I didn’t get much sleep last night. Not because it was the night before Fallout 4, although I’m very much pumped for that, but because I had just concluded one of the most harrowing stories I have ever come across in a video game, and the combination of the ensuing existential crisis and a raging brainer kept me well away from the sandman’s sweet embrace.
The game I finished was SOMA, the latest horror creation from Frictional Games of Amnesia: The Dark Descent fame. LoadScreen’s Karly Taylor reviewed the game a while back, and she had this to say in her conclusion: “the game is a solid, provocative instalment in Frictional Games’ horror library, and well worth playing through for it’s loaded subject matter that will really leave you thinking for the next few days. What defines who we are and how we act? How can we be identical biologically but with no two people being exactly alike in nature and thought? Is it the unproven existence or concept of a soul? Our brain? Could the essence of who we are be transferred into an entity outside of our bodies and remain wholly intact, preserving who we are? What makes us human?”
Karly is absolutely right, but obviously couldn’t go into spoilers so as to better explain the mind destroying nature of the questions at hand. The good news? I’m about to do just that! Scroll past this picture of me and Sackboy at PAX Australia to get into spoiler territory. It’s the last happy thing you’ll see in this post…
Ready to have your brain violated by some saucy, philosophical science fiction? Here we go.
Toronto bookshop employee Simon Jarrett went in for an experimental brain scan in 2015 only to wake up within PATHOS-II, a facility built on the bottom of the ocean, in the year 2104. How Simon managed to travel in time remains a mystery for the opening sections of the game, but the surprise twist here is that he didn’t travel in time at all: he is a copy of his former self, living inside a diving suit that’s previous occupant has been combined with machinery and reanimated by a mysterious organism known as the WAU. His 2015 brain scan was the beginnings of digitising the human mind and now, 100 years later, his ancient scan has been uploaded into this new body, giving Simon the impression the transition was instantaneous.
With me so far? Essentially Simon is now across between a robot and a zombie, wandering around with the memories of a man who died nearly a century ago.
It gets better. A year prior, in 2103, a comet crashed into Earth, decimating the entire surface. The crew of PATHOS-II became the only people left on the planet, so they implemented a plan to try and save humanity: by scanning their consciousness into a computer simulation called the ARK, and launch it into space where they could all spend eternity in a virtual paradise. Sadly, something went wrong, so Simon and his associate Catherine, the brain scan of a PATHOS-II inhabitant that never made it onto the ARK, need to find it and launch it.
OK, time for a breather, here’s a scary picture from the game:
That picture there? That’s Simon looking in a mirror at his new self. It was at this point that I had to ask myself the question, is this robot person Simon? Simon Jarret was born in the 1980s, he went in for a brain scan, had it and then went about the rest of his day, his life, and eventually died.
This thing staring back at me is a machine that has been given all of Simon’s memories. It thinks like him, talks like him, so does that make it him? From its perspective, it went from the brain scan straight to PATHOS-II, but it wasn’t alive before waking up in the facility, so it has some 25 years worth of memories but has only existed for a day. And what makes Simon Simon? The sum of his experiences, his hopes and dreams? Then this machine is definitely Simon, as it has all of those. But the original Simon is also dead, so this is a new Simon, it has to be considered as such…
You see why I couldn’t get any sleep?
If you’re still on the fence about the prospect as to whether the new Simon is still Simon, then let me get to the crux of this In Memoriam. There is a moment about two thirds of the way into the game where Simon (it’s just easier if I call him robot him that) and Catherine need to travel down deep into the ocean to retrieve the ARK, but Simon’s current diving suit won’t withstand the pressure, so they need to find him a “power suit”. Catherine says that Simon won’t be able to fit inside a power suit while also wearing his diving suit, and since his suit is all that is keeping him alive, she proposes they transfer his mind from his current body into one of the power suits.
Simon agrees, and in the blink of an eye he goes from sitting in one chair to sitting in another, with a brand new body. But as he admires his new kit, he can hear his own voice commenting on how something must have gone wrong, he hasn’t moved anywhere. This is because Catherine didn’t “transfer” Simon’s mind to a new body, she copy/pasted it, effectively creating two Simons. Once you walk out of the power suit chamber, you can see the old Simon sitting in his chair.
I felt like I had been tricked, except Catherine had been giving me clues to what was going to happen all along. She said she’d transfer me over, that part was a white lie, but she also said it would feel “just like it did 100 years ago”, which I should have realised meant it would leave the previous version alive and thinking.
Ask yourself again, because I certainly did, is that Simon sitting in the chair before you?
Catherine put him to sleep, but says he will wake up again in a few days time and he won’t have any idea that he was unconscious. To him, it will seem like the transfer failed. But he can’t come with us either, the pressure would crush his suit, so SOMA now asks you the tough question: do you leave him there, or do you drain his battery and shut him down?
I thought about this for a lot longer than I thought I would. While I knew I had to move on and continue to find the ARK, to save what’s left of humanity, I couldn’t forget that the Simon I was staring at was me, the person who had braved the dangers of PATHOS-II for the past several hours of game time. The one who woke up after the brain scan, the one who had come with me on this journey. Could I really kill him? Was that the right thing to do? Do I have the right to take his life?
But then I actually thought about what the rest of his life would be. Catherine and myself wanted to get onto the ARK before launching it into space, so this Simon would wake up in the empty facility alone, with no humans left on the surface or in the base, and with no idea where Catherine had gone. He would be stranded in the deep ocean, with no one to talk to and no where to go. I couldn’t think of anything worse, so I pulled the plug and watched as his artificial breathing slowed and his red eyes faded out.
One moment he was there, the next he wasn’t.
What got me the most was Simon’s reaction to the whole thing. On their way down into the depths of the ocean, Simon comments on how disturbed he is that he won the “coin toss” and the right Simon was put into the right body, that the Simon from the entire game up to this point made it into the power suit and the new one was left behind to die. It broke my heart because he clearly didn’t get it: there was no coin toss, he is the new one and the previous one just died. He’s only been alive for mere minutes, just like when the previous one woke up in PATHOS-II, he just has all the memories of his previous self. It wasn’t luck, he just woke up.
You getting chills yet? Maybe it’s just cold in my office…
To make matters worse, I got to experience a similar situation again later but this time I was the Simon left behind. Getting onto the ARK wasn’t a transfer but another copy/paste, and though a new Simon and Catherine would live on in space, the game chooses to stay with the Simon and Catherine sitting alone in the bowels of the deep. The facility starts to collapse and Catherine’s display screen breaks, effectively killing her and leaving Simon on his own, until nature destroys his battery.
I’m calling it now, SOMA has the best story of any game this year.
RIP Simon Jarrett. Simon Jarrett is dead (three times over), but long live Simon Jarrett.