In the early decades of video game horror, there were typically two classifications: visceral horror games such as “Resident Evil” and more psychological approaches in the form of “Silent Hill.” For a time, these two approaches dominated the sphere of horror gaming. But as storytelling and technology in games became more sophisticated, game developers began to consider new aspects of how horror can be delivered and took more opportunities to experiment.
In 2015, Frictional Games released “SOMA.” At its core, “SOMA” is a survival horror; the main character is essentially defenseless and hiding from the game’s monsters is usually the only way to progress. However, “SOMA” differentiates itself through its manipulation of the game’s first-person perspective and how this manipulation interacts with the player and themes of existential horror.
In short, “SOMA” has the player take the role of Simon Jarrett, who awakens on an abandoned underwater research facility in the 22nd century unaware of how he got there and quickly finds most of the personnel has died and the station is crawling with robotic monstrosities. While these monsters are scary in the traditional sense, the game mines more terror from inhabitants of the facility that are not hostile. In one scene, the player discovers a talking robot that believes it is an injured human. The player attempts to help the robot only to accidentally injure him further, causing the robot to scream out in pain.
This encounter is an introduction to the true horror of “SOMA.” Gradually, it is revealed that everyone on the station had their consciousness copied with the purpose of being uploaded into a computer simulation that will live on while the earth dies. These copies are instead being uploaded into robots by the facility’s AI computer in an attempt to save humanity in the only way it knows. Simon himself finds he is one of these attempts, but his was relatively successful. Most attempts caused the uploading human to go insane or cause a body dissonance where their brain cannot process they are no longer human.
It is through this concept, that the game begins to play with the idea of perspective to create disturbing situations. In one scene, Simon discovers he needs to move his consciousness into a new body in order to survive. The transfer is successful, and the player watches as the first-person perspective shifts from Simon’s previous body and into the new one he “wakes up” in. However, Simon briefly hears his previous body speaking before falling into a sleep state. The game reveals that Simon was never transferring his consciousness but copying it, and that he now exists in two bodies. The game gives the player an option: they can allow the sleeping copy to live and wake up in a few days, alone and without hope, or they can kill him and spare him further suffering.
While the implications of that choice are horrific in itself, the game makes a choice in essentially switching characters through the change in perspective. The player controls the new copy, while the person they have been controlling to that point is left behind. This perspective change forces the player to consider what exactly is identity and existence. Because the player is controlling one of the two Simons, they identify that one as the “real” Simon, but “SOMA” asks the player to challenge that feeling, and consider the horror of how easy it is to disregard what they deem as inferior.
In essence, the game utilizes a sort of postmodern aspect of recognizing it is a video game, and the first-person perspective inherently makes a player place themselves in whatever role they control in that perspective. “SOMA” manipulates that feeling and creates a sense that the player should feel “wrong” no matter what character’s perspective they inhabit. This perspective manipulation plays into the game thematically, as it asks the players: what makes this character more real than others? Is the copy or the original copy more of a person? These heavy questions are made more interactive by directly involving the player in them through a first-person perspective tactic that is exclusive to video games.
Horror games like “SOMA” have begun to utilize postmodern elements in order to unnerve, manipulate and surprise players. 2017’s “Doki Doki Literature Club” utilizes player manipulation and self awareness to create horror by having one of the game’s characters become aware that she is in a video game, and becoming obsessed with the player themselves. After murdering the other characters, the player must physically delete her file from the game’s data folders. In the 2016 independent horror game “Anatomy,” the player navigates a dark house, progressing the story by listening to tapes. The game utilizes self-awareness by intentionally causing visual “glitches” such as tables disappearing and reappearing and distorting the house’s graphical textures.
These self referential approaches to horror games signal a growth of the genre. By recognizing the potential and limitations of video games, developers are able to use these in order to create a new experience that involves the players in ways no other art medium is able to. “SOMA” may not be the most elaborate use of this tactic, but its use of perspective fits especially well within the game’s themes. As games evolve and with the advent of VR gaming, the future of horror games seem to be moving towards more than the confines of what can be portrayed visually and sonically. After all, what is more scary than realizing a video game may be looking back at you?
Dan Debuque is a fifth-year English major with a minor in Film Criticism. DD717545@wcupa.edu