TA Playlist Wrap-Up: Soma

The TA Playlist Team - August 16th 2022

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.
~Phillip K. Dick

July is Bean Dive month at TrueAchievements, so to honour that annual event and the dedicated lunatics who took the plunge by tanking their completion percentage as much as possible, the TA Playlist nominations for July were all games that focused on diving or underwater exploration.

We also tried to choose some shorter, narrative-focused adventure games that would be suitable for inclusion in your own Bean Dive, with the likes of Abzu, Call of the Sea, and Song of the Deep included in this month’s poll. In the end, though, the game that made the biggest splash, with 33.25% of the total vote, was the horror-themed action-adventure title, Soma.

Soma was developed and published by Frictional Games, releasing for PC and PS4 in 2015 and arriving on Xbox One in 2017. The studio is known for its previous horror titles, such as the Penumbra series and the Amnesia series. Soma definitely stayed true to the company’s roots in the horror genre, but beneath the scary monsters and the spooky atmosphere, this game’s deeper themes are what really elevated it above most other first-person action-adventure titles.

Dresden N7 said:

This is one of those titles where the gameplay is perfectly serviceable, but the real reason you play SOMA is for the story. I absolutely love the haunting, BioShock-ish atmosphere and its themes of mortality, consciousness, and existential dread. Complicated ideas that are rarely touched upon by games (an exception being Planescape: Torment), if at all.
Hieronimus said:
This game was quite the experience for me. Loved the story and atmosphere. Best walking simulator game ever IMHO.
Calling it a “walking simulator” may be taking it a little too far – you do need to interact with objects in the environment, and on normal mode, there are monsters that can kill you if they detect your presence. However, these monsters are widely regarded as one of the weakest parts of Soma, and the developers eventually added a “Safe Mode” to allow players to experience the story without the danger. The monsters are still there, creepily lurking about the dark hallways, but they won’t attack the player.

On Safe Mode, it’s a bit easier to see the “walking sim” comparison, as really at that point all you’re doing is following along the story and going to the next objective, looking for the next button to push that will open the door that will allow you to progress. But while many have found the gameplay elements in Soma to be average at best, most who’ve played it agree that the narrative is a masterpiece.

SpartanWolf 187 said:

One of my all-time favourite video game stories, I really hope this brings more players to play this overlooked gem. I recommend this game 100%, but again for the story not the gameplay.
The twists and turns in Soma’s plot make it difficult to discuss without giving too much away. We normally try to avoid blatant spoilers in these wrap-ups but to do that, we’d basically have to end the article here. So, if you haven’t finished the game, here’s your warning: stop reading now, go play it, and then come back to see what everyone said about it. For everyone else, it’s full spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk.

The game opens with Simon Jarrett in his Toronto apartment in the year 2015. As you explore the apartment, you learn that a recent car accident left Simon with terminal brain damage and probably only weeks left to live. With nothing to lose, Simon has agreed to undergo an experimental procedure which he hopes will offer a cure for the inoperable bleeding in his brain. You sit down in the chair for an initial brain scan (“no more painful than taking a picture,” as the device’s creator, David Munshi, assures you), and after a brief flash of light, you open your eyes to find your surroundings have completely changed.

Your new surroundings look futuristic, with metal walls and computer terminals and flashing lights, but at the same time, it seems to be falling apart. The power is off, doors won’t open, and broken machinery litters the floor. Simon is understandably confused… is this part of the brain scan procedure? Did something go horribly wrong?

Right from the start, Soma sets out to confuse the player’s expectations of what’s to come. It would be easy to think that what we’re seeing is a part of the scanning procedure, which you were told would involve bombarding the simulated brain with various stimuli. Is this whole environment simply a part of that simulation?

FosterJag15 said:

I really enjoyed my time with this game. It made you think about the bigger picture, and I loved the way it slowly pulled back the curtain. I'd very much recommend this one if you can stomach the unnerving atmosphere.
“Slowly pulled back the curtain” is an excellent way to describe the narrative pacing of Soma’s story. As you explore, you start to learn the details of the world that Simon finds himself in, but it takes most of the game to build up the full picture. From signs on the walls, you realize the building you’re in is called Upsilon, and it’s part of a larger facility called PATHOS-II. A video on a monitor informs you that the PATHOS-II is an underwater mining and research facility and home of the Omega Space Gun. Various emails indicate that the year is at least 2104. Some audio logs make reference to a catastrophe that took place on the Earth’s surface. You find several robots and machines, some broken, some acting strangely, even speaking with human voices. As the player, you need to gather all these puzzle pieces and put them together to understand the game’s backstory.

Falensarano said:

I Played this one a while ago and have fond memories. I would say it’s one of the best narrative-driven games out there at the moment and well worth a play. It doesn’t take too long to get through, so doesn’t outstay its welcome, and there’s no grind or repetition on the achievement front either. All in all a solid gaming experience.
Your only companion on this journey is Catherine Chun, a woman you initially meet as a voice on the radio. Catherine doesn’t seem too bothered by the current situation, but requests that you get the power running and then come and meet her at Lambda station, where she promises to explain what’s going on. When Simon arrives, however, he finds that Catherine is not a flesh-and-blood human… rather, she’s one of the robots lying broken on the floor, speaking with a human voice.

Simon is disappointed until Catherine delivers the first major twist of the game – Simon is also a robot. The character we’ve been playing for the last hour or so isn’t who we thought he was at all, even though he himself hasn’t noticed the difference. This is where Soma’s story really starts to shine. It raises questions about identity and self-awareness, what it means to be human, what it means to have a soul.

S GT said:

this is such an insane game.. really makes you think about life itself and the bigger picture, I played it on PC before
As Simon comes to grips with the fact that he’s not the same entity who woke up in his bed in Toronto this morning, it forces the player to question these concepts as well. Is he still the same person, even though the body has changed? Is he still a person at all? If a set of data contains all the thoughts, feelings, and memories of a human being, does that count as a human consciousness?
Over the course of the game, you confront this question from many different angles, as you decide the fates of several other characters you find – Carl, Amy, Robin, Brandon, and eventually even another Simon.

Dresden N7 said:

My favourite part of the story was when Simon's consciousness was copied, and we, as the player, transferred to the other body while he was stuck in the previous body. The first time was powerful, but the ending doing it again was a gut punch as well. Reminded me of Christopher Nolan's The Prestige.
This is arguably one of the most important moments of the game, where the player truly faces the consequences and implications of the brain scanning technology, and many commentators and reviewers are of the opinion that this moment works better in a video game than it would in any other medium.

When we play a game, we identify to some degree with the character we’re playing, especially a first-person game with a voiced, sympathetic protagonist. Because we’re playing the game from our point of view, the game has a chance to shift our perspective in a way that just wouldn’t work as well in a movie or book. We feel that we are that character, so to suddenly find that the character we thought we were playing has been changed without our knowledge is disconcerting in a way that might only be possible in a game like this.

bennjjee said:

This game is clever in its portrayal of consciousness and reality and, at times, a story I found to be disturbing. Wonderfully put together concept
Simon never fully gets the implications of the brain-scanning technology. He keeps expecting to be “transferred” from one vessel to another, first when switching to the HPS diving suit, and then again when being uploaded to the ARK. He never completely understands that it’s not a “cut and paste” procedure, moving the consciousness from one place to another, but rather a “copy and paste” procedure, leaving the original where it is and creating an identical duplicate in the new location. So which is the real Simon? Both? Neither? More immediately, what do you do with the old Simon, the one that can’t move forward in the journey? Did you pull his battery, allowing him to drift off peacefully, or did you leave him alive, knowing that he’ll wake up in a day or two, confused, trapped, and alone?

If you chose the former, do you agree with Sarang’s idea of the continuity, that it makes sense for the old body to die immediately after the scan so that the “soul” can live on in the digital copy? A recording found in Sarang’s quarters explains his argument in full, summed up nicely here as part of an excellent post by TymanTheLong, which we’ve carved up into several different pieces for this article.

TymanTheLong said:

Of course, I’m old enough to remember when we realized that brain cells actually do replace themselves (science used to think they didn’t). That was pretty much the end of the idea of the “continuous you” you might feel like you, but there was nothing left of, say, the five-year-old you by the time you hit your 40s or 50s. Every cell had been replaced, heck almost all the molecules and atoms had too. Nature handed us the very terror at the heart of this game naturally, even if most of us aren’t aware of it.
Still in Soma’s story the protagonist reacts with horror that there could be two "hims” simultaneously, and that is a little different. It made the suicide cultists seem more reasonable in a way. The protagonist never came to terms with it and I tend to think even his ARK copy will eventually break under the strain of his self-delusion.
While Simon and Catherine are focused on launching the ARK, that’s not the only thing happening around PATHOS-II. The source of most of the explicit “horror” content of the game is the station’s artificial intelligence: the Warden Unit, or WAU. At first, this seems to be a malevolent AI, but again, by piecing together the different parts of the narrative, a different picture emerges.
The WAU started acting strangely shortly after the comet destroyed the surface, and it began using a substance called structure gel – a conductive fluid able to bridge mechanical and biological components – in ways that the humans aboard the station never dreamed of. The WAU started the process of taking brain scans of the station’s crew and trying to implant those scans in robot bodies, while at the same time experimenting with using structure gel to keep the human bodies from dying, even if they lived on in a permanently tortured or vegetative state.

TymanTheLong said:

First off: this game was far scarier/creepier than I was expecting. I feel like they managed to nail the atmosphere down.
Really I feel like there are two horror stories here: 1) the quite obvious “monster” horror story (technology run amok and all that), which loses a lot of impact because humanity is dead. Who cares if it haunts a dead world? In a way I feel this side of the story is more nihilistic dread than horror. 2) is the real horror: the existential question of what are we really? I’ll be honest that I never really got the appeal some futurist see in digitally uploading themselves to a computer in order to live forever. It’s quite obviously not me even though it would feel like me if you asked it. I’d still be stuck here in my decaying meatsuit.
This concept is played with in tons of sci-fi. Notably, a lot of it does what John Scalzi does in Old Man’s War: implies that a scientifically based “something” that the reader knows is supposed to be a soul is transferred from the original to the clone. This supplies a safe continuity for the reader and doesn’t raise nearly as many uncomfortable philosophical questions. In SOMA, of course, we’re talking about machines, not clones, and machines that are pretty hard to anthropomorphize (probably an explicit choice by the development team) so we don’t get to avoid the discomfort.
In essence, both the ARK team and the WAU are doing what they can to try to “save what’s left of humanity,” but the question is, what counts as “humanity?” What counts as “life?” This is the question at the heart of Soma. The word itself is from the Greek, meaning “body,” but referring specifically to the physical flesh as distinct from the “mind” or the “soul.” Is it our “stuff” that makes us who we are, some special combination of flesh and spirit, or can our consciousness live on as digitized data, separate from our physical form? Is one just as valid as the other?

The Noto said:

Absolutely incredible writing in this game. The story itself is very thought-provoking and sparks interesting ideas on state of AI and thinking and feeling human even when you know you're not.
One of the best things about Soma’s story is that it doesn’t attempt to answer these questions within the game. Catherine and Simon have their opinions, but none of these choices make a difference to how the game ends. The implications of Simon’s decision to erase Brandon’s scan (or not), let the other Simon die (or not), or even to kill the WAU (or not) are left entirely to weigh on the player’s mind.

ASUnknown1 said:

I almost put off playing this for the whole month as I'm a massive wimp when it comes to horror, but I decided to take the plunge before it was too late, and I'm glad I did. This is an immaculately constructed experience with a thick, desolate atmosphere on par with the likes of Bioshock and writing that skilfully handles some very weighty themes. It's brilliantly paced with a sense of urgency that compels you onwards whilst gradually revealing the existential hopelessness of your situation which becomes almost overwhelming by the end.
The game ends with the same unnerving ambiguity that it presented throughout the story. Simon and Catherine achieve their goal, bringing the ARK to the Omega station and launching it from the Space Gun. We see the results of this from Simon’s perspective – twice. First, the anger and despair from the Simon who got left behind, sitting in the pilot seat at the bottom of the ocean and watching the ARK blast off. Then again, after the credits, from the perspective of the other Simon, who opens his eyes and walks happily out into the lush, beautiful landscape of the ARK.

TymanTheLong said:

I will say I was a bit let down by the ending, it was pretty obvious to the player I felt, and with my protagonist being unnecessarily dense, even after he was JUST COPIED, it was pretty obvious which perspective we were going to get. The post-credits scene, if anything, felt almost pointless as the point had already been made twice. Still, good job by the team that told this story, they made something special.
ASUnknown1 said:
I can understand the criticism of the ending, but I still found it to be an effective gut punch as just the implications of being trapped in this hell, like the monsters you encounter, is plenty horrifying enough for me. The ARK obviously presents a much more beautiful and utopian version of the world, but it still struck me as very bleak seeing this hollow facsimile of humanity being all that's left. Perhaps I'm just overly pessimistic, but life on the ARK seems utterly futile to me, a self-contained existence that is unable to have any effect on the real world outside of it. But then that world seems doomed and beyond saving already, and if those on the ARK (assuming they are still sane and human as mentioned above) do manage to create a thriving society and live happily for theoretical eternity, is that not enough, that some semblance of hope remains? It's a testament to the depth of the writing that it can provoke players to ask questions like this, and I can see why the game has left such an impression on people. I think there's plenty about it that will rattle around inside my head for quite some time.
DungeonxLurker said:
Truly one of the most despair-ridden games I have ever played. After completing this in 2020, I went on many youtube deep dives watching video after video about this game, and that only compounded my love for it. I cannot recommend this game enough, it checks nearly every box for me. And it's an easy completion, especially with the availability of a safe mode for players who may want a less stressful experience!
There are several good Let’s Plays and critical analyses of Soma out there, and after watching several of them in preparation for this article, these can definitely add to one’s understanding and appreciation of this game. There’s also a series of short, live-action TV episodes, Transmissions, that show what happened to some of the PATHOS-II crew before Simon awoke on the station. These episodes lean heavily into the AI/horror part of the story, and are only semi-canonical, but they’re still an entertaining addition to the overall story, so while we don’t know of any plans for a sequel or any other games in the Soma universe, there is still some other content out there if you want to dive deeper into this world.

In total, 161 gamers joined in by unlocking at least one achievement in Soma during July, with 124 tracked gamers starting it for the very first time, and 62 finishing it up for the completion. All told, the TA community earned 741 achievements in Soma during the month of July, for a total of 71,655 Gamerscore and 90,597 TrueAchievement Score.

We had 45 people unlock all 10 of the game’s achievements during the month of July, earning themselves a spot on this month’s shout-out list, with speedrunner UpliftGecko recording the fastest completion time at just 2 hours and 25 minutes from first unlock to last.

For a relatively short game which comes with such glowing recommendations (currently sitting at 4.06/5 stars according to TA’s community rating), and a relatively easy completion (53% of the game’s 8,564 tracked players have completed it, with the highest-ratio achievement sitting at a fairly tame 1.36 ratio), we might have hoped for a higher level of participation. Unfortunately, the price tag of $29.99 scared a lot of people off. We saw many comments of “I’d join in, but it’s not on Game Pass” or “I’ll wait to pick this up on sale.”

Allgorhythm said:

This shows the influence of price. At 29.99 USD for a < 10-hour game, activity was much diminished. Only 120 gamers started this game--a fifth or less than the gamers who started the other 2022 TA Playlist games. Interestingly, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice - GOTY Edition, March's Playlist game, on sale during that month, was similarly priced at 29.99. But it's a 60-80 hour game. The increased content per USD resulted in 1,666 players starting the game.
Still, we’re happy with everyone who did play along, and with all the commenters in the forums as well. This month’s featured game, The Forgotten City is available on Game Pass, so hopefully, that will spur some more participation and conversation. If you’re playing along with this time-looping trip to antiquity, let us know in this month’s Spoiler-Free and Spoiler Discussion Threads. We’ll see you there!
Big thanks to BetaSigX20 for writing this Wrap-Up!

Track My Progress in SOMA