Friday, October 14, 2016

SOMA: The Mind/Body Problem, Revisited

I want to do something a little different this time. See, I can watch scary movies of any and all stripes and engage with them - like, I can watch them and feel scared or unsettled or disturbed or horrified, but I’m still able to examine them critically and maintain a certain amount of critical distance (well, for the most part, there’s one film I’ve started two or three times and keep noping out of because it freaks me out too much, but someday, someday). I can watch scary movies and hang in there.

But games? When it comes to horror games, I am a fucking coward.

I enjoy playing video games and have for years, but there’s something about the narrative immediacy of them that makes scary games really hard for me to handle. I get freaked out really badly, really fast. Now, this isn’t true of all of them - the campiness of something like the early Resident Evil games keep them from being too unsettling, and the later ones are basically just monster-focused action like the namesake film (ugh) franchise. But, for example, the Silent Hill games, especially the second, are deeply unsettling, and I get nervous playing them. My first trip through Silent Hill 2 actually felt less like I was playing a game than dealing with an artifact of evil pressed onto disc. The persistent atmosphere of despair, the washed-out appearance of the town, the way everyone in the town had their own trauma, their own private hell, the role that descent, both metaphorical and literal, played in the narrative, all of it made me seriously anxious, enough that I didn’t finish it. Basically, Silent Hill 2 as an almost-straight adaptation would have made an excellent horror film, (at least better than the one we got). Even in non-horror games, the occasional scary bits (like the Dunwich Building or Dunwich Borers quarry in the modern Fallout games, never mind the entirety of the Dead Money DLC for Fallout: New Vegas, or even the dark, abandoned house on a rainy night of the definitely-not-horror Gone Home) make me a little uneasy until they’re over. Take away even the little bit of distance afforded by being a passive observer (because even found-footage films don’t have this effect on me) and I am just not about it.

So I generally avoid horror games, or did for a long time. But now we live in the era of Twitch and Let’s Play and what is essentially the recorded and broadcast playthroughs of games, and I can go along for the ride - once I’m no longer in control of the game, it’s not all that different, necessarily, from watching a film. Sure, it’s a lot longer (so closer to a TV series) but once I’m back to being an observer instead of a causal agent, I relax.

Which is a whole lot of words to basically explain why I’m writing about SOMA. It’s a game I watched someone play during my hiatus, and one that immediately made me think “I should really write about this.” It’s a chilling, bleak examination of what it means to be alive or to be conscious, notable because it is ultimately a tragic story rather than a conventionally frightening one. There are no real monsters in SOMA, just people and technology made monstrous, often by the best of intentions.

It begins as the story of Simon Jarrett, a young man from Toronto who was badly injured in a car accident. The car’s other occupant was killed, and he was left with severe head trauma, resulting in persistent brain bleeds. We play from Simon’s perspective as he wakes up from a nightmare on the day that he’s scheduled to go in for an experimental brain scan. He’s a test subject for a new treatment, where the brain is scanned, mapped, and modeled, and that model subjected to different iterations of treatment to discover which treatment plan would be best - because it’s a virtual model of the brain, they can fail as many times as necessary in the search for a treatment without doing the patient any harm. What isn’t really brought up to Simon is the notion that a model of someone’s brain at that level of granularity is, in effect, a backup copy of your consciousness, insofar as our conscious experience of the world - perception, cognition, and memory - all happen in the brain. This, however, becomes very important when Simon sits down inside the scanner. There is some clicking, whirring, bright light...

...and when he opens his eyes, he is somewhere else entirely.

Not just somewhere else, but also somewhen. Simon has managed to leap forward by decades and wake from the scan in Pathos-II, an underwater research and satellite manufacturing facility. It’s dark, debris is strewn everywhere, and most of the equipment is covered by mysterious, glowing, warty tentacled growths. Things are breaking down and falling apart, and there are robots. The robots talk to Simon.

What’s more, they don’t seem to realize they’re robots.

This is where it gets a little...high-concept. Pathos-II is a station in the late throes of crisis, stranded at the bottom of a blasted world. There has been an extinction-level event on the surface, and the station’s inhabitants only survived because they were on the ocean floor. Everyone Simon knows or cares about is long dead. The station complex - a series of connected facilities - is run by an autonomous artificial intelligence, whose primary function is to keep the inhabitants of the station alive, and the use of both the scanning and modeling technology pioneered in Simon’s day and an advanced technology called structure gel (which basically acts as a medium capable of repairing either mechanical or biological systems) gives it all kinds of options for achieving its goal.

Because it is an artificial intelligence, many of these options are frighteningly literal-minded and miss the more elusive ideas human beings have about life, or the quality thereof. Simon encounters people who do not realize that they are copies of their consciousness downloaded into robot bodies, as well as human bodies, kept functioning in excruciating pain and fear by mechanical means. Immobile, yoked to artificial lungs grown out of the structure gel that pervades the station like a cabled, glowing parasite, begging to go home. Shambling horrors, both mechanical and biological, consumed by the gel which animates them into a parody of existence.

They are all alive, as the AI is mandated to keep them, after a fashion. But one of the best things SOMA does is explore ideas about what it means to be alive or the implications of replicable consciousness, not through speeches or even one central defining struggle, but through the presentation of its logical outcomes. If we can put a human consciousness into a robot body, how does it adapt to that? Can it? If a body is alive, but not conscious in any meaningful sense, is that life? If you copy your mind over into another body, what happens to the first one? Simon and Catherine (one of Pathos-II’s survivors) busy themselves with the project Catherine and her colleagues began working on after life was extinguished on the surface - scans of many of Pathos-II’s employees have been copied into a virtual environment called the Ark, which Catherine wants to launch into space as, essentially, humanity’s last gasp. And so Simon and Catherine travel the length of Pathos-II, its rusting and flooding corridors, its buildings left as bizarre charnel houses in the wake of the AI’s spasmodic attempts to repurpose people as things it can keep alive, the sad story of the complex’s final, tragic days before Simon’s arrival, the howling darkness of the deep ocean floor. All to cast something to the stars that will serve as our species’ final memorial.

SOMA is definitely a horror game, and the central relevant mechanic is the need to avoid the more monstrous inhabitants of Pathos-II. There’s no combat, all you can do is run and hide. The monsters range from powerful industrial robots given crazed life by the AI to humans overridden and overgrown with structure gel, essentially animated corpses with the most basic of drives. But honestly, this is the least interesting (and I think least horrifying) aspect of the game. The monsters help tell the story, but the need to avoid them is a distraction, something that pulls you out of the story. The real horror here is the gradual realization of what has happened, what is happening, what will happen. Simon essentially arrives not long after everything has gone horribly, horribly wrong, and the wreckage of the last days of Pathos-II are everywhere. It is at every level a tragedy, the story of the last of humanity and their ignominious end, and the parody of life that emerges from the ruin. As Simon, you have to make decisions throughout the game that determine whether people live or die, and what it means to “live” or “die” changes from situation to situation, and there is often no good choice. All of this set against the long, cold dark of the bottom of the ocean, the claustrophobia of creaking hallways, the thundering silence of desertion, isolation. Even though you have a companion for the majority of the game, you always feel terribly, terribly alone as you stumble upon the remnants of tragedy after tragedy, atrocity after atrocity, failure and decay. It is this oppression, this constant serving as witness to horror, this solitude, and the dreadful implications of every choice you make, this is the horror of SOMA. I’m not sure it would survive a transition to film or television, but if it did, it’d be one of the scariest fucking things I would see all year.

Wikipedia entry
Official site
YouTube playlist of the playthrough I watched

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