Soma, by Frictional Games, is a great addition to the genre of science fiction horror, as well as the cyberpunk genre. This isn’t surprising considering that the game was made by the same production house that created the Amnesia games. And just like the Amnesia series, one of the major elements that sets Soma apart from most other first-person perspective games is that there are no weapons. Not being able to shoot the monsters like you can in Dead Space or System Shock gives them a degree of horror that those games could only grasp at. Soma also incites philosophical horror on the player, something I’ve only before seen accomplished by the game Heavy Rain, or Lovecraftian fiction. Spoilers ahead.
The Ship of Theseus
A common theme in cyberpunk is the “Ship of Theseus” paradox. Examples are present in Ghost in the Shell, Robocop, and the third episode of the Bubblegum Crisis prequel series, A.D. Polices Files. The Ship of Theseus was a ship that had each piece of it slowly replaced overtime, until none of the original pieces remained. Is the ship, with none of the original parts, the same ship? And in the cyberpunk context this becomes, if a man is replaced piece by piece with cybernetic parts, at what point do they become no longer human?
This is the central problem in the game Soma, and is dealt with in numerous ingenious ways throughout. Early on in the game you discover that humanity was mostly wiped out when an asteroid impacted the Earth, leaving the remnants of humanity deep underwater on the Pathos II station. You meet Catherine who is a digital copy of a human of the same name, who created a device called the Arc. The Arc is a virtual reality environment which Catherine plans to fill with digital copies of all of the people on Pathos II and then jettison into space so that humanity can continue.
Thus enters the “The Continuity.” This is a cult that believes that they must kill themselves after having their minds uploaded into the Arc, so that their “continuity” isn’t broken. This fits very well with the idea of the Ship of Theseus, because one of the classic solutions to the paradox is fourth dimensional. As long as the new thing is continuous of the original then they maintain the same essence. This is similar to the idea of the “Ghost” presented in Ghost in the Shell.
Soma and Continuity
Throughout the story you also encounter robots that have had human minds uploaded into them. Many of these robots don’t even realize that they are no longer human. You are universally given the choice whether or not these robots get to die or live. Playing directly into continuity idea in the story, I systematically relieved all of these robots of their lives.
The ideological horror as it acted on my mind as a player really began near the end of the story when you have to upload yourself to a new body that can survive higher water pressure. You awake in the new body to discover that your mind hasn’t been uploaded, but rather copied into the new body, and your predecessor is still in the other robotic body. You face the choice of killing your original so there is only one, or letting him live. I chose to kill him to preserve my own continuity.
This of course didn’t come out the blue. The writer did a fantastic job of foreshadowing almost all of the events that take place in this game. Even so, plot twists constantly caught me off guard. At the beginning of the game you are in Toronto and you have your mind uploaded into a computer to wake up later in 2104, the year the game takes place. You find out that your original continued on and lived his short life out. So, the fact that I was a copy shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was.
The games idealogical horror comes to a head at the end of the game, as it should have. You upload your mind into the Arc just as it is launched into space, but instead of waking up in the virtual utopia of the Arc, you wake up on the platform, still on Pathos II. Then the real horror set in. Because I had constantly gone with the continuity idea throughout the story, and killed everyone on Pathos II as I went. I was now stranded alone, the final robotic remnant of humanity on Earth. I was faced now with the choice of facing an indeterminate, but long time, alone on Pathos II or to commit suicide and allow my other self, now aboard the Arc, to be the continuous one. The psychological dread that this game managed to bring out in me at that moment was amazing. Seriously, Mikael Hedberg, the writer of the story should win the video-game equivalent of a Nebula or a Hugo award.
Soma is the single best example of the Ship of Theseus paradox that I have seen, and the only one to examine it from multiple viewpoints throughout the story. The philosophical underpinning of the story is really what elevated it far above any of it’s counterparts in science fiction horror, video game or not.