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SOMA (PC) artwork

SOMA (PC) review

"A game that asks us to save humanity, but also asks us if saving humanity is even worth it."

SOMA (PC) image

SOMA is science fiction, not horror. Well, okay it is horror, and it's often very effective at being horror. But that is not why you should play it. Developer Frictional Games knows how to unnerve people, their Amnesia: Dark Descent having ignited an interest in YouTube-fodder jumpfests, and their Penumbra series, uh, reportedly being pretty good. (I haven't played it.) Those skills are sometimes put to good use here, but genre enthusiasts may be disappointed by how little Frictional seems to care about scaring us anymore, or at least in the immediate way that makes for good Let's Play videos. No, SOMA's prime directive is a slow, creeping sense of existential dread. This is one of the bleakest visions of the future I've ever seen committed to a visual medium. It's a game that asks us to save humanity, but also asks us if saving humanity is even worth it.

The premise, without spoiling too much, is that about a century from now, a comet wipes out the surface of the Earth. The only survivors are the inhabitants of PATHOS-II, a massive research facility at the bottom of the ocean. With the species clinging to its last breath, the scientists of PATHOS-II have figured out how to create digital copies of a person's consciousness, and their plan to "preserve" the remainder of humanity is to compile brain scans of all survivors into a single simulation and then launch it into space. This way, some trace of humanity can continue existing for thousands of years, even if our corporeal bodies must be left behind.

And so one of SOMA's biggest questions is what it means to be human or to have a soul, a question that's been asked by sci-fi writers for decades whenever clones or sentient machines come up. When we first arrive in PATHOS-II, its inhabitants already seem to be dead, their minds occupying a digital space and often failing to notice the difference. Many of the robots we encounter in SOMA can not only talk but still believe they're human, which raises some powerful questions when we're forced to manipulate them.

One of the first droids in the game, for example, is perfectly friendly, but it's draining a power source that you need in order to operate a nearby computer. The only way to progress is to pull its plug, "killing" it. But are you really killing it, though? It's just a machine. The "mind" operating it is just a digital echo of a person who's probably already dead. So is there anything heinous about this action?

SOMA (PC) image

If that question is a bit too easy to answer, SOMA throws you a major curveball: its protagonist. Simon Jarrett is a modern-day Toronto resident who's unexpectedly transported to this futuristic setting following an experimental brain scan. The procedure is his last memory when he wakes up, it's a century later, he's in an abandoned branch of the PATHOS-II facility, and he's inhabiting a robot body, just like everyone else. As you've probably figured out, Simon was the first subject of the digital copy process. The Simon we're controlling isn't the original, but rather a replica of his consciousness uploaded into a new body.

But Simon still retains all of his memories from his previous life, and SOMA's opening moments take us through bits of his day-to-day routine waking up, taking his meds, riding the subway, calling friends. To him and to us, the transition between his two lives is seamless. One second, he's sitting in a chair at a doctor's office, and the next moment, he's alone at the bottom of the ocean. The nearly hundred-year gap passes in the blink of an eye, and it drives home the point that if not for the overwhelming physical evidence to the contrary, Simon would have no reason to believe he's not the same guy he always was. He feels "real." So is he?

That's SOMA's big moral conundrum, and it drives many of the decisions Simon is forced to make regarding the future of humanity. When it's suggested to him that more copies of his consciousness can be made, he's outraged by the idea of any "imposters" running around, but he says this with full knowledge that he's not his original self, either. Apply that to the rest of the survivors. If humanity, in its physical form, is beyond saving, is this ark (as it's called) worth launching if the human minds it holds aren't "real" in the usual sense? I have suspicions that SOMA's writers have some strong feelings about euthanasia; they seem curious as to the point at which you just accept defeat, stop making compromises and pull the plug.

I cannot overstate how perfect SOMA's setting is for conveying its oppressively grim themes. I can't imagine a place on the planet less desirable to live than at the bottom of the ocean: fully removed from sunlight, isolated from even the remnants of civilization, surrounded by alien landscape and at constant risk of being crushed under the weight of the entire sea. SOMA benefits from some absolutely breathtaking underwater segments that really sell the loneliness of this place. It's a desperate situation, ideal for a story in which the hero is forced to ask himself if this is all even worth it. If this is all we're clinging to, what's the point in preserving it?

SOMA (PC) image

So as I said, SOMA's brand of horror is the deep, lingering kind. Granted, there are plenty of traditional scares, as well, though they're considerably less justified. There's a rogue AI that's trying to perpetuate the life cycle by turning everyone into biomechanical monsters or something, but this subplot has very little to do with the ark (erm) arc and gets a relatively unsatisfying conclusion. SOMA's horror elements were obviously inserted to keep this otherwise highly narrative-centric game from being a quote-unquote "walking simulator." That's a good enough excuse, but it would have been nice if Frictional had more smoothly integrated this stuff into the central plot.

Basically, if you've played Amnesia or any of the countless games that have followed its lead, you know the routine. You have no attacks. That means your best method of getting past enemies is to avoid confronting them directly. Move slowly, stay in the shadows, and avoid kicking any of the many empty tin cans littering the hallways. Not giving players any direct defense is an effective formula, and since I had some design-related qualms with Amnesia, it's nice to see this stuff applied to a game I really enjoy, but as solid as these elements are, they still feel a bit arbitrary next to an intelligent sci-fi tale that really has nothing to do with monsters.

I'll also note that while the game's rich themes are the sort of stuff Dick and Asimov touched upon, they're not always as expertly conveyed. As much as I like Simon's place in this universe, the character's portrayal is frequently a bit too on-the-nose. I can't stand the voice actor's overly earnest delivery, for one thing, but Simon also has a habit of blatantly spelling out questions that players would be better left to independently ask themselves. Every time we're thrust into a difficult moral dilemma, Simon is sure to let us know just how twisted this situation is, and how queasy he feels about it. I get that his fish-out-of-water status is supposed to make him a mirror of our own emotions, but there were times when I wished Frictional would trust us to get the message.

But the message itself is heavy and haunting, hammered into place by a ballsy, uncompromising ending that I suspect I'll be shaking off for a long time. Whatever complaints I may have about SOMA, this is bold, challenging and real science fiction still a rarity in this medium, and something I'll always applaud. It's not quite the best game I've played this year, but it'll almost certainly stay with me the longest.

Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (October 11, 2015)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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EmP posted October 11, 2015:

What are you playing next? I ask so I can get a headstart and maybe come first in a race neither of us knew we were running!

My SOMA review will be up tonight. This, though, is a great review for a game I've really enjoyed. If mine wasn't already written, I'd probably no longer feel the need to bother.
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Suskie posted October 12, 2015:

I'm playing Armikrog next!

...He said, trying to trick EmP into buying Armikrog.

I appreciate it, EmP! I'll try to remember to leave a comment on your own review even though I've been neglecting to do that with everyone lately. Looking forward to hearing your take -- it's certainly a game that gives you a lot to dissect. I had a great time writing about it, in any case.
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EmP posted October 13, 2015:

Delayed mine while I edited so that some sentences were not almost like for like with yours a la Halo Reach. Then I edited some more so it made contextual sense. Then I lost my narrative and edited some more. Now I've nuked it and started again. ETA: later.
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Suskie posted October 13, 2015:

Well, in the meantime, would you care to read this blog entry I just posted offering my take on what I perceive to be the game's stance on euthanasia?

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