A sour trip can kill you

Peter Watts on SOMA

Major spoilers after the picture, so stop reading if you're still saving up for your own playthrough. (However, if you do this a year after it was released, you will be even more behind than I am.)

Since the beginning of the century I've been ... well, not in a relationship of love or hate for video games, but of love and indifference. I worked on several game projects that never went up for sale and wrote a novella for a published game. Sometimes my work inspired games that I had nothing to do with; For example, the makers of Bioshock 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera quote me as an influencer. The Witcher 3 features a vampire named Sarasti. Eclipse Phase, an open source card RPG game, names me in its references. Etc.

“If there is life after death, will my place be taken? Is heaven full of people who will call me a deceiver? "
- Simon Jarrett realizes that it is a digital copy

For one reason or another, I never had the opportunity to play these games. But recently a fan gave me a download of SOMA from Frictional Games, which also cites me as inspiration (along with Greg Egan, Tea Mieville and Philip K. Dick). And in a sudden urge to googling myself, I came across various blogs and forums where people were commenting on the peculiar wattsiness of this particular title. So what the hell I realized; I had to write something this week and it will either be SOMA or my first acid trip impressions.

In SOMA you play Simon: a normal guy from Toronto in 2015 who suddenly finds himself 100 years in the future after a brain scan at the notorious York University after a comet strike destroyed all life on the earth's surface. Simon doesn't have to worry about that, at least not in the short term - because he's not on the surface of the earth. He is in a complex of abandoned underwater habitats in the middle of a geothermal trench where he is attacked (among other things) by a giant viper fish, and he is drawn into a story centered around the nature of consciousness. “I would really like to know who thought of sending the Canadian to the bottom of the sea. Good idea, ”he bursts out at one point. “I miss Toronto. In Toronto, I knew who I was. "

So yeah, I can definitely see Watts' influence. Maybe even a little respect.

If I was feeling particularly selfish, I could really bring this character to mind. These subway stations that Simon visits on his way to York are not far from where I live. His playmate Catherine once mistakenly noticed that he was from Vancouver, where I lived before. Hell, if I wanted to take every opportunity I could point out that the apostle Jesus Christ (and the first of the popes) was called Simon Peter. Coincidence?

Yes, perhaps. This is the latter anyway. Again, any game whose purchase argument referred to Peter Watts would fire in a relatively limited market. Fortunately, Soma is more informative. In fact, it might not be as inspired by my writing (or by Dick or Egan or Mieville) as we all get inspired by the same creepy-cool stuff that underlies human existence. We all drink from the same well, we all stay awake at night, haunted by the same existential questions: How does the body wake up? Where does the subjective consciousness come from? What is it like to be attacked by a giant viper fish at a depth of four thousand meters?

Influences on SOMA go beyond the usual list of authors you can find on the internet (or even the quotes at the top of this article). Biological cancer, which infects and transforms everything from humans to anglerfish, is more reminiscent than the melting plague in the Room of Revelation by Alistair Reynolds. And while Simon's belated discovery that it was actually a digitized brain scan - a walking corpse in suit armor - appears like a drawn element straight out of the "Nanosuit" in my Crysis 2 novel, I picked that idea from Richard Morgan's game script .

So many details are sorted out by the game itself. How does she sew them together?


For starters - the game is great in terms of contemplation and the listening is insanely creepy. The dullness of the continental shelf, the temporary darkness of the abyss, the clanking and creaking of the overloaded hull, which only covers one side of the perception, give rise to both joy and indifference. Of course, this is an accurate description of any game to consider these days. (Alien: Isolation comes to mind - you can practically describe SOMA as an underwater alien: Isolation with neurophilosophical content.) SOMA technology seems strangely out of date by the 22nd century - flickering fluorescent lights, 70's camcorders, desktops, the Look far less sophisticated than the latest Staples offerings - but so do many games these days. (Skip Alien: Isolation this time as this takes into account the aesthetics of the film. The Deus Ex franchise fits in a bit.)

The only battle scene in the game - we attack the robot with a shock.

The user interface doesn't clutter the view too much, and there are no hit points or health icons cluttering the edges of the screen. You will learn to get hurt when your vision is blurred and you can no longer run. You have no weapon of pursuit. Inventory options are just kidding: around 90% of the game, you'll be completely empty-handed, with the exception of the vaunted door opener which helps you move on. This is the most minimalist approach to the user interface than the rest of the representatives, and so much the better.

Your working tool.

Similarly, dialog options are missing. From time to time you may start a conversation, but from that moment on you are largely listening to the radio. I believe that Frictional Games made the right choice here too. All of those awkward dialog menus that pop up in Fallout or Mass Effect - the same four or five choices that keep popping up regardless of context (Really? I want to ask about our relationship with Piper now?) - offer a lot of flexibility in conversations, but just to emphasize how little flexibility you have in this communication. This is one of the inherent weaknesses of computer games as an art form - the game technology is not advanced enough to improvise decent dialogue on the fly.

SOMA cuts the player out of this loop during gaps in the conversation. The price for this is that we lose the illusion of control (which is actually a meta if you think about it). The upside is that we end up with richer dialogue, more polished characters, shock and tantrum, and an emotional investment that comes with a thought experiment. Simon is not an empty vessel that the player can fill with himself. He is a living character in and of himself.

I agree that he's not the most gifted. He mentions at one point that he used to work in a bookstore, but considering how long it takes him to understand certain things, I bet his shop has science fiction bookshelves that sucks. Simon's a good guy and I really liked him, but with his hometown removed from mine, all I can do is hold onto my hopes that the same cannot be said about his intellect.

On the other hand, who can say I'd be smarter if I were a dusty photocopy of a long-dead brain with no warning thrown into the apocalypse? I don't know who would use all synapses to the full under such conditions; In addition, the slow pace at which Simon captures the point provides a great opportunity to recall some philosophical issues that many players have not thought about before. The fact that Simon's friend is getting more and more impatient with his "nonsense" and that she has to recreate herself every time suggests that this was a conscious decision on the part of Frictional Games.

But if Simon hesitated a little, SOMA didn't. Landscapes are smart too. The fauna migrates on the sea floor to depths of a few hundred to four thousand meters and looks believable: spider crabs, fish of the grenadier family, tiny bioluminescent squids and tubular worms as well as beautiful rainbow-colored comb jellies. (Combs! How many of you know what it is?). In one of the habitats, in the laboratory notes of the deceased scientist, there are references to the observation of howliod ("viper fish" for you rednecks): "Usually not found at this depth - probably an anomaly." As I read this, I shed several tears. When I wrote Starfish in the 90s, I also had to deal with the fact that the Viperfish does not float into the deep abyss. I had to come up with my own explanation as to why they sailed to the northwest side of the axial underwater volcano.

Nice little fish

As clever or stupid as the ocean is, it only acts as a backdrop. The story of SOMA revolves around the problem of consciousness. Here, too, Frictional Games have done their homework. There are undoubtedly the usual disposable elements in the game, like the Qualia-class smart drone model. But gizmos like "Body Swap" and "Rubber Hand Illusion" aren't just for show. They actively bring the elements of the plot to life. People walk with black boxes in the brain that can be read for data after death. (This proves useful for shedding light on the backstory of SOMA - a pretty ingenious twist on the "let's find the private diaries lying around" mechanic used in these games). Most of the key events in this story do not take place to influence the course of the plot, but rather to get you thinking about the main topics.

For comparison, let's take a look at Bioshock - the spiritual brother of SOMA. Despite all explicit references to Ayn ​​Rand's ideology, it fails as an analysis. (At best, his analysis is that objectivism is bad because capitalism will lose its foothold when genetically modified mollusks lead to widespread intoxication and the ability to shoot live bees out of your hands.) Andrew Ryan's political beliefs serve only as a Background for the action and as a poster justification for the setting. But the events of history could have happened just as easily in a failed socialist utopia as in a capitalist one. Bioshock was brilliant at using game mechanics to communicate one of his subjects (I haven't seen anything like it in that regard), but that particular subject revolved around the existence of free will with no significant connection to the ideology of objectivism. On the contrary, SOMA is actually facing the challenges that arise from it. She makes them part of the plot.

Of course, you can argue that SOMA is more of a reflection than a game, an expanded scenario that systematically leads the case to an inevitable nihilistic conclusion (actually two conclusions; the second looks brighter and happier on the surface than the first, but in the Indeed, it is even more depressed if you don't stop thinking about him). If there is a problem with this game, the story is so dense and the thinking so linear that the players don't have much freedom for fear of ruining the script. So there is only one way to play SOMA. Discoveries and revelations take place in a specific order, and conversations take place in an appropriate manner. Mandatory monsters justified as unsuccessful prototypes - created by the artificial intelligence trying to create Humanity 2.0 - really don't add anything to the story. You can't even kill her. You can't talk to them. You can't loot their corpses for trophies or make a homemade cannon from their remains to blow up. Your interactive options consist entirely of running and hiding. The monsters in the game have no other purpose than suddenly sneaking up on you and slowing your progress along the narrative monorail.

Decisions need to be made - by influencing them in surprising ways - but they do not affect the outcome of the action. Your reaction to the last person standing. He languishes in a shimmering, semi-dark room on the ocean floor. An intravenous needle festers in her hand, photos of her beloved Greenland (which is now buried with everything else) are strewn across the deck - who wouldn't want to die in such a scenario. Activate and interview an alarmist who doesn't know they are digitized (although I'm sure some shit is happening) and turn them off after you get the information you want from them. Handle your own previous iterations inconveniently kept after your transcription into a new body.

In principle, it is easy enough to justify such creative decisions. In practice the result looks like a fraud. I walked the ocean floor for half an hour looking for a specific object under the rubble - a computer chip - that would have saved me the trouble of killing a sentient drone for the same important part. It didn't cost Frictional Games anything to give me this option. They have already littered the ocean floor with broken drones so there would be no need to kill them to leave me a useful trophy. But no. The only way out is to kill an innocent creature. It definitely created a philosophical meaning, but it doesn't feel right. Forced.

This is usually the point where I start grumbling that it would be nice for any "inspired" game developer to one day inspire me to hire me instead of just dismantling my stories. It would be completely useless to whine - I confessed my past to geeks at the beginning of this post, but I'll whine anyway. Come on - if one of your inspirations is in the corner across from a philodendron pot, why not ask him to dance? Maybe he can teach you some new moves.

This time, however, I'll hold back. SOMA couldn't be an easy task; I could complain about the limitations of linear gameplay or the protagonist's intermittent obscurantism, but given the limitations of the environment, I don't know if I could do anything better without sacrificing mission priority. SOMA is a simple survival horror game, but the horror is more existential than external. And the usual mechanics perfectly fulfills a core theme that I've never seen in a video game.

In conclusion, I think they did a hell of a job.

Material provided by the Immersive Sim group