'SOMA' nearly wasn't a horror game and other secrets from Ian Thomas

The developers at Frictional Games have a lot to live up to. This is the independent studio responsible for Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a terrifying first-person game fraught with monsters, mysterious shadows, haunting candlelight and devious puzzles. Amnesia won a handful of awards after its launch in 2010, including two at the Independent Games Festival, and it's widely considered a modern horror classic. SOMA is Frictional's first game since that success (the studio didn't even develop Amnesia's 2013 sequel), and it's an underwater, sci-fi adventure. And, of course, it's a horror game. This means the pressure is on for programmer Ian Thomas. He joined Frictional a few years into SOMA's development and he's been "bowled over" by the response to his studio's latest project. For Thomas, it's good to know that Frictional's instincts were spot-on, especially considering SOMA was almost a very different game.

Frictional is known for horror and SOMA is a testament to that. What is horror, to you?

There has been a bit of a boom in horror games for the last few years, I guess indie is where that's mainly coming from. There are an awful lot of horror tricks that you see again and again -- the jump scare being the obvious one, and there's nothing wrong with that at all. But there's a certain tendency to make it into that kind of carnival ride, build up a little bit of tension and then -- it's like watching a good slasher movie or a good horror movie. You know when the music comes and you know the build up, you know you're gonna see something. Or you know they're gonna fake you out and throw you something two minutes from now.

We kind of felt we wanted to do something a little bit different with SOMA. We've got the scares in there, we've got the atmosphere and the rest of it, but the real root of the horror we want to bring in with the underlying meaning of the game. So you're lying in bed after playing the game, with these things, these problems running through the back of your head. That's the thing we wanted to key into, really. For us, it was about looking at the way horror has been done over the last while and trying to touch you somewhere deeper -- but I'm probably going now to get told off for using that kind of language.

Indie is big on horror, innovating it. How do you work on a horror game for a long time without losing your mind? Is it scary?

No, it really doesn't look like that for the makers of the games because you get to see it when there's no graphics in place to speak of. You've just got the level layouts. You get to see it without the music, you get to see it without the lighting effects and things. It's very much like you're the puppeteer behind the curtain. You aren't scared of it.

I get scared playing horror games. I remember Clive Barker's Undying when it came out years ago, I could only play in 15-minute chunks before I just had to walk away from the machine. But there's something different about seeing it from behind the curtain, it robs it of its fear.

That stinks -- you can't be scared by your own horror game.

We play everyone else's.

What are you playing right now?

I'm off horror right now; I'm having a bit of a break from it. I've just started Assassin's Creed: Syndicate. But, yeah, I'm avoiding jump scares for the time being. Let my nerves settle down.

So, if you're desensitized to the horror in SOMA, how does the dev team create scary moments? How does that process work?

When I said we were kind of desensitized to it -- the quite nice thing we do in the team, is we'll work on levels in small teams of maybe a coder and an artist together (and the sound guy every so often). Then we'll all play each other's levels each week and kind of feedback on what's going on and what's working.

"It's like chipping away at a block of marble."

It's like chipping away at a block of marble, if that makes sense. You're kind of bringing out the detail and every time you go around, you're trying to bring out those points again and again. And the guys playing it will go, "That's great, but what if this happened then?" It's very, very collaborative; we all kind of put our horror brains on and pull out the different bits when we do that.

Pulling out bits of brain -- that's very horror. So, have you been with the SOMA team from the beginning?

I wasn't; I came in late. I think it had probably already been going for two and a half years[.] I think there was a phase in really early development when they weren't even sure that it was going to be a horror at all. They knew the story they wanted to tell, but was it going to be in a horror framework? Then I think it just came back to that's what the company does. They couldn't find a way to do it that wasn't horror and it just started to feel right by putting in those elements.

It sounds like the narrative was really important in SOMA, even in the beginning.

The key thing that was there from very early on was the theme. ... I don't want to spoil anything, but the theme being, "What does it really mean to be human?" That's the big question that we're asking. So, the narrative detail, what happened in what order, some of that came really quite late. But that theme, because that was behind everything, it kind of informs everything.

How did the team decide on the underwater setting for SOMA?

It was before I was there, but from what I understand, Thomas [Grip] and Jens [Nilsson] kind of just had a conversation one day as they were working out what they were going to do, and talked about undersea. ... For me, undersea is scarier than, say, space. Which is what everybody thought SOMA was before it launched. In space, you might blow out a wall and you're sucked into the vacuum, but there's so much more pressure involved being in the depths of the sea. The thing about that is it's not just the physical pressure, it's the mental pressure of just that weight pushing down on you, even before you start looking at the really weird creatures that are down there. Just that oppressive nature of the whole thing -- even if the walls don't buckle in and collapse or anything, it's just ever-present over your head. Sword of Damocles sort of thing.

Speaking of spooky things underwater, how does SOMA use chromatic aberration to pump up the horror factor?

"In space, you might blow out a wall and you're sucked into the vacuum, but there's so much more pressure involved being in the depths of the sea."

Chromatic aberration is actually something that comes from lenses and photography and film. Around the edges of lenses, where light bends, you get this separation between the spectrum of colors. If anybody's played with an Oculus Rift, you see it really obviously around the edges of that, even as the Oculus software tries to correct for it. A lot of games over the last few years have adopted that because it makes things look kind of like a -- either like an oldish film or like a badly adjusted television. It's the sort of things you'd see in '70s films a lot just because the lens technology wasn't that great.

We kind of use it here, but we're not actually using it to say, "Hey, you're looking at the world through old lenses" -- although that's a kind of weird take on it. What we are using it for is as a way of showing how injured you are, effectively. The more your vision is kind of turning into a bit of tunnel vision and distorted, and kind of odd around the edges.

It's funny, some people don't actually seem to realize they're hurt. So we maybe needed to refine that a little bit. And some people don't realize that they're healing themselves, don't know what the healing mechanism is. There is one.

Is there? I didn't realize that.

Yeah. We see a lot of people using it and a lot of people don't quite figure out that that's what they've done.

Are there any secrets or easter eggs hidden in the game that nobody has found yet?

I don't know if there are any that people haven't found. We have a pretty dedicated fanbase who will pick up on the tiniest detail. We hid a few codes in the game, as we did with Amnesia, that unlocked behind-the-scenes files, a big archive of really early playthroughs of the game and a load of concept art, stories, things like that. That was found within a day and a half or something. There are probably pretty few avenues left unexplored by our fanbase. It's all out there on the internet somewhere

Was it intimidating to live up to the Amnesia franchise?

I think it was. And I think, one of the things about SOMA is it isn't Amnesia. In a way, it's not trying to be Amnesia. It's something slightly different. That kind of scared everybody at the outset, as to how are people really going to take this? Are they going to be upset that it's not Amnesia and it is this different thing? But the feedback we've had from the very start has been, "Yes, we get it. It isn't Amnesia but there's something else going on here and we really like it." We've been bowled over by the reception.

"It's not trying to be Amnesia."

We were all really, really not optimistic just before the launch because I think just before press embargoes dropped, somebody streamed it and absolutely trashed it. Then a really early review came out -- dropped way too early -- and it was a medium score. It wasn't bad, but it was medium. At that point the whole team are going, "Oh, no. We've got it wrong." And then at 12PM that day all the media embargoes dropped and it just kind of -- eight out of ten, nine out of ten, nine point five. And we just, "Whew. Thank you. They get it! They get it! We weren't crazy." It was a pretty intense 24 hours as we're all desperately watching for every single leak.