“If there’s an afterlife, is my place taken? Is heaven full of people who would call me an imposter?”
— Simon Jarrett, upon realizing that he is a digitized copy.
Ever since the turn of the century I’ve had a— well, not a love/hate relationship with video games so much as a love/indifference one. I’ve worked on several game projects that never made it to market, wrote a tie-in novel for a game that did. Occasionally my work has inspired games I’ve had nothing to do with; the creators of Bioshock 2 and Torment: Tides of Numanera cite me as an influence, for example. There’s a vampire in The Witcher 3 named Sarasti. Eclipse Phase, the paper-based open-source role-playing game, names me in their references. And so on.
For one reason or another, I’ve never got around to actually playing any of these games. But a fan recently gifted me with a download of Frictional Games’ SOMA, whose creators also cite me as inspirational (alongside Greg Egan, China Miéville, and Philip K. Dick). And in the course of the occasional egosurf I’ve stumbled across various blogs and forums in which people have commented on the peculiar Wattsiness of this particular title. So what the hell, I figured; I needed something to write about this week, and it was either gonna be SOMA or my first acid trip.
Major Spoilers after the graphic, so stop reading if you’re still saving yourself for your own run at the game. (Although if you’re still doing that a solid year after its release, you’re even further behind the curve than I am.)
In SOMA you play Simon: a regular dude from 2015 Toronto, who— following a brain scan at the notoriously-disreputable York University— suddenly finds himself a hundred years in the future, just after a cometary impact has wiped out all life on the surface of the earth. Simon doesn’t have to worry about that, though— not in the short term, at least— because he’s not on the surface of the Earth. He’s stuck in a complex of derelict undersea habitats near a geothermal vent, where (among other things) he is attacked by giant mutant viperfish and caught up in a story centering around the nature of consciousness. “I’d really like to know who thought sending a Canadian to the bottom of the sea was a good idea,” he blurts out at one point. “I miss Toronto. In Toronto I knew who I was.”
So yeah, I can see a certain Watts influence. Maybe even a bit of homage.
If I was feeling especially egotistical I could really push it. Those subway stations Simon cruises through on his way to York— not that far from where I used to live. His in-game buddy Catherine once mistakenly remarks that he comes from Vancouver, where I lived before that. Hell, if I wanted to pull out all the stops I could even point out that Jesus Christ’s Number Two Man (and the first of the popes) was called Simon Peter. Coincidence?
Yeah, probably. That last thing, anyway. Then again, any game whose major selling point was its Peter Watts references would be shooting for a pretty limited market. Fortunately, SOMA is more substantive. In fact, it may not be so much inspired by my writing (or Dick’s, or Egan’s, or Miéville’s) as we all are inspired by the same scary-cool stuff that underlies human existence. We’re all drinking from the same well, we all lie awake at night haunted by the same existential questions: how can meat possibly wake up? Where does subjective awareness come from? What is it like to be attacked by giant mutant viperfish at four thousand meters?
SOMA’s influences extend beyond the the usual list of authors you’ll find online (or quoted at the top of this post, for that matter). The biocancer that infests and reshapes everything from people to anglerfish seems more than a little reminiscent of the Melding Plague in Alistair Reynolds’ Revelation Space, for example. And while Simon’s belated discovery that he’s basically a digitized brain scan riding a corpse in a suit of armor might seem lifted directly from the Nanosuit in my Crysis 2 tie-in novel, I lifted that idea in turn from Richard Morgan’s game script.
So much for the parts SOMA cannibalized. How does it stitch them together?
For starters, the game is gorgeous to behold and insanely creepy to hear. The murk of the conshelf, the punctuated blackness of the abyss, the clanks and creaks of overstressed hull plating just this side of implosion keep you awestruck and on-edge in equal measure. Of course, these days that’s true for pretty much any game worth reviewing (Alien: Isolation comes to mind— you might almost describe SOMA as an undersea Alien: Isolation with a neurophilosophy filling). SOMA’s technology seems strangely antiquated for the 22nd century — flickering fluorescent light tubes, seventies-era video cameras, desktop computers that look significantly less advanced than the latest offerings down at Staples— but that’s also true for a lot of games these days. (Alien: Isolation gets a pass on that because it was honoring the aesthetic of the movie. The Deus Ex franchise, not so much.)
There’s not much of an interface to interfere with the view, no hit points or health icons cluttering up the edges of your display. You know you’ve been injured when your vision blurs and you can’t run any more. You have no weapons to keep track of. The inventory option is a joke: for 90% of the game, you’re completely empty-handed except for a glorified door-opener to help you get around. It’s way more minimalist than most player interfaces, and the better for it.
Likewise, dialog options are pretty much nonexistent. Now and then you can choose to start a conversation, but from that point on you’re essentially listening to a radio play. I think Frictional made the right choice here, too. All those clunky dialog menus that pop up in Fallout or Mass Effect— those same four or five options offered up time after time, regardless of context (Really? I want to ask Piper about our relationship now?)— offer just enough conversational flexibility to really drive home how little conversational flexibility you have. It’s one of the inherent weaknesses of computer games as an art form— game tech just isn’t advanced enough to improvise decent dialog on the fly.
SOMA cuts the player out of the loop entirely during the talky bits. The cost is that we lose the illusion of control (which is actually kind of meta if you think about it); the benefit is that we get richer dialog, deeper characters, shock and tantrums and emotional investment to go along with the thought experiment. Simon isn’t some empty vessel for the player to pour themselves; he’s a living character in his own right.
I’ll grant that he’s not a very bright one. He mentions at one point that he used to work in a bookstore, but given how long it takes him to catch on to certain things I’m willing to bet that its SF and pop-science sections were pretty crappy. Simon’s a nice guy, and I really felt for him— but if his home town was, in fact, a nod to my own, I can only hope the same cannot be said for his intellect.
On the other hand, who’s to say I’d be any quicker on the draw if I was the dusty photocopy of a long-dead brain, thrown headlong and without warning into Apocalypse? I don’t know if anyone would be firing on all synapses under those conditions; and the languid pace at which Simon clues in does provide a convenient opportunity to hammer home certain philosophical issues to which a lot of players won’t have given much prior thought. The fact that Simon’s sidekick Catherine grows increasingly impatient with his “bullshit”, with the fact that she has to keep repeating herself, suggests that this was a deliberate decision on Frictional’s part.
But if Simon’s a bit slow on the uptake, SOMA isn’t. Even the scenery is smart. Wandering the seabed, at depths ranging from a few hundred meters to four thousand, the fauna just looks right: spider crabs, rattails, tiny bioluminescent squid and tube worms and iridescent, gorgeous ctenophores (ctenophores! How many of you even know what those are?) Inside one of the habitats, a dead scientist’s lab notes remark upon the sighting of a Chauliodus (“viperfish” to you yokels): “Not usually found at this depth— anomaly”. I wet myself a little when I read that. Writing Starfish back in the nineties, I too had to grapple with the fact that viperfish don’t foray into the deep abyss. I had to come up with my own explanation for why they did so at Channer Vent.
Smart or dumb, though, the ocean floor is mere setting: SOMA’s story revolves around issues of consciousness. Frictional did their homework here too. Sure, there’s the usual throwaway stuff— one model of sapience-compatible drone is dubbed “Qualia-class”— but stuff like the Body Transfer and Rubber Hand Illusions aren’t just name-checked; they actively inform vital elements of the plot. People come equipped with “black boxes” in their brains that can be forensically data-mined post-mortem. (This proves useful in figuring out SOMA’s backstory, an ingenious new twist on the usual Let’s find personal diaries lying around everywhere more commonly employed in such games.) Most of the lynchpin events in this story occur not to effect the course of the plot, but to make you think about its underlying themes.
By way of comparison, look to SOMA’s spiritual cousin, Bioshock. For all its explicit in-your-face references to Ayn-Randian ideology, Bioshock fails as analysis. (At best, its analysis amounts to Objectivism is bad because when capitalism runs amok, genetically-engineered nudibranchs will result in widespread insanity and the ability to shoot live bees out of your hands.) Andrew Ryan’s political beliefs serve as mere backdrop to the action, and as wall-paper rationale for the setting; but the events of the story could have just as easily gone down in a failed socialist utopia as a capitalist one. Bioshock was brilliant in the way it used the mechanics of game play to inform one of its themes (I’ve yet to see its equal in that regard), but that particular theme revolved around the existence of free will, with no substantive connection to Objectivist ideology. SOMA, in contrast, actually grapples with the issues it presents; it makes them part of the plot.
In fact, you could argue that SOMA is actually more rumination than game, an extended scenario that systematically builds a case towards an inevitable, nihilistic conclusion (two nihilistic conclusions actually, the second superficially brighter and happier than the first but actually way more depressing if you stop to think about it). If there’s a problem with this game, it’s that the the story is so tight, the rumination so railbound, that it can’t afford to give the player much freedom for fear they’ll screw up the scenario. There’s really only one way to play SOMA. Discoveries and revelations have to happen in a specific order, conversations must proceed in a certain way. The obligatory monsters— justified as failed prototypes, built by an AI trying to create Humanity 2.0— don’t really do anything story-wise. You can’t kill them. You can’t talk to them. You can’t scavenge their carcasses for booty, or fashion a makeshift cannon from local leftovers and blow them away. Your interactive options consist exclusively of run and hide. SOMA’s monsters serve no real purpose except to creep you out, and slow your progress along a narrative monorail.
There are choices to be made— surprisingly affecting ones— but they don’t affect the outcome of the plot. Your reaction to the last surviving human— wasting away in some flickering half-lit locker at the bottom of the sea, IV needle festering in her arm, pictures of her beloved Greenland (gone now, along with everything else) scattered across the deck— who only wants to die. The repeated activation and interrogation of an increasingly panicky being who doesn’t know he’s digitized (although he sure as shit knows something‘s wrong), a being you simply discard once you have what you need from him. The treatment of your own earlier iterations, still inconveniently extant after your transcription into a new host. These powerful moments exist not so much to further the story as to inspire reflection upon a story already decided— and they might be missed entirely by a player with too much freedom, able to go where they will and when. It’s the age-old tension between sandbox and narrative, autonomy and storytelling. Frictional has sacrificed one for the other, so— as immersive as this game is— it’s bound to suck at replay value.
It’s easy enough to justify such creative decisions in principle; in practise, the result sometimes feels like a cheat. I spent half an hour tromping around the seabed looking for a particular item among the wreckage— a computer chip— that would spare me the need to kill a sapient drone for the same vital part. It would have been easy enough for Frictional to give me that option; they’d already littered the seabed with wrecked drones, it wouldn’t have killed them to leave me some usable salvage. But no. The the only way forward was to slaughter an innocent being. It made the point, philosophically, but it felt wrong somehow. Forced.
This would normally be the point at which I bitch and moan about how, for all the “inspiration” game developers attribute to me, it would be really nice if they might someday be inspired to actually hire me instead of just mining my stories. It would be an utterly bullshit whinge— I’ve admitted to gaming gigs in my past on this very post— but I’d make it anyway because, Hey: if one of your inspirations is sitting right there in the corner next to the potted philodendron, why not ask him for a dance? He might just teach you a couple of new steps.
This time, though, I’m going to restrain myself. SOMA could not have been an easy assignment; I could bitch about the monorail gameplay constraints or the intermittent dimness of the protagonist, but given the limitations of the medium I don’t know that I could do any better without compromising mission priorities. SOMA is a game in the straight-up survival-horror mode, but the horror is more existential than visceral. And those conventional mechanics serve the most substantive theme I’ve ever encountered in a video game.
Bottom line, I think they did a damn fine job.
 This metaphor is in no way meant to imply that I am any kind of dancer. My most recent memories of dancing involve jumping wildly up and down and slapping my thighs in approximate time to Money for Nothing.