Thursday, 3 September 2015

Top Three Questions About SOMA

First up, here's a new trailer for SOMA that shows off some of the environments:

Now I'm going to answer three common questions that we've seen all over the internet:

1) Is SOMA scarier than Amnesia: The Dark Descent?
We think that SOMA is just as scary, if not even more so, but in a different fashion.

In Amnesia: The Dark Descent, there's constant oppression that starts from the get go, peaks somewhere half-way through, and then continues until the end. What you get is a game that's very nerve-wracking, but which also becomes numbing after while. It's pretty common for players to feel the game loses much of its impact halfway through. SOMA is laid out a bit differently. At first it relies more on a mysterious and creepy tone, slowly ramps up the scariness, and peaks pretty late in the game.

Another aspect is that SOMA's horror relies a lot on the player starting to understand the underlying subjects we're exploring. These elements will be present from the very start, and then as the game progresses you'll encounter them in increasingly disturbing situations; things which seem trivial at the start of the game will become much more deeply entangled with your own story later in the game.

It's also important to point out that SOMA relies on very different scare tactics. In Amnesia the focus was on having a "haunted house"-style ride where creepy supernatural things could pop up any point. Most of the scares were all about inducing primal "afraid of the dark"-like responses. SOMA, on the other hand, derives much of its horror from the subject matter. The real terror will not just come from hard-wired gut reactions, but from thinking about your situation and the events that unfold from it.

2) Will SOMA have proper puzzles?
Short answer: Yes. It will have puzzles similar to those in Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

Long answer: While SOMA does have a bunch of puzzles, they are designed a bit differently.

First, the puzzles in SOMA have been designed to flow along with the narrative. Our goal is for you to never feel like puzzles have been added merely to provide some extra padding. We want them to feel as an integral part of the experience. For example, in one area we have a door that needs to be opened. But there is also a communications device that runs off the same power source as the door, so the puzzle-goal becomes entangled with a narrative one. On top of that, you also need to take part in a creepy activity in order to get the power running. This means that solving the puzzle is far from a purely mechanical exercise, but includes a strong sense of narrative too. Just about all of the puzzles are structured along similar lines.

Second, many puzzles are spiced up with some kind of hard decision, making them a lot less straightforward to solve. For instance, in one scene you need to decide whether you want to inflict terrible pain on a robot, or take your chances with the warning signs that the former residents of Pathos have left for you. Which one to choose?

Third, the complexity of the puzzles will rise as the game progresses. The reason for this is to give the player some time to understand the world and their place in it. And then when that's established we start to demand a bit more from the players, and crank the difficulty up a bit. This doesn't mean that the game becomes all about puzzle-solving, though, it just means that we include more elements that you need to keep track of, we make the world more open, and we hold your hand less. Puzzles will be an integral part of the game's narrative from start to finish.

3) How is the story told?

The storytelling in SOMA has both an active and a passive part. The active part is the narrative that unfolds that as you play the game. These are the things that happen to you as a player and what the gameplay is built around. On top of that is the passive part, that tells you about past events. It's told through notes, pictures, terminals, audio and the environment itself.

An important thing to note is that the passive part is almost completely optional. It'll obviously give you a much greater understanding of the game's world and lore but it's not our major means of getting the story across. This is very different from Amnesia: The Dark Descent where reading the diary entries scattered across the game was crucial for understanding what was going on. This means that you are free to choose how much you want to invest into uncovering all of the backstory. For instance, you could choose to only check the fragmentary audio buffers of intercoms, and just skim any notes. Or you could decide to find everything in one area, but skip most in another. The game has been designed to support a variety of play styles and still give a complete experience, but we hope you'll find that by immersing yourself in the world of SOMA your story experience will be considerably enhanced.

There is also a big emphasis on making everything coherent. You won't find any haphazardly strewn notes, documents or props in SOMA; everything is there for a reason. This to the point where you can get story information from merely pondering the placement of a book or a picture on a desk.

SOMA is easily the most story-heavy game we have made so far. But unlike our other titles, a major part of that story comes from simply playing the game.

Monday, 29 June 2015

What We Showed At E3

So this year we went to E3 for first time and did two things we have never done before.

First, we took part in an E3 show, the PC Gaming Show, and showed off a brand new trailer. You can watch that trailer here:

This showcases the player's first encounter with a type of creature that roams this part of the game, and gives some hints on how to best deal with them. This clip is a bit shorter than we wanted it to be and therefore misses some build-up and is a bit hurried. But one minute was all we were allowed for the show. Still, hope you all liked it!

Second, we showed off a public demo of the game (something we only did after release for previous games).

Choosing a demo for SOMA proved to be quite difficult as we wanted to have something that we felt represented the game properly without giving away lots of spoilers. The problem is that SOMA is not the sort of game that can be easily explained in a short session. For E3 we had to make it last 15 - 20 minutes, which for us is really short indeed.

SOMA is a slow burn experience with a primary focus on the exploration of high-level concepts. Trying to showcase this is very different from showing off a game that is about exploring an environment or one that's focused on a set of core mechanics - in those sort of games it's much easier to find a short segment that serves as a good example. But for SOMA, that sort of segment really doesn't exist. SOMA is designed to carefully introduce the player to a variety of concepts and to ease the player into a certain kind of atmosphere and state of mind.

The best solution would have been to do a special map, similar to how we did with the announcement video. That way we could have tried to condense the intended experience into a shorter level. But this takes a lot of time. Setting up the announcement video took several weeks. Doing one meant for public demoing would take even longer as we'd have to make sure it was bug free and that the gameplay worked as intended. So the next best thing was to take something from the game and modify it slightly to avoid big spoilers.

But the problem was: what section from the game should we use? As I noted above, SOMA takes its time to establish concepts and atmosphere, and any 15 minute segment we just chopped out would lack the context needed to properly understand the situation at hand and to be immersed in it.

Our first plan was simply to take one of our more intense monster sequences. That would provide a quick demo that was easy to get into and would provide a thrilling experience. But the issue was that we then would fail to showcase what's special about our game. The game would just look like yet another "run from the monster"-ordeal, and making sure that people understand that SOMA is something way beyond this is very important to us.

So after much discussion we decided to rip the latter half of a level that is about 1-2 hours into the game. This part would showcase player choices, environmental storytelling, our philosophical aspects, provide an underwater revelation at the end and (if the player chose to take a particular path) would have a short monster encounter.

However, our choice of demo was not perfect. Most importantly, by itself, this part of the game isn't particularly scary. This in part is because the demo lacks a lot of the intended build-up, and in part because it wasn't (apart from a final monster encounter) designed to be all that frightening. And while SOMA doesn't focus on "run from monsters", it is a horror game and we are very much intending to induce terror in our players. Therefore it felt annoying to have a demo that didn't bring home that aspect. But still, making players whimper from fear is not really a unique concept any more, so given the choice, it felt much more important to give a taste of the disturbing feel our themes give rise to.

Another issue was that our demo took place in a section of game that we'd already showed off in our release date reveal trailer (check it out here). I think this has led to a bit less coverage than we'd have had otherwise. There was quite a bit of new stuff that players could do in the demo, such as checking out black boxes on corpses, interacting in different ways with "Carl" the robot, exploring the computer system etc. and a previously unseen sequence at the end. But the demo still took place in the same locale and all of the major elements were still the same.

That said, I feel we did the best we could given the constraints we had. And judging from the reactions that we got at E3, people enjoyed it quite a lot and almost all the players came away with the right impression. Both Ian and Aaron (the Frictional Games team members that attended E3) were actually quite surprised how well most people picked up on our deeper aspects. This despite playing the game under far from optimal conditions (a well-lit, loud and crowded room is not all that great for games that thrive on immersion and introspection). Again, just like in our last round of testing, the way people connect to the themes in SOMA went way better than expected, and that makes us even more even more thrilled to unleash our creation on the world!

On that note, SOMA is less than three months from release now! So close!

Friday, 29 May 2015

SOMA Release Date And Gameplay Trailer

After almost five years of blood, sweat and tears we can finally make the following announcement:

SOMA, our upcoming sci-fi horror game, will be released on the 22nd September this fall on PS4 and PC.

And to celebrate that, here are 12 minutes of uncut gameplay footage:

Here are three quick bits of trivia about the video:

1) When the video starts we are about 1 hour into the game.

2) The protagonist is not an amnesiac. He has an established past, knows who he is, but isn't at all sure about the situation he's in.

3) There are lots more things to explore in this level than what's shown in the video. For instance, you can avoid the robot attack completely by acting differently.

That's it for now! We hope you like the footage and we're looking forward hearing what you think about the game after release!

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

SOMA is now in BETA

After much blood, sweat and tears we can now inform you all that SOMA is finally in the Beta stage! This is a huge thing for us and easily the biggest milestone prior to the actual release of the game.

So what does it mean? Well it means that we now have a build of SOMA that contains all of our desired features. There are still a few bits of art, a few sounds etc. missing, but the game is pretty much complete content-wise. We've sent this build out to around 40 people to test and once we start getting feedback in we'll discuss how best to spend our remaining development time. At this time in development there isn't much room to make big changes. If it turns out that something doesn't work at all, we need to figure out a not-too-drastic tweak that can make it work, or consider cutting it entirely.

Important to note is that we've already had two big tests prior to this, one vertical slice and one Alpha, so we're pretty confident on the major decisions of the game. We've already tried many different ways of doing things, and honed in on the stuff that works. So while the time for major overhauls is now over, we'll not end up in a situation where half the game turns out to be broken. I'm quite confident that we've created a very special experience, but before the verdict comes in, it's still scary to not know for certain. Especially now when we are at the point of no return.

Once we've decided on how to best spend our time, our days will be all about polish and improvement (and possibly some cutting here and there). In its current state, all of the game's big problems have been solved, so what's left is to make sure that what's there is as good as it possibly can be. Adding effects, improving the art, ensuring stability, making it more intuitive and so on. That's what just about all of our remaining work is about. That and fixing all those annoying bugs that are sure to crop up.

An interesting side-note on this Beta thing is how the number of bugs always sky rockets near an important deadline. Long-existing issues that have not been a problem for months (or years!) seem to pop up an hour or so before it's time to send out the build. Here at Frictional we call this "entering the event horizon". Just like approaching the singularity of a black hole, outside time goes increasingly faster, things frantically break and the known laws of physics cease to work. For instance, over the last week we've had two hard drive failures, geometry disappearing for no reason, SVN breaking, editors not loading updated files and several much-tested features starting to crash. It's exactly the same every time and yet you're always just as surprised when it happens.

Now that Beta is done, our next deadline is Release. Before we can announce that we have to wait for the Beta feedback to come in and then make plans for our remaining time. The time when SOMA is finally out is really close now, though, and we'll let you all know a date in the near future!

And now for a new piece of concept art and a screenshot:

Friday, 19 December 2014

SOMA enters pre-beta

Another major milestone is reached: SOMA is now in pre-Beta!

So what exactly does that mean? First of, it isn't the same as Alpha. SOMA was in Alpha mid-March this year, and since then we've made loads of additions, changes and fixes based on feedback and our own evaluation of the game's state. The pre-pre-Beta that happened a few weeks back was our final big test of that work. The game's current state, pre-Beta, is a milestone in preparation for the proper Beta, basically the full game without the final polish, which will happen a few months into next year. The pre-Beta marks final our chance for us to evaluate a number of crucial elements in the game.

First, we need to check if any dialog is missing or needs to be tweaked. We'll be doing our final recording a few weeks into next year, so it's important that everything's ready by then. In SOMA the voice-overs are a lot more significant compared to our previous titles. In Amnesia most of the voice-overs were background stories that had little relevance to the gameplay. In SOMA most of the voice-overs are directly connected to what the player is currently doing. This means that any changes we make to gameplay might require changes to voice-over and vice-versa. There's also a much greater need to make sure the two match up. For instance, we need to make sure that when a character describes a piece of scenery, it's accurate to what is actually in the game. We're also making a lot of tweaks to ensure that tone stays consistent and that exposition never gets too overwhelming.

The amount of voice required for SOMA is staggering. The games use more voice-overs than all of our previous games put together. The combined recording sessions total up to almost a month. Most of this is active content spoken by characters you encounter on your journey through the game.

The other big task is to check the final implementations of changes made after the pre-pre-Beta. After we went into pre-pre-Beta a few weeks back, the team met up for a few days of in-depth discussions. During this gathering we played through the entire game and made sure that everybody was in synch with what kind of game we were making. Over the years there have been lots of changes, and we needed to make sure that everyone grasped the sort of atmosphere, narrative and gameplay each part of the final game was supposed to have. We also decided on any last major changes to make and nailed down the feel we should be striving for in each part of the game . For example, we had long discussions on how the ending should play out and what sort of emotional pay-off we were going for.

Now that we're in pre-Beta all of these changes are in and tested. This means the game's final form is basically set. From now on we are not allowed to do any major changes and if something turns out not to work, we need to use smaller tweaks to fix it or just skip it entirely. This is a scary phase to enter, but also crucial. There are so many disciplines that are interconnected when making a narrative-heavy game; the underlying systems, the writing, the sound, the art and the overall gameplay flow all have very strong ties. In order to allow us to focus on polish and making sure what we've got works properly, there needs to come a time when the game's structure get locked down.

It is important to compare this lock-down to our previous games. In Amnesia and Penumbra, a level was considered locked pretty much done straight after the first implementation. But in SOMA we have had entire levels torn them down and rebuilt several times over. Partly due to the higher standard of polish we are after, and partly due to the game just being harder to make. From the get-go SOMA has been about immersing the player in certain thematics that takes place inside an active narrative. Figuring out how to do this properly turned out to be a herculean task, far harder than we first thought.

Next week, most of the team will go on Christmas leave, and then get back at the start of the next year for the final push. We are now closing in on a development period of five years and everybody is excited that the end is finally in sight. It is easily the most complex and difficult project we have ever undertaken and being able to release it next year, at a level of quality we are proud of, feels extremely satisfying.

Before we leave for vacation here is a little treat for you all: a brand new screenshot!

(Click to enlarge!)

Saturday, 15 November 2014

SOMA is now Pre-Pre Beta

Today is the day SOMA reached Pre-Pre Beta, which marked the first time the game could be played from start to finish.

Four of us have now played through 'til the end and it's really cool to be able to finally really feel what sort of game we're making, after almost 4.5 years in development.

While we've played the individual levels many times, you never really get the same sense as you do when you play the full thing. I personally think it's a significant experience as you now get a mental picture of the game as one complete thing, instead of a massive cluster of themes, systems and scenes. I finally know for sure what it is that we're working towards.

The testing took an average of 11 hours per person. This includes a lot of note-taking, quick discussions and bug-fixing. But, given prior experience, this should give a decent estimate of what it will take the average (and non stressing) player to complete SOMA.

While the game is still really rough in plenty of places, I think I dare to say that we've got something quite special brewing. There's still tons of work left to do, of course, but we're getting very anxious to show off our creation to the world.