First, here is a new video from SOMA showing off an environment captured directly from within the game:
Now moving on to the main topic of this post: The foundational design pillars of SOMA. When creating a game I think it is crucial to have a few basic rules that underlie all other decisions. That way it is much easier to keep everything on track and get the final game to play out as intended. For SOMA our intention is to craft an experience where players become deeply connected and affected by the game’s world and themes.
Here are the five cornerstones that we hope will let us achieve this:
1) Everything is story
First up, we want the player to constantly feel as if they are inside a flowing narrative. It is so common that a game is distinctly split into story and puzzle/action moments. We want to blur the boundaries here and make it impossible to distinguish between the two. Whatever the player does it should feel as if it is part of the story. We do not want to have sections that simply feel like blockers to the next narrative moment. From start to finish the player should be drenched in a living, breathing world of storytelling.
A good example is how we design puzzles. Instead of having the puzzle by itself, as a separate activity, it always springs from and is connected to some aspect of the story. For instance, if the player encounters a locked door, there are more reasons for getting it open than simply to progress. There are always short term narrative reasons and rewards for getting it unlocked. On top of this, the very act of solving it results in the player taking part of a narrative scene.
Encounters with hostile beings are handled in the same way. A creature will never attack you without good reason; they never do it out of pure gameplay necessity. We want every encounter to feel like a bit of storytelling is happening. To get this working properly, almost every single creature has unique AI.
2) Take the world seriously
This leads us to the next point: that every detail in an environment is connected to the story somehow. Nothing should be written off as simply a requirement for gameplay or exposition. For instance, if you find an audio log you will be able to learn more about the story by pondering its placement alone. There should be no need to “double-think”; the game’s world should be possible to evaluate on its own terms.
We constantly think about what each character would have done in a situation, and shape the environment accordingly. For instance, in one level, we started out with scratches on the walls but later realized the character had access to a whiteboard pen and changed the graphics accordingly.
It’s so easy to justify design “because the game needs it” even if it doesn’t make sense to the story. But for each such thing you do, the less seriously the player will approach the environment. In SOMA a big part of the game is to ponder the situation you are in.Therefore it’s crucial that players consider the world from a story view, and in order for that to happen we must provide them the opportunity to do so.
3) The player is in charge
When you invest this much in a setting, it’s important to make sure that players feel connected to it. In order to this we need to put a bigger responsibility on the player. An environment quickly loses its sense of realism if it is extremely streamlined and does not allow you to make choices. The player must be the one that drives the narrative forward.
The game never tells the player exactly how to progress. There may be hints and other implicit guidance, but in the end it must be the player that figures out what to do next. If a game is constantly flashing up cues with objectives or showing arrows pointing where to go, the player will never take on the world at a deeper level. If it takes some effort to progress, players are forced to understand and mentally map the surroundings in a way they would not do otherwise.
4) Trust the player
This brings us to the next point: that we trust players to act according to the story. We do not force players to notice events by use of cutscenes and similar, but assume they will properly explore the environment and act in a rational fashion. We simply set up situations and then let the player have full control over their actions.
This means that we will let players do stupid things even if they might break the experience a bit. For instance, if they skip talking to a character with important information then they are on their own after that. And if they get hints that a dangerous creature is approaching, they need to figure out that hiding is the best course of action by themselves.
While we do our utmost to make the narrative unfold in a fluent and intuitive way, we will not cater to players that make irrational decisions. The environment is set up to be taken seriously and we expect the players to do so too.
5) Thematics emerge through play
Now for our last foundational design rule: that the game’s thematics will emerge through play. SOMA is meant to explore deep subjects such as consciousness and the nature of existence. We could have done this with cutscenes and long conversations, but we chose not to. We want players to become immersed in these thematics, and the discussions to emerge from within themselves.
It feels wrong to just shove information down the player’s throat. What I find so exciting about having these thematics in a game is that the player is an active participant. There are plenty of books and movies that cover these sort of subjects, but videogames provide a personal involvement that other mediums lack. We want to explore this to the fullest degree.
Just like all of the other design goals, there is a bit of risk in this. It requires the player to approach the game in a certain way and it will be impossible to make it work for everyone. But for those people where it succeeds, it will be a much more profound experience. I also find that it is when you are dealing with uncertainties that you are doing the most with the medium, and am extremely excited to see how far it will take us.