Last week, developer Frictional Games announced that it would soon be adding a 'Safe Mode' to its superb existential deep-sea horror SOMA. At the time, it said that the new mode would enable players to "explore the story without being eaten by monsters". Now, however, it's offered a few more details on how Safe Mode will ultimately unfold.
Speaking to PC Gamer, Thomas Grip, founder of Frictional Games and director of SOMA, explained that Safe Mode won't actually remove the game's monsters. Instead, they'll remain part of the experience, but now, rather than trying to kill you, will react to your presence inquisitively. That's a major difference to the similar fan-made mod Wuss Mode, which made monsters ignore you entirely, robbing them of some of their atmospheric power.
According to Grip, it was crucial that SOMA's monsters still felt like part of the experience in Safe Mode: "We have to think of them as inhabitants of the environment and make their interactions with the player fit the game's atmosphere and story". Importantly, "the fear and tension that comes from those [original monster] encounters are there in order to deliver a certain mood" and SOMA needed to retain the sense "that this was a really unpleasant world to be in, and a lot of the game's themes relied on evoking this."
"So while you can't die [in Safe Mode], the monsters may still be dangerous if you push your luck too much," says Grip. "This means there's still a sense of hostility in these creatures, which preserves the original intention of making the world feel inhospitable and oppressive."
Interestingly, Grip reveals that Frictional had originally considered adding an option to remove enemy encounters prior to launch, although the idea was ultimately abandoned. "We skipped it because we wanted to focus on delivering a certain kind of experience," says Grip, "and we wanted to have a clear message on how exactly the game was supposed to work."
However, according to Grip, the time that's passed since SOMA's original release has allowed the studio to consider its approach more thoroughly, "I think the biggest problem with SOMA is that the experience of meeting the creatures doesn't really add anything to the themes. They help build the atmosphere, but the stories they generate don't have a lot to do with the game's larger themes of identity and consciousness."
The takeaway, says Grip, is that "now it's quite clear to me that we can't keep thinking about monsters as we did in Amnesia: The Dark Descent". The Safe Mode experiment, it seems, has been a success, "I'm actually surprised by how well it all turned out. It fits the game far better than I thought it would when we started working on it. To be honest, it even made me question if this was the way the game should have been released in the first place."
SOMA's Safe Mode launches on December 1st, as an option within the new Xbox One version, and as a free update to the existing PC release. A PS4 update will follow later.