Finally, after years of hard work, our sci-fi horror game SOMA is released! Completing a game is a really amazing thing. Five years ago SOMA was just a vague figment of the imagination, and today it’s an actual playable thing. And that process is what I will talk about in this blog post.
Around the time of Amnesia’s release two ideas had started to form in my head:
One, that it should be possible to make a game that lets the player take part in philosophical thought experiments. I was particularly interested in those that dealt with consciousness, and it felt like a playable first-person perspective would make these much more powerful than simply reading about them.
Two, as videos of people playing Amnesia started circulating; it amazed me how much people seemed to read into various situations. For instance, upon hearing a distant roar one YouTuber ran into a closet and had a very excited monologue about the horrors that might lurk out there. All this from just setting up a scene and playing a sound effect.
At the same time, Jens (the other co-found of Frictional) and I had started to casually discuss where to set our next game. Jens mentioned that deep underwater would be cool. I agreed, so we had a location.
The final piece came a few weeks later when we settled on the basic premise of the game. This is an event that takes place early on in the game, and it sets up the rest of it. It is the one thing that the rest of the game constantly refers back to, and is a vital part of making the intended experience work. It is also something that we have kept a secret and that we want to come as a surprise, so I won’t spoil it here. Once you play the game, it should be evident what it is.
And those were the four seeds of what was to become SOMA. Note that all of this is very fuzzy. For instance, we didn’t even know what the basic gameplay would be! We just had these vague ideas to start from, and the goal was to try and construct something that would turn into an actual game.
From there we started to figure out how to build this game. We went through many failed attempts, designs that had to be scrapped, levels that had to be remade, gameplay mechanics that had to be rethought and so forth. This was a very frustrating period of development. Whenever we thought we had a good overall design, we’d find out that it wasn’t quite working and have to start over.
While a lot of things went wrong, a lot went right too, and slowly the game started to take shape. We got the hang of how people would experience the game, what sort of mechanics worked and just in general how to approach it. Along this journey, we hit upon several breakthroughs that were critical in shaping the final game. Three of these come to mind:
Firstly, the decision that we should make it a proper horror game. While it might sound strange now, it wasn’t evident from the get-go. What made us decide this was that we noticed that people tended to pay more attention to detail and take things more seriously whenever the game got scary. This made us put a lot of effort into making sure SOMA ended up as a terrifying game.
Secondly, to let each area of the game revolve around a specific sort of dangerous creature or condition. This idea came from reading various stories at the SCP Wiki (a great site for lovers of all things creepy), and it helped structure the overall flow of the game. By putting the focus on a deadly threat, any connected story moments feel a lot more vital to the player and a more interesting narrative is formed.
Thirdly, to try to incorporate some sort of difficult choice into our major puzzles. This is something that we toyed with in the free Amnesia DLC called “Justine” and it worked to great effect there, making the puzzles feel more sinister and story-like. This allowed us to more easily weave our themes into the game, and made puzzles feel more exciting.
As you get further along in development, you lose a bit of control over the design; the game itself starts to be the one that makes more and more decisions. This might sound a bit weird, but it’s a very common thing when creating games, and in fact just about any art.
As the game gets increasingly feature complete, your decisions become less about “how do we keep the initial vision intact?” and more “how do we make what we have better?” In SOMA this led to the redesign of several areas, and even to have implications on the larger story parts.
I think this is a crucial part of game development, as it makes sure that the game feels coherent and consistent. It’s a very time-consuming process though, and is one of the major reasons why SOMA has taken over five years to complete.
Another crucial development point is when you decide that “this is our game”. This is a lot harder to nail down than you might think. There are always things to improve, and you can never be satisfied with everything. In all our previous projects this has been mostly based on what resources and time we have had left. But when developing SOMA we’ve been a lot better off financially, and have mostly been driven by asking ourselves the question: “is this the game we want?”. Deciding this for SOMA was very hard, and in the end we had to leave some beloved things out. Never have we made a game where we have so ferociously questioned whether things were really good enough.
Finally, there comes a stage in the development when you just have to lock the game down. This is when you have to refrain from even small changes and start to solely focus on making sure the game is stable and runs as it should.
For us this happened about a month back, and again it’s a very hard decision to make. There’s always that one bit left you would have really liked to polish. It’s very important to do this early enough, though, as any additions can easily introduce new bugs. At this point, game development is all about playing through the same things over and over again and fixing every issue that pops up.
And now we’re here. Launch day. That seed of an idea has grown into something real. The development cycle is over and it’s time to release our creation into the wild. It’s a moment of both joy and sadness. Joyous because we have finally managed to bring this project to completion. Sad because a large part of our lives is over and it is time to move on to other things.
I hope that gives you a small insight into what the development process has been like. And I really, really hope that you enjoy playing SOMA!