October 29, 2017.
“For a brief moment, I felt connected to the world in a way I never had before. It was the most profound feeling of comfort and sense of belonging that I could ever hope for.”
This line brings me to the verge of tears every time I get to this moment of dialogue between main characters Simon and Catherine in 2015’s “Soma” by Frictional Games. It lies at the heart of what makes this game so special and so powerful to me : it’s an exploration of loneliness, existential isolation, alienation, despair, and identity, both individual and on the scale of an entire species, humanity.
What makes us human? What makes us ourselves? What makes us unique? Would copies of us, a second, a third, a ninth Javi, change our sense of who we are? Is who we are defined by our environment, the people around us? If there is no one left alive, who are we then? Ultimately, what is a life worth living? Is living inside of a computer a life worth living? A life with no future? Is living utterly alone a life worth living?
I consider this game to be one of the greatest games I have ever played. It’s a horror game, but it shares less with traditional slasher games or jump-scares than it does with haunting you to your core with its deep, disturbing ideas. The mark it leaves stays LONG after you finish playing.
In this essay, I’ll first provide a summary of the game and then I’ll explore its various themes and the tremendous impact it left on me. I’m proud to begin writing about one of the greatest, most profoundly powerful experiences I have ever had in terms of storytelling.
1 : “EVERYTHING’S ON FIRE.”
“You know, I woke up in my bed today. It just so happens to have been 100 years ago.”
“Who am I?”
This is a question that haunts the player as they play as Simon Jarrett, a man out of his own time. He’s an ordinary everyman, an average young adult employed at a comic book shop in 2015 Toronto. A sudden car crash, which kills his friend and leaves him with catastrophic brain damage, puts an end to this quotidian life. Attempting to recover, Simon heads in to get a brain scan, normal enough for someone who needs their brain injuries mapped out. He straps into the seat, jokes nervously about Native Americans who were frightened of getting their pictures taken for fear of having their souls stolen and…he wakes in an abandoned research facility called Pathos II at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. In the year 2104. After a comet’s impact has destroyed virtually all life on Earth.
Of course, Simon doesn’t know this. He learns these horrifying truths as he explores and progresses through the nightmarish facility, trying to piece together why the place is mad trashed and how he got there. Along the way he meets Catherine Chun, a researcher and an engineer at Pathos II. She is a disembodied consciousness scanned and uploaded into a cortex chip (2104 technology for giving labor-performing machines basic AI). She is Simon’s Cortana-esque guide and companion throughout the game as they navigate Pathos II and try to fulfill her final mission : saving the remnants of the human race, all of whom have been scanned and placed in a virtual reality called the ARK, by launching it into space in order to escape the horrors found in Pathos II.
You see, before the comet’s impact, the research facility was overseen and protected by an artificial intelligence known as the WAU (pronounced “wow”), the Warden Unit. The WAU’s sole priority was keeping Pathos II’s resident human life safe and looked after. It did the job well enough, but after the comet’s impact and the extinction of the vast majority of humanity, the WAU reassessed what “keeping human life safe and looked after” meant, and employed horrifyingly brutal ways to keep people alive.
In one early area of the game, Simon stumbles upon a young woman who was in an accident that injured her fatally. The WAU has colonized her body and created artificial lungs for her to breathe with, forcing her to stay alive even tho she lives paralyzed in agony. She is confused and tortured as Simon talks to her to try to understand what happened. She says, taking agonized breaths and sobbing, “I wanna go home.”
Time and time again as Simon and Catherine explore new areas of Pathos II, the WAU’s attempts to keep people alive are seen. It’s a holocaust of brutality: people’s consciousnesses have been forced into machines, vehicles, or artificially augmented bodies. The WAU’s wetware tentacles, simultaneously organic and mechanical, have colonized human bodies, so that the monsters encountered in the game are regular people who have been driven insane with pain and horror at the unspeakably nightmarish circumstances the WAU has forced onto them. Many of the people the player encounters are barely recognizable as human; the mutilation the WAU has inflicted on them has forced their bodies and limbs into inhuman and monstrous shapes.
In one area, a deep-sea submersible that Simon and Catherine need to pilot in order to reach the ARK, which is being held in the oceanic abyss, screams in pain and horror as it’s turned on. The WAU has uploaded someone’s consciousness into it, and they have gone insane with stress and terror at residing in a body so inhuman. In another area, a woman weeps violently, her voice processed and mechanical. If Simon gets close enough, he can see that her head was severed, then rejoined to her body by the WAU’s biomechanical tissues. She weeps because she is completely aware of this, of the absurd, ghastly truth of herself. All of these people are aware of how they have been deformed, and it has driven them insane.
In other areas, people who have nearly starved to death (remember, this is a post-apocalyptic setting. There are no supply runs for food to the surface anymore, as all surface-dwelling life has gone extinct) rot visibly. They’ve lost their hair. To all appearances they are already dead; only a weezing breath or the feeblest whisper indicates that they are alive at all. Their bodies are so emaciated that they look like skeletons, their breaths are deathly, rattling, painful. The WAU has forced them deep into their own dreams; conscious they are not, dreaming lucid, inescapable dreams, unaware of their circumstance. Maybe they are having good dreams. They live in a dream world deep within, shut away from the horror of the current reality. The WAU forces many of the people of Pathos II into these mind-made virtual realities.
Reality, this horrifying, brutal, hopeless reality, is too awful to bear. Better to escape to pleasant dreams.
It should be said that the WAU isn’t doing any of this on purpose; that much is stated in-game. It’s simply doing the best it can to keep the last surviving humans alive. It’s just, the WAU isn’t human. It was never programmed with an understanding of or a respect for the value and dignity of human life. It never understood what made one life worth living, and another, not.
Would a life lived with your consciousness forced into a submersible be worth living? Would a life lived paralyzed, with artificial lungs that only allowed you to take racking, tortured breaths, be worth living? What makes one life worth it, and another, not?
The WAU was not made to consider these questions. It simply wants to keep people alive, by any means necessary.
Simon agonizes about the atrocities he sees as he explores Pathos II. He also agonizes about his own condition; it turns out the reason why he awoke in the future is because his brain scan from 2015 was uploaded into a WAU-made diving suit in 2104. He is not the original Simon; that Simon died in 2015 from his injuries, as he later learns. He may not even be the 50th, or the 500th, Simon. The WAU plucked his file out of the records in the computer and attempted to make more human life with any scan it could find. As the game progresses, it’s obvious that Simon is barely keeping it together, so massive an existential and identity crisis he is experiencing. “I woke up in my bed today, it just so happens to have been 100 years ago. WHO AM I?”
Catherine suffers likewise from this same existential despair, tho not because of her disembodied, artificial state. As it’s pieced together from the gameplay and dialogue, Catherine never felt like she belonged anywhere. All her life she felt alone and different. From some of the accounts from the scans of her coworkers, she was popularly considered to be weak, submissive, easily pushed around and dominated, totally disconnected from others. She was aware of how she was seen, and I think her original self viewed herself like this too. As she explains to Simon when he asks her is she isn’t horrified by her new state, “I never felt that comfortable being human in the first place. This isn’t much worse.”
This mission to find the ARK and launch it into space where it will not be harmed and mutilated by the WAU has given her a new strength of character tho; she rarely comes across as “weak”. She is by turns terrified, or warm and tender with Simon (I guess friendship is a necessity when you are each other’s sole companion), or coldly lacking in empathy. She at times seems quite indifferent to the WAU’s horrors, or to the deep existential crisis that Simon suffers, instead opting to use him (and to emotionally manipulate him into doing what she needs him to do in order to find the ARK).
The reason why she felt alone and different, in my opinion, lies somewhere in the realm of an autistic personality. She seemed to find a lot of difficulty in connecting to others and that made her feel deeply isolated, perpetually alone.
As the game progresses both Simon and Catherine confront these basic issues of identity and existential despair that their circumstances have forced them into.
So, suffering is the primary color of this game. Pathos II is the name of our arena. Pathos means “suffering” in Greek. It lies at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The ocean is the place of emotions, of dreams, of consciousness and the subconscious. Suffering, nightmares and dreams and bone-crushing grief, loss, terror, dread, and isolation are the tones and hues on this canvas.
The loss of the human race is an emotion that is pervasive throughout the game. I want to illustrate the depth of grief that permeates the story. The human race has been utterly eradicated by a comet that collided with Earth more than a year before the events of the game. What life was like on Earth at the dawn of the 22nd century isn’t explored in depth; even the panic and hysteria that occurred worldwide as the comet drew nearer is only tangentially touched on. But it was seen. It was forecasted. There were attempts to prevent its impact. And the comet Telos, which fittingly means “end” in Greek, finally arrived. The impact was beyond cataclysmic. Dust and soot was ejected into the skies, blotting out the sun. The actual impact was so immense that it actually ignited the planet’s atmosphere on fire. During one segment of the game you can actually hear video recordings of one of the ships that ran missions to the European coast from Pathos II, presumably to replenish supplies. The recording is from days after the impact, when they were trying to see if there were any survivors left :
"The sky is pitch black with smoke. The ocean is dark...incredibly dark. In the distance I can see land. According to navigation, it's the coast of Lisbon and the coast of Portugal." "Any signs of life? Over - Hopper?" "It's on fire- everything's on fire. The flames- they're reaching all the way into the sky. It's unreal." "Any signs of life? Over." "No. Nothing but a massive firestorm covering the continent."
This grief and loss is perhaps best distilled in a piece of dialogue found midway through the game, when 2104 Simon finds a recording of his dying 2015 self. His original self talks to his doctor about how, in the efforts to heal after the car accident he suffered, his life held a new meaning, hope, and purpose :
"You know what sucks about dying? The crash. Everything 'til now, the brain damage, you guys, everything - it has made my life so much more real. I started thinking about all the things I was going to do. I'd never been more excited to be alive! All that hope - wasted."
In a sense, this same feeling is magnified to include all of humanity in 2104. In the original Simon’s case and in humanity’s case, a catastrophic event has destroyed the future. The future is hope. Now, no future exists.
All that hope, wasted.
2: “…IT WAS THE MOST PROFOUND FEELING OF COMFORT AND SENSE OF BELONGING I COULD EVER HOPE FOR…”
To be human is to need company, and to need to belong. We are hardwired for connection and belonging; it’s a fundamental need whose deprivation can be felt at our very core. Living alone is not a life compatible with the needs of a human being. We need our friends, our families, our baes. We need people we’re not even close to : acquaintances, coworkers, strangers on the street. All of these people inform us of who we are; our identities are constructed within the interplay and juxtaposition of our own selves and lives with the selves and lives of the other people around us. Without others, whether it is because we are lonely and isolated, or stigmatized and marginalized, or because others have gone extinct as is the case in-game, we fall deep into the despair and isolation that Simon and Catherine confront.
Two thirds of the way through the game Catherine and Simon finally reach a portion of Pathos II, a station called Omicron, where they can take a deep-sea elevator called the Climber to head down into the Abyss, where the ARK is. In order to be able to withstand the enormous pressure at the bottom of the sea, Simon needs to find a diving suit that is durable enough. He is under the impression that his consciousness can be transferred from his current suit to the new suit. Catherine guiltily nurtures this impression, because if Simon knew the truth he would refuse to do what she need him to do.
Catherine asks Simon to take a seat for his scan to be transferred, much as he did in 2015. Simon makes the same nervous joke, about Native Americans being scared of having their souls stolen by having their picture taken with a camera. A burst of blinding light and a second later, and Simon awakes in the new suit, looking at his old suit still talking to Catherine.
In 2104, the science of uploading consciousness is still in its infancy. Consciousness cannot be moved from one place to another; it can only be copied and pasted into a new body. Catherine was aware of this and needed to manipulate Simon into consent. Simon is outraged and horrified. Catherine has put his old copy to sleep, and gives Simon a choice : to humanely, gently kill the old Simon in his sleep by turning off his battery, or to leave him there, to awake hours later alone and unable to navigate Pathos II without Catherine. The player can choose either option : I have always opted to kill the old Simon copy. It seems too brutally callous and heartless to allow him to live, and to wake up trapped, all alone. Regardless of the player’s choice, Simon and Catherine, who have been forging a strange friendship until now, disconnect. They board the Climber quietly, the tension palpable in the air. Once in the Climber, they have one of the most incredible exchanges that I have ever heard in a story in any format. The conversation that Simon and Catherine have on the Climber taking them down into the Abyss is as follows :
Simon: [Flatly, dead tone] "Have we figured out what happens when we die yet? Is that even possible? If there's some kind of afterlife, do you think my place place is taken? The real me died like a hundred years ago. Is there still room for me? And what about the Simon I killed at Omicron?" A pause. "What do you think, Catherine? Is there a heaven full of redundant copies of the same people? Is there someone up there who would call me an impostor?" Pause. "It's dumb luck, right? That I woke up in the right body? I basically flipped a coin and if I had called the wrong side I'd be rotting away at Omicron." [Increasingly agitated, anxious.] "I mean, there's no way to know, right? You didn't hit the 'make sure Simon wakes up in the right body' switch, did you? Not that you would know, I mean he would still claim to be the right Simon." [Interjecting, shouting] "CHRIST! This is awful! We did an awful fucking thing! And you wouldn't mind, why would you? How could you know that it's not me, the me that I am! The same me that I've always been!" [defeated, crushed] "Please say something. I don't want to think. Please." Catherine: "I don't know what to say. I don't want to upset you." Simon: "Say anything." Catherine: [Gently]"When I was little, I used to climb the stairs all the way to the top of the building. I can still feel how I had to, you know, tuck my arms up so I could push the heavy steel door open. Well, the first time I dared go up there, I stepped out onto the roof and saw the smog rise and fall over Taipei." [With increasing warmth and emotion in her voice, almost to the point of tears] "I got all the way up to the corner ledge and, you know, I felt the warm wind in my hair. The sun was setting and the streets below were shadowed by the tall buildings. The people pushing through the crowd flowed like paint from an artist's brush! Street food vendors filled the air with aromas of all my favorite foods. A pause, then, with her voice nearly breaking, "For a brief moment I felt connected to the world in a way I never had before. It was the most - profound feeling of comfort and sense of belonging I could ever hope for." "I really never felt the same way again, but I went up to the roof many times after." "I'm not religious but I can see why people would be. The privilege of being makes a strong case. At least every once in a while." Simon: "Do you still feel that sense of awe? Even like this?" Catherine: "Things are different, but we're still here." Simon: "What's the point of going on? Everyone's gone. All the people still left are digital copies trapped in computers at the bottom of the sea. We'll never be able to rebuild or reclaim what we were." Catherine: "Are you really so unhappy being what you are or is this about the man who went in for a scan a hundred years ago?" Simon: "Both, I guess." A pause. "When I was back in Toronto, even the worst case, the darkest futures I could predict, they at least included my previous life somehow." "I feel so uprooted. There's nothing here that I recognize, nothing that makes me feel like I belong. Even if we make it to the ARK, would it be any different? I'd still be alone - no friends, no family." Catherine: "You could make new friends. I'm sure everyone would like to know the time traveler. If not, you still have -"
Me. That’s what Catherine was going to say. You still have me.
It’s heart-wrenching in a game about such deep suffering and isolation that such moments of tenderness exist. I was really moved by this conversation; it has been burned into my memory, and the complex heart of it, the anger, the rage, the hurt, the vulnerability, the loneliness, the touch of joy at a memory when someone felt like they belonged, a tiny memory in a life full of memories of unbelonging, it haunts me to my core.
What is belonging? There have been so many moments when I have physically been with others, and still felt so far away, still felt so alone.
And there have been moments when I have been with one other person, or maybe, a tight little group of three or four, and I have felt so deeply connected, so deeply SEEN and HEARD and UNDERSTOOD and VALUED.
Like, for a moment, my life MATTERED. These moments, they’re like a rosary. Each bead is a moment, and I hold on for dear life to that rosary in the blackest moments of my life when I have felt the most alone, when I have questioned the very foundations of my life and whether it had any merit or value at all.
Soma ends as brutally as it begins. Simon and Catherine are successful in reaching the ARK, and launching it into space where the uploaded people aboard it can live with some degree of comfort and company aboard their hastily-engineered utopia. But they themselves cannot enter the ARK, as has been illustrated by the fact that consciousness cannot be moved from one location to another, only copied and pasted.
Simon explodes again at Catherine for her deception. Catherine retorts by saying Simon was stupid and naive for still not realizing how the process works. In their raging exchange, Catherine’s cortex chip burns out with the intensity of her emotions, and Simon is left trapped at the bottom of the sea in a dead world, all alone.
On the ARK, the last scans of the human race can live in a beautiful seaside city, surrounded by digital trees, digital birds, blue skies, the appearances of life. The ARK can survive for thousands of years with the power of the satellite’s solar batteries.
But, is this a life worth living?
The satellite that carries the ARK on-board flies away into deep space, with an image of the decimated Earth, choked with ash and smoke, deep burning red fire still roiling across its surface in the background.
Life on Earth is over. Complex organic life is over. Some day, maybe, life will rise again out of the oceans. Maybe some day, a complex technological civilization will exist again on Earth. But it won’t be human. All signs that the human race was ever here will be gone forever.
Aboard the ARK, the echoes of the people from Pathos II reverberate. They live, they can have company, they can have some semblance of meaning or purpose, but they have no future. Nothing can be created aboard the ARK. No children can be had. A species cannot propagate. There is only the simulation of a pre-Impact life. It’s like a digital Heaven, or maybe, a digital Purgatory for those who could not accept the extinction of the human race as their fate. They have transitioned from organic life to digital life. And they’ll float on until their batteries burn out, and one day, even the ARK won’t be there anymore. Nothing will remain to indicate humanity ever existed.
3: “DON’T LEAVE ME ALONE.”
Think back to the moments in your life when you have felt glad to be alive. We’ve had those moments where we have found the “most profound feeling of comfort and sense of belonging” that we could have ever hoped for too, haven’t we.
Maybe yours are with a lover. A girlfriend, a boyfriend. Maybe, with your father or mother, or with a brother or sister. With friends, or a best friend. On your own.
Mine, like Catherine’s, are very few and far between. But they are there; they float like golden motes of the finest, most beautifully delicate dust in the pitch-black darkness, catching the warm sunset light:
A best friend, someone I look up to, ruffling my hair affectionately. If it was anyone else I would bristle with rage, but with this one dude, I know it’s a sign of affection, and I accept it. Hopes of getting my hair ruffled in the future.
A conversation with my mother where she and I were totally open, totally vulnerable and honest, and we both understood each other on a level we hadn’t before. Where I understood all the hurt and pain and trauma in my mom, and understood her triumph, her victory, over everything that threatened to arrest her.
A day out with my sister at the beach, at the end of summer, where I lay down on the sand, talking vaguely, warmly. A deep, enduring sense of love for my sister, one of my greatest friends, and echoes of half-terrified, half-joyous laughter as we stood and ran because a wave washed in and nearly pulled us out to sea.
I found Soma because my little sister found it, and she thought that I would be interested in it. She knows me well.
In this game I found such a profound echo of my own life, my own feelings of loss, grief, loneliness, despair. This game is not for everyone. It is a brutal experience, and one that leaves you shattered and maimed from the sheer horror of it.
But, it was also incredibly timely. It was uncanny how relevant it felt to me as I played it. Besides my interest in science fiction and in ideas of artificial intelligence, it spoke to me on a core level about my own isolation, my own struggles with my own identity.
Simon is left utterly alone at the end of the game. “Please Catherine…don’t leave me alone. Catherine?” I think I’ve been to the bottom of the depth of loneliness before. That feeling is indescribable. Life alone, a lonely life – is it worth living?
This question continues to haunt me. Is it my queerness, my sensitivity, my intelligence, my quietness, that disconnects me from others? None of these things are going away. Loneliness will be something that I will confront all my life. Is it worth living, then?
Catherine is a character that I resonate with on a basic level. I feel her. The pervasive, all-encompassing, enduring, inescapable feeling of alone-ness, different-ness. I feel that way too. And by God, I’ve had those moments too, climbing to the roof, seeing the city, watching people, and feeling connected in such an incredible way that it brings tears of joy to your eyes.
For a brief moment, I feel like I am part of the human race. That is not a feeling that happens often.
Within Soma, humanity is dead. The future is over. There is nothing left.
Here, in real life, on Earth in 2017, life is still possible.
Family exists here. Friends. Love? Does that exist too? Maybe it does.
Life is still possible on Earth.
If there is one thing that playing through this game made me feel, ironically, it was hope. Maybe it took something as brutal as this game to shake me out of the brutality of my own despair, my own depression and self hatred and existential crisis. There is still hope. Comets have not killed all life. Artificial intelligences haven’t forced anybody’s soul into tortured, hellish circumstances.
I’ll sign off with a song from the game’s soundtrack, “ARK”, which I think captures the loneliness and loss of this story, the sheer emotion of one of the greatest, most profoundly affecting games I have ever played.
“ARK” by Mikko Tarmia from SOMA (Original Video Game Soundtrack)