SOMA: Smart, Scary Sci-Fi

SOMA just became one of my favorite video games of the year. And one of my favorites ever. It’s a sci-fi horror game from Frictional Games, the makers of Amnesia. Tons of spoilers to follow!

In SOMA, you play as an everyday guy named Simon Jarrett, living a normal life aside from some sort of brain condition that causes headaches and has cut down your life expectancy to just a few months. With new treatments, those months could extend to years, though.

And then, in the midst of a medical treatment, you find yourself in a rundown, underwater facility filled with machines that swear they’re human. Most of these robots — heaps of metal that aren’t always even upright — are in pain and desperate for help. Even when you tell them what they are, they insist they want medics, not mechanics. (They even claim to see their human hands and feet.)

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To progress with the story, you sometimes have to unplug them and listen to them howl in pain before dying. You do it anyway, but it’s a little horrific — especially when you realize that each of these is a human consciousness inside a machine.

The setting is dark and dirty, which makes SOMA feel like a horror game. That first half hour or so in the facility left me feeling totally lost, but that’s the point: You’re as confused about what just happened as the character in the game.

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In first-person, you explore the facility at your own pace. You talk to machines, watch videos, and interact with objects as you navigate. Exploration is very much an intellectual exercise as you piece things together to figure out where you are and what’s going on.

Early on, you find yourself underwater, apparently in a wetsuit with an oxygen tank. You have a flashlight, too — just no idea where you got it. I’ll admit I doubted whether I was really in a suit with oxygen, which is the first time I suspected I was one of the robots, too.

I love that the game doesn’t force-feed you facts. Instead, it gives you breathing room to find your own way through the facility. It does give you clues as you go, but you usually initiate these as you click to interact with something — maybe starting a conversation with a machine or picking up an I.D. card off a dead body, for instance. The game is efficient in giving you intel, which encourages you to interact with everything you can.

Screen Shot 2015-12-09 at 3.21.18 PMThe game alternates between scares and info-gathering. There are sequences of exploring dark corridors and hiding from monsters, followed by long stretches of working with Dr. Catherine Chun — a researcher who walks you through the lab and explains some history — and discussing what’s going on. This keeps the game’s overall pacing pretty perfect. Just when you get used to one thing, the game hits you with the other.

I also never felt lost or stuck somewhere — I was always moving forward toward some objective, even if I didn’t know exactly where that was. The only thing that felt tedious at times was clicking around on computers. This is the puzzle-solving part of the game, which is good but can really slow things down. I wish some of these sequences had been quicker and more automated. (Chun at least gives you hints when you get stuck.)

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The frequent interactions with Chun are vital to the feeling of progression in the game. They help you feel less alone — like you’re doing something right, even when you’re just walking around, finding your way. Chun offers a little hand-holding that is still an important part of the story.

In short, because you’re going somewhere, working with someone else, and always gaining new information, exploration feels like progression.

The game’s scary parts are genuinely creepy. At first, the horror vibe comes mainly from the dark, deteriorated look of the facility. Later you see monsters in the sea. And later still the soundscape becomes part of the fright.

You hear yourself breathing underwater, through your oxygen tank. There’s static, screeches, and low, distorted roars from monsters. The captain is saying something over the comm speakers, talking to a seemingly nonexistent crew. You’re wandering alone through a ship that’s being eaten up by the ocean — filled with algae and plants, the walls looking corroded — and yet you’re still listening to someone over the comm system. More than anything, it was the sounds that made me feel like I was going crazy, coming loose at the seams. At times, I was scared to move forward.

Screen Shot 2015-12-09 at 11.53.53 AMChun insists that it was never the researchers’ intention to stuff people into machinery and let them run free. Their project, ARK, was intended to save people by transferring a human’s consciousness into a robot. But apparently things are going haywire, because being stuck inside a machine seems to freak people out.

Soon you learn that you have your own mind, and you’re not a robot — you’re in a body that belonged to one of Chun’s researcher friends. As Chun says, you’re “the best of both worlds — a sound mind in a sound body.” The fact that it’s a dead female body, permanently meshed together with the diving suit you’re wearing, doesn’t really matter. Being in a human body rather than machinery could allow the mind to remain more stable and healthy.

Learning all of this was my favorite part of the game. It’s a compelling story, and one I’ve never heard before — certainly not through a video game like this, either. Exploring the future of artificial intelligence and human consciousness through a horror game is very absorbing. It’s research and conversation, but placed in a scary setting where you have to solve the mystery of where you are, what happened to you, and even who you are (or who you have become).

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While other games have you killing people on a regular basis, SOMA doesn’t give you weapons for it — only moral decisions. You can’t kill the monsters you see wandering around; you have to sneak around them. But several encounters with human minds inside machines give you a moral choice: To kill or not to kill.

In the end, you learn that another version of your consciousness made it onto ARK, but the one you have right now is stuck in this dying lab. If I had been given a dialogue choice, I might have said something along the lines of, “That’s cool.” Chun seems happy about it — you have just saved them both. But Simon is furious. He feels no hope. Sure, some other version of himself made it onto ARK, but this particular consciousness is still here, and it’s going to be stuck here forever. I like Simon’s anger here. It’s realistic. It’s what we would really feel if we were him, and not just detached from it all playing a video game.

In this way, SOMA presents an interesting take on what makes us human.

— Ashley

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