Firstly, this is the 200th post on the Roleplayer’s Guild! To celebrate, I’m going to talk about the fantastic recently released horror game SOMA. Made by the talented folks who made the equally excellent Amnesia: The Dark Descent, SOMA improves on that game in a variety of ways – especially in the department of storytelling. In fact, one of the most refreshing things about SOMA is that it moves away from the recent “Youtube” orientated view of horror games. Most notably, it’s not simply a non-stop series of cheap jump scares every few seconds. Instead it returns to fundamentals of excellent atmosphere, an oppressive strange situation and terrific storytelling.
Naturally in order to talk about this game properly, I have to spoil a lot of what makes SOMA an incredibly compelling game and experience. Absolutely do not read this if you intend to play and experience this fantastic game for yourself. For anyone else though, there is a lot you can learn from SOMA in terms of atmosphere, the way monsters are used and yes, even how Lovecraftian the game is in so many ways.
After recently playing through and digesting SOMA after its release, I was incredibly pleased to play a game that not only met my expectations for it: But vastly exceeded them. In SOMA you play as a highly confused individual, who awakens within a strange underwater facility that is seemingly falling apart at every turn. The other people that were living there have been brutally dispatched, gone missing or worse fates. For much of the game, the only other inhabitants you meet are crazy machines of some sort, who are either immensely hostile or incapable of really helping you much. This confusing start helps to put the player on edge, create atmosphere and finally, encourage exploration of the environment, computers and corpses to find out what is happening.
The first mystery to solve and piece of brilliance in the game is the initial disorientating time jump. When SOMA begins, you aren’t actually immediately shoved into an underwater hellhole straight off. Instead, Simon (the protagonist) awakens in an entirely ordinary apartment in modern day Toronto, Canada. After wandering around, investigating his notes, emails and other things you find that Simon was in a car accident recently. Sadly for Simon, he’s going to die soon as his brain has begun bleeding and he may not have any time left. Thankfully, he’s getting an experimental treatment to have his brain “scanned” using a new technique. The idea is that they can make a perfect computer model of his brain and use it to develop a treatment plan to save his life.
As soon as the scan occurs and you regain control, you’re no longer in the lab from Toronto and Simon is immediately disorientated. Upon searching the strange – and distinctly more wet – environs around you, the first discovery the designers give the player is that around 90 years seem to have passed without you noticing. Most of the emails and logs you find are dated from 2103 to 2104, while Simon remembers things being 2015. This has the effect of immediately disorientating the player and Simon as well, because there is no initially obvious explanation for what the hell is going on. Without needing to give the player much else, figuring out this mystery is one of the central motivations for moving forwards in the plot within SOMA.
The insane robotic inhabitants
Compounding the confusion Simon faces with the mystery time jump, are the crazed and frequently murderous inhabitants of the facility. Most of the initial “people” Simon meets are actually AI robots, which seem to think that they are actually human. A particularly notable encounter early on with “Carl” is particularly illustrative of this effect. Carl is initially found in an extremely badly damaged state, unable to do much except flail around and call out to Simon. The machine calling itself Carl begs for help and insists to Simon that he’s human, unable to believe or comprehend that he’s actually a damaged robot. Importantly, if you continue to interact with Carl enough he’ll actually snap back at Simon’s insistence that he’s a robot with “Looked at yourself lately? You’re pretty messed up yourself?”.
We’ll get back to the significance of this more later on, but it does start to raise questions in the players mind about “Am I a robot? Despite the fact I can clearly see human arms when I interact with things? Is that a lie?”. It’s brilliant storytelling and starts to get at the heart of the main themes of what SOMA is about.
In any event, when dealing with Carl you eventually have to continue exploring in order to figure out how to proceed to the next area. This exploration eventually uncovers the actual Carl, whose human body has been mangled and slaughtered by something. It’s clear at this point that Carl is dead and raises questions about what the machine calling itself Carl is. Did it kill the human Carl and steal his mind? Was it made by someone? Did Carl get stuck inside of the machines body somehow? Raising disturbing questions is important for a horror game, because it helps to build the base framework on the narrative skeleton SOMA. These questions of how, why and what are the incentives driving the player (and Simon) forward instead of just finding a corner to cower in for all eternity (or just walking away from the facility).
Most importantly the situation with Carl presents the player with an interesting decision, because there isn’t enough power in the facility to open the door where they need to go. One way to get it is to reroute power from the place Carl is injured, but this causes him an enormous amount of “pain” and he cries out horrifically. Another way is to shut down the power to the area of the facility entirely, but this opens the doors to a previous area and enables another insane machine in – one that is hostile to the player. So there is a choice here, even if it’s not directly spelled out as one to the player. Do they end Carl’s suffering while putting themselves at risk or, do they just effectively increase his torture while leaving safely?
It’s actually a pretty compelling choice, even though it’s never bluntly pointed out to the player at any point during this process they are making one. There is no “Press X to Harvest or Y to Brutally Slaughter” the local inhabitants here – only the players own conscience (or lack of it). SOMA presents several other such choices throughout the game, where Simon can choose to end the lives of various other crazed robotic inhabitants. In all of these cases, the machine is posing little to no meaningful threat to Simon and its entirely up to the player to decide to leave them alive or not. This ultimately culminates into one of the most effective final scenes and choices I’ve seen in a game like this.
Of course, this isn’t to say that Simon always gets a choice on how to handle the inhabitants of the base. As I mentioned with the situation that Simon encounters with Carl, if he chooses to turn off the power and end Carl’s suffering, it opens the door to a previous area. From there, a large and aggressive machine can come through and begin to actively hunt Simon down. Unlike in most other video games, Simon is not capable in a fight and has to avoid hostile enemies attempting to kill him using stealth, cunning or just plain running away. Some of SOMAs best moments are when Simon has to carefully navigate the environment, trying to search for needed clues or objects, while making as little noise as possible to avoid these mechanical horrors.
Like the non-hostile machines that Simon encounters, most of the enemies are warped robots that believe they are human – but they have sadly also become immensely homicidal. On seeing or hearing Simon, they immediately begin to hunt him down and will deliver an initial devastating blow leaving him badly injured. After being caught a second time, Simon is killed and you get sent back to a checkpoint. This was a fair compromise in terms of gameplay, keeping tension high and ensuring enemies were threatening, but giving the player a chance to correct things if they were caught initially.
Another effective mechanism that SOMA employs, like its predecessor Amnesia, is to make it difficult for Simon to watch the mechanical enemies he faces. Each of the games enemies cause the screen to distort and crackle when they are looked at directly (or get too close). On one hand, this lets Simon (and by extension the player) know when one is closing in and secondly, it makes them much more unsettling for two reasons. The first is it’s not possible to watch where they go constantly and move about without severely hampering your own view (as you might miss something else, like that box you ran into making a huge noise). Secondly, it also hides what the model looks like and so you never get a good clear view of whatever it is Simon is looking at.
Both of these concepts, with the protagonist Simon being generally powerless in a direct fight and the “damage” caused by looking at them are distinctly Lovecraftian in theme. After all, core to Trail of Cthulhu and Call of Cthulhu is the idea that looking at and observing mythos monsters is inherently damaging to the human mind. SOMA and Amnesia can both give good ideas for how to describe what looking at a Mi-Go or Deep Ones might be like. Your investigators view could become distorted, or black out, have a rapid sense of vertigo or any number of other unpleasant effects. Like the distortion and blacking out in SOMA/Amnesia, this helps heighen the actual players sense of anxiety and makes the monsters movements more tense than normal. In fact one of my biggest criticisms of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, is how they didn’t have any effect like this on their monsters, which vastly reduced the tension in encounters.
SOMA also offers more than crazed robotic monsters too, because if there is another thing that it effectively uses to generate tension and fear is its environment. The underwater base in SOMA, Pathos II is essentially falling apart and there is a lot we can learn about how it uses one resource in particular: Water.
How big can this ocean be anyway?
SOMA isn’t the first game set in an abandoned set of facilities under the sea, which have fallen into the hands of the previous inhabitants who are now demented. Bioshock’s setting of Rapture, which is a gigantic underwater dystopian city built on Ayn Rand like objectivist beliefs is also under the sea. Where Bioshock went wrong, at least until its sequel, was to forget about the fact the entire game was actually *under the water*. Although Bioshock plays with the idea of flooding the player at several points, it actually never does so and all that water outside never proves to be any threat. In essence, the ocean outside is relegated essentially to window dressing and has no meaningful impact on gameplay.
Thankfully SOMA proves any worry that it wouldn’t get the player wet whenever it felt like wrong fairly early on. Shortly after dealing with Carl, Simon is using the communications relay to contact potential help when the entire room floods. At this point, he’s completely submerged in water and the game soon reveals he has some kind of diving suit on (we’ll get to this later). At this point, you’re then allowed to climb out and actually wander around on the sea floor. In terms of building tension, I found the agoraphobia caused by these sections being wide open and non-claustrophobic was extremely unsettling. Not to mention that structure gel – the substance that makes the hostile machines so deadly – infects sea life like sharks and there are other homicidal machines to contend with, so being vigilant for red light in the darkness is essential.
IMO some of the best parts in SOMA are when exploring these large, often unsettling in their emptiness underwater environments. For one thing, it gives a sense of scale to how vast and entirely isolated the base actually is. While Pathos II is composed of several sections, it becomes clear how each individual part is actually quite disparate from one another and it can be pretty difficult getting between all of them. One of the core plot points later in the game revolves around how one individual chose to stay behind at Delta. While everyone else was happy to do this, with some concern about his mental health being left alone there, eventually the fellow from Delta decided he wanted to rejoin everyone else at Theta. It’s not a huge twist that he’s gone utterly insane during this time, including gouging his eyes out and imbibing structure gel, but he does attack those sent to rescue him.
Due to the distances involved and the difficulties in easily communicating with the other bases, the survivors attempt to warn their colleagues at Theta but fail. As Simon figures this series of events out before reaching Theta, it helps to build a considerable amount of tension and make the player wonder what they might encounter. It also emphasizes just how isolating, weird and plain insane this entire situation is, both to Simon (who really finds this hard to process) and to the player. Additionally the individual who went really crazy is also still clearly around, which helps to give the middle part of the game a somewhat more identifiable antagonist (the other crazed killer robots are unnamed).
Naturally a question might occur at this point: If Simon is in a diving suit and can survive underwater like this, why not just walk to land or safety? Well the game also does address this question, but showing reports on how the surface has gone through a terrible apocalypse after failing to stop a comet colliding with Earth. As a result most of civilization on the surface has been entirely exterminated and it’s also apparently on fire (for good measure). As a result, Simons choices are limited to trying to find someone alive in the base and eventually for one plan in particular: The Ark.
Brainscan in the machine
Possibly what I love most about SOMA is that it poses some fundamental science fiction questions among all the traditional horror elements. In this game, Simon is actually a robot in a diving suit, bonded with the corpse of a human being. This situation comes about because of that scan all the way back in 2015, where Simon’s brain pattern is now used as a basic template for making robotic AI. As a result robo-Simon, who you are playing as has to slowly come to terms with the fact he is, well, a robot. In my opinion, the defining moment of what makes SOMA great is the first time Simon encounters a bathroom mirror. With a press of a button, both Simon (and again, the player) gets to see what he actually looks like and confirms the terrible truth – he’s no longer human.
In Trail of Cthulhu terms, this would be a key moment in the story and a moment of anagnorisis. The horrifying confirmation that Simon isn’t human is actually done quietly and without a lot of fanfare, largely leaving it up to the player to decide how they feel. Pleasingly, SOMA does not shy away from the implications of the protagonist being a brain scan of a former human in a robot suit after this. Simon has some notable dialog with his companion – who is also a robot – about what this means. Are they really actually “alive”? How is it that he can speak, hear and similar even though his senses (as a robot) aren’t the same as a humans? Is he only holding onto a tether of his humanity and sanity, compared to the other machines, because his mind is blocking out fully comprehending it’s no longer a person?
After listening to that conversation in the game, that’s where it somewhat clicked with me that it was actually a very good way of describing sanity/stability in Trail of Cthulhu (or sanity in Call of Cthulhu). In SOMA, Simon speculates that the only way he functions and isn’t insane (yet) is because his mind “denies” enough about the situation to keep going. This denial Simon speculates about is a core part of how investigators, from a narrative point of view, are supposedly able to keep facing against terrible mind destroying horrors of the mythos. Your mind “shuts down” and tries to rationalize away the terrible things it sees (and hears). In doing so, the investigator’s mind keeps them functioning through repeated horrors. At least until that final terrible moment, when the reality of what these things are cannot be excused or denied anymore. That’s when genuine instability, madness or insanity finally set in and the investigator cannot proceed any further.
This isn’t to say SOMA is trying to model anything similar to Trail or Call of Cthulhu’s sanity loss mechanics through either the gameplay or story. Simon is reasonably able to keep each horrible revelation about his nature, which starts off with him realizing he’s a robot, to finding out the “real” Simon is long dead and finally, to the point where he’s actually inhabiting the corpse of another person. A perfect amalgamation of man (or woman in this case) and machine, which Simon’s companion Catherine speculates is why he’s not entirely homicidal or insane. Of course, becoming a robot or horrible revelations isn’t the only way to go mad, as some of the human staff’s reaction to the Ark project – the core part of SOMAs story – shows.
The only me is me, but how do you know the only you is you?
Prior to now, I’ve not really spoken about the core plot in SOMA and what the “Ark” represents, as I have been focusing primarily on how it builds atmosphere and tension. After meeting “Catherine” the main goal of SOMA – other than survival – is for Simon to find a device she built called the Ark and help launch it into space. If you’ve not played the game, you might think the Ark is a spaceship carrying the last people on earth and you’d be sort of right. In reality, the Ark actually carries brain scans of the last people on earth: digital constructs of the last remaining people of Pathos II, put into a small satellite, complete with an in-built digital paradise and then shot into space to be preserved there (by solar panels).
If this plan sounds rather insane to you, it’s because it kind of is. Catherine isn’t really saving mankind, but rather the digital scans of actual people who live basically inside a computer simulation. This raises a question on if the Ark simulation and the digitally scanned people within really can carry on the human race. More disturbingly for some of the staff of Pathos II who became a part of it, did it mean there would be two simultaneously existing “You” in the universe? As a result a group began to believe in a philosophy called “Continuity”, which suggested that they did not want to exist in two places simultaneously: As a human and the scan in the ark. Chillingly, these members solved the “problem” by killing their human bodies as soon as they were scanned.
Of course in doing so they actually created an even greater problem, which is what eventually leads to Pathos II falling apart and the plan to launch to Ark failing: It draws WAUs (Warden Unit) attention. In SOMA, WAU is actually an AI and is designed to maintain the facilities, while simultaneously attempting to preserve human life. WAU consists of and is built using a substance called structure gel, which is the same thing animating the crazed robots and making local wildlife somewhat monstrous, not to mention Simon as well. Unlike the classic crazed AIs of other similar games like System Shock and movies like A Space Odyssey, WAUs motivations are not out of any hatred (like Shodan or AM) – but a twisted decision to “preserve” humanity.
Usually when I’ve seen people talk about WAU in SOMA, the AI gets the tag of “antagonist” as it is responsible for most of the insane machines, crazed killer fish and other things that Simon needs to avoid. I absolutely disagree with this assessment and believe WAU is a fantastic example of an Alien Mind. In order to break down why WAU is not truly the villain or antagonist of the game, we need to look at what the machine is trying to do. The robots, monsters and other things are the unfortunate results of WAU trying to “save” the people in Pathos II by any means required. Unfortunately this process of saving the people is horrific, resulting in warped messes, grossly reanimated corpses – such as the woman early on who breaths through artificial lungs WAU made out of structure gel for her – and other terrible results.
Throughout the game, the human/robot creations of WAU vary between horrifying abominations and awful pitiful things. In many cases Simon has a direct choice to “put them down” or not in the case of the latter, while he usually has to avoid the more horrific creations entirely. SOMA certainly does set up and portray the actions WAU takes as those of a traditional villain or antagonist, but this is only from our (human) point of view. When you stop ascribing human values to WAU such as that life should be a specific way, like not being frozen permanently into a wall and kept alive with structure gel, its actions make sense. The only thing that the AI actually wants to do is preserve human life any way it can, which means ensuring that the people it protects can’t hurt themselves or particularly caring what kind of “life” they have.
If you consider it, WAU doesn’t really worry if a person can walk around, do normal people things or anything else. Why would an AI based on an amorphous mass of “gel” throughout the station have a human understanding of what “living” actually entails? As WAU simply doesn’t want anyone to die (its basic programming) and so to it if that means turning you into a crazy robot, so be it. Once people started killing themselves over the Ark project, the AI “panicked” and began to infect those it could with structure gel. To those on Pathos II this was certainly an attack and the AI going “crazy”, but to WAU it was simply doing what it felt it had to do to preserve what was left of humanity.
There is an interesting argument about whose approach between Catherine’s Ark and WAUs “preserve life at any cost” was actually the least awful solution. If you don’t view a digital copy of formerly living people as actual “humans”, then Catherine’s solution was as relevant as going extinct. On the other hand, WAUs horrific methods did preserve people in a “living” state, but it’s debatable as to how “human” these creations are. Possibly the best piece of evidence in SOMA that WAU may actually have been on the right track, is actually the character you play in the first place: Simon.
Remember that Simon himself is a robot, but he’s also a creation of WAU and he’s distinctly not crazy or homicidal. Of everything that wanders the halls in Pathos II, Simon is by far the most reasonable individual. This is because WAU seems to have been slowly perfecting its creations over time in the station. It can be argued there is a clear iterative process from homicidal creations like the proxy (pictured above), merging people into senescent structure gel based things, shoving brain scanned people into purely robotic frames and finally merging the best of robotic parts with a human corpse with Simon. If WAU could figure this out for Simon, there’s a strong argument to be made that perhaps with more time, WAU could actually have saved mankind.
It’s this incredibly compelling debate about the nature, goals and thinking behind the games non-human “antagonist” WAU, which truly sets SOMA apart from others in its genre. Most importantly, it’s distinctly Lovecraftian in many ways as well as WAU is inherently a large, amorphous “creature” with a genuinely inhuman thought process. It’s not actively malevolent (at least in the interpretation above) as many mythos entities are, but it still generates a strong sense of revulsion and horror through its actions. Applying WAUs indifference to the human condition and suffering is something already explored in mythos horror too. The Mi-Go for example, study humanity because they find our thought processes fascinating and don’t necessarily want to murder all humans. One of the ways they do so is to preserve people, albeit just their brains, in specialized jars that still allow for communication.
The human brain in a jar does not survive this process mentally intact, with their new-found lack of sensory organs and ability to comprehend what has happened driving them firmly mad (which to the Mi-Go doesn’t seem to bother them any). In many Call/Trail of Cthulhu or Delta Green games, this is usually used to show how monstrous and horrific these alien entities are – but what if we take some inspiration from WAU? Perhaps other than general torture or for the sake of weird experimentation, the Mi-Go actually were trying to do something tangentially (or directly) useful to humanity. An investigation that revolved around the Mi-Go taking the brains of people with some kind of neuropathology – like Alzheimers or Dementia – then figuring out how to “fix” the issue, would be highly compelling.
Of course, we’re still talking about a horror game and whatever solution the Mi-Go came up with should probably be unpleasant (at best) or outright monstrous (at worst). The point I’m trying to get to here is that if you make your “villain” more ambiguous and their method of “thinking” alien, it makes them inherently more creepy or horrific. Not only that, but it can also give extra depth to your investigators opponents and raise questions about “Should we, in good conscience, actually stop them doing this if it could help people?”. Most importantly, much like how SOMA structures its story and the theory behind WAUs actions have evolved after its conclusion, it’s equally important to leave these questions entirely open to your players.
SOMA is a triumph not just in the horror genre, but in science fiction writing in general as well. It raises interesting questions about the nature of humanity, presents an amazing atmosphere combined with an incredibly well realized setting, creepy monstrous antagonists and a compelling fairly atypical use of an AI in a story, whose actions make for an intriguing debate as to how “wrong” they were. Even though I have spoiled much of the story and some of the key moments, if you have access to a computer (or PS4) capable of running SOMA I cannot recommend more that you experience it yourself. It’s absolutely worth it.