“SOMA,” the first-person perspective, sci-fi game from the Swedish developer Frictional Games, offers an interesting vision of what happens after The Singularity. By casting the player in the role of Simon, who is unprepared for life in the 22nd century, the game shows how moral and ethical systems buckle beneath the stress of a post-human future. For if it were ever possible to free consciousness from its biological moorings, our notions of identity and individuality would be irrevocably altered.
I once described “SOMA” to a friend as a question wrapped in a virtual world. Supposing it were possible, should mankind pursue a path towards The Singularity? Right up to the end, the game presents competing voices and clashing images of possible outcomes. At issue is the relative value of the human body in a world where consciousness does not need it to exist. Consequently, the subject of rational suicide crops up repeatedly.
Although “SOMA” is billed as a sci-fi horror title and Frictional Games is the developer behind “Amnesia: the Dark Descent” – one of the standout horror games in recent years – “SOMA” isn’t especially scary, at least not when judged by its monster encounters. But whereas other sci-fi horror games like “Dead Space” or “Alien: Isolation” focus on delivering a series of visceral jolts via the near-omnipresent threat of violent death, “SOMA” goes in for the mind game. The emotionally uncomfortable situations Simon is placed in will bite at your nerves more than any pesky xenomorphs.
“SOMA’s” environments and smartly-integrated puzzles exceedingly make up for its minor league monsters and merely adequate stealth mechanics. There is an expansiveness to many of the areas that never verges on the overwhelming. I was wowed by how well the game conveys a sense of duration to some of Simon’s wanderings, particularly towards the later part of the game. On account of its gradual pacing and the dramatic value it places on the consequences of the replication of consciousness, the game reminded me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s great film “Solaris.” Moreover, the science fiction elements in “SOMA” exist for the sake of thought as much as adventure.
Denial, or the desire to not think about complicated matters, is a recurring flashpoint in the story as characters struggle with the conflicting desire to be simultaneously aware and ignorant of dire circumstances.
The less you know going into the game the better. “SOMA” is so tightly structured that it’s difficult to tease out various plot points for assessment without divulging too much of the whole. In this respect, I think the developers would have done better to market it as a sci-fi mystery instead of a sci-fi-horror game – though an existential horror game it may well be.
Whether you’re a science fiction fan or simply into games that turn on ethical dilemmas, “SOMA” should be on your radar.
Reviewers Note:I played the game on the PC using review code. Although I noticed some stuttering in the frame-rate, it was infrequent enough that it didn’t impact my enjoyment. Using a i5-4690K computer with a Nvidia Titan X graphics card, the game ran an average frame-rate of 60-frames-per-second at 3840×2160 resolution. I recommend that users fine-tune the game’s gamma setting to achieve the optimal picture.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.