I have been following Frictional Games since their original Penumbra tech demo in 2006 and in that time I have seen them grow and mature as a developer. Their most recent production, SOMA, demonstrates just how far the have come as a developer and easily is their best game yet.
When I first heard the news regarding the development of SOMA, I was both excited and trepidatious. (After all, Amnesia was very scary. I shudder still when I am reminded of the dungeon sequence.) There are more lurking monster here than there were in Amnesia and this can make the game incredibly stressful at times. I must confess I turned on godmode at several crucial points because I couldn’t take it. Even with this advantage, the game still proved to be very scary for me, largely due to the well developed and evocative story
Frictional Games has always been good at evoking strong emotions in their games but SOMA tops their previous efforts. The emotional moments of their previous games were genuinely sad and tragic but they were straightforwardly so. SOMA, on the other hand, does not let you off so easily.
SOMA explores the possibilities of artificial intelligence and brain-mapping–and does so in a way that fundamentally questions what it means to be a living, feeling organism. At several moments in the game, the player encounters robots (and one human) desperately thriving on a mutated artificial intelligence system called the WAU. In order to proceed through the game, the player must disconnect them from the WAU and effectively kill them. Normally, one might not feel much concern for a robot but these are running human brain scans. In many ways, they are quite human. They think, feel, and desire to live. Does their mechanical body disqualify them from being human? Is turning off a machine the same as ending a human life? Is it really better to die than live a painful existence? Do I have any right to make this decision for another organism? I could stop think about the questions and second-guessing my answers.
When I disconnected a robot (or human) from the WAU or ruthlessly attacked a robot for its computer chip, I found myself doubting my actions and feeling genuinely guilty about them. I didn’t like the idea of ending someone’s existence, even if they appeared to be nothing more than a machine. At least, that’s what I thought for much of the game.
Towards the end the player will meet the last fully human person, severely weakened and barely thriving on a life support system. After she helps you, she asks you to turn off her life support and end her life. Up until this point, I had assumed that surviving was the one and only goal. This is why I tried to save as many of the other characters as I could. In this case I’m explicitly asked to end a person’s pain by ending their life. The game allows you a choice here but I couldn’t leave her there to suffer alone. Once you turn her life support off, she asks that your remain with her during her last moments. This may have been option as well but I had to stay with her. Being with her as she died was one of the most painful moments I have ever experienced in a video game. It made me question whether my past actions were truly humane–perhaps letting the other characters live only condemned them to a miserable existence, one utterly alienated from everything they knew to be real and meaningful. Perhaps not.
These crucial choices are curious because they have no direct impact on the story. Even killing the WAU produces no apparent effect on the ending. This has been criticized by some players but I think this was a smart decision on the part of the developers. Giving each action a direct, observable consequences would have detracted from the emotional experience and cognitive dissonance that the game, and it choices, are meant to evoke. If each action were followed by either a “good” or “bad” consequences there would be little question how the player should feel about their actions. Instead, the emotional impact of these actions are the consequences. It’s an unusual decision but works very well for SOMA.
It can be difficult to find games with the kind of intelligent and emotional weight that SOMA has. It’s a remarkably achievement and one I suspect we won’t be forgetting anytime soon. SOMA manages to challenger our sense of being in a way that is neither trite or cliché but is consistently, and terrifyingly, meaningful.