By now, fans of hor­ror games will be un­com­fort­ably fa­mil­iar with the in­sides of lock­ers. Ever since Fric­tional Games so ef­fec­tively made hid­ing or flee­ing your only re­course in 2010’s Am­ne­sia: The Dark De­scent, the act of cow­er­ing in a closet while your pur­suer lingers out­side for just too long be­fore it moves on has be­come stan­dard prac­tice. But fa­mil­iar­ity can be the en­emy of a good scare and Fric­tional’s follow-up, Soma, is en­ter­ing a genre de­fined by its pre­de­ces­sor.

“When we were pro­mot­ing Am­ne­sia, we re­leased a game­play trailer where the player is chased by an un­seen mon­ster and hides in a closet, wait­ing for it to go away,” cre­ative di­rec­tor Thomas Grip tells us. “At the time, that felt re­ally fresh and was a sim­ple way to get peo­ple in­ter­ested. Five years later, it’s no longer very spe­cial. That’s a great mo­ti­va­tion for try­ing some­thing else.”

Still, The Dark De­scent did stand out at a time when the genre was be­com­ing fo­cused on ac­tion, a di­rec­tional shift led by Res­i­dent Evil 5 and Dead Space. But it was more than just a game of deadly hide-and-seek. “I feel there’s been too much fo­cus on the ‘hunted by monsters’ as­pect,” Grip says. “There are other fea­tures that I also felt made the game spe­cial, but that have been hardly adopted at all. For in­stance, we tried to cre­ate puz­zles that fit with the flow and thematics of a hor­ror game, such as the wa­ter mon­ster en­counter or the ones con­nected to tor­ture de­vices. I also think we had a pretty strong fo­cus on story, while many of the re­cent hor­ror games hardly try to tell a com­pelling nar­ra­tive at all.

“I think this might have set up slightly wrong ex­pec­ta­tions for Soma, be­cause many peo­ple re­mem­ber Am­ne­sia as a game where you run around scream­ing ‘OMG! OMG!’ while monsters chase you. But in re­al­ity, only 20 per cent or so is about that.”

Soma does fea­ture a take on monsters, but the real hor­ror comes from its ex­plo­ration of con­scious­ness and the self. Trapped in PATHOS-2, an un­der­sea re­search sta­tion, pro­tag­o­nist Si­mon must es­tab­lish why he is there and why the ma­chines around him are start­ing to ex­hibit hu­man qual­i­ties. There are other staff trapped down here with you, too, and you’ll hap­pen across ocean life, but also face some­thing en­tirely un­ex­pected: hu­mour.

“It re­ally comes nat­u­rally from the world we have cre­ated,” Grip ex­plains when we ask him about an en­counter with a ro­bot that acts like an in­jured hu­man, and is frus­trated at your ap­par­ent lack of mo­ti­va­tion to help. “Some of the things you en­counter are so bizarre at first that it’s hard to not also find them a bit com­i­cal. We’ve tried to keep it at a rea­son­able level through­out the game – we don’t want the char­ac­ters to crack jokes all of the time – and make it arise nat­u­rally from the creepy na­ture of the sub­jects. We found that if every­body was just su­per-se­ri­ous, it re­moved some of the authenticity to it all.” En­sur­ing that you never know whether to laugh or scream in­tro­duces a fit­ting wave of dis­com­fort for a game that deals in themes of iden­tity and body hor­ror, but Fric­tional’s at­tempt to go beyond tra­di­tional videogame hor­ror tropes has made ex­plain­ing ex­actly what Soma is a bit of a headache for Grip.

“If I try to pro­mote Am­ne­sia, I can just tell you about peek­ing through a door to see what is mak­ing that noise, or how you can make a bar­ri­cade to avoid be­ing killed,” he ex­plains. “In Soma, we try to evoke a sense of dread in other ways, but th­ese are much harder to talk about. Hard Candy is a movie I found re­ally scary and disturbing, yet it is hard to ex­plain ex­actly why with­out spoil­ing it. Com­pare that to Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity, where I can eas­ily sum it up as ‘a pol­ter­geist tor­ment­ing a fam­ily and its ac­tiv­i­ties are cap­tured on a cam­era’. While there’s much I love about Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity, the hor­ror is not ex­actly sub­tle. Soma still has monsters chas­ing you, but that’s a sec­ondary part of the hor­ror ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s just there to build up a cer­tain mood in the player. The pay­off comes from a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion.”

Thomas Grip, cre­ative di­rec­tor, Fric­tional

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