Time for a little update on how SOMA is doing. (A brief summary for those who don’t already know: SOMA is a sci-fi horror game from the creators of Amnesia: The Dark Descent that will tackle unsettling questions about consciousness. It will be released on PS4 in 2015.)
Before I get started, I should say a few words about the new teaser trailer, “Theta.” This video showcases a few in-game scenes along with fresh voice work. Our hope is to give you a taste of the feel and atmosphere that SOMA will have. It also contains a few clues on what the game’s story will be about.
SOMA’s current status
We are currently about a week away from the alpha of the game. This is a build in which a bit more than half of the full game is playable. It’s currently clocking in at around five hours, meaning the final game will end up at eight hours or so.
A game like SOMA is a bit different to have in alpha than most other games. Normally, a game relies on a core mechanic that creates the basic engagement. While graphics and sound are important, you can mostly test the game pretty early on with only temporary assets in place. This lets you get a feel for the game at a very early stage. Not so for us.
We can play our game at last!
SOMA doesn’t rely on a core gameplay loop – such as shooting baddies or jumping platforms – to create a sense of fun. Instead, you’ll take part in a wide range of activities; it’s impossible to narrow it down to one. You’ll search for notes, solve puzzles, hide from dangers, explore unsettling places, take part in strange events and sometimes just run away. All of these come together with the graphics and soundscape to create a larger whole. This means that we couldn’t properly test SOMA without having all of these things implemented in a fairly final state. Making matters worse is the fact that the game lets things take their time; slowly building up the atmosphere, narrative and themes. It is hard to condense all this into a short prototype; a large chunk of the game is required.
Because of this, we haven’t been able to get a feel for how SOMA plays until very recently. The alpha is our first opportunity to really find out what the game is like. This means that we’ve had to take a lot of the design on faith, simply hoping that it’ll all work out. So it came as a great relief to us – when we’d managed to pull together everything for a pre-alpha test a few weeks ago – to find out that the game does hang together.
This doesn’t mean that we’re totally happy with everything. Now that we know how our game plays, we also know what needs to be fixed. There are a number of goals that we wanted to hit with SOMA, and now marks the first time we can properly evaluate how well we’re doing with them.
Goal 1: The feeling of playing a narrative
It’s important that the game is constantly drenching the player in storytelling. We need to make sure there is always a red thread of narrative running through the game. We don’t want you to go “Oh, here comes a puzzle section”, but to constantly feel as if you are being told an interactive story.
Getting this right is tricky as there still needs to be some challenge in progressing, but not so much that solving a difficult puzzle becomes your sole focus. Now that we’re close to alpha it’s possible for us to test this and tweak where needed.
Goal 2: A coherently crafted world
When creating Amnesia our setting was basically just “Old castle where supernatural stuff happens”. This allowed us to get away with just about anything and explain it with “because, magic”. But in SOMA we are building a world that is supposed to be tied into the real world and to make sense. Our goal here is to make proper sci-fi and not just a magical fantasy with futuristic designs.
This raises a whole load of issues that we might not have cared about in Amnesia. Puzzles that don’t make sense in the world, tech levels that vary throughout the game, basic physics principles that are broken and so forth. When you have a large part of the game playable a lot of these become visible, and we intend to squash them all!
Goal 3: Gameplay with plenty of variation
As mentioned above, SOMA does not rely on a core gameplay loop and there is a very good reason for this: we don’t want the player to become too fixated on figuring out the game’s underlying abstract systems. We want players to approach the game from how it looks, sounds and feels. In order for this to work the game’s different scenes can’t have the same setup, as that would make you familiar with how everything works. Instead, we need to keep things fresh and avoid repeating ourselves.
Now that we are in alpha we can more easily identify patterns and similarities in scenarios. If anything overstays its welcome it needs to be replaced by something else.
Goal 4: Deep, disturbing themes that makes you think
A crucial design goal for us is to allow a deep exploration of what it means to be a sentient being.
The first step towards doing this is to make sure that SOMA’s gameplay, plot, characters and setting reflect the subjects we want to discuss. If you approach the game in the right way, some seriously unsettling implications should be become clear.
And here lies the problem. Are we getting through to you in the right way? Will the really interesting details just rush past you, or will you stop and give them some serious consideration?
What’s crucial here is that we don’t simply spell everything out for you, but that you can come to conclusions on your own. These sorts of things take a while to come together, and it’s not until this alpha that we’ll get a clear idea as to how it is working out.
Goal 5: A pervasive sense of horror
Finally, the game should be utterly terrifying. We do not want you to calmly stroll through the various environments; it must be emotionally tasking to progress. We want this blanket of oppression and fear wrapped around the entire experience. Sustaining this through eight or so hours takes some finesse – if we repeat something too often then you’ll get used to it and be able to second-guess the events. The build-up must take time, but without being dull, and there needs to be a nice rhythm of ups and downs throughout the journey.
All of these are things that we’ve had a hard time getting a grip on until now. Now we can playtest a complete experience. A task that requires a dark room, a pair of headphones, an empty house and a tired, slightly hallucinating developer. You can’t leave this up to reports from your playtesters, you must be able to experience the atmosphere first hand to truly understand it.
The road left to travel
That should give you a good sense of the sort of issues we’re currently struggling with. Hopefully it has also given you a bit more insight into what kind of game SOMA is.
We still have a long way to go; SOMA is still a year or so away from its 2015 release. We feel we are on the right track, though, and think this is shaping up to be our studio’s best work so far by a wide margin.
And sometime soon we’re going to let out a big secret about the game. Keep your eyes open for it.