Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Deep Sea Thoughts

It's my understanding that the word "soma" means "body" in Greek, and in Hinduism is a drink that grants immortality.  In a vague sense both meanings suit the themes of SOMA, the game, quite well.  Consciousness transfer via duplication has been explored in entertainment media numerous times before.  The video game The Swapper, the table-top RPG Eclipse Phase, a bunch of novels by Peter Watts, and movies like The Prestige or The 6th Day (staring none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger) are the closest examples I can think of to SOMA in terms of how they approach the concept.  Unlike any of those works though SOMA really plays up the existential dread such that by the time I had finished the game I felt very troubled.

The ARK is suppose to symbolize hope,
but to me it felt like a gravestone
marking the final resting place of humanity
In an attempt to try and ease my mind I visited forums, read wiki entries, and watched a few LP videos, but I still wasn't able to internalize what Frictional was getting at with their newest game.  Eventually I stumbled upon Markiplier's "Lets Play" of SOMA and it was through his end-game commentary that I could contextualize things in a way I could wrap my head around.  I know...kind of surprising that this pink-haired Youtuber with an over-the-top personality would have any meaningful insight, but what can I say aside from don't let appearances deceive you.  He's actually quite observant and quick-witted when he wants to be.  In essence his take on SOMA, and the reason its story is so engaging is the central theme of altruism versus selfishness.  If you have children or work in education, medicine or a similar field then you probably realize that a lot of what you do has little to no personal consequence, but oftentimes is immensely impactful to others.  SOMA takes this aspect of life and amplifies it to the uttermost extreme.

Launching the ARK will provide all those in it with a life of tranquil bliss among the stars for a millennium or more while all those who made it possible gain nothing for their efforts...yet it comes to pass anyway.  
*End Spoilers*  

It's poignant stuff, universal to the human condition, and rarely seen when it comes to video game writing.  For better or worse though SOMA is a video game which means there's more to it than just the story.

It took me awhile to realize that the CURIE
was a semi-submersible similar to the real
life oceanography research ship RP FLIP  
The actual gameplay is mostly light puzzle solving mixed with monster evasion.  Exploration isn't even a major component since the only reason to stray off the established path is to get little side snippets of the story.  As far as puzzles go some are more interesting than others, but basically they're fine.  Monster encounters, on the other hand, are a much more mixed bag.  The aquatic threats feel well implemented and are genuinely terrifying experiences, but the more humanoid dangers (particularly the "proxies") are far more annoying than scary.  I think, in part, this discrepancy in quality has to do with the game's lengthy development cycle (it took over five years to make SOMA).  As old gameplay footage show (here and here) early versions of the game were considerably different than what we got.  Unlike say Bioshock Infinite though the final product is considerably better than what the demo gameplay implied.  That said, it feels like some of the less well refined legacy assets seeped into the release version of game.  Still, I'm inclined to be an optimist in that it could have easily been far worse than what we got.

A paramedic's decisions might not have any
personal repercussions, but for others it
could be the difference between life and death
The developers at Frictional wisely avoided the it-was-all-just-a-dream ending plot twist (or similarly a final image of the Earth showing that it was fine all along).  I'm also glad there's no karma tracker decreeing whether or not the player's conduct throughout the game should grant them a place in the Nirvana/Heaven of the ARK or force them to remain in the Purgatory/Underworld of Pathos-II.  The fact that player decisions don't alter the game (aside from a few lines of dialogue) might bother some people, but I though it was appropriate given the underlying themes of SOMA.  It's also interesting to see the variety of (and in some cases extreme) opinions people have towards characters like Simon, Catherine and the WAU.  That there can be so many supportable viewpoints, is a testament to the quality of the storytelling.  Hands down, this is the best horror game of the year and probably deserves any "Best Story of 2015" awards it wins as well.  Whether or not it should be nominated for game of the year though depends on how much value you place on gameplay.

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