After their last successful title, Frictional Games has had everyone’s attention since the announcement of their latest foray into survival horror with SOMA. The game has been in production since around the release of their last horror game, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, & was likely the reason Frictional Games passed off production of that game’s indirect sequel, Amensia: A Machine for Pigs, to TheChineseRoom. Gamers have been teased about SOMA for a while now, but it’s only been within the last few months that anything solid enough to speculate about has been offered.
Snippets from the game’s official site as well as gameplay footage and trailers have slowly began to hint at a uniquely delivered sci-fi horror. In the debut trailer, we play as a man who wakes up (presumably at the start of the game) to discover himself in a dirty, dilapidated operating room. Naturally with no idea of what the heck is going on, he starts poking around, quickly discovering his fellow roommate. After experimentally fumbling with what appears to be the top of a metal skull-cap, it sticks to the person’s head, quickly overriding the related machine and killing the person. Continuing to stumble around, he finds himself in a strange corridor with almost organic-looking cables running around the walls, leading to a human brain attached to a pedestal. After uncovering the brain, seemingly hooked up to the cables running everywhere, mechanical prods start attacking the brain. And when our guy recovers, he sees that machinery has melded with the organic material & he questions, “Are you still in there? Am I still in here?”
Thus we’re set up for a mind-bending game to make us question what is real & what living actually means.
Several themes have emerged from the footage released after. The first, & major, theme is the question of What is consciousness? We don’t know just what happened in the underwater facility of PATHOS-2, but for some reason machines have been displaying consciousness. They’ve become sentient. In the gameplay footage, we come across a disabled machine that clearly thinks it’s a person. A real person who we’ve come across earlier in the level via notes and IDs. Are they really the same person? Did their consciousness somehow get uploaded into the machine? Or has the machine simply been programmed to think like this person? Does it even matter?
When you get right down to it, what is consciousness? At the most fundamental level, “consciousness” & “thoughts” are nothing more than electrical impulses that stimulate various parts of our brain. What they mean depends on how we interpret them. In fact, studies have shown it’s possible to artificially create feelings & senses (smells, sight, ect.) by applying electrical signals remotely into a person’s brain. If that’s the case, what’s to say a machine couldn’t “think”? Computers basically work the same way, right? Electricity applied to a motherboard which stimulates various outputs.
Related to the theme of consciousness is the idea of reality. On SOMA’s homepage is a quote by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick.
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.
What is “real”? Is there an objective reality? Does reality exist outside of our own little niche in the world? Can we even know reality if it does exist? Heck for all I know, nothing in the world exists outside my own thoughts. I’m merely thinking I’m writing, & any response I receive is nothing more than another thought in my mind intended to fulfill an instinctive longing for companionship and otherness. Or maybe I don’t exist outside a thought in your mind, dear reader, intended to entertain you. And maybe this conversation is nothing more than that little niggling thought in the back of your mind that nothing is real, sneaking its way to the surface.
Metaphysical nihilism aside, these are very interesting ideas to explore, & not something touched upon often in modern games.
The other major theme in SOMA is “thematic story-telling” as the developers put it. Telling a story without taking you out of it. Telling the story through your own actions. It’s a tricky idea to really explain, because technically speaking all story-telling in games is done by gamers doing something in the game. I mean, the story won’t progress if you just sit there. But according to Frictional Games, they want to try to tell SOMA’s story without taking you out of the setting. In one interview, Creative Director Thomas Grip said, “We wanted to do this as an active story, meaning that the bulk of the narrative is played and not gotten from notes/audiologs.” That’s actually a lot harder than it sounds, especially given how a lot of information was delivered through notes in Frictional’s previous games. That’s not to say there aren’t things to find & read in the environment, but it feels more realistic. You find bits of information from exploring as a human naturally would in this situation, & piece the story together yourself. It’s as story about what you do as opposed to what happens to you. A tall order, but it could be worth it if Frictional can pull it off.
SOMA comes out later this month on PS4, GOG & Steam. But in the meantime, here’s some more food for thought:
- Is the PC really human? Assuming the debut trailer is the actual start of the game, it’s possible the PC is some machine hybrid like the body he discovers in the same room. Human but with a mechanical brain. That might explain why he doesn’t remember anything. Perhaps, if human consciousness can be transferred into a machine, the reverse is true; machine consciousness into a human.
- Did something happen to Earth? In the most recent trailer, it shows the underwater world around the facility, which has a lot of what looks like street lamps & other decorations. Do people live underwater now? Why else would there be so much attention to detail outside the base unless going outside was a common practice? Was the Earth flooded? Or are the people in the base hiding?
- Is this new technology related to aliens? A blurb on the official site says “alien constructions have started to interfere with routine.” Is that where this new technology is coming from? Some sort of Geth-like aliens, part organic/part machine? Of course, “alien” could just refer to “foreign” or “unknown”. But it had to come from somewhere, right?
- What is the process of becoming a sentient machine? The trailers show two types of active machines. Ones that think they’re human & hulking monstrosities that are likely the main enemy of the game, which seem to have no other thought than to catch/kill organic matter. Maybe the machines are tailored to fit a need, or the monstrosities are fail attempts at consciousness.