A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
SOMA is a walking simulator designed by Frictional Games, creators of the Amnesia series, which takes place entirely within the sensorium of a dead man. The good news about SOMA is that it usually uses psychological horror trickery instead of the more common jump-scares, and the bad news is that in basically every possible way the game is a giant misfire. It’s full of attempts to explore deep, serious questions in the best traditions of science fiction. But, regrettably, it fails to realize its potential on any level: As an exploration of the simulation hypothesis, as an apocalypse tale, as a horror experience, or even as an attempt to question the nature of self and identity.
Let’s tackle mechanics first. SOMA’s core mechanic, the primary mechanism by which the player experiences its world, is walking. Not interacting with the environment, not solving puzzles, not even real exploration. Just being told “Your destination is here. Walk there.” This would be fine if the game billed itself as something like Dear Esther or Gone Home, but it’s trying to be horror. And mechanically, it’s just not there. Frictional’s trademark buggy AI and soft takeoff are here in full force, as is their lackluster creature design. The “monsters” in SOMA – largely semi-mobile plot devices – are tryhard by way of H.R. Giger, nonsensically smashed-together biomechanisms that don’t obey physical laws and are held together with magic glue.
Speaking of tryhard, let’s talk puzzles. Do you like being told that no choice you can possibly make is right? Then you’ll love the fuck out of SOMA’s puzzles. They’re awesome for being almost entirely a combination of “unplug this sapient thing that is reliant on the power you’re taking away” and “BUT THOU MUST.” Nearly every “puzzle” that doesn’t involve walking three hundred feet out of your way to avoid a foot-thick wall while wearing a suit of powered construction armor is an attempt to discomfort the player by having them commit what the game assures us is premeditated murder.
So, with the uninspired mechanics and plodding pace out of the way, let’s get to the part of the game that’s most offensive: The story.
Science fiction, as a genre, is primarily concerned with the present. It uses hypothetical futures to examine elements of the human condition. I’m going to digress for a moment to state outright that this is why Star Wars isn’t science fiction – It doesn’t ask any questions about people. It’s just a cool action-fantasy story set in space. That’s fine for what it is, but it’s not advancing the genre of science fiction. Sorry.
The Simulation Hypothesis is a pretty well-trodden area of science fiction. If you’re not familiar, the Simulation Hypothesis is the idea that there exists a likelihood, purely on statistical basis, that we exist within a computer simulation created by an extremely advanced posthuman civilization. It’s very slightly more complicated than that, but the important part here is that it’s a statistically-derived argument. If postsingularity civilizations are possible, and if those civilizations have near-infinite or truly infinite computing power, then those civilizations would of course want to create very high-fidelity recreations of previous ways of living. Historical preserves, essentially, made with resimulated or dubbed mental state vectors. Because historical interest. And so, given an arbitrary likelihood of simulations being “real”, here’s how unlikely it is that we’re actually inhabiting the base reality of matter.
This is the same bullshit argument that the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, a particularly execrable cult, use to justify talking your ear off about their god that they claim we’ll invent someday. God will resimulate you and punish you forever with the torture of existing in the same universe as MIRI zealots, apparently.
SOMA takes the concept of the Simulation Hypothesis and clumsily uses it to try to examine the question of “what is ‘me’?” That is, how do you define a person? Are they their thoughts? Are they their brain? What if you copy their mental state down to the most precise measurable quantity and then copy the direction of their thoughts – their state vector – into a sufficiently-powerful robot? Is the robot now them? What if they’re still around?
As you might have guessed, it falls flat. The Simulation Hypothesis in and of itself is a null hypothesis – Even if true, it’s meaningless. And the game seems to have difficulty coming to grips with its material. The plot details an expert system, the Warden Unit (abbreviated WAU), that exists to ensure the survival of the people trapped under the ocean when the apocalypse happens. The WAU builds a high-fidelity simulator. One of the scientists takes the simulator and builds it out into a more-reliable system, then starts uploading copies of people to it. The idea is floated to fire the simulator into space, because why live in a giant mass-driver if you’re not going to “save” “humanity”?
The WAU proves itself unstable, of course. Unreliable AGI and expert systems are a cornerstone of unimaginative science fiction. It starts slapping people together with machines using its magic glue – Science is attempted here but never actually realized – and releasing these “proxies” on the station’s population. The game tries pulling your heartstrings, showing you this world through the eyes of a dead man. One of the first-ever viable state vector scans, who donated his mindstate to science on his death from a traumatic brain injury.
Simon, our PC, is supposed to be the protagonist in every way. Coming from an early 21st century background, he comes complete with our culture bundling. At first the game sort of leads into the suspicion that the undersea mass driver station Simon(2) wakes up in, PATHOS-II, might be the inside of Simon’s mind. That you might be ambling around the facility, fixing Simon’s brain as you go through the power of metaphor.
Man, Psychonauts was a good game. Why didn’t I review Psychonauts instead?
Regrettably, the game plays itself straight as an arrow. PATHOS-II is what it looks like: An underwater research station / orbital mass driver / monster factory / fish habitat (?) / mining station (??) / power plant under the Atlantic, where space launches were done before the End Of The World. Now that the world’s over, of course, the place turns inward and eats itself. Ho, hum. It is to yawn. Oh no, what ‘shocking’ thing will I see next? Oh, no. I have been caught by a monster. Guess I’d better go fist a robot anus to heal up from that startle. Oh, cool. It’s another unwitting-slave-to-the-machine allegory. Yaaaaaaay.
Like a bad movie, the plot limps along with things happening by fiat. Nothing flows organically here except magic glue. The people committing suicide as a solution to the continuity-of-identity problem presented in the game is probably the worst way to go about it, and if the character doing the state vector uploads wasn’t apparently on the autism spectrum perhaps more thought would’ve been dedicated to using the crew’s already-integrated brain implants to keep their perspective rolling between their physical bodies and their digital representations. But no, this is SOMA. The laziest, point-A to point-B solution will do. After all, what’re you going to do? Play an enjoyable game?
Still, I’m going to recommend that you at least watch David’s Package’s excellent Let’s Play series. It’s worth experiencing, but not really worth playing through yourself. David’s Package presents the game thoroughly, with none of YouTube’s traditional HEY WASSUP IT’S YO BOY THUGLIFE6969-420 COMIN’ ATCHA AGIN WIT’ ANOTHER bullshit.
All in all, SOMA is both narratively boring and not fun to play. I actually gave up on this review and stopped where I did because I was so fucking tired of talking about this tiresome piece of shit.
On my standard rating scale of result over effort, it scores a solid 6/10.
That reduces to 3/5.
And that’s a compromise we can all live with.