A Critique of SOMA

Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4tbbcWqDyY

 

 

Soma, like many games, can be split into two parts. There’s gameplay. And there’s story. The vast majority of games can be segmented like this. What makes Soma exceptional is which part it executes well. I can’t remember how many times I’ve said to myself “Well the story is terrible but there’s some good gameplay here.” Soma is the opposite. The story here is quite literally outstanding—elevated far from the usual stuff you see in video games. But the gameplay side is a total failure.

For me, that’s okay. I can play some games for the story—as long as that story is good. And just because the gameplay is, in my opinion, a waste of time, doesn’t mean that Soma fails to use interactivity in any meaningful way. There are definitely moments that are made more poignant because it’s being told in a video game, that simply wouldn’t have the same effect in a movie or a book. I’m not saying we should go dig up Roger Ebert so he can play Soma, but this is one of the strongest stories I’ve seen in a game.

Soma is a science fiction, horror game that is not nearly as scary as it may first appear. If you’re easily startled and don’t like that kind of experience then you still may want to avoid it. But the story in this game is worth your time if you play games for that reason. And that’s the end of my spoiler warning.

The beginning of Soma proves how important expectations and tone are when you experience anything. Virtually anyone who plays this game will find out beforehand that it’s meant to be scary. A horror experience. So after the game gets through its introduction and you wake up in the main character’s apartment, you are going to be immediately on edge. You might even ask: What’s Wrong With This Picture? Why does the apartment seem so ominous even though it’s normal?

This may seem like a minor observation—that if you know what genre a movie or a game is ahead of time that you’ll immediately start to anticipate certain things—but it’s important to know for later when we get to how the game starts trying to scare you. That’s well after this introduction because there is nothing lurking in this apartment. Or the subway ride that follows it. Or the eerily empty office that you arrive at.

Let’s rewind for a minute though. Soma is a game about a handful of things but at the center of it all is a man named Simon. He was recently in a car accident that resulted in one of his friends being killed and left him with a terminal brain injury. This is told in a sort of awkward way at the beginning—at first with a nightmare sequence, and then with some forced dialogue after Simon wakes up. The first few minutes of this game are the weakest part of the story. The voice acting is also less than stellar here too, and the only reason I’m pointing that out is so I can commend how much better it gets as the game progresses.

The events here are about Simon going to visit a doctor-in-training that is developing an experimental procedure that could resolve the damage left by the car crash. It’s a chronic bleeding problem in Simon’s brain. The doctor thinks he can use a scanning machine to identify the issue in Simon and then run him through a rapid series of stimuli—basically, put a simulated version of Simon’s brain through a massive amount of different treatments until one works, which can then be used on the real Simon once the simulation confirms that it’s effective.

You can see in this conversation that the game is still awkward here. This exchange didn’t feel natural, especially given the earlier phone call and that Simon should really know all of this already. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter though.

What I want to say about this part is more about me personally. Because it was really surreal at first. This game starts out in Toronto. That’s where I live. The doctor here is a student at York, which is where I went to university. I also have a problem with regular nightmares like Simon appears to suffer from. And my mom died of a brain aneurysm and I’ve had several scans to make sure I didn’t have the same problem. So even though this was a coincidence I felt like the game was screwing with me on a second level in addition to the usual bracing for jump scares because I knew it was a horror game.

This isn’t important for the review of course, but I thought it was funny enough to mention because the game got to me a little more than I think it would have otherwise.

Soma abruptly changes at this point and, arguably, this is where the game properly starts. The brain scan commences and, when it’s over, you’re no longer in the doctor’s office. You’re in some foreign, industrial looking room. It’s dark. You’re alone. You nor Simon have any clue about what’s going on.

This first area gives you a lot of hints about where you’ve been apparently teleported to. There’s some technology that is clearly advanced despite its bulkiness. The corridors are reinforced, imposing, and abandoned. Parts of it are locked away. There are some robots—one of which promptly goes crazy and runs away shortly after you leave it alone. Your vision isn’t functioning as it used to as you can see here, and you’re able to access memories from some places around the area, like you’re hallucinating some sort of ghostly echo of the people that were here before you.

If you’re like me then you’ll immediately guess that this is the “stimuli” that the doctor was talking about. It’s pretty obvious that this is the test he’s running. Somehow it’s resulted in this weird, futuristic base that is a representation of Simon’s brain. The locked passages around you are blocked pathways that need to be opened in his head. Something called structure gel—that appears like black blood that the robots leave behind—represents the bleeding that keeps happening in his brain. The corrupted vision and the broken memories you can access are glitches—twisted versions of his own memories and the friends Simon has, along with the simulation threatening to distort or crash if he becomes too stressed out. The game will be about opening all of these pathways and then defeating whatever personification that the simulation creates to serve as an adversary for the bleeding in his brain, likely linked to the friend that that was killed in the car crash at the start since he’s brimming with guilt about it..

And if you guessed all that, you are completely wrong. Just like I was.

I don’t feel bad about this, and neither should you, because I think this was deliberate. There are two reasons why the narrative gives so much attention to Simon’s life in Toronto at the beginning and this is one of them. Along with opening with a nightmare. It’s misdirection and I think it’s great. It also gives you a reason to accept why you’re suddenly in such a vastly different place because otherwise, really, how the hell did you get here after just being in a doctor’s office? The information you’re finding says that the year is now 2104. There’s seemingly no rational explanation for it.

The real answer involves going through the entire plot of Soma, which is mostly about the events that happened here in the future. The place you’re in is an underwater base called Pathos-II. It’s more of a research base or a factory than Rapture was a city in Bioshock. It has several different Sites that serve different functions, and you’ll go through most of this place throughout the game.

So before we get to that, let’s put the story on hold for a moment. For two reasons. The first is that I think the video will flow better if we can loop back to the story after looking at gameplay. And secondly because I want to show a massive problem that Soma has before spoiling the story, just in case this problem ends up being strangely positive for a lot of you watching. This might convince you to play it yourself before I go on to spoil it.

And that problem is: Soma isn’t really a horror game. It’s not scary in the same ways that a lot of other spooky games are. While I’ve ultimately decided that this is a good thing, it’s abundantly clear to me that this isn’t intentional. Frictional was trying to make Soma a scary, tense experience. And they failed.

This is the main reason why I said earlier that the gameplay in Soma is a waste of time. Because it’s largely about the robotic monsters that you encounter throughout the Pathos-II facility. And the game tries so hard to get you on edge—with the tense, suffocating music. The loud noises and crashing sounds. It tries to assault all of your senses. It’s screaming at you like a nervous dog, HEY BE SCARED, YOU SHOULD BE SCARED RIGHT NOW, ARE YOU SCARED?, instead of actually scaring you.

The enemy robots don’t even LOOK scary. The first time I saw one I ran right up to it to get a better look because I thought it looked COOL, not creepy. It also feels like Frictional realized they weren’t that visually intimidating either, and used that screen tearing effect to make it so you can’t always get a great look at the things and have to fill parts of it with your imagination instead. Again, trying to convince you to be scared instead of being actually scary.

Let’s rewind even further to something that was said near the beginning. Expectations matter a lot. So does the player’s willingness to meet the game on its own terms, which I imagine is a really complicated issue when it comes to designing a game. There will be people who go into horror games with the specific intent to not be scared—because they want to prove to themselves or the world that they aren’t creeped out or are so “rational” or “brave” that the silly game and its silly scares don’t work on them. Or, far more favorably, they simply don’t enjoy being scared and separate themselves so much that they don’t engage with the game on that level and play it for the story or something instead.

The issue Soma has is that you have to meet the game MORE THAN halfway in order to be scared by it. You basically have to roleplay as the Lion from The Wizard of Oz. Because even if you are spooked by the visuals, and find the robots genuinely scary, eventually… you’re going to get caught. And this is the final nail in the underwater coffin that hammers home that you have no reason to be scared of these enemies. Because when you die you come immediately back to life and get to try again with no penalty. Even after a game over you just reload and try again with frequent checkpoints.

The game itself nudges you toward this realization, because at first the gameplay in Soma is basically Hide-and-Seek. You don’t have any weapons or tools or anything to use against the monsters. I’m not saying the game should give you the option to fight them but there’s nothing else to do with them except hide at the beginning.

But later on the game adds a couple of mechanics that really push you to learning that the enemies are simple AI constructs—in video game terms now, not story ones—that you often manipulate or toy with in order to proceed. Like, make a noise to lure the shambling thing to a spot so you can get past. Or lure it to a circular hallway so you can run around it and through the corridor that it was previously blocking. It shows you that you’re actually FASTER than most of the robots so, even if you’re spotted, chances are you can still get away.

These turn the monsters into roaming inconveniences rather than scares. Because they’re not a threat. They’re not interesting. They’re getting in the way of the good stuff instead.

Two examples are the “blind” monster about halfway through the game that is in a dark room with a lot of stuff on the floor. The challenge here is to not trip over any of it so you don’t make a noise. That’s it. Really slow and boring. If you make a mistake you can usually run away and hide again to reset the monster. Even if you don’t, you get to try again immediately if you’re killed.

Or the “Flesher” monster that goes berserk and kills you if you either get too close, or if you look at it. Eye contact sets it off so you’re supposed to look away or down at the floor. It’s like the opposite of SCP-173, or the Boos in Super Mario World. There’s a part where one of these things is roaming between rooms and blocking your path. I got so tired of waiting for its slow movement that I just went crab walking right in there with it, making sure to face away while I bumped into walls and things before making it to the other side. Because the game had taught me that this thing appearing just means stop and look away, and then do nothing until it passes. Not scary. Tedious instead.

At the end here you’re also forced into an encounter with the thing that has the intended solution of running away—canonically proving that Simon is faster than them.

Death being meaningless in horror games is not a problem unique to Soma. It’s a topic I’d like to explore in a future video because I think horror is the best candidate for some compelling experiences that couldn’t be reproduced in other mediums. But it is a glaring flaw in Soma that persists from beginning to end.

The game is sadly more successful with its jump scares. Which aren’t that common. Nor are they that terrifying—which is probably a good thing. Jump scares are cheap and have a misleading name. They’re more Jump Startles, since that’s all they’re good for. In Soma these are sudden loud noises. Things breaking apart. Abrupt crashes. That sort of thing. They’re the most effective part of that assault on your senses that I mentioned earlier.

For the other times—your screen starts to fizzle in warning when you’re in danger. This warning that something was nearby became a trigger for me to be annoyed rather than frightened. It was an announcement that one part of the game was over and that it was now “Monster Time”. Soma is split quite artificially like that. You rotate between a clumped together experience of Puzzles, Exploration, and Story. And then over to Monster Hide-and-Seek.

Most of the puzzles are okay. Some are too simple. A few feel like you’re actually messing with computer menus instead of playing a game. And there’s one puzzle which stands out to me as one of the best moments in Soma. Exploring is engaging as long as you like that sort of thing in games—more Walking-and-Looking parts, with things to find that you can read, listen to, or inspect for yourself. There’s not an immense amount of environmental storytelling here—although occasionally the game does do a good job with it. Especially in some of the later sites with the corpses left around.

It’s the story told more directly with Simon and another character you meet that succeeds more than anything else here. So let’s return to that now. With us being confused about how we traveled through time from present day Toronto to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in 2104.

Things become weirder before you’re given any answers. Or introduced to another character that isn’t a memory trapped in the panels around you. There’s this strange mix of mechanical and organic growth that might make you think about that first robot that went nuts and ripped itself free at the beginning, leaving a trail of what we can call blood behind it. That structure gel.

You discover that this part of Pathos-II is used to generate power. You make contact with Catherine, who is in another part of the facility and is seemingly safe and detached from whatever catastrophe occurred here. You bring the power back online and, guided by Catherine, have your first solid goal: to reach a communication centre so you can better speak with her.

A few things happen here that are important. First, just so you can understand the context of what I showed earlier, this is where you meet your first robot enemy. The shuffling thing with the spotlight which is a reasonably clever way of letting the player know that you want to stay out of sight—or out of the light in this case. This was the robot that I ran up to get a better look at and really I feel sorry for this thing. It seems so pathetic and incapable of doing anything. It’s like the Eeyore of crazy killer robot monsters.

You lock it away when you reach the next area and it just wanders around hopeless for a while I guess.

There’s another robot here that’s friendly. It’s stuck on some sort of thing that looks like an assembly line. The strange thing about this one though is that it doesn’t know it’s a robot. It thinks it’s a human that can’t get up because it’s injured. And it can’t be convinced otherwise no matter how many times Simon tries to explain what he’s seeing.

This part is great for two reasons. The first is that it’s unusual enough to get you wondering about what’s going on. It’s also a little creepy. Parts of the story in this game are much more horrific than any of the monsters in my opinion and this begins right here, and builds gradually the more you play. It’s one of the biggest things that Soma does right.

The other reason this interaction is great is that it will likely make a lot of players think “How could this guy not realize that he’s a robot? How can he not tell?” Because there’s a revelation shortly after this that reveals you’re in the exact same situation.

Let’s address that directly now. How the hell does the game explain how you go from this:

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To this:

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So in the hundred or so years that pass after Simon’s first brain scan, this technology that the doctor-in-training is testing becomes the foundation for many advancements. Among those are Artificial Intelligence—although far from what you typically see in science fiction. And the ability to Copy and Paste a consciousness from one source to another. And that distinction is really important. It’s not CUT and Paste. It’s COPY and Paste.

Because Simon’s scan was collected in the early, experimental phase, it’s been used and iterated upon many times—which is one of many subtle details that becomes terrifying when you think about it after finishing the game. Essentially, even in the future, Simon’s stored and copied consciousness is still relevant because he was involved so soon in the project. He’s kept under a “Legacy” section here.

A lot has happened in these hundred years and this is the beginning of what I think is one of Soma’s greatest strengths. It’s not just about one thing. Or one specific idea that’s been popularized in science fiction. It’s not just an underwater research facility—it also deals with the idea of what makes a consciousness—or even a soul—and how that might cause problems if it’s placed into the wrong sort of body. It’s not just about a central AI that goes functionally crazy—there’s this infected, plagued version of technology that’s constricting and consuming everything throughout the facility like a cancer. And on top of this, this isn’t just a grim dark future that Simon wakes up in. It’s also a post-apocalyptic one.

This is one of two major events that has caused a lot of Pathos-II to go to hell. A comet has crashed into Earth and wiped out all life on the surface. You discover this in pieces—reading on terminals mostly—about how the efforts to deflect the comet failed. That the underwater facility was protected from the impact but they’re now stranded and lost at the bottom of the Atlantic. The facility is more or less self-sufficient. But more or less isn’t exactly uplifting when the rest of the species just got incinerated.

I really like this amalgamation of science fiction plot devices. And that, in a way, you play as one. A walking, talking one as Simon. A copy of his consciousness was placed into the body that you inhabit here. Because the AI on Pathos-II—the Warden Unit that they unfortunately call The WAU—has taken it upon itself to preserve all human life, whatever form that might take, in response to armageddon. Like I said this AI isn’t really one that’s seen in a lot of movies and games. It doesn’t speak or think really. So AI might not strictly be the best word for it. It can solve problems and make decisions but it’s still following directives that limit what it can do. It’s just sort of twisted its interpretation of them in response to the world ending.

This might not be all that comprehensible yet because I’m avoiding one part of the story until we reach the next area and meet Catherine. Despite all these different plot points and details about the setting, at a focused level Soma is all about exploring the idea of what it means to be human. And the unsettling implications that Human might not be the most important word that defines us.

Soma brilliantly sets up the player to be open to the idea of consciousness being more important than a body in three ways. The first is that confused robot we saw earlier. The second is Simon’s perception eventually correcting itself and realizing that he’s not in a human body. And the third is Catherine. Who is a perfectly normal sounding human woman that you want to meet—another person that can help you and speak to you and work with you, who will have answers and can explain what’s going on! And then you meet her and she’s another broken robot stuck on the floor.

This time it’s different though. Catherine knows what she is and she doesn’t seem to care all that much. She understands what’s happening and has accepted it. And the lead up to this conversation, where it’s properly revealed that Simon isn’t the same Simon we started with, is really great in my eyes. The robot thought he was human. You and Simon both thought you were human. You thought Catherine was human. And this eases you into concluding that maybe you weren’t wrong. The human body might not be there but it’s still a person. They’re still alive. Still a consciousness. You treated Catherine like a person before you saw her. Just like you think I’m human even though I’m only a voice coming through Youtube right now. Is the body really that important?

And that’s the framework needed to understand the true horror lurking in Soma.

The final piece here is the player’s goal. Which is also not so neatly intertwined with a lot of the other things we just spoke about. Before she was stuffed into a robot, Catherine was leading the only project that had given the survivors in Pathos-II any sense of hope or purpose. She didn’t start it for that reason, but it became the only thing keeping most of the last humans going—in their bleak, isolated life in the water that kept them safe from the fires on the surface.

This is another science fiction idea that’s been used before. Catherine was working on a simulated reality that could be populated by scanned versions of the surviving humans. It could be a second world for them to inhabit and live on—an Ark that would be a backup plan if the people in Pathos-II were to die, taking what was left of the human race with them.

This Ark was to be launched into space with the intended purpose of flying on forever, powered by solar batteries. This was a romantic enough idea to get the survivors working toward completing the goal. With some taking to it far more obsessively than others.

The tragedy here, and what functions as the second important trigger for Simon to be brought into Soma’s main plot, is an important detail I mentioned earlier. These brain scans are COPY and paste. Not CUT and paste. There’s a good comic by WHOMP that represents this fairly well. It’s a common enough idea that’s been explored in hypotheticals about being uploaded to a robot body or some virtual utopia.

The issue starts here: some people on Pathos-II, clearly disturbed by the comet’s impact, started thinking about the Ark project as a way out. Some didn’t understand the difference between Cut and Copy. Others did, but convinced themselves that, if they were to die shortly after the transfer was made, that they would functionally be transferred into the next world instead of being left behind when their new copy lives on.

This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense but, considering the situation these people were in and that the idea of what comprises a consciousness isn’t fully accepted, you can sort of understand where they’re coming from. Sort of, I guess. Their situation is sympathetic at least.

So after Catherine scans a lot of people and a handful of them kill themselves, this causes the WAU to freak out. Its directives are to preserve what little human life is left. Now some of these details aren’t explicitly clear, but the general idea is that the WAU recognizes both traditional human life and the copied versions on virtual space as worth protecting. I think it’s also implied that it eventually decides that the computerized versions of people are worth even more since they’re easier to protect and maintain. The virtual copies can’t hurt the original versions. But the physical humans sure can destroy the computer ones.

So using its influence throughout the facility and structure gel, it spreads and ensures that the humans are safe. By forcing them to live on in some instances, or by experimenting with different ways to give them better bodies by transferring copied humans into robots. Which is why we have people confused about what they are and think they’re human, or are roaming monsters that have gone crazy. These are the WAU’s successes and failures. Some are better fits to the robot bodies than others and acclimate better to the change, even if it requires the consciousness filling in the gaps and lying to itself so it can resolve those conflicts—which is why Simon saw himself as a person at first. Just like the injured robot did near the beginning.

Some of these beings are also twisted attempts by the WAU at keeping traditional human bodies alive. The structure gel—the black blood we saw at the start—is like an all-purpose substance that’s used to repair or construct things. It can mesh robotics with organic matter, which is how the more creative looking monster people came to exist.

It’s important to know that all of this information is given to you in a steady drip through the first two thirds of the game. It’s not like you show up here and Catherine says “let me tell you the story of my people” and then starts blasting techno music. She confirms that you’re not the same Simon but she doesn’t know why or how you got into your current body until a few hours later. When you learn that you’re a mix of both machine and human—a fusion of one of the dead people at Pathos-II and a WAU experiment. It’s also why you can access those memories around the facility: you’re able to intuitively access the last audio file at each location, whether that’s a terminal panel or the neural implant every worker had in case they got into trouble in the dangerous environment so far underwater. It also explains why your vision tears, because it’s a malfunctioning camera. Not eyes.

What’s unfortunate about this journey to each of the different sites of Pathos-II is that everything I just explained is the good stuff. And I’ll have a few examples to back that up in just a moment. It’s the interruptions that are bad and it’s not just the monsters, although they are the biggest problem for reasons I already went into.

Ironically it feels like Frictional was of two minds when they were developing this game. There’s the half that wanted to craft this really thoughtful, slow burning thriller experience. So you have some great dialogue, exploration with some impressive visuals and pieces of story to collect and understand—with actual answers to almost every question. And then you have the other half that wanted an intense experience. Not just with the monsters but with train car crashes, and parts of the facility bursting open, and so many loud noises after so much time spent in the quiet.

Which is a real shame because it was those quiet moments that I enjoyed the most, and they succeeded far more with their own kind of tension. Feeling lost at the bottom of the ocean. Wondering what might be coming next as you drift from one site to another on a platform. And another, even better version of this when you take the long elevator ride down to a much deeper part of the ocean. An event that carries weight because you had to spend time preparing a new body to withstand the pressure when you got much further down. And once you reach here, you have the best part of all for an intense experience. When you feel like you’re so vulnerable in this alien place. Exposed as you wander through it hoping you’re going the right way. And it doesn’t resort to any of the jump scares or shoving stuff in your face to achieve that.

The reason you’re going through all of these areas is the goal that Simon and Catherine set for themselves: to find the Ark full of virtual copies of all of the humans on the base, upload themselves onto it, and then launch it into space. This is far more humble than a save-the-world ending and more inline with making some last ditch, token effort to do something instead of sitting around sulking. They have no other options really… Or maybe they do. We’ll get back to this.

So as you try to find the Ark, you go through a series of sections in the game: story, exploration, hide-and-seek, intense scripted sequence. And these keep rolling along until the end of the game, with the story having some cool moments. The exploration being more enjoyable than in most games. The hide-and-seek parts always being a chore. And the scripted sections occasionally being exciting but mostly not really.

There are two things that I want to focus on in Soma that I think illustrate how the game uses interactivity to give the player a unique experience. Or something close to it. Something that I think couldn’t really be replicated in a book or film. Or at least it wouldn’t have the same impact.

The first is the game’s most compelling puzzle. Which, like many in the game, is presented as more of a problem instead of a screen announcing it’s puzzle time. This is a little over halfway into the game. You need a passcode to unlock the way forward. And the only people who know what it is are dead.

Except that Catherine made a copy of almost everyone. This part of the facility has her workshop—which is, coincidentally, where you learn how it is that a copy of your consciousness was available to be put into a body by the WAU when it started trying to create new people. You collect the necessary components, and identify the right person who would know the passcode, to create a simulation so you can ask the person for the information. Once you grasp the idea it’s pretty straightforward. Especially if you’ve been paying attention as you play the game.

For me, I started this simulation the first time without much thought. And it wasn’t until it began to run and the guy inside the computer was confused and borderline scared that I realized what I had done. Or rather I realized that the solution to this puzzle wasn’t that simple.

And so began many attempts, guided by Catherine, to create an artificial environment in order to convince this guy that he’s safe. That he ISN’T in a simulation after all, and that he’s relaxed enough to give over the passcode.

This is twisted enough as it is, since it involves tracking down different backgrounds to use to make him more at ease. And then raiding his private quarters for information so Catherine can fake the presence of his girlfriend within the simulation so that he trusts her—with a fabricated voice to go along with an equally fake model. But the real horror of this part snuck up on me slowly. With layers that I didn’t really grasp until I thought about it hours later.

The game laid down the foundation for you to accept that each consciousness is a person in its own right. If you don’t accept this, then you can’t really resolve anything about you—the player character—and your actions. They hold no meaning. No weight. And I don’t know why you’d even continue playing the game if that was the case.

If you got to this point then, I’d say it’s fair that you’re buying into this idea. The minds in the robots you find might be confused, but they’re no less real than yours. Just like Catherine is real too. The only difference between her and the other robots is that she’s sane.

So each time that you run this simulation, you are effectively bringing this person to life. A new version. Each time. And then snuffing their existence out permanently when you’re done.

For him, this transition from being scanned in the chair to being interrogated, is just as smooth and sudden as YOUR transition from the chair in Toronto to the room in Pathos-II. And it’s so beautifully twisted when you think about it. Because you can try the simulation as many times as you like until you get it right. Hell I thought giving him a tropical beach background would make him more relaxed, to make him think he was in the Ark, so he’d be open to speaking.

And each time I was trying something like that, I was both resurrecting a dead person, and then killing them again seconds later. Before doing it again. And again. Chair to scan to simulation every time. And the amount of times I did it was determined by how quick or clever I was in identifying what pieces I should use so he would be cooperative. Each player will do this a different amount of times. Each player will bring this guy back to life and kill him a different amount of times.

The deeper horror here is the realization that there must be thousands or even tens of thousands of different Simons that have experienced the same thing. Which is something I didn’t think about until I was finished with the game. His scan was used as the foundation for so many experiments. You can find old audio logs with the original Simon agreeing to let the doctor-in-training use the scans for this reason—something with consequences that he didn’t understand when he went along with it.

It’s been about a hundred years. Imagine how many times there’s been a Simon that’s been booted up and poked at. How many simulations like the one you just ran for the passcode. How many other Simons had a far different transition from the scanning chair to something far more shortlived, or maybe even far longer and more horrific—something that might be even close to torture while the technology was being tweaked. Even the original intention, to flood simulated Simons with stimuli to find a treatment, becomes terrifying. All because the wannabe doctor here didn’t realize his scan was functionally another consciousness.

This is something I think about more than I care to admit. In part because I write science fiction, but also because it’s been brought up in the news a bit lately. Some people way smarter than you and me have proposed that the chances are fairly high that we’re in a simulation right now. Ultimately it doesn’t matter because the simulation is so good that it functions identically to reality as we know it but…

…well, think about it the other way. Think of the sorts of things we could discover or mysteries we could solve if we could run a literal one-to-one recreation of our history. If some technology that would look like magic to us so far in the future could process such a simulation. I’ve always thought of this being something time travelers would do—send back probes that could catalogue and record our entire history to have the Primary Source to end all Primary Sources about what happened throughout the entire lifespan of the human race. A simulation could do that. It could also do a lot of other things after you achieve the first one as a baseline. And if the way people have tinkered around with the guys in Dwarf Fortress is any indication to go on, it’s a deeply disturbing thought. It calls into question all sorts of things that should be impossible. Just like we were just screwing with this guy here to get something as boring as a passcode. Imagine the more… creative… possibilities that could exist here.

Maybe this is too far out there though. Especially for this video. Let’s get back to Soma.

The other way the game builds on this idea is with two parts, but they’re linked in my mind so I’m going to count them as one conjoined piece. Near the end of the game you have to build the stronger body I mentioned earlier—to withstand the higher pressure deeper in the ocean. Your consciousness has to be transferred into that new body. Which… well I’m sure you see where this is going.

Simon is not the smartest person in the world. I’ve read some explanations for this. Some say that he’s been through a lot, and being plucked from one life into another one so alien that to him it may as well not count as being on Earth at all, is enough to understand why he has trouble grasping concepts that the player probably won’t. There’s even one of the best lines in the game that hints at this. It’s a really thoughtful take on another, more human perspective on consciousness and what’s happening to him.

<knew who I was in Toronto speech>

The other explanation is that this copy of the consciousness isn’t as well integrated into the robotic body as it could have been, so it has limited intelligence compared to how well Catherine functions. Personally I think the guy is just a bit slow.

Either way this doesn’t bother me much because you’re not limited by what he thinks or says. The handful of decisions you make are still in your control. It’s worth bringing up though because Simon doesn’t ever grasp the COPY and Paste part. To the point that Catherine has to lie to him to make him proceed. She explains the transfer as a coin flip: that there’s a fifty-fifty chance that you’ll end up in the new body or left behind in the old one.

In reality you’re always left behind. The copy and transfer are done at the same time and are written into the new body. This is just her way of placating him.

In this scene, you actually become a new Simon. You go through the same process you did in the chair in Toronto. Only this go around there’s no time lapse. It’s immediate. So when you start moving around, you hear the old Simon sitting in the chair wondering why he wasn’t transferred. You can go and look at him—look at you. The version that you just were and are now a new copy of. A copy of a copy.

I think that having just been in control of the old version and then being pushed into a new one, with your control shifting and being taken away from the other Simon, is a really strong moment for a game. This could and has been done in movies and books—hell even I’ve done something like it—but I think so much is added to this scene by having the player control it all. It’s a much more powerful shift because it’s your actual perspective that moves, instead of seeing a clone of a character with the same actor on a screen or something like it. And that the old version carries on without you, and you have to think about what you just were and who took control of that person away from you now that you’re not with them anymore.

The end of the game has a similar moment that is, in my opinion, less powerful. You arrive at the space gun—which is one of the main functions of Pathos-II—and load the Ark to fire it. Catherine lies to Simon again that they’ll be transferred into the Ark just before it fires. This countdown then expires and, of course, the copies of Simon and Catherine get to fly off into space. This time our perspective doesn’t change. We experience the other side of the transfer for this one. We’re the ones left behind.

The game ends with Simon screaming in the dark. Just like the other Simon we abandoned earlier must go through when he wakes up later.

There’s a post-credits scene that is surprisingly happy. The Ark makes it to space. You fly off. You have a short scene on the Ark as the other Simon who is too stupid to see through Catherine’s white lies. There’s no subtle hint that the Ark is corrupted or anything. Nothing is wrong with it—at least not that I could tell. By now you should have fully accepted the idea that these people are “alive” so this is a victory. A strange, albeit minor one since Earth is ruined. But still a victory.

I don’t like this ending. Not because it’s optimistic or anything. I feel that it deflates and doesn’t capitalize on the potential of the story. I think I’ve made it clear at this point how much Soma’s story succeeds—especially in that the true horror is in these narrative moments instead of gameplay ones. Conceptually it’s a fitting end that our third generation Simon—in our line anyway—ends up alone and probably dead at the bottom of the ocean. And for a while I was happy with that moment of dread being the end of the game before the tease after the credits.

But the more I think about it the more I wish the game went further. I get anxious when I make suggestions because they change a lot of the game. I don’t think it’s truly fair to propose changes like this but after criticizing so many games and thinking about them I can’t help but do it sometimes and hope that it’s constructive. Especially with Soma, since I’ve already said too many times that the monsters in the game fail.

There’s another event before finding the space gun. It’s like the end to the other half of the game. You reach the heart of the Warden Unit and, guided by one of the crazy but maybe not that crazy robot monsters, destroy the AI. It’s not a very good moment in the game and drove home to me how much I would have preferred Soma if everything to do with the WAU and its monsters were gone, and the story was different instead. The Ark could still exist but it could have been people experimenting with creating robot bodies instead of an AI. With all the work required by Frictional to make the monsters saved for something else, that development time could have been spent on different interactions with people and sites around Pathos-II that explore more of the ideas surrounding what makes a consciousness.

The game could have continued on after the Ark for another hour or two with a different ending with Simon finally understanding. And working on resolving some of the issues in the base… because things aren’t strictly hopeless. Pathos-II was almost self-sufficient and, with the notes you can find in some of the bases showing that they could resort to catching fish for food, you can begin to see how humanity didn’t have to go extinct after all.

The main plot could have been about Catherine and the others splicing together new people from bits and pieces of different scans. Simon could be one of the first ones they make from the Legacy section. And there could still be a lot of scares here to explore if some of the hybrid scans don’t turn out as well as they hoped. This would effectively be a way that Catherine tries to repopulate the planet with robot bodies that can withstand the wrecked conditions on the surface. Or the people creating multiple copies of themselves for a bigger workforce, and how different factions comprised of multiples OF THE SAME PEOPLE could form. There’s a lot of cool potential for a story here.

Played now, there are moments in the game that require the player to make a choice. Some of these aren’t as clearly presented to you as others. There’s other stuff like that in the game too: the game screws with your head a bit. Corpses will move when you leave a room and come back to it. This bloodied door is closed when you first arrive at this area. Later it’s open, like something got out. Little things like this, which are ultimately meaningless for scares or dangers, is something you might not even notice. I’m sure there are a couple that I didn’t catch. They contributed a lot to the feeling of unease for me, and was a much more effective way of creeping me out rather than monsters and jump scares. And I have to wonder if they’re still effective even if you’re not consciously aware of them.

The choices you can make involve killing the last human you find on life support—she asks to be killed. You can also kill your old self after you’re copied and pasted into the new body. You’re also given the choice to kill a living robot or a helper drone in one part so you can salvage a piece of tech from them to proceed. These choices don’t change anything but they still made me stop and think, and the potential was there for some really thoughtful situations if the story had been built around them. More interactions and decisions instead of hide-and-seek with monsters. More conversations and goals about finding a solution to the last humans being stuck at the bottom of the ocean, instead of destroying a misguided AI.

Soma is a great experience even if I question how successful it is as a game. In the end I can’t help but wonder how much of it was lost by forcing monsters into the story, like it wasn’t confident enough to stand on its own. Which is a real shame because, even sort of mangled as it is today, it still managed to be something special.

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3 thoughts on “A Critique of SOMA

  1. That was an excellent piece, thank you very much!

    After playing the game, watching some related material and looking through the _supersecret.rar file that ships with it, I wonder if the making of the game isn’t a bit different from how you described it. You said that it felt like the silly monster hide-and-seek was added later on, basically “because we need to have monsters”. But it seems plausible to me that the game started out as a monster hide-and-seek, and maybe only ended up with the amazing story it has later on, perhaps even “by accident”.

    It seems that the original title for the game was just going to be “Depth”, and it seems plausible that after Amnesia they just wanted to make another, similar horror game, but in a new setting, namely under water. Under water means it has to be the future. Then you need an antagonist, and because it’s the future, that’s going to be an evil AI. Then you need to explain why you’re alone, so maybe that’s where the apocalypse came in. But now you need a way to resolve the story, and maybe it’s only here where the idea of copying consciousnesses came from, which then neatly provided a way to start the whole thing off via the initial brain scan. Now all the interesting stuff about mind and body emerges, and “soma” is a more fitting title.

    All this seems more likely to me (esp. given the early development bonus content showing the clear horror-only focus just like Amnesia), at least more likely than them coming up with the pure sci-fi story first and then adding monsters afterwards to make the game more horror-like.

    Like

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