(Warning: Major spoilers ahead! Read on only if you have already completed SOMA, or don’t mind hearing about crucial plot details)
In most games, moral choice is a simplistic and binary thing.
You are bad, or you are good. You make selfish decisions to benefit your own ends; or selfless decisions that aid others.
Your approach results in an ending that confronts you with the consequences of your actions. Bleak and dark if you chose the ‘bad’ path; poignant and noble if you chose the ‘good’.
SOMA is not like most games.
Frictional’s sci-fi successor to their influential breakout hit, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, derives its true horror not from the nightmarish dread of being stalked by twisted monsters in shadowy corridors (though this feature is also present), but from the implications of its mind-bending narrative and ethical quandaries – and your reactions to them.
In SOMA, you play the thoroughly confused and disoriented Simon, who awakes in a seemingly futuristic and derelict underwater research facility just moments after having a medical brain scan back in his native Toronto in the present-day.
The explanation for this, it soon transpires, is that a copy of Simon’s consciousness – stored as a scan for decades – has just been uploaded to a robotic suit almost a century later on the ruined and dystopian Pathos-II. An apocalyptic event has ravaged the surface of the earth, and the last remnants of humanity have been left to ponder possibilities for survival on the lonely sea bed. As it transpires, the remnants of humanity are no longer so human.
Philosophically, SOMA is swift to confront you with the existential terror of this concept.
Simon encounters confused, lonely consciousnesses trapped in the malfunctioning husks of service robots; some calling out for help, others bemused and calm – but all totally ignorant of what they have become. He also meets terrifying hybrids of man and machine stalking the interiors of the various buildings, relentlessly craving the raw materials they need to survive, or else lashing out in pure instinctive aggression as they wail and shriek with agonized delirium.
The moral dilemmas begin to present themselves soon after. Is it wrong to bring a person’s conscious mind back in a state of limbo, simply so you can interrogate it for information? Is destroying a machine with a human ‘mind’ mercy, or murder?
Perhaps the most haunting example is when Simon himself is copied into a new vessel at one point so that he can make an otherwise impossible journey – and realises that his ‘old self’ is now doomed to awake several days later trapped right where he left it, alone and afraid. Do you drain the battery, or not?
The genius of SOMA is that the rights and wrongs of these actions are left entirely up to you to determine and, just as importantly, the actual story and conclusion do not notably diverge based on these actions. Instead, you are left to consider the likely consequences of your choices independent of the narrative itself, and you may well find yourself filled with doubt, confusion and even shame once the credits roll.
“Did I really do the right thing after all?”
I think the most ingenious summary of Frictional’s approach is with regard to the rogue super AI, called ‘the WAU’, which is running rampant all over the base and responsible for the mutant creatures you encounter.
Towards the end of the game, the player is given the chance to destroy the WAU in a moment that, once again, does not determine the ultimate outcome of the story, but clearly provides powerful off-screen consequences that you are left to consider once the decision has been made.
I, appalled by the monstrosities I had witnessed on the base, believing the peace offered by death preferable to a limbo-like form, and yes, no doubt influenced by the ‘evil AI’ concept so prevalent in fiction, decided to kill off the WAU.
Later, while mulling it over, I felt disgusted with myself.
In a remarkable subversion of the usual ‘AI gone bad’ trope so over-used in science fiction, the WAU is actually a far more complex entity than it initially seems.
Sure, most of the monstrous creations roaming Pathos-II are direct results of the WAU’s seemingly crazed and terrifying experiments combining human minds and robotic bodies, and many of them are clearly suffering immensely. Plenty of them try and slaughter you too, as you attempt to race and tiptoe to your next objective.
And yet, the WAU’s motivation is not to dominate, or to destroy, and it cannot be blamed for the actions of its wayward, unfortunate ‘children’.
No. Instead, the WAU is seeking to help humanity survive and continue to exist in whatever way it can; by using the scans of people’s consciousnesses to create a new race of cyborg humans. Its initial forays into this mission are unsuccessful and borderline disastrous, but doesn’t all noble scientific endeavour have mistakes and failures before hitting upon success?
It’s implied that Simon is the first successful attempt of the WAU to create a ‘new’ human, and he is to all intents and purposes very much human. He thinks, he feels, he’s self-aware – and if more were created like him, would a new civilization not have chance to thrive?
By killing the WAU, I had effectively prevented humanity and perhaps sentient life from ever again existing on Earth. And I had done so because of visceral gut reactions to body-horror and an innate certainty of what humanity actually is, rather than consider a possible alternative.
The WAU tried to help me. It healed me; it offered up passcodes to help me progress. It wanted me to survive. And I spat in its nobly intentioned face. Humans are happy to play God with other beings in a bid to make advances, but when something wanted to use as as guinea pigs, even to aid our ‘survival’, I freaked out.
The alternative path, and the one promoted by the game as being the central goal all along, is launching an ‘ARK’ loaded with human consciousnesses into space, so that these scans of humanity can live on in a Matrix-like simulation that will act as a sort of cyber nirvana for the remnants of humanity.
On the surface, this seems kind of cool. In reality, it may in fact be a hollow, meaningless way for mankind to subsist – with no meaningful creation or agency left for our species to continue.
At the end of my playthrough, a new copy of Simon was left to enjoy pointless bliss in a space-voyaging simulation while his previous copy was left alone and terrified thousands of feet below the sea; and his previous copy was left dead and abandoned in a chair to rot.
Oh, and by destroying the WAU, all other remaining life – monstrous or not – was doomed to wither too. From my own choices, there could be no meaningful future for sentient life on Earth. I had committed a form of pre-emptive genocide, so certain was I in my own interpretation of things.
The interesting thing is, I’m still not sure whether this was the lesser of two evils. Was I bad? Was I good? Was I selfish or self-less? And which of the copies, if any at all, were the real Simon?
SOMA is a game that asks us serious questions about the nature of existence, and what it means to be human.
That in itself should be enough to mark it out as something genuinely special. But it is our own attempts to answer those questions while considering the narrative, and our pondering of those answers after, that truly reveals the power of the game.