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SOMA and the dirty, nasty side of human nature

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Warning: this piece contains story spoilers for SOMA

In so many games, I daresay most games, you hurt other people in the course of normal gameplay. You might kill (or at the very least, beat up) your enemies. You might destroy property or steal things. Maybe you just butt-stomp a bunch of goombas. Conflict is most often represented by some kind of physical violence or forced redistribution of resources. Your enemies — or even just neutral NPCs — aren't really worth worrying over.

Certainly, some games have called to attention the consequences of hurting others — with varying degrees of success. But SOMA — Frictional Games' new horror adventure — takes the concept and does something brilliant with it. When you do questionable (or terrible) things in SOMA — and you will — you'll know it. You'll feel it. And most importantly, it will mean something.

SOMA is set in a derelict undersea lab, where, of course, something has gone horribly wrong. You play as Simon, a character who has no idea how he got there or why he's on the ship, a transplant from another time and place. That confusion serves to make the following sequences all the more terrifying — and painful — to experience.

soma

In one early scene, I encountered a robot that talked a little bit like Portal's GLaDOS . I needed to disconnect her from a power source in order to power up a nearby device to advance in the game. It was a little weird when I unplugged her — she says "I was happy," as her lights go out, and I felt uneasy. It's OK, though, right? She was just a robot, after all.

Soon after that, I encountered another talking robot. This one had a Brooklyn accent and told me his name was Carl and that he was hurt. When I asked him if he was a robot, he got angry, thinking I was playing around with him in a time of need. He insisted that he was human, and that I please go find him a doctor. Not long after that, I encountered Carl's battered corpse. He was a real person.

So what if he was made of metal, he felt pain.

In order to advance, I needed to pull the plug that was powering robot-Carl. He howled in pain and begged me to stop. Pulling that plug made me feel like a terrible person, someone who could hurt another being for their own gain. So what that Carl was made of metal — he felt pain. But I did it anyway.

Not long after that, SOMA presented me with its most ghoulish image thus far: a human woman who was struggling to breathe, hooked up to a machine-like lung and plugged into the computer. Amy was in terrible pain. I spoke with her; she didn't know what had happened to her. She just wanted to go home. I had to unplug her to move the story forward. She cried "hurts," when I pulled one plug. She cried in pain and presumably died with the second.

I don't think I've ever had this strong a sense of dissonance when playing a game. I hated myself for doing this despicable thing, but did it anyway because I wanted to keep playing. I wanted to see what the consequences were. Amy's cries still haunt me, many days after encountering her in the game. I know that in reality, she is just a few lines of scripting (and lines of dialogue) and art assets, made in a fabricated reality. But the beauty of SOMA is that — in the fiction of this world — everyone is precisely that: lines of code.

soma

SOMA is, at its very core, a game about dehumanization and the fundamental, philosophical idea of what it means to be human. In the game, the protagonist and all the remaining sentient entities on PATHOS-2, who represent the last of humanity, following an extinction event — are no longer human in the sense we typically associate with the word. They are AIs made from advanced brain scans of "real" people — their personalities and memories intact, but now living in computers, or in robot bodies. Everyone here is a few lines of code. Does that make them no longer human?

Later in the game, I needed to kill a robot and steal its tool chip in order to move on. I did it, even as my protagonist's dawning sense of what he actually was made him sick over the act. "He was just a robot!" Catherine, another AI who was guiding me through the horrors, exclaimed. "You were doing what you needed to do," she cooed. It is in this sequence that the protagonist started to really figure out that he is also a robot, of sorts. What makes him any different from the robot that he killed?

To SOMA's credit, none of this is handled like a cheap twist. There are hints throughout the game that something of this nature is going on — like when I somehow didn't drown when a room became flooded, or how I interacted with certain electronics throughout the game just by touching them. The theme is presented soberly, an idea worth exploring and discussing, not brought out for shock value.

SOMA doesn't back down from the implications of the player's troubling actions. To be human, it seems to say, is to knowingly hurt other sentient beings for your own gain. Other creatures may maim or kill, but it's only us that understand the act and do it anyway. SOMA acknowledges this deeply disturbing idea and lets you stew uncomfortably in it, for the rest of the game.

To be human, it seems to say, is to knowingly hurt other sentient beings for your own gain

I encountered a lot of freaky creatures in SOMA. I hid, cowering in dark corners, listening to anguished screams. But this idea, this dark, honest appraisal of human nature scared me more than anything else in the game.

This isn't to say that SOMA is never guilty of laying it on a bit thick — there's one extended dialogue scene towards the end where Simon literally asks "are we alive?" and he and Catherine discuss the meaning of life for a bit. I half-expected the piano tinkling from Metal Gear Solid 2's Codex conversations to come on in the background. But, as heavy-handed as that sequence was, SOMA's earnestness impressed me. The creators have something to say, and they aren't afraid to go for it, even if they overreach on occasion.

SOMA is a very scary game — I spent a good quarter of it hiding from one terrifying creature or another, praying it couldn't sense me, my palms sweating in real life. But, like the best horror fiction, it's the deeper meaning of those monsters — what they represent — that stayed with me. There are moments from SOMA that are lodged in my brain, probably forever. Those heady ideas about transhumanism and evolution sit uncomfortably next to Amy's cries and Carl's howls of pain. The thought that I — and any other reasonable person — can and will knowingly do terrible things has overshadowed every monster encounter. I'm not going to forget any of it anytime soon.