INTERVIEW: THOMAS GRIP OF SOMA & FRICTIONAL GAMES
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: 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.