VIDEO GAMES, 2016: Soma
All through 2015 and 2016 I thought I was going to be regularly updating this thing, but there’s “always something,” which in most cases means “I’m an adult with a full-time job and a garden who travels a lot.” Unfortunately that means that I haven’t been writing, even if it does mean that I got to eat some pretty great salads. Fortunately, I recently declined to contribute to this year’s The Revenge of 31 Days of Horror Games because I don’t really play very many video games anymore which require turning on something other than my phone. Even more fortunately, I then played SOMA, a game which frustrated me so much that I thought it might be worth breaking down what about it does and doesn’t work - mostly, it’s things that don’t. The game seemed to be relatively lauded when it came out, and I loved Frictional’s Amnesia, so I was pretty excited for this under the sea horror adventure. What a sad thing life is.
That’s not just an idle joke; That’s kind of what the theme of SOMA is, which it pursues with all the enthusiasm of two incredibly drunk college students discussing The Matrix. I have a lot of issues with how the game chooses to dramatize this concept, and seriously think it’s worth considering whether or not the epistemology of human identity is even worth exploring in a video game. Of course, there’s some things that SOMA also happens to do incredibly well, and it’s worth approaching the game up front by looking into what it does well before considering how it takes all of those elements and causes them to fall apart. Spoilers for the game, which I will be completely honest about: You could probably watch a series of youtube videos and get the exact effect you’d get from playing through it (but don’t do that; game developers need to eat.)
First, those nice things
SOMA is incredibly good at building its physical space. The underwater station of PATHOS-II where the game takes place is a believable, well-designed environment that looks like it was designed and inhabited by humans, with the constraints of the atmospheric pressure the station lives under. The concept of the station itself is kind of a neat little sci-fi idea: An underwater station manned by a crew of around 30-50 people who operate what is essentially a railgun to launch satellites, taking advantage of the depth of the ocean floor to reach escape velocity as soon as the payload breaches the surface. There are the requisite research laboratories and the game cleverly doesn’t dole out information about PATHOS-II’s full function until after a decent fake out period where it could be be any environment: A space station, a geothermal plant, just a research facility. The fact that you’re underwater is played as a reveal, where a door opens up into a gigantic glass tube, and suddenly you see sea floor plants and fish swirling around everywhere, accompanied with an appropriately understated musical sting. It’s emblematic of SOMA’s best moments: Where the game cools down, goes quiet, and is willing to just let you explore the space and find clues.
To that point, the game informs you of the overall goal that you’re reaching for fairly soon, and appropriately keeps little suspense about the state of the station (or the larger world itself - a comet has apparently destroyed all life on the surface) beyond the first couple hours. It gives the player some momentum and understanding of the stakes of the world, which set up the possibility for some great drama along the way - but more on that later, since there are less nice things to say about it. There are also very discrete and easily understood goals that contribute to the overall sense of progress peppered throughout each segment of the game, which is neatly broken out across the different stations that comprise PATHOS-II - each is its own self-contained space, with self-contained story and mysteries, while pushing towards the overall goal (which, up until very late in the game, is simply traversal to where an object, the ARK, is located.)
As a horror game, SOMA is largely effective. Most of the monster designs are good and how you interact with them to avoid being ‘caught’ (like Amnesia, SOMA’s mechanics are based on stealth and hiding) is usually clearly communicated. There’s some good jump scares, regular scares, and moments where the game forces you into a situation where you have to run from a pursuer through an area that you may not have been paying enough attention to in order to work out the twists and turns of the hallways. The sound design for these critters, in particular, is totally impeccable.
Although there are plenty of issues with the game’s “moral choices” - which I’m going to dig into - I will say that it has the good sense to not have them affect your ‘ending’, and they are not presented as Jesus Or Hitler scenarios. There are no achievements tied to them, no gameplay benefits or consequences - they’re actual choices which are (intended to) reflect upon the player’s thought processes and moral decisions regarding the ongoing themes of the game. They’re not intended to have right or wrong answers in any sense beyond whatever meaning the player gives them. That’s definitely commendable.
If these were the only goals of SOMA, it would be a fine video game to play through in an afternoon. Unfortunately it wants to be “more” and also takes the length of several consecutive afternoons to finish.
Choice that isn’t a choice
Since this is the only point in my life where it may ever be relevant to bring up, I got a degree in philosophy in college, where I took a lot of epistemology - the philosophy of properties, time, identity; essentially the philosophy “of stuff” - courses. I sat through every single bullshit, boring, repetitive college Philosophy 101 stoner argument you can think of about “are we really real, man” and “dude, bro, if all our cells are dying all the time… are we really US????” Please note; SOMA actually explicitly calls out this later argument, as though scientists smart enough to be selected to operate PATHOS-II would write this stuff down in their journals. The game is riddled with atmosphere-breaking stuff like this, which unfortunately mostly plays out as boned-headed and forced dialog between Simon and his companion-on-a-chip Catherine.
And that is actually the biggest problem with the game: Mentioned above, the primary antagonist is the WAU and the secondary protagonist is Catherine, whose primary function seems to be to give Simon walking directions and occasionally engage in stilted, laconic discussions with him about things like “are we really alive?” and “what if there’s another Simon out there?” which are voice-acted with all the enthusiasm of somebody who has taken a couple of Xanax and decided to spend the afternoon watching NOVA reruns on PBS. Just to be clear, I think that issues of human identity and what “the self” is are totally valid subjects for drama, and can even make for great drama, but a video game does not really seem like the appropriate venue to present them in the ham-fisted way that SOMA chooses to. Some of it is the fact that it’s mostly done through this exposition, but the bigger issue are those moral choices that the game wants you to make.
A little insight into the game’s story is necessary for the context to understand why these choices are so inert. Simon, the player character, is actually the consciousness of a man with brain damage ‘scanned’ in 2015 and uploaded to a robot cortex that’s rooted into a dead human body in the ‘present time’ of Soma (2104.) This is where a lot of the identity discussion comes from - Simon musing aloud to his companion (who is similarly a brain scan uploaded onto a chip, just one that’s linked to an access pass tool rather than a physical body) about the nature of whether or not he is the “real Simon” or if there could be multiple “Simons” in the world. Again, these discussions are delivered with such inertness that even if they were compelling or thoughtful to begin with, it might be hard to be invested in them.
Naturally, these discussions foreshadow a moment later in the game where Simon must be re-scanned and copied into another body. The scan goes successfully and the player avatar is now in a (new, also dead) body that has Simon’s consciousness: But the “old” Simon is still alive, in the scanning chair, passed out. And you’re given the option of “do you kill him or not,” which I suppose is meant to be a shocking moral choice. But the problem is this: It’s only shocking, or even really a choice, if you haven’t paid attention to anything at all that’s been going on in the game.
First, there’s the narrative situation to consider: This old Simon will, at best, be locked in a room alone for eternity (new Simon, of course, will be taking Catherine and the door-unlocking tool she’s attached to, as well as the only remaining high-pressure suit that allows for progress.) At worst, the murderous critters infected by WAU will get into the room and kill him. In fiction, it makes no sense to keep him alive, either based on the world, or based on Simon’s reactions to what’s been happening around him. There’s an entire concept devoted to the idea of how we personify ourselves in games and abandon a certain level of personal identity for certain types of play; it’s called the magic circle. It’s what leads people in role-playing games to take on identities that they otherwise might not, or to play “in character” with certain types of motivations. And while I certainly wouldn’t begrudge players who leave Simon (or any other character - all of these moral choices revolve around ‘do you kill this person/entity’) alive, that’s a personal belief that goes against the game’s established fiction.
The language that this game uses to describe the way that Simon ‘splits’ at the time of the scan is that it functions like a coin toss: There’s a chance that the perception of consciousness will continue in the new body just as much as within the old one. The dialog leading up to the choice of whether or not to kill the scanned Simon is actually the first time real emotion creeps into the voice acting, which is kind of nice, as new Simon frantically tries to catch up with the idea that he’s not the “same person” as the body sitting in the chair that he’s looking at, and which prompts the player choice.
SOMA wants you to have it both ways - for this to be communicated and portrayed as a “real choice” despite the fact that the game world itself is very clearly communicating that it is not a choice. And in fact, one of the most important things in the game which should be a choice is not presented as one: Whether or not Simon would allow himself to be scanned and loaded into the ARK as a pure-information entity for eternity. No matter how you slice it, the end of the game is orchestrated to be the player’s Simon slowly rotting away at the bottom of the ocean, alone, with nowhere else to go - while there is a third, new Simon, uploaded onto the ARK and existing in the virtual utopia for (presumably) eternity. And that’s the game’s only really interesting choice to offer the player: After all of this moralizing and thought, and presenting the choice to kill the old Simon (as Catherine explains - Simon is only a copy, which telegraphs this ending from a mile away), would Simon even gamble on this?
WAU, ‘The Terrarium’, and missing links
There’s something else that’s really bothersome about this lack of dramatization - which is the way that the game’s primary antagonist is meant to function as a mirror of Catherine’s goal of preserving humanity digitally forever, “amongst the stars,” which sounds hopeful and idealistic in the way that ambitious golden-age sci-fi often was. There’s something very James Blish (or if you prefer, Foundation-esque) about the concept in its particular mix of hard-and-soft sci-fi about human ingenuity being used to escape a dire situation in order to continue civilization indefinitely. The AI that runs PATHOS-II - which, as Catherine says, “does not have goals or personality in the way we think of them” - has decided that its primary goal of preserving humanity, in the wake of the comet strike, is best served through augmenting humanity such that it may be maintained indefinitely as biomechanical organisms. This is what all of the game’s antagonists are: Life that has been augmented by the “structure gel” (a nebulous substance that functions as a catch-all for whatever the game wants to do with it) and then presumably plugged into the WAU’s “Terrarium”, which is what Catherine offhandedly remarks was the inspiration and base design for the ARK.
There is a moment of the game where Simon is captured by one of the WAU’s reanimated creatures and apparently plugged into a Terrarium, but there is a serious problem with this moment: It is presented entirely through negative connotations, and more than that, is never explicitly narratively connected to what Catherine is doing or the overall goal of the game. Simon never even mentions it to Catherine - one of the game’s biggest flaws about their relationship, and about Simon in general, is his stunning lack of intellectual curiosity or observational skills about anything other than the explicit issues of identity that the writers of the game force into his mouth. For a game where the narrative is told through computer and audio logs, the latter is perhaps understandable (different players will have different levels of caring about finding all of the backstory elements) there is really no excuse for the former: This is a dude who, from his perspective, is suddenly teleported from 2015 Toronto into 2104 undersea lab PATHOS-II. Even if he was the world’s most average idiot, you’d think that he would find it worth having discussions with Catherine about the actual things happening around them.
The Terrarium itself is presented in the following manner: A critter captures Simon (the narrative of the game implies that it is a man named Akers, who seems to have voluntarily mutated himself into something controlled by the WAU while still alive) and plugs him into the structures filling PATHOS-II that are constructed by the WAU, which are presumably the vessels which connect to the Terrarium. At this point the game flashes back to its intro - Toronto 2015, in Simon’s apartment - and a short scene plays out in which Simon, seated on his couch, is greeted by his friend who died in the car crash that gave him his own fatal brain injury. The scene plays out with a certain level of detachment; there’s a very clear implication that this is the WAU using Simon’s own memories and desires to manipulate him into remaining locked in the Terrarium, which means it is “bad.” As opposed to the ARK, a voluntary service which Catherine created as a humanist, to preserve humanity as close to “human” as possible - not to trap them, but to empower them to continue to function.
What the game wants on a larger thematic level seems to be to force the player to question “is the ARK more or less like the Terrarium?” but it never explicitly says that Simon even enters the Terrarium - this is all fostered through implication. And again, by not permitting the player to make the final choice of whether or not Simon uploads himself to the ARK, it robs this comparison of any meaning at all: This is an actual real choice about what it means to be human - which again, is the question the game is constantly forcing upon the player - but doesn’t allow us to engage in. Based on how throwaway these moments are presented as, the game may not even be interested in having the player engage with this question.
This is to say nothing of the fact that Catherine describes Simon’s brain scan (the first ever made) as “a sample pattern to base AI on” at one point, which sets up the incredible possibility of the WAU itself functioning as one of these “copies” of Simon that the narrative is so obsessed with. The game never bothers to explore this as anything other than this offhand remark, which is frankly bonkers (especially since he was uploaded into his current body by the WAU.) Simon himself never comments on it or makes the connection, and neither does Catherine.
The ending that MAKES U THINK
The most frequent thing I heard about SOMA was that the ending was great - and in fact this was something that I heard repeated when I questioned whether or not I should continue playing the game (“just watch the ending” was a pretty frequent refrain.) Here’s the ending of the game:
Simon makes it to the PATHOS-II railgun launcher, and successfully fires the ARK - at the same time, he is scanned and uploaded into it. When the game continues, though, it is not with the Simon on the ARK: It is the Simon sitting deep on the ocean seabed, with Catherine, who he immediately begins swearing at. He lost the coin toss. She, of course, explains that “it’s just a copy, you’re up there” - an exact repeat of the discussion they had not that long ago when Simon switched consciousness into the high-pressure suit. There’s a power failure, Catherine is permanently disabled, and Simon is alone at the bottom of the ocean. ROLL CREDITS.
Then, after the credits, Simon is on the ARK. You get to go take a short survey on a computer terminal - an exact mirror of one you get to take earlier in the game, after finding out that Simon is an uploaded consciousness in a dead body in a diving suit - and this could be the game’s only effective moment in making the player confront not the general idea of “what is identity”, but rather specifically what is Simon’s identity. While you’re unlikely to remember the specific answers you gave earlier (even if you did take the quiz) there’s a general sense that you may say different things: Both because of Simon’s situation, and how the player’s own opinions have evolved. It’s a very clever, non-judgmental, non-“moral choice” way to communicate the game’s theme. You continue down the path and Simon and Catherine have a reunion. THE END.
If this sounds underwhelming, well - it’s because it is. The game telegraphs every moment of this, and for a little while I thought that there would be a situation where the ending would in fact be “the ARK didn’t make it” - a much grimmer scenario, where the launched satellite that was supposed to last thousands of years is instead slowly sinking to the bottom of the sea, only operating on reserve power. That is an effective and creepy ending, where the personalities in the machine, unaware of their surroundings, mistakenly believe that their time “alive” is indefinite.
Instead what we’re left with is… what, exactly? It’s a replay of a moment earlier in the game, except with the player put in the POV of “the other Simon”, the one who is the original, rather than copied, consciousness. I completely fail to see how this is in any way interesting or enlightening, or pushes the perception and understanding of the game’s larger themes or ideas.
Anyway. Thank you for being a decent video game that I finished, SOMA, and thank you for encouraging me to write hundreds of words about your flaws. Next time: Hopefully something that gets published before 2018.