Soma-ch For All That

by Arthur B

Frictional Games dropped the ball with their latest hide-and-seek simulator.
Having developed a reputation for extremely spooky first-person hide-and-seek-em’-ups like Penumbra and Amnesia: the Dark Descent, Frictional Games’ latest offering in this vein is Soma, a return to the more science fictional bent of Penumbra. The player is cast as Simon, an average guy of the present day who has been suffering from a nasty brain ailment after a car accident. You play through the process of Simon going to an appointment to undergo an experimental technique of non-intrusively scanning a subject’s entire brain, giving a perfect picture of their neurological state at the time of scanning, the idea being that this could then be used to devise a customised treatment plan to save Simon.

At the moment the scan takes place, Simon finds himself apparently transported nearly a century into the future, and trapped in the mysterious undersea base Pathos-II. Naturally, because even if Simon is a chump who takes way too long to think through the implications of what he has been told most players soon as hell aren't, you can quickly infer that the original Simon is long dead, and you are actually playing an activated copy of Simon produced using the scan somehow. What is less apparent why there's this glowing masses of electronic pseudo-flesh growing and spreading across the complex, or what disaster has overtaken the crew, or what research was going on down here, or what tragedy has occurred to mean the surface road isn't going to be sending help any time soon. That's all for you to discover as you explore Pathos-II and try to eke out some sort of meaningful point to your unasked-for resurrection - and, ultimately, to establish some sort of lasting legacy for humanity in general.

So, to a large extent Soma revolves around transhumanist inquiries into the nature of identity. (The game dialogue is not very subtle on this point and will loudly remind you that the stuff you are encountering raises Serious Questions About The Nature of Identity.) As well as Simon's own special status, the majority of NPCs you interact with are not biological humans but simulations thereof - including Catherine, your main ally, whose personality you load onto your pocket computer at her behest so you and she can go on a mission to launch the Ark, a virtual reality environment running on a solar-powered satellite within which AI simulations of human beings can exist as a final legacy of Earth.

This is all very well, but for a game tackling such a thorny issue and which goes so far as to open with a Philip K. Dick quote, Soma offers surprisingly little in terms of plot twists or development of its basic ideas. Once the essential axioms of brain-scanning and the Ark are laid out for you, the conclusion of the game becomes obvious and everything works more or less as advertised. A plot twist where, for instance, it turns out you are already in the Ark simulations constantly cycling through a simulation of the events leading up to the Ark launch as the Ark malfunctionally decides that it can maintain power for longer and thus fulfil its mission better by doing that rather than simulating an entire world feels fitting to the mind-bending sci-fi concept and the game’s lingering pretensions towards horror (of which more later). Moreover, it would put a bit more meat on the bones of the plot, which otherwise once you meet Catherine and have the Ark explained to you ends up a simple matter of various irritating delays and errands and roadblocks being thrown in your way to pad out the playing time of the game.

Now, to be fair this model of doling out dollops of plot with gameplay sections padding out the plot-rations is a formula which is often used in games, and it can work really well. The original Amnesia followed that formula very well. However, in Soma it wears thin. The basic problem, to my mind, is that Soma is very, very interested in the plot-dumpy bits, and not especially interested in the gameplay that pads them out. The environment of Pathos-II is to a large extent very samey and boring, and the respects to which it isn’t are the bits where it tends to lift an awful lot from older first-person games which we are by now very, very familiar with. Oh, that AI’s making weird electronic gunk grow everywhere? Oh, we’re underwater now? Oh, those doors are opening with a big woosh noise and I have to update my security credentials to update some of the locks? For a disorienting transhumanist horror-thriller this is all extremely par for the course; the corridors and rooms of Pathos-II could have appeared in any first-person shooter with a modern or futuristic theme in the past decade or so.

Moreover, the environment just takes far too long to explore. Whereas carefully creeping through the chambers of the Amnesia games was a spooky experience in its own right, not least because you never knew when you’d see something deeply spooky and every room had a clear role and distinctive atmosphere, in Pathos-II you just end up wandering around far too long before seeing much of any particular interest, and a whole lot of the interesting things you can see scattered around here and there are just bland, redundant restatements of plot points you are already well aware of. Perhaps the worst bits in the portion of the game I played are the parts where you are wandering around under the seabed, which are devoid of risk, interminably long, and don't really offer you many visual clues as to where you should be going, so you end up wandering around a bit aimlessly until you stumble across where you were meant to go.

The puzzles in turn often feel more like busywork than substantive tasks. In the portion of the game I played I encountered a total of one puzzle which I thought really cleverly engaged with the themes of the story; this is one where you have to obtain a security code which would have been known to a particular person, so you have to load their simulated mind into a pocket simulation and calibrate that in such a way that you can gain their trust and get the details out of them. The other puzzles seemed to be standard “unlock the next door” stuff.

The last ingredient, of course, would be the standard monsters. The hide and seek aspect of the game feels like it has been kind of gutted - there's a plethora of storage lockers to open, for instance, but you can't dive inside to hide in there, and likewise all sorts of other approaches to hiding don't seem to work very well. Too often I just ended up rushing past the monsters to get to where I needed to go, especially since often you can happily survive being smacked once before dying. The latest iteration of Frictional’s favoured “your display goes all screwy if you stare at the monsters” deal also feels half-hearted. On the whole, the monster encounters ended up in the worst of all possible worlds - rare enough that whole stretches of game stopped feeling dangerous, and difficult enough to be really annoying and frustrating. I actually gave up after several attempts to work my way past a monster to fix and use an elevator, with my final attempt seeing me killed just as I was about to pick a button to whisk me away to safety; my frustration at the game not giving me credit for solving the fix-the-elevator puzzle and letting me get away finally broke what little remained of my curiosity about it, so I resorted to Wikipedia to see how the game ends.

The monsters themselves are glitched-out ghost-in-the-shell simulations of human beings in mechanically improvised or part-cyborged bodies. Some of them make more sense than others. For instance, the “Flesher” and its capability to teleport and the way you get really badly messed up by looking at it seems inexplicable both in terms of current known physics and the premises of the game - unless Pathos-II is just an Ark simulation and the Flesher is some sort of virus, which would account for its capacity to ignore the usual rules of space and movement. But so far as I can tell, that isn't the case - it's just an enemy given abilities which seem cool but which have no sound basis, which in a story less interested in establishing and following through on the implications of a specific set of science-fictional axioms could perhaps pass but in this context feels jarring and out of place.

Anyway, these various nasties have been produced by the actions of WAU, the AI whose weird electronic goop has been gradually taking over the station. WAU largely resembles a take on SHODAN from ITALICS System Shock if the writers had forgotten to give SHODAN any actions or dialogue; although you are regularly confronted with evidence of WAU’s activities, it never really becomes a direct threat to you. I was 99% convinced that, if all this were real and not an Ark simulation, that the final plot twist would involve WAU corrupting the Ark and using it to infect the galaxy - you heal by interfacing with WAU’s corruption after all, and some of WAU’s electronic corruption is very clearly growing on the pocket computer Catherine is riding in, which I would have thought would be red flags.

The thing is that, based on the extent of WAU’s general takeover of the station, WAU should by rights be all for the Ark project. WAU’s whole deal is securing the continuation of the human race regardless of the form that takes, an agenda that the Ark is eminently suitable for. Sure, WAU may have its own plan of keeping humans alive at all costs and shoving their personalities into robots and eventually maybe even reclaiming the surface, but it surely is capable of recognising the utility of using redundant means of preserving humanity in the event that its own efforts fail. It's true that WAU doesn't put much effort into getting in the way, but if it were programmed with the prime directive it is supposed to have then it should be BOLD actively helping BOLD, and its failure to do so means it comes across as not so much an Artificial Intelligence as an Artificial Idiot.

This is not the only failure to think through the fact that WAU’s agenda, whilst monomaniacal, might have effects and results other than a mute, rather passive riff on ITALICS System Shock. Moreover, the game keeps asking us to think about the implications of the Ark project but, rather incredibly, doesn't seem to consider that the Ark project might not be that great. Apparently Thomas Grip, the game’s creative director never even considered that WAU may have a point, or that the Ark is a mere vanity project compared to the robotic recreation of humanity and reclamation of the surface, which I feel kind of points to the same imaginative failure to actually think through the implications of the plot’s axioms which shut down any potentially interesting plot twists. (I am inclined to suggest that the “creative” part of his job title may be a little… aspirational.)

This isn't even the only point where the writing fails to explore the consequences of its own axioms, even when you set aside my grump at a lack of Dick-worthy plot twists. In particular, the game keeps flirting with seeking your input on your conclusions about the Ark but never actually gives you the option to reject or even materially alter it. A few of the computer terminals you find even include little feedback quizzes for the Ark project that you can fill out, but it doesn't look like those have any effect on the game whatsoever, and I rather think that if the game explicitly invites you to make a call on what you, in the role of Simon, think about the philosophy of identity and the Ark project and express opinions about it then it should find some way to reflect that in how Simon tackles issues concerning identity and the Ark project.

Then again, maybe it's better that Simon doesn't think about this stuff too much, because some of the NPC responses to the project are downright absurd. I don't know whether the backstory point of people killing themselves whilst being scanned into the Ark so that their one true self can be in their requires spectacular stupidity on the part of the NPCs who bought into the idea or whether it's an unfortunately accurate representation of the enormously superstitious thinking supposedly rational LessWrong types have about this stuff.

Between the lack of depth to the puzzles, the boring saminess of the exploration process, and the way the monster evasion minigame has been gutted, it really feels like Frictional were entirely disinterested in anything other than the plot this time around. Normally, I would say that once your game has hit a point where it would be less frustrating and more satisfying to replace all the gameplay with a “please play me the next extract from your novel” button, you may as well give up on designing a game and just write your damn novel. Unfortunately, the plot here at most would account for a short story, and when combined with gameplay padding to try and expand it out to novel length it becomes somewhat risible, and on top of that it just isn't that interesting, never rising above the level of one of the more boring LessWrong-related essays. (So, basically, anything which isn't Roko’s Basilisk.)

It's a real shame, because they gathered all the ingredients here to do something pretty special, but then they botched the execution. So near, and yet Soma.

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