When Soma, the sci-fi horror adventure from Frictional Games, came out for PC and PlayStation 4 in September 2015, its story won awards. The first-person game puts the player in the headspace of Simon Jarrett, a contemporary Torontonian who sits down at the doctor’s for an experimental brain scan and—with no perception of a passage of time—returns to consciousness in a postapocalyptic 22nd century. By sifting through scribbled notes, digital logs, and audio files, the isolated time traveler gradually learns that a comet impact has scoured the surface of Earth, and the planet’s only life—or facsimile of life—survives underwater.
Jarrett reanimates inside creepy PATHOS-II, a sprawling deep-sea research compound populated by grotesque creations of the station’s corruptive AI. The most disturbing inhabitants aren’t the suppurating, mutated monstrosities that shamble through the facility, but the broken-down robots that think they’re human and are doomed not to die. Much to his (and our) revulsion, Jarrett realizes that he has to be one of them. His senses have hidden the truth lest he lose his mind.
Soma succeeds narratively and visually by synthesizing (and in some cases anticipating) the “What horrors happened here?” unease of System Shock 2 and BioShock, the voyeuristic loneliness of Tacoma, and the meditations on the nature of identity and the individuality of AI that distinguish games such as The Swapper and Localhost. Jarrett’s attempts to preserve the digitized remnants of an almost-extinct race—all the while wondering whether that goal is worthwhile, whether he’s still the same “Simon” he once was, and whether this subsurface semblance of life is worth living—present players with morally wrenching decisions that aren’t easily reconciled, either in the moment or in the hours after the credits roll.
Or so I had heard. Until this week, my knowledge of Soma was secondhand. The game’s premise, setting, and critical reception appealed to me. But in one important respect, Soma repelled me: It was scary. And I don’t do well with scary games.
Although I’ve made exceptions for some classics on the scary side of the spectrum—like The Last of Us, Left 4 Dead, and Eternal Darkness—I’ve long since learned that truly terrifying games are too much for me. I can leave the lights on, turn the sound down, and force myself to keep playing, but fear, for me, is more of an obstacle to enjoyment than a route to a rush. Gaming’s interactivity is its greatest strength, but the resulting sense of immersion means that there’s no hiding from the horror. Gamers can’t peek through their fingers at something scary on screen; they need those fingers for fight or flight.
By all accounts (from gamers with greater appetites for terror), Soma isn’t as scary as Frictional’s previous efforts, Penumbra and Amnesia. But the game is still unsettling, not only because of the existential questions it poses but because of its surface-level scares: lightless rooms, flashlit Lovecraftian creatures, the sound of indistinct screaming echoing down deserted corridors. Soma’s otherwise minimalist control scheme includes an option to peek around corners, perfect for spotting an awful form lurching down a dim hallway …
… or, even worse, an up-close, misshapen mass of mostly-organic nightmare fuel.
Yet despite my roughly Luigi’s Mansion–level tolerance for terror, I took those screenshots, my hands mostly steady at the controls. Not only did I start Soma, I finished and enjoyed it. No, I didn’t experience a sudden burst of bravery. Instead, Soma got safer for the faint of heart.
Last Friday, Soma was ported to Xbox One. Although the port’s standard Soma campaign remains the same, the new version includes a different way to play, which Frictional has christened “Safe Mode.” (The new mode was also added as an option for PC players.) In safe mode, monsters still haunt the hallways of PATHOS-II, but they don’t attack and can’t kill you. They’re simply part of the scenery, skin-prickling companions that mostly leave you alone. Get too close, and you’ll still hear Simon’s “heart” thumping as the screen dissolves into static, but that’s where the agony ends. Here, I thought, was a version of Soma that might be palatable to players like me.
Safe mode wasn’t something that Frictional ever envisioned during the game’s development, but it became clear after launch that there might be enough Lindbergh-like wimps to make it worthwhile. “There was a group of people that either disliked the monster encounters or didn't feel horror was their genre but still really wanted to play Soma,” explained Soma’s creative director, Thomas Grip, via email. “So it felt like it would be interesting to do something that made these people play.”
When he set out to make the safe mode, Grip had misgivings. Although the already weaponless Soma resembled a walking simulator (or, as the Your Parents Basement podcast refers to the genre, a “walk ’em up”) more than a true survival-horror game, safe mode threatened to sanitize the elements of Soma that are usually selling points for games of its type. Not only was it unnatural for a studio known for its scares to ease up on the player’s anxiety, it was risky to remove much of the traditional, quick-twitch challenge from the game, leaving only puzzles to slow the player’s progress. Comps for Soma’s safe mode are so rare that Grip said he “didn’t have any reference points” among previously released games. Although prominent titles such as Mass Effect 3 and Assassin’s Creed: Origins have featured modes that prioritized exploration and story over combat, neither has the option to neuter every enemy. According to Grip, Frictional’s main inspiration was a popular fan-made Soma mod called Wuss Mode: Monsters Don’t Attack, which was released on Steam about two months after Soma.
Wuss Mode was developed by Daniel Childers, who told me he conceived it not out of his own need, but in his capacity as a Soma evangelist. “Having finished Soma, the first thought on my mind was, ‘I need to talk about what the hell just happened,’” Childers wrote via instant message. Unfortunately, no one else in his orbit was willing to play. “Not many people I know are really big horror-game fans, so it was a tough sell at first, trying to sit my friends and family down to play the game through,” he said. “Aside from being a brilliant thought experiment, Soma is an extremely effective horror game, and the first gnarled-up Christmas tree of a robot screaming for blood at the sight of you and tackling you to the ground had virtually anyone I sat down in front of my computer noping the hell out of the room as quickly as possible, which was a complete shame.”
Childers asked his sister if she’d stick with Soma if the monsters couldn’t kill her. When she said that she would, he went forward with Wuss Mode, opting to pacify the monsters rather than remove them because that made the mod easier to program and more atmospheric to play. The mod has a five-star rating on Steam, where roughly 15,000 grateful, fearful users have subscribed. “I've heard plenty from wusses like yourself, so much so that I feel a bit bad for having called it ‘Wuss Mode,’” Childers said. Hey, we wusses are used to it.
Even in safe mode, Soma still scared me. Are you wondering whether I closed in-game doors behind me when I had no need to, just so I wouldn’t feel watched? Almost every time. Did I turn on the subtitles, lower the sound to barely audible levels, and listen to soothing music so I wouldn’t have to hear the screams (both the monsters’ and my own)? I assure you, dear reader, that I did. Did I strategically turn on living-room lights that would banish the shadows without casting glare on the screen? I wanted every watt. Was I happy to have my wife and dog to keep me company while I played? When they wanted to go to the bedroom, I convinced them to stay and sleep on the couch.
But safe mode made a difference. Because I knew the monsters couldn’t kill me, I didn’t have to sneak to stay silent, stay out of the light, and cower in corners. I took direct routes, walked with impunity, and explored the lore at my leisure. When I stared into the abyss, the abyss broke. The nightmares ran from me.
Before starting the game in safe mode, I played just enough in “Normal Mode” to know what I was (mercifully) missing. Here’s Childers’s “gnarled-up Christmas tree” robot in the normal mode.
And here’s the same monster in safe mode, content to leave me alone and incapable of killing me even when I want it to.
Soma’s safe mode (like Wuss Mode before it) works well for two reasons. The first is that Soma’s exploration and story are so strong. The second is that the monsters were always the weak part: obligatory bad guys that couldn’t be fought, weren’t fun to flee from, and distracted from the story. When the video game website Giant Bomb awarded Soma “Best Story” of 2015, it followed paragraphs of praise with one negative note: “But please, Frictional, less frustrating monsters next time?” Eventually, Frictional listened. Grip, who acknowledged that the company “could have made the monster encounters better” to begin with, was pleasantly surprised by how smoothly safe mode stripped them away. “[It] turns out that it worked way better than we expected and it fit really nicely,” he said. “It is one of those counterintuitive things where the idea feels wrong [but] works really well in practice.”
As Wuss Mode inspired safe mode, so might safe mode inspire other game-makers to broaden their audience by courting cowards—ahem, discerning plot appreciators—like me. But most horror games might have a harder time implementing similar modes without affecting the feedback loops that make them fun to play.
“Soma's a bit of an odd egg,” Childers said. “If you took the Alien and humans and androids out of [the notoriously terrifying] Alien: Isolation, you'd be left with what amounts to a non-experience. If you left them in and made them nonviolent, you'd be left with a massive narrative inconsistency of, ‘These things are supposed to be trying to kill me, but they just decided not to?’ With Soma, the intent of the [enemy AI] is left open to interpretation, so that narrative inconsistency doesn't quite exist. Particularly with Wuss/safe mode, encounters have a certain ambiguity that makes them really interesting without needing the stealth interaction we've grown accustomed to in horror games.”
With assists from safe mode, Frictional, and Childers—who doesn’t mind that his mod has largely been rendered redundant—I conquered (or at least sidestepped) my fear, finished Soma, and lived to blog about it. No longer must I miss out on one of gaming’s best stories and most memorable worlds just because I belong to the wussy part of the game-playing populace that dislikes dread and avoids the sensation of being scared. Even if Soma is uniquely well-suited to storytelling sans scares, here’s hoping safe mode starts a trend. If not, my next horror experience, like most of my previous ones, will leave me looking like one of PATHOS-II’s permanent residents.