SOMA – Part I – Interactive exposition

I picked up this game called SOMA during the Halloween Steam sale, because it was cheap and I’ve heard really good things about it from both friends and critics. I’m gonna write about it now because it does some interesting stuff! It’s apparently from the developers of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which is a game I have started playing then gave up an hour or two in cause it was just so overwhelmingly grim and well, terrifying. Though it might have simply been the result of me attempting to play it at the wrong time, or I was in a wrong mood for it. Point is, I should probably go and revisit that one later, but now it’s time to play SOMA!

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Right off the bat, I love the aesthetic of the main menu with all the glitches and scanlines. As for who that woman is, I have no clue. The main character is a guy, and the two women I met so far in the game looked nothing like that face. Oh well, I guess I’ll find out later.

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After hitting “NEW GAME” the screen fades to black, and we start with a quote. Looking back at this after playing for around three hours, I can see this foreshadowing later events in two ways, but I’m not sure which way things will end up going.

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Then we have our first, and only(!) non-interactive cutscene. It’s a very brief dream sequence, in which protagonist Simon, and his girlfriend are in a car accident. We know it’s just a dream because:

  • The imagery consists of painted stills, that quickly fade in from black, then fade out,
  • Simon keeps talking about the consequences of the accident, like the fact that his brain starts bleeding very easily, and that he has an appointment with some doctor about it, while in the dream the crash hasn’t happened yet.
  • The scene does not flow coherently. It’s very much a dialogue formed of Simon’s stream of consciousness.

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The dream ends abruptly due to a phone call. It’s Simon’s doctor calling about some sort of brain scan scheduled for today, and reminds him (and us, players) to take the tracer fluid provided. After the call, we gain control of Simon, and from this point onward every action he takes is in our hands. Alright, not everything; we can’t tell him what to say to others (or to himself sometimes), but I’m fine with this. Instead of playing another silent protagonist who can’t properly get involved in the plot, Simon is a fixed character: whatever he thinks, feels, or says is determined by the writers, and thus out of our control. But learning about him is woven into the gameplay. The designers took away a part of the player’s agency, but they made an effort to replace it with something.

This is exemplified by the introduction. We are in Simon’s apartment, with a clear goal: find and drink the tracer fluid. Anything else we do is optional. If we want to learn about our main character’s personality, we can do so by looking around and inspecting objects. The game actually encourages this by making the flask we are looking for appear in a different place every time. So in-universe Simon is searching for the tracer fluid, while the player is looking at all the different object he has laying around the room.

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Observing the posters behind his bed reveals his interest in literature, the fact that he lives in Toronto, and that he like “NTER FRRNCE” whatever that is. (My guess is an experimental theatrical performance group. Or a noisy electronic band. I dunno.)

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Looking into the drawer of the bedside table we can look at the book Simon is reading. Being a book titled “Hooked” the blurb on the back cover is actually somewhat foreshadowing the games main hook. I don’t know if that was intentional or not, but it’s a nice touch either way.

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Speaking of the drawer, this game uses the same control system as Amnesia. Instead of pressing an arbitrary key like “E” to open it, you have to click on the handle to “grab” onto it, and then pull the mouse towards you to pull the drawer open. This works with everything: doors, cupboards, handles, curtains, whatever. Picking up objects also works with just a mouse click, and then they can be rotated around by holding the middle mouse button. Having controls like this is not a necessity in games, but it adds to the immersion, and for a game that lives or dies based on whether or not it can sell you the world, this goes a long way.

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Continuing our tour of the apartment, we can find lots of small things scattered here and there. Like the juxtaposition of an Escher-like painting on the wall, and the remnants of last night’s fast food dinner scattered around the table.

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Or the to do list of Simon, which I assume is a tad bit out of date. Unless the car accident happened very recently that third point raises some questions. At the same time there are e-mails about reminding Jesse and a new prescription, so who knows.

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The bookshelf has a camera with two extra lens,a book about photography, and two albums. Once again we learn something about Simon without the game yanking away control and explicitly telling it to us in a flashy flashback scene showing Simon taking pictures during a vacation with his girlfriend. That’s how most games would do it, but not SOMA and I’m very thankful for that.

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Simon’s laptop has some e-mails about the upcoming appointment, and an unsent draft to the Jesse from the to do list. I clicked the “SEND EMAIL” button, but I don’t know if it affects anything. I took this as simply another sign that Simon is a bit absent minded. (to be fair, the guy has brain damage)

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There are some pictures on the wall behind the desk. One of them shows Simon and his girlfriend (I assume) in front of the Grimoire which seems to be the bookstore where Simon works.

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One of the drawers has a torn page from a newspaper describing the car crash. This is where we learn for certain that Simon’s girlfriend has died. There is also a nice card from his mom. As I said before, all of this is entirely optional. I imagine most players never looked at half of this stuff.

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After finding the tracer fluid and drinking it we can leave the apartment whenever we want to. Since nobody told us when our brain scan appointment is, waiting around in the room doesn’t feel contradictory to the story. Many games send the player to do something urgent, but then let them do whatever they feel like. This creates a dissonance between what the narrative says and what is actually happening. For example in Mass Effect the main quest is even called Race Against Time: Shepard has to find out what the bad guy is up to and stop him before he can bring the destruction of the entire galaxy. At the same time, most players probably spend hours exploring planets, fighting space pirates, or collecting minerals. This is because the gameplay systems encourage doing lots of side quests, since that way the player character gains experience points, levels up, and gets stronger. SOMA encourages the same behavior, but makes it fit in the story.

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The metro scene felt a bit weird. I like how the game doesn’t just teleport the player to the doctor’s place, it makes the world feel a bit more than disjointed levels. While sitting on the train Simon receives a call from Jesse, the manager of the store, and the player is given the option to answer or ignore him. I chose ignore, mostly because I hate talking on my phone in public. I have no idea why I decided to insert myself in the game for this one little interlude segment, I just did. What happens if you answer the call? I looked it up on YouTube and apparently  it’s just some extra exposition, but nothing serious.

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The place where the brain scan is supposed to happen seems to have an unfinished lobby, which should raise some red flags for genre savvy people. This is when Simon being a fixed character is beneficial. It’s not the game forcing the player to do something, it’s Simon being desperate for treatment and a bit naive. The former would make some players angry at the game for making them an active participant in obviously stupid things, while the latter provides a convenient handwave for it.

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Also interesting to note is that the apartment at the beginning, while being a tool for delivering exposition, and characterizing Simon, was also an introduction to the base mechanics of the game, like moving around, looking at things, opening closets, and inspecting objects. This lobby works the same way; it conveys information about the nature of the doctor you are visiting, and raises some concerns about the situation, while also serving as a warm up puzzle of sorts: the door at the end of the room has a keypad lock, so we have to find the combination to get inside and meet the doctor.

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I found the notepad first but I didn’t notice the number combination. After reading through the e-mails on a laptop left on the desk however, I figured it out. Like I said, this is just a warm up puzzle, which tells the player that sometimes important information may be hidden on inspectable objects.

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One of the drawers also contains an article about the experimental nature of this brain scan that Simon volunteered for. This is some extra exposition players who are rushing through the game can easily skip, but offers some additional insight into the concepts of the story if someone decides to read it.

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Here we finally meet Dr. David Munshi, or as it actually turns out, just Mr. Munshi. Apparently he’s not a doctor yet, but “he’s working on that”. He explains a very simplified version of that magazine article. The idea behind this process is that they scan the brain, and create a model of it. Then they apply a bunch of simulated treatments to that model brain, which they can reset after every failed attempt, and when they find the one thing that words, they administer that to the actual patient.

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So Simon sits down in the chair, while David initializes the scan. Once again, the fact that the player is in the shoes of a fixed character helps alleviate the feeling of “but I wouldn’t do that cause I know better!” which would be in full effect if they were playing a blank slate protagonist.

When the scan starts the screen starts getting blurry around the edges, some video glitch effects show up, then everything turns black. And we end this introduction sequence with a small red light in an otherwise almost pitch black room. But even in the dark, it’s clear that this is not Munshi’s lab, since the silhouettes of the walls and objects are nothing like back there.

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That’s it for today. To summarize:

  • Having the exposition delivered interactively is a great way of  conveying information to the player as opposed to yanking away control and making it feel like it’s forced on them. Making it optional is even better, especially when someone wants to replay the game.
  • A fixed personality for the player character can be a great tool for telling a very specific story about that person. Silent blank slates also work, but only when used in the right narrative.
  • Making the gameplay and story introductions take place at the same time ties them together very effectively. Having an exposition scene followed by an obvious tutorial usually feels ham-fisted and reminds players that they are in a game.
  • “Text should be unreadable”

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