[Game Review] SOMA: Brain Upload Identity Crisis at the Bottom of the Sea…?

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It’s hard to believe I put off reviewing this game for so long. It’s a game about transhumanism under the sea. Did these devs read my dream journal? Do they know me personally? It seems like they’d have to. They took everything I love and crammed it into a single game.

The control scheme will be familiar to anybody who played Frictional’s prior releases, Amnesia and the Penumbra trilogy (which I reviewed here, here and here). Everything else about it, however, is wildly different.

That fact worked against SOMA sales, regrettably, as most gamers just wanted more Amnesia. And no, A Machine For Pigs didn’t count. Famous Youtuber Pewdiepie, who played a large role in making Amnesia Frictional’s first breakout hit, inexplicably refused to play SOMA on his channel…which also hurt its sales.

It deserved to sell much better than it did. Much better than Amnesia, for sure. I’m not knocking Amnesia but I am more of a scifi dude than fantasy, and I was not feeling Amnesia’s setting/time period. SOMA on the other hand was like Frictional read my mind and made my dream game down to every last detail.

I in fact emailed them in 2012 and suggested a deep sea research base as the setting for their next game:

This was long before the E3 reveal that the game would be taking place in an undersea research base. The teaser footage they showed before that had it taking place underground. That’s not to say they necessarily took the idea and ran with it. It’s entirely possible that it occurred to them independently.

However if I did manage to steer a major developer towards realizing the potential of a deep sea scifi setting for a horror game, I’m content to have done so without any recognition. Anyways I went to work on Narcosis not long after that, a game which does an equally solid job of turning that vision into reality.

SOMA does a bang up job in its own right, and has surpassed Bioshock as the game most think of first when they hear “undersea habitat” or any related phrase. It lets you experience everything you might wish to in a game set at the bottom of the ocean. You will traverse a transparent tunnel between two habitats.

You’ll ride in a submersible. You’ll enter and exit lockout chambers, which must flood (or purge) and then equalize pressures before the doors open. You’ll explore a shipwreck. You’ll search for a way out of a rapidly flooding habitat, only for it to implode around you.

Without spoiling too much, it does about as much with the setting as possible. This contributes immensely to the feeling of realism. This isn’t some far future Stanford Torus space colony. It’s the sort of habitat which is already used today for marine biology, only much larger.

You wind up down there without initially understanding how. At the very beginning of the game, after all, you’re a regular man named Simon Jarret who is going in for a medical brain scan, following a car accident.

How could you go from a small clinic specializing in neurology, in the year 2016, to an undersea research base a hundred years in the future? This is where the Philip K. Dick style identity questions come into play.

I really can’t say too much more without ruining the plot, but sufficed to say it raises questions familiar to any first year philosophy student concerning what makes you you, whether an exact copy of yourself would still be you, whether it makes any difference if the copy and you exist simultaneously, and so on.

These are very rudimentary questions that have been exhaustively explored in literature, but it’s another thing entirely to actually experience them firsthand in a videogame. That has never been done before, and is what makes SOMA such a haunting, compelling experience.

To actually go through the motions, from a first person perspective, of having your brain scanned and then “waking up” as the copy not just once but several times (on one occasion while your original self is still alive in the other room) is absolutely groundbreaking, and SOMA richly deserves the accolades it has received for delivering this experience.

After how many copies do I become “fake”? One? Three? Ten? What if I discover, while contemplating this question, that in fact I’ve already been copied hundreds of times? Do I become fake the moment I discover that, when just a moment ago I felt as real as ever? As much myself as I ever have?

This panicked wondering, “what if I am not who I think I am?” is a classic theme present in all of Philip K. Dick’s works, probably a byproduct of intense paranoia and mania resulting from his tragic addiction to meth. Then again we’d have gotten very different stories from him if he never tweaked.

There’s more to the story than that, however. An artificial intelligence, the WAU, is tasked with performing the constant maintenance that an undersea station requires in order to fight back the pressure of the ocean.

In Bioshock this maintenance was performed by Big Daddies. In SOMA, it’s performed by a weird, general purpose, pseudo-nanotech black goop called “structure gel”.

Structure gel is under the control of WAU, and can form temporary circuits as needed, reconfigure those connections on the fly, and as a result serves as a sort of fix-all solvent you can pour right onto a broken machine in order to repair it.

Unfortunately, it also works on dead tissue, able to deliver electrical current to the muscles to make them move much as Voltaire first did in his historical experiments with dead frogs.

I say unfortunately because WAU is also tasked with keeping the crew alive at any cost, and nobody thought to give it a clear-cut definition of what “alive” means. Or “human” for that matter.

This is the origin of the monsters you’ll run from, pissing your pants and screaming, in SOMA. They are crew members who WAU would not allow to die, instead infusing them with structure gel, which slowly replaced more and more of their tissue as the original cells decomposed.

These frankensteinian abominations will gurgle and choke on their own breath like stumbling, lurching full grown abortions, the sound of their malformed feet splashing through the ankle deep water of a slowly flooding corridor often your only indication that they’re almost on top of you.

If that sounds fucking terrifying, it is. For all of SOMA’s philosophizing, it’s at its best when it thrusts you into a tangled nest of intersecting, partly flooded corridors with some horrible resurrected pile of walking machinery and corpse meat, without warning.

It’s just you, flickering lights, water trickling down rusted walls, and something straight out of your most harrowing nightmares giving chase. It doesn’t get more raw, visceral and heart pounding than that.

Yet the inclusion of these monster escape sections was regarded by many critics as shoehorned in, just because “people expected a horror game to have monsters”.

I couldn’t disagree more. SOMA isn’t only about philosophy and contrary to the critics’ claims, would not have been nearly as compelling had the monsters been removed.

What makes it truly great is the stark contrast between those quiet, safe periods of deep thought and their sudden interruption by moments of intense, brutal terror.

That really suits the sort of game SOMA is and the kind of story it sets out to tell. The serenity of the deep blue sea, interrupted by a shark tearing a chunk out of a baby whale.

The placid, calm reflection on what it means to be human, shattered when one of the misbegotten wrong answers to that question bursts through the door and lunges at you.

The sheer variety of monsters in the game does an amazing job of keeping it scary, too. Compare that to Amnesia, in which it’s the same creature chasing you for almost the entire game. SOMA takes a page out of the Prometheus book of monster variety, though I’d argue it’s much more successful at it than that film was.

Normally $29.99, SOMA is currently just $8.99 on account of the Summer Sale and can be purchased here. At that price, it’s a no-brainer. SOMA is one of the landmark, standout horror games of the last five years. Perhaps of the last ten, even.

If you enjoy horror games in the least bit, this is impossible to pass up and should be the very next game you buy. It will be, and to some degree already is remembered as a hugely influential title that has left a mark on the horror gaming industry which will not soon fade.

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