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Friday, October 16, 2020

Memory Leak: The Philosophical Horror of Frictional Games’ ‘SOMA’ is Terrifying and Intelligent

The immense success of Amnesia: The Dark Descent created big expectations for Frictional Games’ follow-up. Rather than continuing the Amnesia series themselves, they handed it off to the Chinese Room for A Machine for Pigs while they worked on Soma, an original sci-fi horror title. While Dark Descent became known for its terrifying intensity, Soma took a different route, focusing on a more cerebral experience rather than a visceral one. Horror games so often emphasize the immediate thrills and scares, so how did Frictional make a more thought-provoking experience satisfying? 

The set up of Soma does a great job of bringing up some existential questions. What makes a human? What is the self? These types of philosophical questions are enough to keep you up at night, but rarely are they the type of thing that translates well into meaningful gameplay decisions. Sure, sometimes games give you moral choices, but they are often blatantly simple, like Bioshock’s famous black and white options to save or harvest the Little Sisters.

SPOILERS FOR SOMA FOLLOW…

The story presented not only asks big questions, it’s also bleak. You play Simon, a man who has a terminal illness affecting his brain and undergoes an experimental brain scan procedure. Flash forward almost a hundred years to Simon waking up in a run-down underwater research facility that’s the last remnant of humanity after a disaster wipes out the surface. During your time exploring the station, you start running into Mockingbirds, robots claiming to be human. As time goes on, it’s slowly revealed to both the player and Simon that he is in that same situation.

While this may be an expected twist given the setup of the game, they do an excellent job of making you consider the ramifications of the situation before you realize that you’re in it yourself. By the time of the reveal, you’ve already found broken down Mockingbirds vehemently arguing that they are human. Their minds can’t handle the situations they’re in, so they believe that they’re just normal humans too injured to move. It’s an absolutely chilling situation, and it seems like the humane thing to do is to pull the plug on them to put them out of their misery, right? I mean, they aren’t really human, right? While there are some gameplay repercussions to the choice, it’s primarily a moral one, and the game asks you to process it as one. By the time you find out you’re a digital copy of your original self, you may have already unplugged several of these robots, thinking you’re showing them mercy while in the same situation as them. 

What makes these choices more resonant is the fact that while they are presented as a choice, there’s no morality meter or “so and so will remember this” as you see in other games. The game makes no judgment on you, forcing you to evaluate, and re-evaluate, your decisions on your own. Given how ambiguous the situation is, there’s a certain existential unease that comes with not having the game tell you what’s right. This extends to evaluating your own situation, leaving you without a firm grasp on your own identity, especially as Simon has trouble grappling with it. 

[Related] Before Amnesia: Looking Back at the Penumbra Series

Not only does the game bring up these questions of the self, but it also looks at the best way for the human race to survive this catastrophe. After the end of all life on the surface, the people on this station started to upload their consciousnesses into a simulated paradise on a hard drive with the intention of attaching that to a satellite and sending it into orbit. Simon treks across the station with the intention of uploading himself to the satellite and completing the launch sequence. In his way is the WAU, a biologically engineered computer system that’s been trying to keep humanity alive, without fully understanding what it is. The WAU is what’s responsible for uploading the people into the Mockingbirds and has created more twisted creatures as it tries to figure out how to preserve humanity with the resources it has. 

Both versions of survival are imperfect. Is it better to have copies of human minds floating through space on a hard drive, hoping it doesn’t run out of power or collide with a celestial body? Or is it better to let this emotionless AI try to mold something new in its incomplete image of humanity, hoping that it will eventually get far enough to crawl out of the ocean and survive on the surface once again? It’s a bleak game that offers no easy solutions, but it offers a little hope that something will come from the struggle that Simon went through. 

After release, Soma was patched to include a Safe Mode that makes the monsters harmless, allowing players to focus entirely on taking in the story. They knew they had the ability to scare players with just the story they were telling, setting it apart from the monster-related scares of Amnesia. I’m not sure what direction the soon-to-be-released Amnesia: Rebirth will go, but I hope that they apply some of the more cerebral storytelling they honed in Soma to their signature franchise, because the results could be amazing.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/video-games/3637049/memory-leak-philosophical-horror-frictional-games-soma-terrifying-intelligent/

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