More than any of its horrific sights or sci-fi philosophizing, the most affecting weapon in Soma’s storytelling arsenal is a survey. The same questionnaire is built into two of the game’s interactive computer terminals, one near the start and one at the end. They ask you to consider some dizzying material. Imagine you’re one of the last surviving humans on Earth, and your consciousness has been copied from your body and uploaded into a simulated utopia where disease and death are no longer a concern. Would you be troubled by the fact that you are no longer strictly human? How, in relation to your past life, would you perceive your new existence? Do you think it would be a life worth living? Would you rather be removed from the simulation and accept death?
The momentary scares of Soma’s monsters and morbid scenes are nothing compared to the dread of its existential dilemmas. The game is obsessed with the relationships between mind and body, consciousness and existence, perception and reality. The sort of philosophical quandaries that make your head spin. At a certain point, its traditional horror elements become an afterthought—an irritating distraction from the real matters at hand—but they serve Frictional Games’ efforts to assemble all of Soma’s moving parts into a game that tackles big, well-trodden questions without too much navel-gazing.
Much of Soma’s success in that endeavor can be credited to careful pacing and deft narrative. The themes and trappings aren’t anything new: You play as Simon Jarrett, a man who suddenly and mysteriously wakes up in an underwater research lab that’s been taken over by a corrupt artificial intelligence and its army of biomechanical zombies. But instead of magnifying those clichés with overbearing dialogue, the developers take a more palatable approach, providing just enough direction and leaving us to uncover Soma’s disquieting designs for ourselves. When Simon launches into a panicked diatribe, his disembodied guide, a scientist named Catherine Chun, often cuts off his groan-worthy rants with subtle appeals like, “Yeah, could you shut the fuck up and hit that switch?” These are moments of welcome self-awareness, and they demonstrate a refreshing willingness from the developers to let go of their script, trust their audience, and get on with the game already.
The overt horror sequences are handled with the same brevity. The proceedings quickly fall into a predictable rhythm. You walk through the dilapidated facility for a while, taking in all the ephemera left behind by its inhabitants, until you encounter a roadblock—a doodad that needs repairing, a distant switch that needs flipping, a router that needs troubleshooting. (Yes, you literally wade into the green glow of a futuristic server farm to reset a router at one point.) Standing in the way of your solution is a monster, either of the “tumescent and choking” or “emaciated and shrieking” varieties. You sneak around it, solve your problem, and move on until the process repeats.
Soma suffers from the same problem plaguing many of the horror games that have followed in the footsteps of Frictional’s last release, the trendsetting Amnesia: The Dark Descent. After the initial shock of an invincible menace fades, the terror recedes and leaves behind a rudimentary stealth game. Soma tackles this problem head-on, giving each encounter a different creature with unique behaviors and limiting your exposure so that you never quite figure out how to game the system. Ultimately, though, most enemy encounters boil down to “Don’t let that thing see or hear you,” and your growing familiarity dampens the horror with each new scenario. Still, there’s always the choking tension of fleeing a monster that may or may not be right behind you.
Because they’re used so judiciously and cordoned off from the rest of the game, Soma’s horror scenes feel slightly out of place, like the vestigial leftovers of Frictional’s past. The unsatisfying conclusion to the conflict at their core doesn’t help their case, either. A muddled subplot and shades of the unreliable-guide trope that’s become too common in games of this ilk spoil what should be Simon’s big moment of empowerment. Perhaps that’s the point, another letdown in an unrelenting bummer of a game, but it’s more confusing than poignant—a mushy payoff to so much torture and hardship.
The sneaking sequences do serve a greater purpose. Beyond dutifully breaking up the dense, challenging story and filling in the space between its most powerful moments, the stealth portions are another way for Soma to subtly expose its themes. These creatures arise from an attempt to lengthen human life with consideration for nothing but the corporal form. They and the danger they pose are aesthetically horrific, creating anxiety through our natural reactions to corporeal threats and the abnormal. This base fear is juxtaposed with (and overshadowed by) Soma’s countervailing fixation on preserving humanity by abandoning all things physical.
In 2015, and with no mind digitization in sight, the questions Soma raises are difficult to answer without dreadful introspection. It’s easy to click through that first survey with your fleshy human chin held high, renouncing any answer that implies the life we’re living and the body we’re inhabiting are somehow separable. But after Soma presents its argument and forces you to face deeply rooted existential fears, it proffers the same survey. And there, at the end of this underwater techno-nightmare, something strange happened: My answers changed completely.