Tuesday 22 September 2015

SOMA Has Been Released!

The day has finally come. What started out as a vague idea back in 2010 has finally become an actual game. It's been quite the journey to get here, and we're all really proud of what we've achieved. SOMA is now available on Windows, Mac, Linux and PS4!

Our most important goal for SOMA was to create a game that delivered a different kind of fear. In Amnesia the horror came from a more primal feeling, from things like being hunted by monsters. This time we wanted to evoke something deeper. We wanted the sense of dread and terror come from thinking about disturbing subjects dealing with consciousness and what makes us human. Achieving this turned out to be really hard, and it's what made the game take so long to finish.

So it's been incredible to get reviews like these:

“In the 10 or so hours it took me to finish SOMA I was hooked for the entire experience, from shocking beginning to one of the best game endings I’ve seen since Portal. SOMA will destroy you emotionally, and that’s a very good thing indeed. - GameWatcher

SOMA succeeds at crafting something much more meaningful in a genre that’s deserving of more than just simple jump scares. - GameSpot

I’ve never played a game that’s affected me as much as SOMA, and to be honest I’m not sure I want to ever again, although I’m very glad I did. It has the DNA of movies like Alien, 2001, Sunlight, and Event Horizon, with a splash of the original Dead Space and Bioshock, but brings plenty of new ideas to the table. It makes you think about what it means to be alive, and indeed how you classify life, and is a brilliant example of just how far video games have evolved.” - TheSixthAxis

“The best horror sticks with you long after the credits roll, an uneasy feeling that lingers uncomfortably in the moments before you fall asleep. I’ve been thinking about what happened in SOMA for days now, especially the game’s closing minutes, and can’t let it go. Just thinking about it makes me sick to my stomach. If that’s not a sign of success, I’m not sure what is.”  - Kotaku

Now we're eager to hear what all of you think of the game! Our aim is to evoke a long-lasting sense of dread, and to leave you with disturbing questions that keep coming back to haunt you. If we've succeeded, please tell us all about it!

Finally, we'd like to say thanks to everybody who has supported us over the years! We hope we can continue to fuel your nightmares long into the future!

Thursday 17 September 2015

SOMA - Behind The Sound

How do you design sound for a game that takes place miles under the ocean in an abandoned complex with a plot that deals with the perception of reality? The answer is... experimentation!

My name’s Samuel Justice, I’m audio director on SOMA where I lead a team of 6 fantastic folk to help create the audio for the universe of SOMA.

SOMA is an audio designer’s dream. Horror games are well known to give room for sound to breathe and live, which is why sound is so memorable in many horror titles. When you couple this with a rich and diverse universe such as lies behind SOMA, the audio potential is endless. This is something we really wanted to play with.

For those of you who don’t know, SOMA takes place in two very distinct sonic spaces, underwater and the non-underwater world of Pathos-II. What we were really after was to establish two very different and unique soundscapes: the underwater soundscape and the “air” soundscape. From the get-go we knew that these two soundscapes had to contrast with each other heavily, so if we were to turn off the visuals, you could instantly tell where you were. We also developed some new and very special systems to tie into these worlds.

I could go on for far longer than you’d want about how we approached the sound in SOMA, but instead I thought I’d pick out some audio treats that we hope you’ll like.

SOMA deals with many interesting themes, but the main focus is on what it means to be a living, breathing, conscious entity. From the start we decided to take that description and run with it for the “air” soundscape, where everything is heavily grounded in reality. The world of Pathos-II sounds dirty, gritty, crumbly. When walking through the corridors of Upsilon we want you to feel cold and lonely through the sound alone and when you hear something that doesn’t sound quite human in the distance, that still needs to sound realistic and grounded.

To achieve this we introduced a new system which was never given a formal name, but we’ll call it the room size system for now. What this allows us to do is read how large a room is and play content relative to the size of the space - one prime example is the player’s own sounds. A recent tweet went out saying that SOMA featured over 2000 footstep sounds, and this is due to the room size system. Instead of recording a bunch of footsteps on various surfaces, our foley artist Tapio Liukkonen actually went out and scouted for interesting-sounding locations of varying size.

This is where the footsteps were recorded, so when you’re running through a large hall, you’re actually hearing the sound of a large hall, none of it faked through reverbs or other processing (which can end up taking away some of the life of the sound). Instead you get the air and size of real spaces. This might sound like a minor detail, but in a game about exploration and discovery, this lends itself massively to a sense of reality when roaming the halls and corridors of Pathos-II.

So how about underwater? Again, we wanted this to be grounded in reality, so instead of processing various sounds or making them muffled, we opted for recording a huge amount of fresh content with underwater microphones (known as hydrophones) and contact microphones (special microphones that only pick up vibrations in objects rather than the air). This gave us a huge palette of interesting yet grounded textures to play with.

Here is a clip showing Tapio during a recording session:

One example is a sequence where the player has to climb out of a vessel, in the audio clip you can hear the squeaking and interesting sounds made by the player that you wouldn’t really capture from a regular microphone.

Another cool feature for the underwater environment that we introduced was that we wanted all of Simon’s sounds to be binaural - his footsteps, his diving suit and even his speech. So when we recorded his dialogue at SIDE studios in London, we requested a special setup that recorded all his lines Binaurally as well as normally for the underwater dialogue. That means that if you play the game with headphones - you will feel as though you’re in the helmet with Simon, wandering the depths of ocean floor.

Another very interesting topic we could talk about are the many variety of creatures in the game and the unique systems created to make them feel hofrrifically real and pant-wettingly scary… but some things are best left a secret :)

For the voiceover implementation and processing of the game, we turned to Kpow Audio, a small team of 2 from Australia responsible for the amazing sound in games such as L.A. Noire and The Banner Saga. Here’s what they had to say about their experience:

"The job of processing the SOMA dialogue was fairly wide-ranging: we had underwater helmets; audio logs of all different shapes, sizes and conditions; public address systems; video postcards; dispatch messages; a host of robotic devices and more. The audio team have done an amazing job at creating an audio environment that balances impact and authenticity, and it was obvious from the start of our involvement that the dialogue needed that same balance.

To imbue our own work with this type of authenticity, we tried – wherever possible – to recreate the signal paths described on screen. Due to the huge variation in speaker types and placements in SOMA, our first step was to record a unique set of Impulse Responses, capturing the behaviour and tone of a number of different speakers, which could then be applied to sounds in post production. The speakers were then recorded inside different metal objects, to recreate the numerous resonant environments found within SOMA's sprawling landscape. These “enclosed” reverb responses were also used to produce the underwater helmet effects found throughout the game.

The same technique was employed in a more direct way as we piped large portions of the dialogue out of the speakers and rerecorded the results in a process called “re-airing”, a technique used for many years in the film world. Compared to digital processing this is a very labour intensive approach, but the ear immediately recognises the results as “real”, so the effort is often more than justified.

By far the biggest component of our work was spent on the historical blackbox recordings of life aboard the aquatic facility in which the player finds themselves. Predominantly made of conversations between the crew, these recordings provide insight into the backstory of the game. The initial direction we got from the team was toward the style of a period radio play, and this most accurately describes their function in the game. They operate as live action, casting the player as a silent witness to past events, and as historical documents. The dramatic narrative and the locational positioning have to be conveyed simultaneously. To support the narrative, many of these recordings play back in stereo, which draws them outside of the world slightly. A major focus became describing the different locations of the characters. One might be in a diving suit underwater, talking to a dispatcher in a small dry room, via a submerged intercom. Successfully enunciating these differences was very much a team effort. We received amazing foley tracks from Tapio Liukkonen, which took the conversations from being a collection of disassociated vocal recordings and gave them character and a physical presence. All this was then processed to fit the device it was playing through, which was in turn given the reverberant character of the room in which it was being emitted.

Tapio's foley room

This process could happen multiple times when numerous locations, emitters and recording devices were present in the one scene. Often one speaker would be run-down, whilst another in the conversation was new at the time the recording was made.

A huge array of tools were employed to get the right tone for these recordings. Often we turned to more traditional analogue processing such as guitar pedals, outboard compression, tube saturation, analogue filters, tape delay and some very dusty, old digital effects units to give us the fuzzy, squelching distortion we were after. As much is it's fun plugging in the “toys”, this gear was vital in imparting authenticity to the sound….still, I won't pretend it wasn't fun.

Of course, a huge amount of back-end work went into ensuring the processed dialogue and Foley behaved correctly in game. Tuning the various behaviours and in-game effects is very much the glue that ties the audio to the world and makes it believable in an interactive environment.

Looking at the project as a whole, our goals were to impart a sense of history, to communicate the drama of the backstory, whilst at the same time give life to the technology and inner workings of their surroundings. Suits, speakers, microphones, broken cables and half heard conversations, all with their own unique character, but also needing a strong sense of consistency across the game.

Hopefully we have achieved this and added something positive to the project and the experience of the players.”

Because of the approaches we took, the final SFX count for SOMA is slightly eye-watering, clocking in at a little over 18,000 SFX files (not including voiceover and music). SOMA was a fantastic project for us to all to work on, we were extremely happy with the end result and we hope you enjoy listening to the game as much as you do playing it!

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.