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Feature: Horror from philosophy: SOMA's director thinks games can do better than 'monster chases player'


This article has some spoilers for SOMA. So. Go and play SOMA, I suppose.

Horror, as a genre, is a bit of weird one. On the one hand people are not all horrified by the same things, but on the other there are some reliable cues that always put people on edge, because we’re still close enough to apes that we have some primal reaction buttons left to push. I went to see a play called Ghost Stories (now a movie) almost a decade ago and still remember how frightening it was because, amongst other things, the creators knew they could play a low bass tone over the speakers and make the entire audience uneasy on demand. 

Likewise a jump scare will make almost anyone jump and go ‘Ah!’ because when something unexpected appears alongside a blast of screeching violins you’re going to go ‘Ah!’. There’s even a specific name for when the thing that jumps out is something harmless and not a monstrous demon from the pit. It’s called a cat scare because it’s usually a cat, or the spring-loaded cat because it’s usually a cat that’s clearly been chucked into shot. Sometimes it’s called the Lewton Bus because this was done to great effect with a bus in the 1942 film Cat People, produced by Val Lewton. I mention this a lot because I love the demonstration that our instincts override everything else before we work out it’s just a cat. We have a lot of the animal in us still. 

SOMA was originally released by Frictional Games in 2015, but came to Xbox One with a Safe Mode, where the monsters can’t kill the player, in December last year. Thomas Grip, founding member and creative director of Frictional as well as SOMA’s director, thinks that there will always be room for jump scares in horror because they make the player fear what might be behind the next corner, and work as a sort of substitute for the standard fear of death. ‘However, if you base your whole game – or movie, for that matter – around them,’ he says, ‘It tends to get stale.’