SOMA, Prey, and What it Means to Be Human

It was an fortunate coincidence that I ended up playing Prey and SOMA at virtually the same time. It wasn’t even back to back—I played them more or less alongside each other, and finished each (the first a ~25 hour immersive sim in the mold of System Shock 2, the second a 9 hour, linear survival-horror venture at the bottom of the sea) within a day of each other. And while that may have biased my thinking on the matter, I came out of the experience feeling like I’d played vastly different iterations on the same core idea: the question of humanity—of what it is to be human, and of what it is to be.

But while that’s a constant theme throughout the murky corridors of SOMA’s Pathos-II (an undersea power complex not to be confused with Prey’s rod-shaped space station, Talos 1), Prey hides its musings on humanity behind several skillfully woven facades. And it’s really only in the final, post-credits ending that the last of those layers are torn away—unleashing a twist that, depending on your perspective, either renders your choices and actions inconsequential or vastly deepens their significance… or maybe both.

But let’s start at the beginning—or, actually, before the beginning, with a much, much older game that discusses the same core idea: the original Deus Ex.

While I hear Prey (2017) most often compared with BioShock and System Shock 2, I think Deus Ex is a more thematically similar point of comparison. Beyond their matching RPG elements and their characterization as what game designers call “immersive sims”—first-person action-RPGs with a focus on highly-detailed environments, player freedom, and some form of moral choice—both games orient their larger plots (both sprawling, multi-dimensional affairs much larger than their respective protagonists) around the same conceit: humans have discovered a way to augment their minds and bodies—to give themselves fantastic abilities, to make themselves stronger, faster, smarter than ever before—and you, as either JC Denton or Morgan Yu, have to wrestle with the resulting consequences.

Now sure, that description could just as easily be about BioShock, but Prey and Deus Ex don’t handle augmentations and neuromods (respectively), the way BioShock handles ADAM. ADAM is an addictive substance—intoxicating in both its chemical makeup and in the almost-elemental powers it grants to its users. Meanwhile, Prey’s neuromods seem chiefly appealing for their ability to elevate human potential (at least, those that don’t hail from the Typhon side of the spectrum), and their continued production is less rooted in BioShock‘s objectivist dystopia and more in an almost Jurassic Park-esque quest for scientific advancement.

And, also, in the same desire for a better humanity as the first Deus Ex.

(Spoilers ahead for both games.)

Moreover, if you read between the lines (in Prey— in Deus Ex it’s more or less the lines themselves), both games focus on humanists—or transhumanists—unwilling to admit or accept the social repercussions of this quest for augmentation. But while Deus Ex ends by giving you the choice to hand the world over to the Illuminati, become an all-powerful, cyber-augmented overlord, or simply blow everything to smithereens, it still keeps its foundation intact. You are and will always be JC Denton—UNATCO strongman turned decider of humanity’s fate.

Meanwhile, in Prey, you were never even human at all.

Prey’s final ending—which comes packaged in a remarkably effective epilogue—reveals that you were never actually playing as Morgan Yu. Instead, you were a Phantom—one of the Typhon, the game’s alien race—running through a simulation based on Morgan’s memories. The events aboard the Talos 1 did happen, but they happened years before you experienced them, and—in reality—none of the choices you made over the course of the game were real.

Or at least, none of them were consequential. None of them saved lives (or ended them), or helped people (or hurt them). No—actually, it was all a test.

The game’s humans—researchers who had mined the Typhon for the materials they used to augment their strength, their speed, their humanity—had already made themselves more Typhon. This time, they wanted to see if they could make a Typhon more human.

It’s a remarkable conceit that redirects everything about the game’s moral choice system in an unexpected yet resonant direction. One-by-one, all of the game’s major characters (here embodied by machines called Operators) recount those choices—the people you saved (or didn’t), the people you killed (or didn’t), the people you helped (or didn’t)—and make their recommendations of whether or not you should be allowed to live. They all have their own definitions of humanity… as do you, the player-character who wasn’t human, but thought you were. The game then gives you one final choice—one last binary between human and Typhon—and if you choose the human side (like I did), you see your ghostly, flowing, Typhon hands morph into human flesh and skin.

So really, none of Prey’s choices matter in a traditional sense—the game world, after all, is just a simulation based on the memories of a person who, it’s implied, died long before the events of the game take place. All they are is a barometer of how “human”—or, really, how compassionate you chose to be—modeled by quests that ran the gamut from “retrieve a scientist’s piano recording” to “go kill the bastard that murdered your friend’s girlfriend.” And in the grand scheme of the game’s overarching narrative, it doesn’t actually matter what you chose—it matters that you were given the choice at all.

(Spoilers over for Prey, starting for SOMA)

Now, from a gameplay standpoint, Frictional Games’ SOMA has fairly little in common with my running list of immersive sims. There are no weapons, no abilities, no augmentations (well, technically), no moral choice system (at least in the game itself), and no real expansiveness to its levels. The undersea passageways of Pathos-II are dark, tight, and claustrophobic—all in service to its atmosphere of confinement and pressure. And its disfigured, misshapen monsters lurch and screech and stumble around its tight, constricted spaces, dashing towards the glow of a flashlight or the sound of a physics object clattering along the floor.

Of course, SOMA actually begins in an office building in Toronto, where you—everyday everyman Simon Jarrett, fresh from a traumatic and terminal head injury—are going to get your brain scanned for an experimental treatment. But when you open your eyes after the doctor does his thing, you find yourself trapped in an underwater power plant almost a hundred years in the future. It’s not a dream nor a simulation; as you later learn, your brain scan was part of a larger experiment—the digitization of human consciousness, the mapping of a person onto a machine. You have become data, destroyer of loose physics objects.

Of course, it takes a little while for all of this to become clear, and in the meantime you encounter several other residents of the Pathos-II—all of them other consciousnesses uploaded into robots with no clue that they’re no longer, at least physically, human. A particularly jarring early sequence requires you to interact with one of these bots in a fairly… damaging way, and later sequences force you to grapple with their apparent humanity (or lack thereof) in your efforts to progress.

And then there’s Catherine Chun, the game’s deuteragonist, and Simon’s companion-of-sorts for his journey through Pathos-II. Catherine is also a digitized consciousness—the scientist at the center of SOMA’s existential plotline. For, while Simon’s consciousness lay dormant as a brain scan, a comet slammed into the Earth, wiping out all human life. The only people left alive were those at the bottom of the sea, in the Pathos-II’s chain of sites and stations. And Catherine, with the scan technology at hand, decided to build the ARK—a simulated world in a solar-powered server, which she would launch into orbit after uploading the consciousnesses of everyone left alive on Pathos-II.

The game’s plotline—and its central thesis on humanity—spirals out from that conceit. Are the “people” in the ARK—thinking, feeling beings made up on bits and binary—still human? Is a simulated world still real? And what happens to a person’s consciousness when it’s uploaded—copied to a new hard drive like a file, duplicated rather than moved?

That paradox rises twice late in the game—first when Simon needs to enter a new “body” due to the limitations of his old one, and second when Simon and Catherine have reached the launch tube at Site Phi, at the end of their journey, and are uploading their consciousnesses to the ARK. Twice, Simon’s consciousness is transferred to a new vessel, and both times a version of him—another Simon—is left behind. The first time, the player wakes up as new Simon and continues the journey.

The second time, the player is left behind.

The game explains this as a coin-flip—a 50/50 chance of “Simon,” the singular entity being duplicated—remaining in his old form or transferring to his new one. And while he learned about it the hard way, the inhabitants of Pathos-II were well aware of the chance of being left behind—so aware that, before the events of the game, several had killed themselves directly after their brain scans in an attempt to “maintain continuity” with their selves inside the ARK.

SOMA has other theses on humanity as well—the game’s main antagonist, if you can call it that, is a haywire AI trying to preserve humanity in any way it can by uploading data into bots and reanimating corpses with “structure gel,” a strange substance that can instill some basic lifelike functions. And late in the game, you’re given the option to destroy this entity—the WAU—and end its attempts to recreate human life before you launch the ARK into space. Or you can walk away, leave it be—ignore another character’s insistence that you cannot let an AI decide what is and isn’t human.

This—and some moments like it—is where we drift back to Prey.

SOMA may not have a moral choice system, but it has morals, and it has choices. At several different points in the game, it gives you an option to either perform an action or walk away—to kill your previous Simon and end his misery, to erase a dormant consciousness that you’d tricked into giving information, to end the WAU’s improving yet ghastly attempts to recreate human life, to allow the last surviving human—the last flesh-and-blood person left on Earth—to die a dignified death. In a narrative sense, your choices are meaningless. They change nothing about the plot or the endings; they only mildly affect the dialogue and barely even register in the game’s own records.

Instead, SOMA’s choices—like Prey’s—revolve entirely around what it means to be human. They don’t offer any conclusions of their own; instead, they demand the player’s own philosophy.

Should the WAU continue to create?

Does a criminal deserve to be spared?

If someone is going to die, do you have the right to quicken the process?

What if that person is a previous version of you?

By the internal logic of both games—Prey’s simulation and SOMA’s linear narrative—all these choices are inconsequential. They change nothing about the worlds inside the game; they alter nothing about their predetermined narratives. And they don’t try to.

Its the fact that those choices exist that makes them significant—not what any given player picks. In their presence lurks these games’ ultimate conclusions on the nature of humanity; namely, that humanity is myriad, that there is no single definition, and that while we are all human, we will all choose different things.

And as someone who has long-since rejected the insipid and boring nihilism of say, The Stanley Parable’s approach to video game choice, games like Prey and SOMA are heartening to see.

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