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.