SOMA: An Existential Horror Masterpiece
How far will we go to save ourselves from extinction?
Horror is an extremely subjective genre. We all have different fears and phobias. Some people find ghosts scary, whilst others find flesh-eating zombies terrifying. One thing that I believe everyone collectively fears, however, is the existential fear of what it means to be human.
SOMA, developed by the Swedish horror masterminds at Frictional Games, taps into this deep fear of human existence and exploits the player by subjecting them to questioning their identity, both within the game and outside of it.
When SOMA was first released in 2015, it was met with some understandable disappointment. Frictional Games at the time were best known for their horror classic, Amnesia: A Dark Descent, which was released in 2011. Amnesia was known for being terrifying, fully focusing on scaring the player through its atmosphere and scripted scares. SOMA was unfortunately marketed as being a “Sci-Fi Amnesia”, so when it was released, players were left confused as to what exactly made it a “horror” game. Sure, it had monsters and a few jump-scares, but its massive focus on story and world-building left much to be desired.
However, especially now nearly 5 years later, it’s extremely clear what Frictional Games were trying to make and now that I look at it with a fresh perspective, it’s become an extremely important game to me and it’s one that I adore.
SOMA opens with our protagonist, Simon Jarrett, who awakes from a flashback of surviving a car crash. Plagued with severe brain damage, we quickly learn that Simon has desperately applied for an experimental brain scan treatment invented by a graduate student, David Munshi. During this experimental scan, Simon blacks out before regaining consciousness in an abandoned submarine research centre and as we soon learn, we have magically jumped almost 100 years into the future. I won’t recap the entire story to save some time, but I’ll cover the most important moments as we go along.
Not even 10 minutes in and we’re already overwhelmed with questions of what’s going on. Simon comes into contact with a woman named Catherine, who reveals that a comet has destroyed the earth and that the station Simon has found himself on, Pathos II, is the final outpost of humanity. It’s pretty horrific for both Simon and the player to learn that they might potentially be the last human on earth aside from Catherine when just a few minutes ago we were in a functional society filled with people.
One moment early in the game has Simon encounter a robot with the voice of a woman, audibly distressed by the sound of her panicked breathing. The player has the option to speak to her but she doesn’t respond. She’s a crumpled, deaf mess on the floor with pipes attached to her and a terminal that we have to use. Without even thinking, the player removes one of these pipes. Instantly the robot begins to plead with the player not to do it. When the player removes the second pipe, the robot asks, “Why? I was okay. I was happy”. Her lights fade out and the mechanical sound of her struggling to move drops dead.
The only way to progress through the game is to kill the robot. Sure, it’s just a machine, but it sounds disturbingly real and human, and it leaves the player haunted with the possibility that they’ve just murdered a real person in order to progress.
Shortly after this, we’re treated to yet another robot. This time a man who doesn’t seem as distressed as the first one that we murdered. He’s attached to a wall, unable to move, and yet he seems disturbingly happy and relaxed. When Simon asks the robot what he is, the robot responds with, “Are you blind? It’s me, Carl. Carl Semken”. When the player pulls the lever down next to Carl, he’s shot with electricity and screams in pain until the player pulls the lever up. When Simon talks to him, the robot asks him to find a doctor. Not even an hour into the game, and we’ve learnt that these robots not only feel pain but that they also fully believe that they’re human. SOMA asks the player a haunting question. If these robots believe they’re human, should they be treated as one even though they’re not?
After exploring the area Simon comes across a dead body covered in blood. When he inspects the badge, we see the name “Carl Semken”. This is where SOMA starts to show its existential power, as now we realise that the robot we were just talking to was once a real person and that it carries his consciousness within its memory. Simon has the ability to hear the last few minutes of someone’s life, and it’s extremely disturbing to hear Carl jokingly talk over the radio with Catherine just moments before he dies, or at least before he physically dies.
After traversing through the station we finally reach Catherine. It’s a pretty exciting feeling to finally meet another living human on the station but as we enter her office, we find out that she too is a robot. She is nothing but a block of machinery, with a monitor attached showing a distorted portrait of her face.
“Don’t let the circuitry fool you. I was human once.”
SOMA does an excellent job of making the player feel just like Simon, desperately wanting to find another human being that he can speak to, rather than the machines that have replaced them.
Another great moment in SOMA is when it allows the player to look at themselves in a mirror. It reveals Simon to be nothing but a human-shaped robot with red eyes. We’re put in the same position as everyone else on-board the station. Simon isn’t physically human, but his consciousness remains intact. Just like the robots we met before, Simon at first tricked himself into believing he was human when he got transported to the station, which is why we could still see his human hands.
We already knew before that Simon was a robot, but seeing him in the mirror just adds to the existential horror of not existing. The real Simon 100 years ago left the brain scan feeling normal. We’re playing as his copy, so the question is are we even Simon anymore? Or are we just an impostor?
There’s a strange sense of loneliness that comes from playing through SOMA. It leaves you feeling empty inside throughout most of its story, at some points making you feel like giving up hope, just like how Simon feels. Catherine, although having all the emotions and consciousness of a human being, is nothing but a disembodied voice that guides the player through the game. We’re with her from beginning to end, and yet somehow we can’t possibly feel more lonely.
When exploring one of the underwater sections of SOMA, Simon encounters yet another robot who again is a crumpled mess of machinery. She reveals that her name is Robin and that she committed suicide. She explains that before she got scanned into the ARK, she committed suicide believing that she wouldn’t have a copy of herself left on Earth and she could live happily on the ARK.
The ARK is a digital paradise created by Catherine on the station, but it was never finished and acts as the main goal for the player to reach and activate to save humanity. When someone is scanned, their consciousness is copied to the ARK, so they carry on living in the real world whilst their digital clone remains safe in the digital world.
Unfortunately for Robin, her plan of suicide didn’t work, as we can see by her being trapped in a robot body. Robin asks, “where is everyone?”, as we learn that she believes that she’s in the ARK and not on earth, not understanding that she’s helplessly trapped forever underwater. When talking to Robin, Simon struggles to decide whether to tell her the truth or not. In the end, he decides to lie to her and exclaim how amazing the “ARK” is.
It’s an extremely bleak and depressing moment. Watching Simon lie and add to Robin’s delusion is painful. Sure, Robin is happy at the moment, but at what point will she eventually learn that she’s not actually on the ARK? Simon leaves her with this lie, leaving her to spend the rest of her existence trapped inside a machine, unable to move.
SOMA doesn’t just get its existential horror right, but also it’s visceral horror as well. Most of the enemies in SOMA feel quite weak when compared to games such as Amnesia, but one enemy, Mr Akers, marks a moment that will forever stay with me.
When navigating the abandoned halls of the Theta station, the sound of loud screeching can be heard in the distance. The sounds that Akers makes are horrifically disturbing, and it leaves the player imagining the worst thing possible that could be hunting them. It’s only when we see Akers, that we learn that he’s even worse than what we expected him to look like. The worst thing about Akers is the fact that he’s not a robot, but instead an extremely disfigured human that has been corrupted by the WAU, which is an organic entity that has taken over the station. Akers is missing his eyes, and so the player must slowly creep around to avoid making sound and alerting him.
This moment, paired with the horrific and terrifying music that plays if he catches you, stayed with me even after finishing the game. It feels as if the developers knew that they didn’t have anything that matched the terror of their previous game, Amnesia, and so they felt as if they had to exceed expectations.
Unfortunately, there’s not another moment within SOMA that matches the horror of the Akers sequence. Sure, the existential horror and dread are captured perfectly throughout, but SOMA does sometimes suffer from a lack of visceral terror. Apart from the Akers section, there are no other moments that I can recall terrifying me. Again, SOMA is devastating through its story, but it would’ve been nice to at least have a few more moments of making the player feel nothing but fear.
After dealing with Akers, Simon learns that in order to reach the ARK, he must find a new body with a suit capable of withstanding the pressure of going deeper underwater, to transfer his consciousness to. They find a pilot seat with a headless, bloodied body sat in its place wearing the suit Simon needs to progress. Again players are forced into making a decision they don’t want to make to progress further through the game. Although Simon is fully conscious and aware, he doesn’t physically exist and so both Simon and the player are made to feel like they don’t fully belong on the station. He’s just a memory from the past, trying desperately to find a host to carry him to the ARK. If we only virtually exist, are we even human anymore?
After transferring his consciousness to the dead body, Simon is horrified to hear himself still talking from the pilot seat he had sat in moments ago. Simon, just like the brain scan 100 years ago, is a copy of his previous self. Simon berates Catherine arguing that it would be cruel to leave his original copy alone by himself. This time, instead of being forced to make a choice, players are left with two options. Either leave him to wake up alone and trapped or to drain his battery and kill him. Instead of controlling the fate of someone else, we’re now told to control the fate of ourselves. Sure, the current version of Simon lives on but is it cruel to leave the previous version alone? After all, that was the version of Simon that we spent half of the game playing as. Whatever choice the player makes doesn’t affect the outcome of the game nor does it prompt Simon and Catherine to have some sort of philosophical conversation about what the player just did. Instead, they remain silent, leaving the player haunted by the feeling of if what they just did was wrong.
After making it through the abyss, Simon encounters Sarah, the last living human on the planet who is guarding the ARK. The only thing keeping her alive is the life support machine that she is hooked up to. It’s an extremely strange feeling when you remind yourself that Simon at this stage is just a walking corpse. For Sarah, it’s horrific to learn that not only is she the last person on earth but that she’s talking to a bloodied and mangled corpse, with a conscious AI occupying the body of someone she had worked with and known years ago. Sarah suggests to Simon that he should kill her.
“Simon, this sucks. I don’t want to live like this.”
Players again are left to decide whether or not to take the life of someone else, this time a real living human being. Thankfully, at least this time we’re given consent by Sarah to turn off her life support. It’s a decision I would expect most players to easily make, but it doesn’t help to know that we’re killing the last ever human to exist. Sure, if we launch the ARK we’ll have virtual copies of humans, but to meet and then kill the last physically existing human, is an extremely haunting feeling and it’s arguably the most powerful moment in the game. When Simon turns off her life support, Sarah asks him to stay with her. Instead of being surrounded by family and friends, she is instead accompanied by a machine who watches her life slowly drain away.
“Don’t let them die, okay? Send them out there. To the stars.”
When Simon reaches the ARK, he finds a dead body on the ground. When accessing her memory and final moments, it’s revealed that this body belongs to Catherine, the disembodied voice that has accompanied us throughout the entire game. Catherine is heard arguing with her coworkers about wanting to launch the ARK but they try and stop her. After fighting and struggling, it’s revealed that Catherine was accidentally killed. When Simon mentions this to her, she responds with “How did she die?.” It’s haunting to hear Catherine refer to herself in the third person. It’s like she’s spent so long being a disembodied voice that she’s forgotten what it was like to be human. She doesn’t have a memory of her past life, only remembering when she was scanned into a robot body.
It’s interesting that at this point in the game, Simon sounds completely dead inside. At the start of the game, he was angry and worried, constantly asking Catherine questions about himself and the station. He’s been through so much pain and trauma, that it’s almost as if he has completely lost the will to exist. The only reason he hasn’t destroyed himself yet is due to the goal of saving humanity.
After preparing the ARK to be launched into space, Simon sits down at a terminal as both him and Catherine begin to be scanned into the ARK. After the scan is complete Simon finds himself to still be sat in the terminal and not being transported to the ARK. “I’m still here? I’m still here”. Again, Catherine has to explain to Simon how the transfer works, and that a copy of Simon has been scanned and placed into the simulation. Catherine is happy for the copies to have survived, but Simon is enraged and upset that he has to die alone on the station. Catherine and Simon begin to argue, and although we’ve completed our mission, it doesn’t feel like a victory.
“I’m sorry you feel that way, Simon. I’m proud of what we did. We made sure that something of the hundreds of thousands of years of human history survived, that something lives on.”
After an intense argument, Catherine loses her cool and glitches out. Catherine, at least on the station, is dead. Simon, due to his ignorance and desperation to escape, is now left alone and scared. Just like everything else on the station, he is trapped bitterly knowing that there’s a copy of himself somewhere in space, living in a utopia. Simon has unintentionally killed the only other person who was there for him, and within moments he has lost it all. “Please don’t leave me alone”, Simon begs, as the game slowly fades to black, leaving the player with an extremely bleak and haunting ending. For the copies of both Simon and Catherine, it’s a win, but for Simon down on the station, it’s a massive loss.
In a post-credits scene, the simulated copy of Simon awakes inside a cave, sitting on the same chair he used to transfer himself onto the ARK. It’s an extremely different environment to what we’re used to, as instead of being trapped in an underwater station, we’re instead left to explore a forest. Simon encounters a terminal that asks him to complete a survey. It asks the player how they physically and mentally feel as well as questions such as, “How do you perceive your new existence?”. It’s an extremely bittersweet moment. We should be happy that Simon made it safely onto the ARK, however, we know deep down that there’s another version of Simon alone and scared somewhere in the ocean.
“Are you troubled by the fact that you are no longer strictly human?”
As Simon makes his way through the forest, he finds himself on a shore overlooking a futuristic-looking utopian city with Catherine stood watching it. Simon and Catherine are reunited. The game cuts to the ARK, now floating in space. We see the earth covered in flames as the ARK drifts away into space as it’s left for the player to decide what happens next. Humanity is now safe, virtually existing within a perfect simulation, ignorant to the world they’ve abandoned.
SOMA excels in making the player feel uncomfortable, questioning their existence and whether anything that they do within the game is worth it. The ending is bright and exciting, but also painful and depressing. Whilst it lacks the visceral horror that made Amnesia so memorable, it perfects the existential horror of what makes us human and the lengths we would go to save ourselves from extinction.
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