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SOMA: the real monster in the dark

Horror games are like Marmite: you either love them or hate them. There are plenty of gamers who can’t wait to step across the threshold to an abandoned mansion, hiding in terror from the demons that stalk them in the darkness while they search for inhabitants’ secrets. Then there are others like myself who transform into a quivering mess as soon as they pick up the controller and start imagining all sorts of monsters once the lights go out (what can I say, I have an overactive imagination).

It’s therefore somewhat strange that I suggested SOMA when my other-half and I were looking for something to play recently. This 2015 release from Frictional Games, the creators of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, is advertised on its Steam page as a ‘science-fiction horror’ in which the player ‘faces horrors buried deep beneath the ocean waves’. It’s one of those titles I’d heard a lot of good things about from friends and thought we should finally get around to checking out… although I did make it clear to Pete he’d owning the controls for this one.

The following post contains some major spoilers for the game. If you haven’t yet played it, I’d highly recommend doing so before reading on otherwise you’ll ruin the experience for yourself!

During the 11 hours it took us to fully explore the underwater research facility known as PATHOS-II, we encountered all manner of threats while trying to figure out how protagonist Simon Jarrett ended up there and his method of escape. A variety of enemies were on standby including corrupted humans, deranged robots and angry fish who wanted nothing more than to rip off our head; and many typical horror elements including isolation, tension and uncertainty were present.

But would I say that SOMA as a video game was scary? Ultimately, no. Although there were a few freaky moments and some yelp-inducing jump-scares, it didn’t leave me diving for the nearest cushion on the sofa so I could hide. However, its themes are a different matter altogether; they’ve left an uneasy, anxious sensation in the Later Levels household and have been the case of several interesting philosophical conversations in the fortnight since we reached the end credits.

SOMA leaves the player questioning what it is that makes us human through a storyline based on the idea of scanning human intelligence. In its world of 2104, scientists can use advanced technology to take an exact copy of your personality and then upload this into a robot or simulation to give it your memories and experiences. This being then goes on to live a version of your life from that point forward with your beliefs and feelings to guide it through its new existence.

Does this mean you’re still you? And if so, are these copies something less than you with a reduced right to life? Situations thrown at Simon throughout his journey poke holes in our answers to these conundrums. For example, take the point in the game where it’s necessary to obtain a chip from a robot using force. Are you simply taking a part you need from a machine; or does the fact that it has the personality of a real person and therefore considers itself to be human make it more than that?

These questions become even more complex when it’s your own personality which is at stake. For instance, say the body you’re currently in is failing in some way and you’re offered the opportunity to be copied over into a new one. Which version of you then takes precedence? Should the old version be terminated? And if both copies should be allowed to live for however long they have left, how do you come to terms with there being multiple versions of yourself in the same space?

More importantly: how would you feel if you found out that you were the copy?

The things we discovered in SOMA and its questions around what it really means to be human were far scarier than any of the monsters encountered in the corridors of PATHOS-II. Instead of being just another release about demons chasing us in the dark, Frictional Games have given us something infinitely more terrifying.

18 thoughts on “SOMA: the real monster in the dark Leave a comment

  1. It’s an excellent game, and the storyline is fascinating. I felt the ending was weakened somewhat when you get to see how both versions of the protagonist end up, rather than just “your” one.

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    • SOMA certainly gives you a lot to think about…

      The ‘copies’ and ‘flip of the coin’ story points caused plenty of discussion between my other-half and I during the weeks after we’d completed the game. Those were the parts we were really interested in – a lot of the other stuff and even some of the typically-horror elements felt almost unnecessary.

      The ending kind of left me a little sad… not because your version got left behind, more because the other version didn’t have any idea or was even worried about about ‘you’.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The storyline (with the copies and their rights as humans) almost reminds me of the novel Permutation City by Greg Egan… such a good theme to work with! Sounds like a really interesting game.

    I generally either love or hate horror games – Deceit has had my heart rate registering as cardio and Outlast had me hiding behind cushions! – but once I get used to them I like to think I manage reasonably well….

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    • I’m absolutely terrible when it comes to playing horror games. I’m too much of a wimp to handle the controller, so I have to pass it over to the other-half while I watch what’s happening from behind a cushion ha ha!

      Permutation City sounds like it’d be a book right up my street. Added to the holiday reading list! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the idea of this game – the ocean is such a basic, primal fear – I’m honestly surprised games have had so little to do with it outside of SOMA and Bioshock.

    Though saying that, the recent Subnautica is an outstanding piece of work in terms of pulling on your personal intrigue of the ocean – both good and bad.

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    • Yeah, now that you come to mention it… BioShock is such an influential game that I’m surprised it hasn’t inspired more watery adventures. Saying that though, if I was a developer I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to follow in its footsteps; Rapture is so iconic as an underwater setting! 🤔

      I’ve not tried Subnautica yet, although my stepson has mentioned it pretty often and keeps hinting he’d like us all to play it together. How scary is it?

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      • I think it depends on your own subjective fears – I am terrified of the ocean, especially deep ocean, and there are parts of the game where you -have- to plunge really far down, to the point where you’re shrouded in darkness. And of course that’s where the games worst horrors live. Genuinely terrifying for me and for anyone, I think.

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        • Ah… the perfect situation to make you wonder what’s waiting for you there in the darkness! Sometimes the things you can’t see are the scariest. 😉

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Bit too spooky for me, but I’ve played games with similar themes on the question of humanity. The Talos Principle and The Turing Test are two of my favourites. Zero jumpscares too =)

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    • I got halfway through The Talos Principle, then got distracted by something else and didn’t go back to it for some reason. I really do need to pick it up again at some point!

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    • Although I wouldn’t be able to play SOMA on my own (I’m too much of a wimp ha ha), it definitely wasn’t as typically-scary as some of the horror games I’ve watched my other-half play. It’s themes on the other hand… *shudders*

      Liked by 1 person

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