In this futuristic horror, the mind sheds the flesh
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.
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.