SOMA is one of the most engrossing and moving pieces of science fiction ever created. It’s just that simple. The fact that it’s a horror game—which I don’t usually play because they cause me a great amount of discomfort and heart palpitations—is the only thing that made me switch over to a youtube walkthrough instead of finishing it myself. And boy was it worth sticking around until the end. The last act was beautiful, heartbreaking, terrifying, and intellectually challenging in all the right ways. So when Thomas Grip of Frictional Games agreed to answer my questions, I was beyond excited.
The Existential Gamer: I got lost many times while playing SOMA. As a human experience, do you find an intrinsic value in getting lost? Do you enjoy getting lost in real life? What game have you most enjoyed getting lost in?
Thomas Grip: Well, being lost is the first step towards some sort of understanding, so it has tons of value. If you are never lost, you never explore any new territory. Having said that, I do not really enjoy the feeling of being lost, as it can be quite stressful, especially in real-life. But in a horror game, evoking feelings of stress and other similar emotions is something you aim for, so it makes sense to have it there. You are not supposed to enjoy it. The idea is that the feeling of being lost should last long enough for you to feel like you are losing control, but not so long that you start to get frustrated. This is a very interesting conundrum that you see in many aspects of horror game design: evoking the right kinds of negative emotions. Being stressed and unsettled are examples of the ones you want, bored and frustrated are examples of those best avoided (although they can at times be very effective).
The first Silent Hill had a pretty good balance. They cheated a bit with their inclusion of a map, which also had the additional downside of forcing the player to switch back and forth between menu and gameplay. But overall, I liked how there was a “nice” sense of being lost in Silent Hill and the art and sound all helped strengthen this feel.
TEG: To progress through the game, the player is forced to hurt sentient beings. What do you think this adds to the experience and what was your intention when designing this aspect?
TG: Our goal with SOMA was to get the player to ponder their own existence, and these scenarios were included to get the player thinking about these things. If you just saw robots in the background you wouldn’t really have to pay attention. We needed to make sure that the player directly confronted these things, forcing them to ask themselves uncomfortable questions. In SOMA, we designed things to slowly escalate. Players might start with some reasoning why it might be OK to hurt these beings, but as they progress through the game it grows increasingly hard to keep that mindset. Eventually, if all works as we intended, players have to accept that these beings are not just machines, but that they have some basic rights, and perhaps even a consciousness. Then we took this even further, until hopefully the player uses what they learn from the game to reflect on their own life. That is the goal at least.
TEG: What is the game that you’ve spent the most time playing over the course of your life?
TG: Probably Shining Force 2 or Final Fantasy 7. I did a ludicrous amount of grinding in those games when I was a kid.
TEG: What game would people be most surprised to hear you enjoyed?
TG: Possibly Five Nights At Freddy’s. I know a lot of people see it as a cheap jump scare game, but I think the design is amazing. One of the most interesting horror games I have ever played to be honest. The appeal is lost fairly quickly, but while it is lasts it is fantastic.
TEG: What draws you to the horror genre? Do you get a personal enjoyment from feeling afraid? What about making others feel afraid?
TG: I would say there are two main aspects that makes me interested:
First, there is just something about horror that I like on a subjective level. The imagery, sounds and sensations that come with it. I like the look of an abandoned house, I find beauty in decay, I like to sit alone in the dark and so forth. I cannot say why I like these things, I just do. And liking these sorts of things obviously makes me attracted to making horror games.
Second, some of the questions that I find to be the most important in life, are questions that are best asked through horror. Themes like mortality, ethics and the nature of existence are constantly popping up in horror. What I seek from horror are not quick cheap scares (although I cannot deny they can be very fun at times), but these deeply unsettling moments that remain lingering inside you. The very best horror makes you look upon life in a different manner. It takes you to the darkest corners of existence and when you finally emerge from that darkness, you’ve gained a fresh look on things. That is what I truly love about horror.
I do not make horror games out of some sadistic pleasure (at least not mostly). I myself enjoy having these horrifying experiences, and that’s what I’d like to give to people.
TEG: Personally, what is the scariest thing you can think of, and why?
TG: As a parent I would say anything happening to my child ranks as one of the worst things imaginable.
TEG: In SOMA, the protagonist loses consciousness often. What are your most memorable personal experiences of losing consciousness?
TG: Ha ha! This is probably one of the weirdest question I have gotten in a long while!
Well, from my younger, wilder days I have quite a few “memorable” experiences where my consciousness was lost. But I don’t feel like I want to get into any of those here.
I have to say though that losing consciousness when sleeping is really interesting and disturbing to me. We do not really think about it, as we are so used to it, but the idea of just passing out for 8 hours everyday is quite creepy. One of the things that makes us feel like proper people is to have a continuous sense of self throughout the day. If our lives were just random disconnected moments, we wouldn’t really be conscious. Yet every day we create this 8 hour gap in our lives. It’s a blank space where anything could happen, really. I mean, how do we know when we are truly awake again? Is your consciousness really “turned off” during the night or is it just that you lack memories from that period of time? Perhaps we lie awake each night (when we are not dreaming), staring at our own eyelids, but never remember any of it? If you think hard enough about it, there are a lot of troubling aspects to sleep.
TEG: Please pretend the following statement is true: you are going to die in five minutes. Would you like to live on as a digital copy and be shot into the stars?
TG: Depends on the details. Probably not. What scares me about making a digital copy of myself is the degree of horrible things that could be inflicted on me in digital form. So I have to be damn sure what the terms are before I do anything like that.
TEG: Suicide, both assisted and not, are central themes in SOMA. In a perfect society, how do you think suicide would exist and be dealt with, if at all?
TG: That is a tricky question, and there are a lot of subtle issues involved. In general I think people should be able to end their lives as they please. Especially if their quality of life is declining steeply. Right now there are way too many people spending their last months, or even years, in pure misery, strapped to a hospital bed. This feels very wrong to me, and I think we should be focusing a hell of a lot more on making the end of our lives feel meaningful, rather than just trying to extend them as much as possible.
TEG: When you were a child, what role did video games play in your life? Has this changed over time?
TG: When I was a kid, games were more of a time waster than what they are now. In fact, nowadays I have incredibly little time for games. This has caused me to become a lot less tolerant of artificial extensions built into games. Grinding, for instance.
TEG: When do you think the world will end, and what will be the cause?
TG: If you mean the earth, I know for a fact that it will end about 4 billion years from now, scorched by our growing sun. But if you mean humanity, I am less sure. I think there is a pretty high chance of it all just ending in a pretty slow manner. One system after another just collapses and without really knowing when it all happened, we just find ourselves near the end of everything. There are a lot of things in our world right now that are progressing in a very bad direction (climate change, antibiotic resistance, resource scarcity, over-population, etc) and it’s hard to say where we are heading with all that. But if these things just continue to worsen, we might cross the point of no return without even realizing it. The really scary part is that we might have already done so.
TEG: What’s next for you after SOMA?
TG: Can’t give any details, but we are going to look into creating horror by employing more dynamic systems. SOMA was quite linear and relied on a pretty strict sequence of plot points. We want to explore doing the same things while making the world and story more open for the player.