Thursday 12 December 2013

The Five Foundational Design Pillars Of SOMA

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.


  1. "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."

    Wouldn't designing the game to be open-ended, and easily approachable help more?

    1. Well there are limits on on how open we can let the game be. You still need to have some sort of boundaries. For instance in Amnesia TDD, the monsters where quite open if you approached them by sneaking and hiding a lot, but did not work very well if you tried to attack the monsters with a brick or something.

  2. Hope the game lasts at least as long as The Dark Descent, and some kind of oil and lantern mechanic comes back, those brought a lot of tension and making the map worthwhile exploring so you could find Oil and other things.

    1. No it didn't really. You basically had a lantern that runs out of oil after 5 minutes, while the whole game was swarming with torches that never extinguish out, but you couldn't pick them. Just contemplate a bit further on this subject and you will see how the oil mechanic was utterly stupid.

    2. Utterly stupid is a pretty strong term. The short lifespan of the lantern, as a mechanic, gave me a sense of relief when I needed to use it by being able to see, but also giving me a sense of dread because I needed to use it and burn oil. This coupled with the overall feeling of terror was brilliant.

      The game is not about total realism, nor should it be, the end goal of delivering the experience was achieved. It would have been a fairly boring game if everything were just dark and you couldn't have seen the environments.

      Love to see the game that you have created and published though and compare the experiences.

      Yeah, that's what I thought.

    3. "Love to see the game that you have created and published though and compare the experiences."

      You do understand that you just presented a logical fallacy, right? You managed to disown 99,9% of any kind of critique as useless.

  3. Sick! I have high hopes for this, it sounds really ambitious, and I love the emphasis you're placing on immersion. Good luck with points 4 and 5 though, especially considering the short attention span of gamers nowadays (myself included).

  4. I would like to invent a serum that would make me forget my memories, so that I can replay The Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs until I have to wait for SOMA.

    But to be serious, thanks for making these great games and blogging about them. I enjoy reading the articles both about technical details and design... it's nice that I can have a peek behind the courtains. I also welcome the new People of Frictional articles.

  5. Hello Thomas, I'd like to ask you a question about SOMA. Will the character you play as talk, or will they be silent? I think the silent protagonist has worked really well for your games, especially since you want the player to have their own opinion on what they see and feel through out the game. I know the philosophy on your games is about having the player live through the game and feel like they were truly inside the game, at least for amnesia. Is that your focus for SOMA as well? I'd really love to have an answer when you have a chance. Its that premise that I think makes your games so good. Thanks, and good luck on Soma! :)

  6. Good read. This is very mature game design thinking.

  7. Excellent approach, Thomas. I recognized a lot of the games I played throughout the 1990s in what you wrote. In my opinion, taking the player seriously is a very important element of games, and many modern ones seem to ignore that.

    I did notice that the lighting in the environment you show is unnaturally low. This kind of darkness made sense in Amnesia, seeing that the light sources were torches and an oil lamp. It was easier to suspend my disbelief and accept the darkness than it is in an environment such as a space station, which realistically would have been designed as a modern working environment. I don't see how anybody could have gotten anything done there with so little light. Are you guys explaining why it's so dim? (e.g. running on emergency power)

    1. Don't worry about it - considering Point 2 on this list is taking the world seriously, and never doing something 'just for the sake of the gameplay', I would have thought they would have that explanation down

    2. The light is so low because of video conversion problems. We liked it though and kept it for the video. The game has lamps that cast realistically long light ;)

    3. There we go then - the main character is plagued by nightmarish visions of video codec compression issues! Terrifying indeed :)

    4. Bink\Smacker video is suppose to have better video codec compression, though - right? Also I think I'm getting a hint of deferred rendering system From Sir Thomas. Either radosity or some global illumination. Puzzles, Monsters and Scares...Oh my! :)

  8. Some incoherend thoughts:
    "The player is in charge" probably means that the game needs to use physics engine extensively to allow interaction that does nothing for the story.
    For puzzles maybe Half-life 2 can be an inspiration, because the great feature of HL2 is that the "story puzzles" emerge from an physics engine that allows a lot of "unstory" interaction: tossing objects around. Another example is the puzzle in Amnesia where the player had to "unbaricade" a door. It is a great puzzle because everything is clear to the player: the problem, the purpose, the interaction.
    physics engine interaction combined with "Everything is story" could result in a game experience comparable to "Gone Home".

  9. Please, let us see that you will continue supporting Linux as a platform!

  10. ¿Are those screens interactive displays ala Doom 3? Please tell me they are.

    1. Not exactly like Doom 3, but pretty close. Currently we zoom in on the displays a bit, locked the view and show a mouse. In Doom 3 used them with your cross hair pretty much. Reason for not doing it the D3 way is that some of the displays where small or awkward positions and the normal in-game view was not very good.

  11. "...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."

    Is that even possible to "figure out" what's the core mechanic and the only and optimal strategy ("best course of action") of a game? An optimal strategy indicates that there's no need to figure anything out. Figuring out when and where to hide sounds more like it.

    Ps: I know the article is more talking about how mainstream design makes it so there's a guy behind you to keep saying "you have to hide under the bed nain!!", but that's an even more patronizing situation also caused by breaking out of the mold those games conform to, where the supposed stealth sections come of as a sudden change in what the game plays like for the rest of it.

    1. I suppose he meant it in the sense that the game world, and the events unfolding before you, and your previous experience obtained through the earlier hours of the game should be designed so that they guide your decisions about how to behave in certain situations and during various encounters. If implemented correctly, that can only be a good thing.

    2. A big thing is to get rid of common tropes such as:

      - Enemies being introduced in cut-scene like manners.

      - They have patterns that are obviously meant to be a challenge.

      - They signal weak spots in a very unnatural fashion

      - Environment is clearly built for a specific encounter.

      - Just generally, that an encounter is setup like some sort of arena created specifically to have a battle (weapons or not) with a certain creature.

      And this ties into the notion that players need to be more observant and not just rely on the game telling them when things are becoming dangerous and clearly signal what is dangerous and what is not.

    3. This also provides an opportunity try a new approach in creating dramatic encounters in the game. For example, consider a scenario where the player actually get's attacked by a monster - and yet, there are no obvious week spots, the player has no idea about what to expect, and it appears that the monster is significantly more powerful than the player, and yet the player must somehow struggle for survival (I'm avoiding the term "do battle" on purpose).

      Now, the goal is to make the player feel as if this encounter is really dramatic, and as if the struggle is really hard, and as if the player controls his own actions, while actually, for the duration of the scene, letting the game itself to take over significant portion of the control. So, you would build some kind of special-purpose encounter mechanics, that would analyze the player's actions and execute the scene as long as the player is doing something meaningful, and let the player die if he freezes in place, or does something significantly stupid (given the context), and then somehow integrate that kind of mechanics with the main, general purpose mechanics that appear throughout the game.

      It's kind of "experimental", but I'd really like to see someone try something like that in a game.

    4. @Thomas

      Thank you, I got it now that what you meant was about telegraphing the obvious upcoming events to the players explicit clues like finding an open arena-like place or an obvious hiding spot conveniently placed after having been on a long path without nowhere to hide. I agree with that about realistically functional environments and I'm specially agains "puzzle" confrontations in that aspect.


      Your first paragraph seems to assume the player never played any Video-Game in their entire lives or at most only played Action Power-Fantasies and nothing else. The second part already exists and is more common than you might imagine, but it's also underused because it changes the way the designer controls the experience. As Video-Games are trying too hard to mimic static Fiction of late, dynamic systems are chosen to be left out in favor of the linearity of scripted events and puzzles.

  12. Hey Thomas.Do you exactly know system requiements of Soma?
    I hope Soma requiements are similiar to Amnesia. :)

  13. These real life robots demos almost look like viral videos for SOMA; check it out:

    I understand that the company that made them, Boston Dynamics, was brought recently by Google.

    Pure awesomeness.

    1. And this one:

  14. This may have already been asked/answered, or the answer is right under my nose, but who is writing the story? Is it one person or is it a team? As in, the guy who designs monsters is making a Cthulu type creature, so he wants a pit full of water and water is related to the womb, where consciousness is first born, so the story is edited to speak to that element, etc.

  15. I'm so glad that every monster has an unique AI! What killed Amnesia for me a little was the fact that I knew how the monsters worked. I knew that music signified their presence and state and how to outsmart them (stand on a table for example).

    I'd love it so much to have the music be more dynamic, so not just sudden change to the monster's theme and once the monster is gone the music is too.

    Also love the way you detailed out the environments, the engine looks just as great as it should and I hope the game will have all the customizability and replayability! :)


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