Warning: I’m basically going to spoil all of SOMA.
Of all the moments in SOMA that stuck with me, there’s one in particular that I can pinpoint as my own personal turning point, the moment the game changed from a pretty scary horror game with a great story into an increasingly personal metaphor for some of my deepest, darkest fears.
Near the end of the game, while taking an elevator down to the furthest depths of the ocean, I was having a conversation with Catherine Chun, a scientist-turned-AI living in my handheld computer and my only friend in the deep. It was a long ride so we spoke about a lot of things, culminating with a comment on the idea of companionship. “You’ll still have me,” said Catherine, immediately before the elevator’s power went out, stopping our descent and knocking Catherine offline. At that point, the game asked me to climb onto the top of the elevator cage to reset the power, and that’s the moment when my heart nearly stopped.
Standing there on a rickety platform roughly 10 feet square with nothing to protect me from the powerful ocean currents, I found myself frozen. Would the game knock me off the platform if I tried to progress the story? Would I ever hear my friend’s voice again? What if I have to play through the rest of the game (and, narratively, spend the rest of my life) alone at the bottom of the sea? Walking forward a few feet and pressing a button took more out of me than any previous encounter with the game’s horrible creatures.
The developer, Frictional Games, was counting on that response. It’s the whole reason the scene exists. There’s no danger, no actual risk, and it doesn’t reveal anything new about the game world. I climbed a ladder, pressed a button, and then climbed down and got back into my seat to resume my conversation. I didn’t get knocked off. I didn’t lose my friend. There was no jump scare. Even the character I was playing didn’t seem particularly affected by the incident. There was nothing to frighten me beyond my own anxiety driven by a fictional friendship that I’d developed with a fictional woman. It’s a moment of meta-horror, the point at which I, the player, became aware of the secret fear that had been slowly building in the back of my mind: I can’t do this alone.
Let’s back up a bit. SOMA is the latest scare-fest from Frictional Games, the creators of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. You play as Simon Jarett, a Toronto comic shop clerk who lost his friend in a car crash that also left him with severe, terminal brain damage. After going in for a brain scan using some new experimental technology, he wakes up roughly a hundred years in the future in a strange facility at the bottom of the ocean floor. You quickly learn that a comet has wiped out all life on the surface, and you appear to be the only one left down below.
That’s until you meet Catherine, and she isn’t exactly alive. The Catherine Chun that you meet is the consciousness of one of the station’s scientists that has been implanted into a machine, and soon Simon is able to copy her onto the handheld computer that he carries with him. Catherine reveals that she was working on a plan to copy the minds of all the station’s remaining people into the ARK, a utopian simulation of the world that would be fired into space to give human culture a chance to survive. The two of you quickly set off to see the mission through, and hopefully upload yourselves to the simulation in the process.
While SOMA poses fascinating questions about what defines us as humans, for now I want to talk about how the game uses the notion of companionship as relief to prey on our universal fear of being alone. Catherine is the lynchpin. From the moment you meet her, she’s a fascinating character. She’s incredibly smart and shockingly upbeat for someone trapped in a machine surrounded by horror. More than anything, she provides an anchor point for both you and your character. Her determined attitude lets you push past any obstacles in your way.
However, she’s still stuck inside a handheld computer, so she can’t actually speak to you unless you plug her into a terminal. When you’re on the move, you’re completely alone. For me, that meant that every time I reached a new area I would be filled with fear and anxiety, scrambling until I managed to find a computer where I could bring her online.
Mechanically, Frictional designed Catherine to be a Skinner box. The player enters a loop in which tension builds until it nears a breaking point, which is usually when they find a button that gives a few minutes of relief. It’s an incredibly reductionist way of looking at the game and it obviously wouldn’t work without the great writing and vocal performance that brings Catherine to life, but as someone who isn’t particularly good at dealing with horror in games and film, I developed a dependency on those moments of relief. Frictional limits the time you’re able to spend with Catherine, and you always feel like you’re in danger whenever she’s not around.
That’s what made it so terrifying when the game threatened to separate us on the roof of that elevator. I needed that comfort. I had to struggle against the fear of losing my friend, my only respite from the ever present and oppressive terror. Had that happened, I don’t know that I would have had the courage to push on and finish the game.
Beyond that relationship with Catherine, SOMA’s emphasis on the terror of loneliness also extends to several of the game’s choices, specifically through the idea of being left behind. One of the most powerful moments occurs just before the fateful elevator scene. In order to get what I needed to descend into the depths, I had to copy my mind into a new body that had the proper gear. The key – and one of the core themes of the game – is that I’m not transferring my mind into that body. I’m quite literally copying myself, meaning that there are now two versions me, and one will not be able to follow the other down.
As I stood in front of my other self (unconscious after the copying process), the game presented me with a choice: leave my old self alive and alone in a facility where he will live until he meets a horrible end at the hands of some horrible creature, or euthanize him and spare him the horror of waking up alone, abandoned, and afraid.
Without much hesitation I chose the latter. I had seen the monsters that roamed the halls of the facility. I had felt the anxiety of rushing to find somewhere to plug Catherine in, and I knew that he would have to face the world without ever hearing her comforting voice again. I knew that if I were to wake up in that position, I wouldn’t be able to take it, and knowing that someone had chosen to leave me to that fate would only make it worse. Ending his/my life peacefully was a way to save him/myself from that fate.
As the game drew to a close, I experienced the flip side of that coin. Catherine and I reached the ARK safely, uploaded our minds into the simulation, and fired it into space. Our brief moment of satisfaction was immediately shattered by the realization that we were both still at the bottom of the ocean. As Catherine reminded me, our minds were never going to be transferred. They were copied. One version of us made it to safety, but the versions that pushed the button were always going to remain in the dark at the bottom of the ocean.
Unlike the last time, my in-game view didn’t follow the new me. I got to experience what the old me that I had euthanized earlier would have discovered when he awoke, a continuation of the same reality that he was fighting to escape. I knew in the back of my mind that the upload was always going to play out like that, but I chose to deny it, and the reality became worse a moment later during an argument with Catherine. Her computer cracked under the water pressure, killing her instantly. I was left in the inky blackness of the deepest reaches of the ocean, silent and alone.
After that the credits began to roll and I was mostly thankful that the game was over and that I wouldn’t actually need to go it alone from there. I thought about the old version of me, the one that I had spared from this fate, and wished that there was someone here to do the same for me. I thought about how much I wished that my last conversation with Catherine hadn’t been an argument. I felt like I pushed away a friend at the moment we needed each other the most. I felt lonely, and I felt like it was all my fault.
When the credits finished, the game loaded one final level, and I found myself alone in a serene-looking cave. I walked outside into a colorful forest, but something felt off. There were no people. I knew this was the ARK simulation, but what if I was the only one here, too? When I finally made it out of the forest, I saw a figure in the distance and immediately recognized Catherine’s face, even though I’ve only seen it through a photograph. She ran forwards and threw her arms around me. In this moment, I knew that I should feel good. After all, we made it. Instead I just felt SOMA twisting the knife left in my chest after the previous ending. This version of me might be happy, but there will always be another version sitting at the bottom of the sea.