“who thought sending a Canadian to the bottom of the sea was a good idea?”
FBT thinks it was a very good idea.
In 2015, comic-store clerk Simon Jarrett is involved in a car crash, losing his sweetheart and some of his skull; left with pressure on his brain that might kill him at any moment, Simon meets not-yet-a-Doctor Munshi, who is developing a radical way of scanning the human brain. Ignoring the suspect office and equipment, Simon agrees to be a lab-rat hoping the scan will allow surgery by revealing the pressure point. Unfortunately, Simon wakes to discover he’s under even more pressure – the entire Atlantic Ocean.
Worse, Simon’s not just woken up in the wrong place, he’s in the wrong time. It’s now 2104; contacted by a scientist called Cat, she explains things are even worse; a year earlier, a comet impacted earth and caused a nuclear winter. The only life left is what’s on Pathos-II, the undersea science lab they’re in; but is that life friendly … or even human? Doesn’t seem possible but I get the feeling it’s only going to get worse for Simon.
It’s an obvious comparison but SOMA does remind you of Bioshock, and other psychological games like Alan Wake, Silent Hill, Alien Isolation, Prey (both versions), System Shock pop into mind; we’ve got machinery moving suddenly, glimpses of things, doors opening, lights flashing, eerie noises, jump moments, dark rooms to enter; all very Survival-Horror, but rather than derivative, SOMA is something different. It’s in the story that SOMA steps out of those games’ shadows and into it's own horrible place. It’s closer in experience to Hollywood's recent spate of subtle-horrors; A Quiet Place, Cloverfield Lane, Annihilation; SOMA messes with your head not your trigger finger.
Taking in the desolated and decaying station, Simon quickly discovers it is not a nice place to be. The walls are covered in some encroaching, living goo that makes Pathos-II look like a mash-up between the Alien Hive and the Borg’s gaff. Early on I find a machine covered in the gooey tendrils, and disconnect it to turn on a switch. Then it cries out it “Don’t, I need it!” before dying. Should … should I have not done that? That wasn’t a machine’s voice that was … Human? Then I find a crippled machine that’s convinced it’s a man who suffered an injury and needs a medic. You need a mechanic, mate. But he thinks I’m the crazy one. Am I? What is going on here?
After the comet impact, Cat’s idle hobby - digitising brain patterns - became Pathos-II’s sole focus. They created the ARK, a digital representation of earth where their personalities can live for eternity and preserve something of humanity. Cat was almost there when survivor-guilt, psychosis and understandable madness overwhelmed the crew. Meanwhile, when Pathos-II’s AI, “WAU” learnt of the comet, it tried to fulfil its prime directive – protect mankind. Problem is, WAU couldn’t understand human nature, only survival so it used ‘Contact Gel’ – the goo we’re seeing - which is like a liquid circuit board, to bond the crew to life-supporting tech and keep them living, whether they want to or not. As if that wasn’t horrific enough, WAU also began activating ARK files, building the transferred personalities into the circuity and machines instead of their digital reality; anything to keep humanity going. The station is people.
WAU is arguably the main antagonist but it’s not evil like SHODAN or GLaDOS and we never converse with it; WAU is just desperately trying to save humanity and wants to help; humans are living, but you’d not call it life. But what is life? What are we trying to save? We're leaving all those people to this agony? It looks like Cat and Simon will end up joining them anyway. The ARK runs on solar power, and thanks to the nuclear winter there’s no sun. If they leave it on Pathos-II, the power will eventually fail - or WAU will reach it. That means using a supergun at the end of the lab to fire the ARK into space. Easy. Except Cat doesn’t even know if it’s still here. If it was launched, they can’t Tron themselves into it and escape – if it’s still on Pathos-II, can a scientist and a shop clerk finish the ARK, digitise themselves, load it into a rocket, fire it out of the Atlantic Ocean through the nuclear winter to reach space and hit a safe orbit so they can live forever? They have no chance! But what else can Simon do but try? Because it was all too easy, turns out he can’t even take out WAU’s monsters.
Like Frictional’s previous game, Amnesia, when you do face off against a creature, your wits are your weapons; the best Simon can do is escape. Several of WAU’s abominations roam the station but it’s refreshing that they’re not common, keeping their impact at maximum ‘oh god!’ when they do appear. An early goo-filled machine is standard, but human-creatures are just … no. Some listen for you, or you have to stay out of their eye-line, others follow you unceasingly and you never really see the same monster twice, like you only meet mini-bosses. You never go ‘oh it’s a so-and-so, I just need to do this’. Each has its nightmarish ways to out-smart and they look so maddened and tortured you feel pity as much as fear - but the real monster is the story.
Simon’s situation, how he got there and the overwhelming odds he’s facing are the game’s biggest scares and Simon is not helping. Realising the human race is in the single digits, it’s not long before he’s on to the really big questions. Is the ARK immortality? Is it life, living in a machine? Will they be much different from what WAU is attempting? Are we just electrical impulses really? Is life just our perception? What is humanity? Does it matter, who cares? What is the point of it all, Goddamnit?! Simon’s frustration is palatable, his breakdowns understandable, but thankfully we have Cat to give some perspective. As in, Cat really doesn’t have time for his crap. Hurrying him through his realisations, getting exasperated at him for pondering the meaning of life when we have stuff to do, she’s like an impatient Alyx and easily one of the best sidekicks in a long while. The philosophical banter between the two is spot-on and her sark provides some very welcome comic relief. Simon wants to give meaning to all this; the only thing Cat clings to is the possibility that the ARK is still there. She’s even blunt about how Simon wound up here.
SOMA knows that question needs to be answered so rather than dragging it out, it’s revealed early – but SOMA doesn’t just do the reveal then expect Simon or us to shrug it off; instead, the revelation affects and alters everything, becomes the central theme. Plus, SOMA is packed with enough twists and tough choices that Simon’s situation is the least of our worries; there’s moments so debilitating I just walked off, needing a minute. SOMA really nails surviving death only to face no future. We’ve gamed through the Fallout-style apocalypse before but SOMA instead calls to mind the Cormack novel The Road, that sense that it’s just … over. Simon’s situation is so frustrating; he’d come to terms with death; now he has to survive? He’s a likeable guy, give him a break FFS. The shit he goes through ...
Still, while Simon might be faltering, for us, progressing through Pathos-II is very focused. You’re not spoon-fed solutions, Simon needs to get his shit together sharpish. Nothing comes across as convenient or outlandish, the lab is a logical place and you do get a sense of progressing, even if it’s all on you – no mission markers, no hints, just you. Early on, interacting with the world is frustrating; Simon must be precise to progress, to the point of pushing or pulling doors – given my real-life inability to push/pull a door correctly even when it’s written on it I’m just adding to his woes. But after a while you get into it. The puzzles too are cleverly frustrating. Never explained, it’s up to you to figure out the process before you even attempt a solution.
The station is split into separate research labs Simon needs to navigate between; as in, across the seabed. And that bloody WAU-infested Gel has leaked into the ocean; as if deep-sea fish weren’t freaky enough. We even have a mutated giant squid circling while belligerent rovers and mechs chase us about. Or try to chat to us. Both are terrifying. There’s guide-lights that keep the fishes at bay, but storms swell up causing the lights to go out making it a terrifying, confusing trek along the sand; oh, I can see a light. Nope, that’s the lure from a goddamn mutated angler fish...
Reaching each lab we discover new horrors, and how each isolated group handled the event; some joined the ARK project, some just lived out what time they had left while others carried on as if the apocalypse would pass. Every new area is a new take on what humans would do in that situation.
Reaching the ‘abyss’, a deep-sea trench where the final lab and the likely resting place of the ARK are, Simon and Cat activate a deep submersible – and activate it's personality; who, terrified, takes off. Can we just get a break?! Cat’s solution is f’ed up, but it’s not like Simon has a choice. On the plus side, what happens afterwards is far, far worse. And then it gets worse. And worse, and worse until you’re staring at the end-credits, aghast. This game should end with “if you’ve been affected by any of the subject matter …”
If you do make it, make sure you stick around until after the credits for the very definition of ironic bitter-sweet endings. SOMA is a very troubling game; you don’t want to say good bye to Simon and Cat, but you’re not sure you want to experience that again. If you do, you’ll spend forever trying to force a different outcome. But it was never going to go any other way.
It’s been weeks since I finished SOMA but Simon and Cat are still in my head, arguing over the definition of life – and death. And as a testament to that narrative, Frictional released an update called ‘safe mode’ that stops WAU from killing you. You’d think a God Mode would remove all the intensity but it doesn’t – it makes it worse because all you’re focused on is what Simon has to go through. A new entry in my all-time great games, SOMA might not reinvent the gaming wheel but as a thought-provoking experience, it’s as close to Cinema as gaming has gotten; SOMA is the game Stanley Kubrick would have made.
2015 | Developer/ Publisher, Frictional Games
Platforms; Win, X0, PS4