now and again, possibly to appease the YouTube audience Frictional sort of helped create with Anmesia: The Dark Descent. I agree with those sentiments, but I also think SOMA is just about the right mix of adventure game that I’ve been waiting for. It also might be the best one of these “not really a game” games I’ve played so far.
There were times while playing SOMA that I didn’t even really want to think of it as an adventure game, not in the strictly classic sense anyway. The puzzles in the game barely really qualify as puzzles. Sometimes you have to figure out where to find a thing to put in another thing, but usually that just involves basic exploration and reading the environment. The game straight-up tells you where important things are, it just does so in a way that’s a lot more subtle than “press X at the glowing thing.”
Without a whole lot of enemies or tough puzzles, one might call SOMA a walking simulator like Dear Esther or Gone Home. SOMA still has you “doing” a lot though. You can interact with most objects you see, and progressing involves pressing a lot of buttons and turning a lot of nobs. If SOMA is a walking simulator, it’s a walking simulator with just enough physical interaction to keep the player engaged in what’s going on or better yet, trick them into thinking they’re playing a full-blown adventure game or survival horror.
Two other games I played this year that feel similar are The Charnel House Trilogy and Her Story. Her Story got flack for pretty much just being a bunch of low-resolution AVI videos (that you can literally just find in the game files), but finding them with the game’s search engine unfolded the story in a really cool way and offered just enough interaction to create something unique. Honestly, using that search tool felt more detective-like than many fuller games that tried to convey detective elements. Charnel House takes the format of classic point n’ click adventure games but is very light on puzzles and really just has you click on things to progress a story. It’s not that different from a visual novel really, but I still appreciate and value the fact that it lets you control a character and explore environments. Sometimes I feel like just that by itself is enough to create a compelling interactive experience if the context is interesting enough, even if there isn’t any danger or problem solving. This is what you spend most of your time in SOMA doing, but it’s enhanced by a world that’s physically-based in a way very similar to the original Deus Ex or System Shock 2. It’s like “if System Shock 2 was a walking simulator.”
Call it all “interactive fiction” if you want, but interactive fiction is probably what a lot of people want. I want more interactive fiction that still let’s you pretend you’re in a virtual place. SOMA does this excellently.
I guess Gone Home kind of does the same thing — you just explore a house that’s set up as a physically-based environment, and it doesn’t even try to have “conventional game” stuff in it. Its developer even claimed to have borrowed System Shock 2’s design elements. I guess I just think SOMA had a more compelling and interesting story to be discovered in its particular environment. On the other end of this PH scale is Alien: Isolation which pretty much tried to be Anmesia in the Alien universe. It and SOMA ended up landing on very similar notes, but in my opinion the “conventional game” elements of Isolation felt a bit forced. Likely because of its budget, it had to have enemies other than the Alien, it had to have a crafting system, it had to have a bunch of hacking minigames. Perhaps if it had been a braver game Isolation would have been just like SOMA but with a fancier graphics engine and an Alien that occasionally shows up.
Whatever happens, I hope more developers keep pushing in this walking simulator direction, but I hope they do it with more interactive worlds to really sell the idea of exploration. The next upcoming interesting prospects in this regard are Tacoma, ADR1FT, and Firewatch. Maybe one day developers will figure out that the physical interaction some games need doesn’t necessitate combat or even any kind of difficulty.
- On the use of the word “awesome”: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/bal-shock-and-awesome-20151223-story.html
- The world map of Mount & Blade II: http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2015/12/22/mount-blade-2-bannerlord-overworld/
- Peanuts Movie fan art from Gashi: http://gashi-gashi.deviantart.com/art/The-Peanuts-movie-579486006