It’s not often you come across a game that changes you. SOMA fucking did that.
SOMA is a science fiction horror survival game from Frictional Games, of Penumbra and Amnesia fame. Amnesia is pretty well known in the gaming community, even by those that haven’t played it. These games are characterized by heavy story, dark, sometimes horrifying environments, and a protagonist that can neither remember who he is and how he got there, nor fight back.
Understandably these titles aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. I tried to play Amnesia a number of times and just couldn’t do it. Too scurry. I have, however, watched other people play it and overall I’d say it’s a good game. Their second game in the series, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, is AMAZING. My wife and I watched a Let’s Play of it more than once.
SOMA is different, though. It can be scary but not terrifying, AND THE STORY IS SO AMAZING. Imagine a 12-hour thought experiment on what constitutes life, set in abandoned labs and facilities at the bottom of the fucking ocean. Oh and also the world is ending.
All done in first-person, you play Simon, who begins the game going to some brain specialists because he was in a car wreck and his melon needs a little healing. These specialists are pioneering a new procedure whereby an electronic model of your brain is made, upon which doctors can test and perfect different surgeries and drugs before cracking open your skull.
Simon goes in for the scan, they put a huge piece of machinery over his head… and then he wakes up in a strange place with no idea where he is or how he got there. I really don’t want to spoil too much, because for me the story is what makes this game a life-changing experience, but for someone who has pondered for decades if robots (and other “artificial” forms of life) are really alive, this game bulls-eyed my soul with laser precision.
If you’re sold already and want to go play it (PLEASE DO, PLEASE. It’s $30 on Steam and well worth it.) you can skip the rest because I’m gonna lightly brush over some plot points that you won’t want spoiled.
The world of SOMA is at once futuristic and rundown. You find yourself in what appears to be some sort of facility stretched out across the ocean floor, still in working order but with the unmistakable patina of abandonment everywhere. The lights are off. Stuff is strewn about. There are no other living creatures about… OR ARE THERE?!
You find various machinery, also run down but generally working, THAT THINK THEY ARE PEOPLE. And not in the, “Oh, I’m alive just like you!” kinda way. No, they believe they are humans that lived and worked in these facilities.
Early on, a human voices emanates from what looks to be some kind of broken construction bot, asking you to help him up. His “body” lies on a conveyer belt, awaiting repair that’s never going to happen, but he doesn’t know what he is. He thinks he’s a human man in a human body that has been hurt and cannot get up. He sees his body as it should be, not a mess of metal and wires. He has a name and memories. A short distance off you find his actual dead body, killed by what sounds like a terrifying metal dinosaur.
To progress through the level you must activate the dormant machinery, which inadvertently causes you to electrocute him.
And this is where SOMA reaches it’s gentle metal proboscis into you heart and starts squeezing from the inside: You keep coming across these broken down machines with people inside–real people–with amazing voice acting and heart-wrenching deliveries, and the game forces you to choose between leaving them to their endless loops or draining their power, effectively killing them.
Sometimes you have to kill them to progress, sometimes the choice is up to you. At one point, you find yourself staring at a barnacle-encrusted robot on the sea floor that thinks it’s a fair-haired girl who’s asking you where everyone else is, and you can’t decide if it’s more merciful to pull the plug or leave here there, forever wondering why she’s alone. I haven’t played this game in two years, but I’m tearing up right now just thinking about her.
I’m leaving out a ton because uncovering the mystery of SOMA is such a big part of this game. You eventually find a companion, and the two of you set off to save the human race from a world that is dying even while some unknown, inhuman thing is trying to do the same thing the only way it knows how.
The ending of SOMA shook me to my core. I recorded the final episode while on a lunch break at work and I broke down crying, no lie. I guarantee, if you play (or watch) this game it will change the way you see life and what it means to be alive.
I recorded my entire play through as the first big series for my YouTube channel, so it’s a little rough and you can definitely tell I was learning to edit as I went along, but if you’re interested you can find it here. Also note I was pre-transition then, so don’t be surprised by my facial hair!
I fervently hope that anyone who reads this goes and experiences it for themselves. SOMA is a world and a story unlike any other, so don’t be surprised when you find yourself mulling it over in your mind, years after.