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SOMA Retrospective – The Eighth Generation’s Most Provocative Horror Tale

by Jeb Happy

SOMA presents a desperate race towards eternity. An ascent from the bowels of Hell to Heaven and the stratosphere beyond. Faith and Fate are reinterpreted through the artificial lens of the animatronic. Faith is disrupted by dire, apocalyptic circumstance, and Fate is dubious in a realm where one’s expired self is supplanted by intelligent copies. The shrewdly misleading opening snatches the soul from Simon Jarret’s body, transporting him and the player into another time, another place, and another body. Dysmorphia awakens Simon to the cataclysmic realisation of mortality, only to break the seal governing human logic by way of technological abstract.

Science fiction is made cohesive and credible in SOMA, a genre work where the horror arises from quiet moments of abject desolation, and NPCs caught in stationary looping animations implicate despairing lonesomeness. Even the hostile enemies, men and machines made predatory by way of primeval terror unearthed from deep below the sea, suggest a purgatory-like torment devoid of reason, only cyclical, active emptiness. As the corrupted WAU overwhelms the Pathos-II facility, Simon and the bodiless Catherine plumb the depths to discover wicked truths on their quest to escape into the stars. Meanwhile, Earth smolders above them, divorced from the lively but desolate ocean floor, with otherworldly cadence.

Frictional Games demonstrate how the sea seems as boundless and extraterrestrial as space; another world living below us brimming with dark undiscovered monsters and secrets. While their groundbreaking Amnesia: The Dark Descent ushered in a new era of first-person horror, where players follow in the footsteps of baneful men to rediscover a menacing past, SOMA feels similarly haunted by human folly, but not of greed and apathy, only lamentable tragedy brought about by insufficiency. Catherine — the Catherine that we know, the one who lives on in bursts of consciousness irrelevant to time — is motivated like a loyal progeny to send the ARK to space to preserve at least some semblance of humanity, however manufactured or imitated.

An investigation of morality is sidestepped in lieu of truly existential ruminations on perception and tangibility. Wickedness is only a factor of cancerous indifference to human Life, for the WAU is driven by a malformed impulse to sustain Life however possible. But Life as an organic substance provides more evidence of meaning and depth than synthetic material feigning (or rather, mistaking) existence. Survival and hostility are not interchangeable determinants governing sustained livelihood; only growth and development truly identify a Life worth living. Everything else, everything after is merely a consequence of inclined mortality.

Catherine can be turned on and off like a light switch, but a living person’s reality is not so binary. Living things dim over time, which is why games exist outside of linear boundaries, and development is manufactured. Buried beneath the sea where abject darkness pervades, SOMA ignores the notion of time entirely up until the final act when Simon considers how long they’ve been at it. Unbeknownst to him, just like Catherine, Simon is consistently turned on and off whenever the player sets the game down and returns at a later time to continue. Every action he performs is manipulated by the player, a sort of meta-representation of his soulless artificiality which the game so ardently incorporates throughout its complicated worldbuilding.

But stories have the ability to inspire great bouts of genuine humanity in spite of their orchestration. One can search online the voice actors who play these characters and have the entire mirage crumble; regardless, Simon and Catherine do exist. They exist as properties and ideas, as fictional characters made up by other writers, but one thinks of them as people first and foremost. The player never sees Simon’s human face, and only discovers Catherine after her unfortunate death, but their voices teem with personality and intelligence and reflection as any living person.

Because of this dedication to sincerity, SOMA succeeds as an interactive study on humankind’s inherent compulsion to reach enlightenment without ever reducing to mock player insight. Self-reflection comes as easily as pressing a button, to peer into the mirror and stare back at the machine, eyes glowing red, haunted by perpetual endurance amidst a decaying world. The heartwrenching cointoss finale is brazen enough to offer a remarkably dreadful conclusion to pursuing paradise, without forgetting to remind us of the other fruitful side of the coin. More than half a decade later, SOMA prevails as a wartorn plea for togetherness in times of worldly affliction, a post-apocalyptic tale driven by an optimism bristling below the surface of the flesh, reverberating throughout the subconscious. A reminder of why we play games in the first place, to succeed for the sake of personal liberation and esteem. To overturn pride and revel in the grand human experience. SOMA is a masterpiece of ethnological storytelling and pedagogic proportions.

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