SOMA Set to Make You Question Reality

After their last successful title, Frictional Games has had everyone’s attention since the announcement of their latest foray into survival horror with SOMA.  The game has been in production since around the release of their last horror game, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, & was likely the reason Frictional Games passed off production of that game’s indirect sequel, Amensia: A Machine for Pigs, to TheChineseRoom.  Gamers have been teased about SOMA for a while now, but it’s only been within the last few months that anything solid enough to speculate about has been offered.

Snippets from the game’s official site as well as gameplay footage and trailers have slowly began to hint at a uniquely delivered sci-fi horror.  In the debut trailer, we play as a man who wakes up (presumably at the start of the game) to discover himself in a dirty, dilapidated operating room.  Naturally with no idea of what the heck is going on, he starts poking around, quickly discovering his fellow roommate.  After experimentally fumbling with what appears to be the top of a metal skull-cap, it sticks to the person’s head, quickly overriding the related machine and killing the person.  Continuing to stumble around, he finds himself in a strange corridor with almost organic-looking cables running around the walls, leading to a human brain attached to a pedestal.  After uncovering the brain, seemingly hooked up to the cables running everywhere, mechanical prods start attacking the brain.  And when our guy recovers, he sees that machinery has melded with the organic material & he questions, “Are you still in there?  Am I still in here?”

Thus we’re set up for a mind-bending game to make us question what is real & what living actually means.

Several themes have emerged from the footage released after.  The first, & major, theme is the question of What is consciousness?  We don’t know just what happened in the underwater facility of PATHOS-2, but for some reason machines have been displaying consciousness.  They’ve become sentient.  In the gameplay footage, we come across a disabled machine that clearly thinks it’s a person.  A real person who we’ve come across earlier in the level via notes and IDs.  Are they really the same person?  Did their consciousness somehow get uploaded into the machine?  Or has the machine simply been programmed to think like this person?  Does it even matter?

When you get right down to it, what is consciousness?  At the most fundamental level, “consciousness” & “thoughts” are nothing more than electrical impulses that stimulate various parts of our brain.  What they mean depends on how we interpret them.  In fact, studies have shown it’s possible to artificially create feelings & senses (smells, sight, ect.) by applying electrical signals remotely into a person’s brain.  If that’s the case, what’s to say a machine couldn’t “think”?  Computers basically work the same way, right?  Electricity applied to a motherboard which stimulates various outputs.

Related to the theme of consciousness is the idea of reality.  On SOMA’s homepage is a quote by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick.

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

What is “real”?  Is there an objective reality?  Does reality exist outside of our own little niche in the world?  Can we even know reality if it does exist?  Heck for all I know, nothing in the world exists outside my own thoughts.  I’m merely thinking I’m writing, & any response I receive is nothing more than another thought in my mind intended to fulfill an instinctive longing for companionship and otherness.  Or maybe I don’t exist outside a thought in your mind, dear reader, intended to entertain you.  And maybe this conversation is nothing more than that little niggling thought in the back of your mind that nothing is real, sneaking its way to the surface.

Metaphysical nihilism aside, these are very interesting ideas to explore, & not something touched upon often in modern games.

The other major theme in SOMA is “thematic story-telling” as the developers put it.  Telling a story without taking you out of it.  Telling the story through your own actions.  It’s a tricky idea to really explain, because technically speaking all story-telling in games is done by gamers doing something in the game.  I mean, the story won’t progress if you just sit there.  But according to Frictional Games, they want to try to tell SOMA’s story without taking you out of the setting.  In one interview, Creative Director Thomas Grip said, “We wanted to do this as an active story, meaning that the bulk of the narrative is played and not gotten from notes/audiologs.”  That’s actually a lot harder than it sounds, especially given how a lot of information was delivered through notes in Frictional’s previous games.  That’s not to say there aren’t things to find & read in the environment, but it feels more realistic.  You find bits of information from exploring as a human naturally would in this situation, & piece the story together yourself.  It’s as story about what you do as opposed to what happens to you.  A tall order, but it could be worth it if Frictional can pull it off.

SOMA comes out later this month on PS4, GOG & Steam.  But in the meantime, here’s some more food for thought:

  • Is the PC really human?  Assuming the debut trailer is the actual start of the game, it’s possible the PC is some machine hybrid like the body he discovers in the same room.  Human but with a mechanical brain.  That might explain why he doesn’t remember anything.  Perhaps, if human consciousness can be transferred into a machine, the reverse is true; machine consciousness into a human.
  • Did something happen to Earth?  In the most recent trailer, it shows the underwater world around the facility, which has a lot of what looks like street lamps & other decorations.  Do people live underwater now?  Why else would there be so much attention to detail outside the base unless going outside was a common practice?  Was the Earth flooded?  Or are the people in the base hiding?
  • Is this new technology related to aliens?  A blurb on the official site says “alien constructions have started to interfere with routine.”  Is that where this new technology is coming from?  Some sort of Geth-like aliens, part organic/part machine?  Of course, “alien” could just refer to “foreign” or “unknown”.  But it had to come from somewhere, right?
  • What is the process of becoming a sentient machine?  The trailers show two types of active machines.  Ones that think they’re human & hulking monstrosities that are likely the main enemy of the game, which seem to have no other thought than to catch/kill organic matter.  Maybe the machines are tailored to fit a need, or the monstrosities are fail attempts at consciousness.

– GamerDame

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Game Review: Diablo 3

There’s something to be said for waiting after a game’s launch before picking up a copy.  Not only can you sometimes get the game for cheaper, but it seems more & more that games suffer from bugs & hick-ups upon release.  While my exact thoughts on the matter could (& may) take up a post all of their own, in short; it sucks.  Modern technology is a double-edged sword.  Nowhere is this more true than with games with DRM or “always-on” gimmicks.  Having never played the previous games, I watched the fiasco of Diablo 3‘s launch in detached awe.  As hyped up as the game was, you’d think Blizzard would’ve been better prepared for the massive influx on their servers, especially when even single-player campaigns had to be connected.  But this review isn’t about the horrors of DRM.  It’s about my experience with the game.

Aren't all the names for the Evils in this game versions of "the Devil'?

Aren’t all the names for the Evils in this game versions of “the Devil’?

Just a note: The version I have is the PS4 Diablo 3 – Reaper of Souls – Ultimate Evil edition.  I can’t vouch for any differences between this & other versions.

Diablo 3 takes place some time after the events of the last iteration.  As the Nephilim of your choice (based on several various classes & genders), you trail a fallen star that has landed in Tristram, resulting in the dead rising from their graves to terrorize the population.  You discover that the star was actually a man who fell from the sky to bring a warning of impending doom… only he doesn’t remember what it was.  Or who he is, for that matter.  What ensues is a battle against all the evils of the world, culminating in what may very well be either the end of the world or the end of a millennium-long battle between heaven & hell, with humanity caught in the middle.

Where am I? No, seriously... where in this cluster am I?

Where am I? No, seriously… where in this cluster am I?

It’s hard to describe Diablo 3 without saying it’s a Diablo-style game, as the franchise created the term, but in short it’s a dungeon-crawling action RPG from a top-down perspective.  As you travel through the varied landscapes, you’ll fend off monsters in a style befitting whichever class you chose (Barbarian, Wizard, Demon Hunter, Monk, Witch Doctor & Crusader).  As you progress, you earn experience & level up, unlocking skills.  In the Reaper of Souls edition, after level 70 you gain Paragon points, allowing you to level up specific aspects of your characters.

Narrative: I have to give the game credit that, though I’ve never played a Diablo game before, I wasn’t lost in its story.  It’s fairly straightforward & predictable, but not bad.  I could see the few twists coming a mile away.  But the plot is coherent & interesting enough to motive your Nephilim through.  Having only played through as the Demon Hunter, I can’t speak for all the Nephilims, but I enjoyed how the hunter’s personality came through during the story, even while I’m sure the events don’t actually change based on your character choice.  I thought the side-characters’ personalities came through nicely, & enjoyed the way they chatted randomly with the Nephilim as we traveled.  I also found the lore to be very interesting, especially how it comes into play in the Reaper of Souls expansion.  Though I will say that the ending to the DLC, while not a cliffhanger, strongly hints at another expansion in the future.  If I had a complaint about the narrative, it’s the overall lack of agency I felt.  Like, I was just reacting.  Going back to one of the twists, I knew the betrayal was coming yet couldn’t do anything about it until the game told me I could.  I can’t really complain at Blizzard telling the story they wanted to tell it, but I just wished I could be proactive. So overall, my impression of the narrative is that, while it doesn’t do anything supremely well, it doesn’t really do anything bad either.  It’s enjoyable for what it is.  Score: 3

Streamlined console inventory

Streamlined console inventory

Mechanics: At its heart, Diablo 3 has a hack-&-slash style of gameplay, but I found myself enjoying it more than I expected.  I felt it avoided a lot of the niggling annoyances that plague other dungeon-crawlers (at least in my opinion).  Playing on the console, I can’t speak for the ease of use on PC, but I liked the control scheme, even if sometimes in the heat of battle I’d hit the wrong button & use the wrong skill.  But I liked how streamlined the skills system was.  Instead of being bogged down with more skills than you could ever use, all the skills are assigned a category (Primary, Defensive, etc.) & each category is mapped to a specific button.  This allows for strategic combinations of skills, which you can usually switch on the fly to suit the situation.  Unfortunately, you can’t switch in a boss fight, which I found annoying because I couldn’t tell I was about to fight a boss until it was too late to change.  I thought the companion system worked well, with whoever I took in to battle being able to handle their own without me having to babysit.  And bless whoever at Blizzard decided on an inventory based on number of items & plentiful portals back to town!  Diablo 3 also has a good customization system for your gear.  As with most dungeon-crawlers, you’ll earn a lot of loot.  You can break useless loot down for components to craft better gear, use gems to improve stats, enchant them with different perks, & even change their appearance through both dyes &  transmorphing.  I particularly liked the superficial ability to change how your gear looks.  It’s a small detail, but I’m the type of person who’ll forgo good gear because it looks dumb.  With this system, it’s not a problem.  But it’s not perfect.  I have two complaints.  One is that you can’t actually save your game.  You have to rely on checkpoints.  Generally this isn’t a problem, as most areas are small enough to explore in a single setting & checkpoints are plentiful.  But there were a few times I had to quit the game, come back later, & redo what I just did.  It’s not a big issue, & practically speaking only meant having to repeat dialogue, but it was an annoyance.  The second complaint was that the game seems pretty easy.  I was playing on Normal, & I don’t know if it was because I was playing a ranged character & therefore usually at a distance to enemies, or if I just really maxed out the regen abilities, but I never had to use a health potion, not even on the bosses.  It’s not really a complaint, especially when there are numerous harder modes to choose from, but I was just surprised at how easy I found the game.  But overall, a really fun experience.  Score: 5

Some stellar facial details

Some stellar facial details

Aesthetics: Visually, Diablo 3 looks pretty good, though it can be hard to tell at times.  The camera is so far back it’s hard to truly appreciate the designs of the characters and monsters.  And as far as I could tell, there’s no way to zoom in or out.  That being said, I did like the designs of the characters & enemies, especially the angels.  I love their wings!  The cinematics are truly impressive in both fidelity & scope.  My favorite was the opening cinematic for the expansion, in particular the way the souls moved like water.  Unfortunately, most of the cutscenes consist of little more than exposition spoken over scroll-like stills.  They’re not bad, & do fit the atmosphere of the game.  They’re just a bit of a letdown after seeing the impressive cinematics.  The music & voiceacting is pretty decent as well, & I appreciate than even minor characters like the vendors are well-written.  Overall, good presentation, but a little hard to see at times.  Score: 4

Replay Value: Above average.  Although there’s nothing new to see storywise once you’ve completed the game, Diablo 3 offers much in the way of replay value.  There are different difficulty levels (dropping better loot), Adventure Mode, quick dungeons to explore, near infinite leveling, co-op… the list is quite extensive.  While the thought of playing more of the same might not appeal to everyone, I will say you get your money’s worth.  Score: 4

Breakdown

UntitledOverall Score: 4

Final Word: While Diablo 3 might be too repetitive for some gamers, it has a lot to offer fans of the series, the genre, or anyone who enjoys battling hordes of monsters.  It may have a few minor problems keeping it from being “perfect,” but it’s a perfect example of how to do dungeon-crawling right.  Gamers who check it out will probably find it well worth their money.

– GamerDame

Title: Diablo 3
Console: PC, PS3, PS4, 360, XB1
Rating: M
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Release Date: May 15, 2012

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