SOMA, the perfect Let’s Play experience

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Let’s Play videos are popular on YouTube but controversial for a few reasons. I think overall those videos are doing more good than harm, especially for the horror genre whose game SOMA is a very good example of.

Let’s Play videos are a somewhat recent but popular genre on YouTube. A player will record his screen (and sometimes themselves) playing a game from start to finish, adding commentary over the game’s audio. This kind of video is somewhat controversial for multiple reasons. First, it kind of defeats the point of video game when an interactive experience is converted to a linear passive experience. Second, every unique view of a Let’s Play video may be a potential sale lost for the showcase game. I’ll address both concerns by taking a recent example of Let’s Play video I watched for the game SOMA.

DISCLAIMER: The following contains eventual spoilers for SOMA. If you intend to play SOMA, please buy SOMA now or watch one of the Let’s Play videos series on YouTube Gaming.

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SOMA is a first person exploration/horror game developed by Frictional Studios, famous for the Amnesia and the Penumbra video game series. In the same vein as its predecessors, it is a story-driven game where the player slowly realizes what is happening to the location he is exploring and what happened to him, while evading monsters of all sorts. Compared to the previous games from Frictional, SOMA is the first to take place in a science-fiction setting and is somewhat lighter on the puzzles and the actual threat of the patrolling monsters who will knock the player out more often than straight killing him.

Still, SOMA, however well made, is not a game for everyone. In an unique blend that Frictional Games mastered over the years, it features chilling decors, horrifyingly altered humans/robots/animals, gore scenery, low light levels, surprise scares, an oppressive soundtrack and display “glitches” preventing the player from actually seeing clearly the threats that the game throws at them every once in a while. Every player has its own “horror threshold”, and all Frictional Games are way out of my league. It means that I will never play any of those games, not because they’re not good, but because they’re too good at what they do. Is it a reason to miss out on the interesting questions those games raise during gameplay?

I, for one, don’t think so, especially since there exists a more palatable way to enjoy the wonderful worlds Frictional created through Let’s Play videos. This way, I get to enjoy the game like a commented version of a movie. I’m a little removed from the oppressive first person experience while I get to fully enjoy the background story, the characters and the moral dilemmas. On this subject, SOMA is perfectly suited for a recorded linear playthrough since none of the moral choices you are facing are altering the story in any important way. There is no forked alternative story that you would be missing out on by watching a player make certain choices. But it doesn’t prevent those choices from altering you, the watcher, and that’s what makes them interesting.

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SOMA‘s moral dilemmas revolve around what it means to be human and alive. Unlike previous Frictional games, there are no supernatural entities to add an extraneous mystery layer increasing the need for suspension of disbelief. The planet-killing comet, the brain scans, the Space Cannon, the non-sentient Artificial Intelligence, the biomechanical Structure Gel, everything is credible and give the moral dilemmas their full force. In SOMA there are no demons evil by nature, no deities with unfathomable ways, only humans and their frailty, as much physical as mental. And while those moral dilemmas are all very interesting by themselves, they don’t require the game to offer different story paths to the player, making it a perfect candidate for linear Let’s Play videos.

Now’s the kicker. I said that I would never play the game myself because of its excellent horror setting. Does it mean that I would never buy it? Not at all! In fact, I’m more inclined to buy it now after watching a Let’s Play than I was before watching it. Even if I probably will never install it on my computer, I feel like I could buy it during a sale because of the sheer quality of it. Of course it only my own experience, but I’m not sure Let’s Play videos are harming sales as much as one may think. I can see how bad it would be for story-driven 2-hours long exploration indie games, but in that case it feels like another medium, like a movie or a novel, would be more appropriate. In SOMA, it works because its genre restricts its sales already to a somewhat limited audience. Let’s Play videos become a way of reaching players that would not enjoy playing the game themselves, for whatever reasons.

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