In this fu­tur­is­tic hor­ror, the mind sheds the flesh

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY CHRISTO­PHER BYRD Byrd is a free­lance writer.

Many know the tale of Rip Van Win­kle, the Amer­i­can colo­nial­ist who fell asleep for a cou­ple of decades and awoke to a world greatly changed. But what if the story were re­vamped to ex­press the anx­i­eties of our technophilic age?

Imag­ine if to­day’s Van Win­kle were a mil­len­nial named Si­mon, who, fol­low­ing cer­tain events, woke up in 2105 af­ter the sin­gu­lar­ity oc­curred, giv­ing peo­ple the abil­ity to upload copies of their con­scious­nesses to ma­chines. For­get­ting the trauma of be­ing thrust into an en­vi­ron­ment where one rec­og­nizes nei­ther a fa­mil­iar face nor place, what other forms of dis­con­nec­tion might Si­mon ex­pe­ri­ence?

“SOMA,” the first-per­son­per­spec­tive sci-fi game from the Swedish devel­oper Fric­tional Games, of­fers an in­ter­est­ing vi­sion of what hap­pens af­ter the sin­gu­lar­ity. By cast­ing the player in the role of Si­mon, who is un­pre­pared for life in the 22nd cen­tury, the game shows how moral and eth­i­cal sys­tems buckle un­der the stress of a post-hu­man fu­ture. For if it were ever pos­si­ble to free con­scious­ness from its bi­o­log­i­cal moor­ings, our no­tions of iden­tity and in­di­vid­u­al­ity would be ir­re­vo­ca­bly al­tered.

I once de­scribed “SOMA” to a friend as a ques­tion wrapped in a vir­tual world. Should hu­mankind, sup­pos­ing it were pos­si­ble, pur­sue a path to­ward the sin­gu­lar­ity?

Right up to the end, the game presents com­pet­ing voices and clash­ing im­ages of pos­si­ble out­comes. At is­sue is the rel­a­tive value of the hu­man body in a world where con­scious­ness does not need it to ex­ist. Con­se­quently, the sub­ject of ra­tio­nal sui­cide crops up re­peat­edly.

Although “SOMA” is billed as a sci-fi hor­ror ti­tle, and Fric­tional Games is the devel­oper be­hind “Am­ne­sia: the Dark De­scent” — one of the stand­out hor­ror games in re­cent years — “SOMA” isn’t es­pe­cially scary, at least not when judged by its mon­ster en­coun­ters.

But whereas other sci-fi hor­ror games such as “Dead Space” and “Alien: Iso­la­tion” fo­cus on de­liv­er­ing a se­ries of vis­ceral jolts via the near-om­nipresent threat of vi­o­lent death, “SOMA” goes in for the mind game. The emo­tion­ally un­com­fort­able sit­u­a­tions Si­mon is placed in will bite at your nerves more than any pesky xenomorphs.

The en­vi­ron­ments and smartly in­te­grated puzzles of “SOMA” more than make up for its mi­nor-league mon­sters and merely ad­e­quate stealth me­chan­ics. There is an ex­pan­sive­ness to many of the ar­eas that never verges on the over­whelm­ing. I was wowed by how well the game con­veys a sense of du­ra­tion to some of Si­mon’s wan­der­ings, par­tic­u­larly to­ward the later part of the game.

Be­cause of its grad­ual pac­ing and the dra­matic value it places on the con­se­quences of the repli­ca­tion of con­scious­ness, the game re­minded me of An­drei Tarkovsky’s great film “So­laris.” More­over, the science fic­tion el­e­ments in “SOMA” ex­ist for the sake of thought as much as ad­ven­ture.

De­nial, or the de­sire to not think about com­pli­cated mat­ters, is a re­cur­ring flash­point in the story as char­ac­ters strug­gle with the con­flict­ing de­sire to be si­mul­ta­ne­ously aware and ig­no­rant of dire cir­cum­stances.

The less you know go­ing into the game, the bet­ter. “SOMA” is so tightly struc­tured that it’s dif­fi­cult to tease out var­i­ous plot points for as­sess­ment with­out di­vulging too much of the whole. In this re­spect, I think the de­vel­op­ers would have done bet­ter to mar­ket it as a sci-fi mys­tery in­stead of a sci-fi hor­ror game — though an ex­is­ten­tial hor­ror game it may well be.

Whether you’re a science fic­tion fan or sim­ply into games that turn on eth­i­cal dilem­mas, “SOMA” should be on your radar.

IM­AGES FROM FRIC­TIONAL GAMES

You are a mil­len­nial named Si­mon, and you wake up in the 22nd cen­tury. Many eth­i­cal dilem­mas await.

SOMA Fric­tional Games PC, PlayS­ta­tion 4 In “SOMA,” which takes place in the year 2105, the is­sue is the rel­a­tive value of the hu­man body in a post-sin­gu­lar­ity world in which con­scious­ness can be up­loaded to ma­chines.

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