For many years, video game fans and commentators have discussed and debated the merits of storytelling in video games. Some would go as far as to say that some storytelling in video games apes that of the stories found in Hollywood films and many developers clearly take reference from the cinematic world in their stories. However, I have often believe that there is an inherent problem with this as video games and films, whilst having a large degree of similarity, are in fact greatly different mediums and video games should celebrate their inherent uniqueness when compared to other mediums such as books and films. That’s why I was blown away by Frictional Games latest release , sci-fi horror game SOMA, as not only did it tell a compelling and complex story but it was a story that would have only worked in the medium of video games. Therefore, I thought I’d explain why I believe SOMA to be the perfect video game narrative. Also just in case you say I didn’t warn you, this blog will contain SPOILERS. You have been warned.
Haven’t we heard this one before?
Whilst I have made a bold statement about how SOMA’s narrative is perfect, I haven’t failed to notice how it’s by no means the first video game to break ground in terms of its narrative. There are many superb narratives in many video games some which stand on their own as just great stories and others that actually take advantage of video game’s intrinsic nature as a medium that is wholly different from other mediums. In some regards, SOMA itself acknowledges its influences from both the video game world and beyond. Its hard not to think of Bioshock as you walk the depths of the PATHOS-II underwater facility and uncover its many mysteries. However, its from classic science fiction that SOMA draws most of its inspiration from. The game even opens with a Philip K Dick quote as it goes onto to weave its tale of questioning what it means to be human as artificial intelligence runs awry, which is a narrative that has become increasingly common recently. Despite how compelling the story is, it’s by no means original but it’s the way in which it tells its story that makes it stand out.
It’s all in the telling
What’s really interesting about SOMA is how it uses the medium of video games to its advantage. The game places you in the shoes of Simon and it’s this placing in his shoes that game cleverly plays upon. As the game takes places through a first person perspective, we always see the world through his eyes. Therefore, the player IS Simon and we see him experience first his normal everyday life through a really intriguing opening sequence that plays on our expectations as we walk around his apartment and ride on the subway with nary a terrifying monster in site. Then we’re thrust into a completely different world filled with terror and horror but with very little explanation on how we got there.
Like Simon, we’re confused and anxious as we see him interact with twisted machinery and hide from mechanical terrors. All we want for Simon (and our own frazzled nerves) is to escape this underwater death trap and somehow find a way back to Toronto. As Simon progresses on his journey, he meets a few intriguing characters with one quite memorable encounter with a machine who’s convinced he’s human sticking out as being darkly amusing.
However, it’s your bond with a scientist, Catherine, who is at first is situated deeper in the PATHOS-II facility that really enlightens the true horror of Simon’s nature, especially when you come to meet her face to face. It’s then when you realise that Simon may not be the Simon he remembers to be. Gradually, it is revealed, that like Catherine, Simon is in fact a machine with a digital copy of Simon’s brain implanted into it. Whilst this was a significant twist in the tale, it’s almost delivered nonchalantly as information is drip fed as you begin to question whether this Simon is any less human than the real Simon we played as at the start of the game. Through using the first person perspective, we associate the Simon we play as later in the game as identical to the one we played as earlier. After all we have never seen him and our perspective has never changed.
This purely works due to the game using a first person perspective and wouldn’t work in other medium. This is no better highlighted when in one of my favourite moments of the game you find a mirror. Now this is in fact an entirely missable part of the story, but if you find it you have the option to look at yourself. It’s then when you realise how distinctly inhuman you look and how I had projected an image of Simon onto my character that was totally inaccurate. Yet this is only reflects one aspect of SOMA’s unique video game narrative.
Choices without consequences
SOMA goes one step further in using perspective as not only do you experience the life of more than one Simon, you also experience a range of choices throughout the game. However, these choices aren’t represented in the typical video game fashion of saving the orphanage or watching it burn to the ground. Instead the choices that are forced upon you are decidedly more grey than black and white. Whilst it’s not unique in this regard, it is in how it represents the consequences of your actions. Unlike most games, your choices seem to have no affect upon the events of the game. Instead choices are represented as moral choices in which you are simply asked, “what would you do?” You are made to evaluate the whole concept of life and identity. It gives you the freedom to make your own decisions and conclusions.
Clearly, SOMA is not unique as a piece of fiction that lets you draw your own conclusions. It is however unique in the way in which you interact and participate in events; something which can only be achieved in the medium of video games. This is best highlighted when Simon is copied into another body in order to delve deeper into the PATHOS-II facility. Upon copying over to another body, you become aware that your previous body still believes to be Simon.
That’s when you’re given the option of powering down the ‘old’ Simon or letting him live a life trapped in the facility. It was a decision that wasn’t easy to make. Yet I still made the decision to power down the old Simon rather than let him live a life of confusion and isloation. However, I was making this decision as the ‘new’ Simon who I was playing as. For me this Simon was the ‘real’ Simon as I was literally in his shoes even though I was looking back at the body I was only just previously in. Not only is this fascinating fiction, it’s also using the very medium of video game storytelling to portray both the plot and wider themes of the story. It’s this fantastic use of meta-textual storytelling that makes SOMA such an intriguing proposition and why that after completing it over a week ago, I still can’t stop thinking about it.
Have you played SOMA? What did you think of it? Are there other games that have great video game narratives that are unique to the medium? Let me know in the comments below or tweet me @Matt_the_Marvel