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How SOMA creates existential dread

'SOMA wasn't initially meant to be a horror game. It simply came to be horrifying due to the subject matter it was exploring.'

It's often the bogeymen in our horror games that we fear: Nemesis from Resident Evil 3, Pyramid Head from Silent Hill 2, the Servants in Amnesia: the Dark Descent. So it's no surprise that Frictional Games, creators of Amnesia, created a whole new array of interesting, terrifying creatures in their new game SOMA.

Still, the monsters are not the scariest things in SOMA. Not even close. Its narrative, with its focus on questions of existence and humanity, will leave players quivering more  than its creatures ever could.

"We didn't really go in with the intention of doing it;" says Thomas Grip, Creative Director at Frictional Games. "It just turns out that many people found the things they discovered more horrible than our creatures. The focus in our other games had been on creating a setting that is scary on its own and then letting the player go through certain events in that world.

"What was different with SOMA, though, was that a lot more focus was on making the themes and subject matter a vital part of the experience," he says. "In Amnesia and Penumbra, they were mostly background fluff, but in SOMA it was THE thing about the game." 

What's strange is that these themes, and the game itself, didn't initially come out of the desire to scare the player. Despite Frictional's history as a horror developer, SOMA wasn't initially meant to be a horror game. It simply came to be horrifying due to the subject matter it was exploring. "The main focus has always been to explore certain themes," says Grip. "But it turned out that horror is a very good framework to make the player take the story seriously, and to make them meet our subject matter head-on. So, over time, SOMA became increasingly about horror." 

Much of SOMA's storyline is about what makes us human, and the game explores this idea using copies of human intelligence. In the game's storyline, technology has advanced to a point where a human personality can be copied perfectly, then assigned to a robot, a simulation, or some other being. These beings and simulations can then go on living a copy of a life from that point forward, using all of its experiences, memories, and feelings to guide them through their new existence.

Arguably, these beings are you, but not. So, what happens when you find your body has been almost destroyed, so you copy your personality over to a new one? What happens to the you that wakes up in the new body? More importantly, what happens to the one in the old body? Who is you, any more? How do you handle there being two of you, living separate lives? It seems like a simple question, but SOMA asks you to experience this in first-person, which makes it a far more uncomfortable, frightening quandary.

"I had this idea that it should be possible to make a game about these various thought experiments that come up in literature about this thing," says Grip. "But it has been extremely hard to figure out how to do so. Going into SOMA, there was some basic idea on how to do it, and it all started with figuring out the premise (A character scanning his brain and ending up in another place)." 

SOMA doesn't let you forget these questions, either. Through many of its major moments, the game continually asks you to consider questions of what it means to be human. It asks you whether your actions are really taking a life, and what it means to really be alive.

Its morality is murky, though, as the game makes no attempt to judge what you do. There is no moment where the game awards you "bad guy" points, no achievement to mark whether you're a kind or awful person for the decision you've made. It simply asks you to act, one way or another, and then consider the ramifications.

"The reason for these choices is not to provide a sprawling, branching narrative, but to make the player focus on the central themes," says Grip. "These choices force the player to stop and think about the questions implicitly posed by the game at a greater depth than what they normally would have done. I think it is part of a sort of defense mechanism that we all have. If we see something troubling, it is best not to think too much about it and just move on instead. These choices make sure that that is not an option for the player, and forces them to face the more disturbing aspects of SOMA's story head on." 

There is a moment where you have to get a piece from a robot. It is functional, talking happily to itself as it wanders the ocean. You must beat it down and destroy it to take that part you need. It's no different from a talking lawnmower, though, isn't it? Just something chirping away with the digital copy of a human's personality inside of it. But that mind has all the memories and feelings of the person it came from. It can learn and adapt, now. It can feel, can't it? But it's just a machine. Just a copy. How can it feel?

"I think consciousness is the deepest question that we are able to ponder." says Grip.

It's also one of the most unsettling, as SOMA makes clear. If it had taken the time to tell you whether your decision was good or bad, as a player, you could relax. The thinking had been done for you. Happy ending.

But it doesn't. SOMA outright refuses to judge you. So, did you bash down that talking robot with glee, or did you hesitate? Did part of you start wondering if this was the right decision? And when it went quiet, how did you feel? How did it feel to do it just so you could move forward in your own life? And what let you feel like your life was more important than its life? This is just one moment of many, many more that leave you questioning yourself and your place in the world as you play SOMA.

"Why is it ethically wrong to inflict pain upon someone?"  asks Grip." One answer, that I think most would agree to, is that it means the person in pain will have a very bad subjective experience. If you do 'cruel' things to an object that obviously cannot have these subjective experiences, like a metal can, there is nothing ethically wrong with it. So when you hear a robot in pain, it connects very strongly to one of the SOMA's most important themes: what is consciousness? If I am sure that robots cannot possibly have a subjective conscious experience, why should I care if they are hurt or not?"

SOMA is a barrage of uncomfortable questions, one that's far more effective at horrifying than spending some time dodging spooky beings in poorly-lit halls. The monsters, scary as they are, cannot harm you outside the game world. Maybe they haunt your dreams for a few days, but the fear of being chased will only make you uncomfortable for so long. Wondering what it means to be you, though? About what you would feel if a copy of your personality were out there somewhere, living your life through another body? How you would feel if you found out YOU were the copy?

It's chilling. It's chilling because it makes you consider yourself within your reality. It shakes up your presence in the real world. It makes you question your own life and your own thoughts on matters you may have never considered or felt were simple. Am I me? SOMA sets out to shake up the reader's certainty in the self and what it means to exist, and its ambiguous conclusions, with no real answer, will leave the player with some scary questions to consider as the credits roll.

"What is frightening or not is a very subjective thing, but for me personally, the disturbing aspects of consciousness are far more terrifying because they are not just a fantasy," says Grip. "A monster, no matter how scary, is just a fiction and nothing to worry about. But once you start to grasp the unsettling aspects of what it means to exist, those will stick with you forever. You can never run run away from it; only try to not think too much about it. The goal is to open up this chasm of unsettling ideas, and then force the player to stare into the abyss."

SOMA could have been another game about being chased by monsters. Frictional Games excels at those. Grip wanted something more from the game, though, and looked deep into some psychological questions that would shake the player up far more than a made-up bogeyman could. While they hadn't intended for the game to be about horror, they brought up questions whose answers couldn't be anything but. The subject matter demanded a different kind of fear, one born of questioning your place in existence, or what it even means to exist. One born of finding that you don't have any answer to that at all.

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