SOMA is, aptly, a game of two somewhat disconnected halves. A leap in terms of scope and sophistication compared to their effective but overrated Amnesia, Frictional Games has attempted to merge sci-fi horror with a philosophical investigation into the mind-body problem. The combination doesn’t always work, but when it does, it offers some exceptionally powerful moments. In a story full of twists, misdirections, and sudden revelations, everything’s a spoiler. As such, we’ll just stick to the basics: Simon Jarrett finds himself in an abandoned underwater research facility which is slowly being overtaken by a mysterious black ooze, and before even attempting to plan an escape, this everyman needs to assess the situation, shake off his disorientation, and carefully explore his new environment.
It’s unfortunate, though an arguably necessary side effect of Simon’s early obliviousness, that SOMA spends so much time wearing the trappings of a conventional first-person horror game. Past the brief but intriguing prelude, it plays for its entire first act like a low-budget BioShock or unscary Dead Space, with the impotence of monstrous adversaries quickly deflating any sensation of dread, no matter how hard the cluttered, aggressive soundscapes and video distortion employed to announce their arrival try to bully you into some measure of unease. Technically, too, the game’s a mess: Frequent autosaves freeze the action momentarily, disrupting the pace and killing immersion, while the unstable framerate occasionally plunges into single digits. The voice acting doesn’t impress either, though it’s difficult to decide whether Simon’s seeming apathy is due to an uninspired performance or a meticulously constructed clue to the game’s broader thematic concerns.
After the emphasis shifts from a mostly redundant exercise in horror to the incomparably more compelling tale of existential anguish experienced by someone who, quite literally, meets the ghost in the machine, SOMA transforms into something special, perhaps even unique. The slow descent into the lower sectors of the deep-sea station reveals itself as a metaphor for the human psyche reluctantly coming to terms with the realities of its own existence, its loss of meaning, of center, its banality.
As dispiriting as the realization is, the humility it engenders serves to elevate those rare moments of life happening in the middle of the void into something bordering on illumination: the algae partly covering the glow from a still-functioning screen exposed to the currents; a school of jellyfish radiant with neon colors, sluggishly rising toward the surface as you remain stuck in a malfunctioning elevator carrying you between stations; a random turn that takes you inside a cave whose walls are covered with countless alabaster spiders somewhere in the otherwise lifeless depths.
These are sublime moments and, like everything that SOMA does well, they could only be delivered by its chosen medium. There are those who will describe the game as a walking simulator and, true enough, it bears many of the genre’s hallmarks: Your progress is rarely challenged by the harmless monsters or simplistic puzzles, the range of meaningful interactions is limited to moving around and carrying stuff, and it relies too much for its impact on overwhelming you with environments and drip-feeding your curiosity with fragments of story. But the label tends to come with the implicit accusation of a work that’s less of a game and more of a virtual installation for players to gawk at, a charge that, in this instance at least, is patently unfair.
Frictional didn’t simply set out to create a summary of theories of consciousness from Descartes to Dennett in narrative form. Video games are the medium where everything happens in the first person and they used that quality ingeniously to implicate the player in the debate, to exploit the projection of our reassuring dualistic leanings onto the main character, deepening our identification with Simon Jarrett, especially since his every objection at self-evident truths, his every profession of confusion at entirely straightforward answers, echoes and reinforces our own denial. When the series of unexpected turns culminates into that devastating final twist, the results are all the more astonishing precisely because we were being warned all along, and SOMA emerges as the darkest video game in years, one where our victories are mere flashes of self-delusion before reality sets in.