SOMA EP1: Oh, Canada?

By Shamus
on Mar 23, 2016
Filed under:
Spoiler Warning

85 comments

We wanted to do something light and quick before we dive into Fallout 4, which will no doubt consume a big chunk of the year. So we’re going to run through SOMA, the follow-up to Amnesia from Frictional Games. Unlike that one time we treated Amnesia like a joke, we’re actually giving SOMA a full play-through and taking it seriously.


Link (YouTube)

I love the dream sequence here, which is something you almost never hear people say about any movie or game ever. Here is why this one succeeds where so many others have failed:

  1. It’s short. Just 30 seconds. Far too many games make a dream sequence that lingers for several minutes. This ends in one of two ways: Either the player figures it out right away, in which case they spend the entire rest of the sequence impatiently waiting for the story to Get On With It Already because none of this matters. Or the dream feels like reality, in which case the audience feels cheated that you wasted their time because they watched a mundane scene that didn’t matter and ended as soon as something interesting happened.
  2. It ACTS like a dream. Way too many storytellers seem to be under the impression that human beings dream in little expositional short films, complete with musical cues and establishing shots. But Simon’s dream really feels like dream logic. He’s driving his car, but he’s sort of aware that he’s about to be in a crash. But he’s already got the head injury from the crash. His head is bleeding, which is annoying instead of panic-inducing like it would be in real life. He’s having a conversation about the medicine he needs to take, which is a concern in his life now, long after the crash. This is the exact sort of casual continuity-bending nonsense that you only see in dreamsAnd Mass Effect 3..
  3. It LOOKS like a dream. Note how the camera stays in first-person, and is mostly hyper-focused on small details, leaving the rest of the scene vague. Contrary to what Hollywood thinks, we don’t usually dream in third-person widescreen HD1080p with Dolby Surround sound.
  4. It serves a purpose. These 30 seconds of screen time are packed with detail. We learn that Simon was in a crash. He injured his head, and possibly his brain. He had a girlfriend. The fact that she’s not part of his life when he wakes up is a pretty big hint that she probably died in the crash. We see the medicine and hear the name Dr. Munshi, introducing the elements the game will need in about 15 seconds. The writer uses the dream to bring us up to speed, while also conveying Simon’s ongoing unease and confusion.

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Footnotes:

[1] And Mass Effect 3.



202020205There are now 85 comments. Almost a hundred!

From the Archives:

  1. silver Harloe says:

    Sometimes I dream about myself in third person. Though usually when that happens I don’t remain myself – sometimes I’m dreaming about being other people, though, like doors that lead to wrong places, my identity will shift around when I’m in “third person” dream mode.

    Though it’s still the case, even when I’m in third person, that only what I’m focusing on has any detail and everything else goes vague.

    • skulgun says:

      I alternate between normal interaction and FPS controls so much in dreams its not even surprising anymore.

    • Supah Ewok says:

      I’ve dreamed in an isometric perspective.

      It was a weird night.

    • ehlijen says:

      I had a dream roll end credits on me once. I was very confused the next day.

    • Matt Downie says:

      I’ve had dreams in the form of turn-based strategy game.

      • John says:

        My dreams are occasionally a terrifying mash-up of Advance Wars and Red Alert. My units are turn-based and the enemy’s move in real-time. Also, the size of the map keeps changing and my units disappear when I stop looking at them.

      • Echo Tango says:

        I had a dream in RTS-mode (mostly Red Alert, but some others too) when I was playing too many games instead of studying for exams in high-school…

      • Agamo says:

        I once had a dream about Dwarf Fortress, completely in ASCII. I don’t remember the details, but I think it involved a dragon setting fire to the forest outside my fort.

        I also had a dream where I was trapped inside some assembly code. I think it was from the perspective of the instruction pointer, and somehow I was desperately looking for the return address in the function so I could escape.

    • Cuthalion says:

      I usually dream in third person, actually. SD though, not HD.

      I actually remember things in third person, too! I can barely imagine anything in first-person, even if I try. I don’t know why. It’s just difficult to do somehow.

      Of course, in my third person dreams and memories, I may or may not look anything like me, but I’m clearly supposed to be me.

      I don’t think in third person, mind you. Just any mentally-simulated visuals that involve me. Is that weird?

      • I dunno. I haven’t been in my own dreams since my last nightmare at age 14. There’s generally a me stand-in, but there’s enough separation that stuff isn’t happening to me. Had a doc theorize that it’s a combo of depression defenses and my habit of telling myself stories to go to sleep, basically that I can’t deal with more bad stuff so I make sure it happens to not-me.
        I have some memories in 3rd person, mostly early childhood ones, or ones I remember more from the photographs of the event than the actual event, but I also have some strong first-person ones.

    • Trix2000 says:

      Thinking about it, I think a fair number of my dreams end up like this.

    • Volvagia says:

      Yeah, how I usually interpret cinematic dream sequences is “Does this FEEL like a dream?” Most films primarily about dreams (Eraserhead, Nightmare on Elm Street franchise) actually succeed at creating something that feels the part, in spite of having a third person perspective. The only one I’ve seen that actively fails to feel so is Inception. That having been said? Films NOT primarily about dreams do often fail at crafting a genuinely convincing dream sequences. The best dream I’ve seen, in a film not primarily about them, is probably that odd funeral dream in Heathers, and it works so well as a dream due to just one ACCIDENTAL element. (They initially intended everyone in that dream to be wearing sunglasses in that scene, but the old-school 3-D glasses just work FAR better at setting the atmosphere and statement of the scene.)

  2. The Rocketeer says:

    Not that Josh is necessarily wrong in his assertion of what “SOMA” refers to, but I’m pretty dang sure it’s a reference to the body itself, as opposed to psyche, the mind. You know, what with how the interplay between body and mind composes the self? That kind of thing? I heard it’s a theme in the game.

  3. Blue_Pie_Ninja says:

    Dreaming is weird, like when you seem to walk towards something in a dream and you end up teleported towards it and it is completely different from what it was before. Or you turn your head in a dream and the landscape completely changes.

    • Echo Tango says:

      “I’ll walk over to my friend Joe!”
      “Now Joe is my ex-girlfriend Jane?”
      “Now she’s an alien, and I’m the president of the United States for some reason…”

  4. Muspel says:

    “Mass Effect 3. It looks like a dream.”
    -Shamus Young, 2016

    You heard it here, folks: Mass Effect 3 is Shamus’s dream game!

    • Zak McKracken says:

      Everything makes sense now! Shamus, you’ll need to retract all the stuff about ME3 — it’s all meant to be a dream, therefore it does not have to make sense, and you’re a terrible person for not understanding this simple fact and trash-talking the game just because you’re not intellectual enough to get it!

      … ME4 will start with Shepard waking up and realizing that 2 and 3 were a dream :) Totally not a cheap plot-twist device!

  5. Quent says:

    Their devblog has a lot of interesting things scattered throughout, but their most interesting one is “4-Layers, A Narrative Design Approach”. It details their design method for SOMA, which they made with the people who did “The vanishing of Ethan Carter”. It’s like a thesis in game design. There are others about puzzle design, monster encounters, and al sorts of things written in a sorta academic way instead of a PR one. You should really read some of it.

    They put up a post recently with a few of these articals linked. Its not all of them, but there is a lot of interest there.

  6. You lot always manage to find the most appropriately inappropriate music to end these seasons on. Bonus points for this one being an in-house composition no less.

  7. tzeneth says:

    Credits for Shamus in the music? Awesome. Funny episode? Great. Text should not be readable? BOOK!

  8. el_b says:

    nice song, do you plan on doing the music to each season from now on?

    • Shamus says:

      I dunno. It would be nice, but I’m not exactly a master of musical styles. It’s sort of hit-or-miss with me. Like, I doubt I could do 50’s music justice, which is probably what you’d want for Fallout 4.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        Seeing how disconnected fallout 4 is from every other theme of the previous fallouts,even 3,I dont see it as a problem if you dont get anything even slightly resembling the 50s.In fact,having you attempt to make a techno 50s thing would be quite fitting.

    • Somniorum says:

      It’s a nice song, but I must admit, for the first couple seconds I thought it was going to turn into a rendition of “Oh Canada” and was kinda bummed out when it didn’t : P

  9. Hermocrates says:

    But if you die in Canada, you die in real life!

  10. Joe Informatico says:

    I’m amused that they did a really good job of reproducing the look of the older Toronto subway trains still in service (maybe dirtier and darker than the real thing) with the actual stops and everything, but didn’t realize cellphones don’t actually work on Toronto subway trains.

  11. Lachlan the Mad says:

    Time before entire game is spoiled: 3:50. A new record!

    Also, the sound quality seems to be a lot better in this one. Is anything changed?

  12. Daemian Lucifer says:

    How can you say that this game wasnt scary?You are playing as a canadian!Thats terrifying!

  13. Grimwear says:

    I find it interesting that on the letter Josh picks up it’s addressed to Simm Jarret but then when subtitles are on and we meet the Doctor he calls him Simon Jarrett. Having now played the game I’m not sure if that’s relevant or just another minor mistake like the book.

  14. Neko says:

    Yay! Already saw an LP of this but really want to see your take on it.

    • Sleeping Dragon says:

      It’s going to be one of those rare cases where I go in blind into the SW season, I tend to stay away from scary games. I did get most of the thing spoiled in the comments section for Diecast I think.

  15. Daemian Lucifer says:

    I agree with Peepants about the huge contrivances.But Ill leave that for the ending.

    As for the game making you pee your soul,thats only true if youve never studied philosophy,or have never thought of the continuity of consciousness.If you have,then this game is just ok.It doesnt present you with anything new,nor does it say anything profound.

    The main character is an idiot,which we will pretty soon find out.And that was a pretty big drawback for me.Not the biggest only because of monsters-that-should-not-be-looked-at.Whoever invented those can go jump into a volcano.

  16. Deven says:

    reposting my rant from youtube

    okay i want/need to rant about SOMA. so here we go: it fails. not that it’s a failure, it’s actually fairly decent as a whole but in each individual aspect (besides art design) it doesn’t have enough follow through to carry the work.
    what i mean is that the game seems to be under the impression that we are as dumb as it’s protagonist and can’t grasp the ideas the game is going for. (spoilers from here on) the idea of copying a consciousness digitally isn’t that complex, anyone who has used copy/paste on their computer can get the base concept. like the matrix it seems to think it’s ideas are cleverer than they really are.
    it’s ideas are simple and they can’t carry the game, but the designers seem to think that they could, so they never go beyond them. the twist: that you’re a robot that thinks they are human, is one that’s easy to guess and is established fairly early on. and it just keeps running with that without expanding much on the idea. the idea is too weak.
    the themes are almost non existent, it establishes a concept: brain uploading, and then doesn’t do anything with it. sure it play it up for drama but it doesn’t draw any conclusions or even really explore the nature of what it means to be human or be an individual which this form of transhumanism is all about.
    instead of exploring it’s ideas the game goes for it’s rather weak story. seriously it’s weak, established early on and has no real twists beyond the one mentioned above. now this story could still have worked despite weak ideas and themes but to do so it would have needed much stronger characters beyond it’s bioshock-esque feel. seriously an abrasive woman on the phone and a bunch of data logs are all you have to go on. it’s weak, notice a theme yet.

    it could have explored it’s ideas and themes more fully, here’s some ideas: okay we have 3 major plot points: post Apocalypse, brain uploading and a rogue AI.
    let’s see here let’s explore…. boundaries between man and machine: the AI forcibly digitized the last humans as a means of preserving their lives in the face of extinction, since it is, in itself digital, it can’t understand why humans feel that this state of being is horrifying and is basically trapping it’s victims in hell, alternately blur the lines even more by having it try to attain a robot body allowing it to experience human existence and see how the divide between what separates us from robots become non-existent: strong character (AI) good ideas (forced change is state of being and how mind and AI can exist in the same states) and strong themes (what makes us human, if our creations can think than are they people? is it worth living if the life is different from the one we know)
    but the AI thing has been done let’s play with instead… transhumanism: peoples minds being uploaded creates divides between the human original mind and the robotic copy, creating a man versus machine conflict complicated by the fact that they are both the same people each seeking validation, this one would explore what it means to have a soul and what it means to be a person, made more complicated by the fact that copying someone multiple times creates a sort of false immortality where they keep losing their memories combined with the fact that if their human counterpart dies what does that make them. strong characters (a larger cast where you can see the same person in different situations, and in fact against themselves to explore how people change to stimulus) ideas (cloning meets transhumanism) and themes (if you can be copied than are you really real or just a bunch of data, is your copy still you or are they a different person from the moment they have a different experience, if one of you dies but the rest lives on are you really still alive)
    but maybe clones get that one weird al song stuck in your head let’s delve into….metaphysics: harkening back more into the supernatural horror of amnesia, same brain uploading as before but this time they aren’t copies but the same person in different bodies, subconsciously all sharing experiences and going mad from it, this one delves into something more Frankenstein where science has transgressed into the domain of gods and the soul. could be made more scary by having on of them die but still sharing the experience of being simultaneously alive and dead and exploring the horror of one who can see things man was not meant to know

    there is so much more they could have done with their ideas and to make it all the worse it’s not even scary. ultimately SOMA is just a weak and indecisive if pretty game. just cause something is symbolic and means stuff doesn’t make something smart or compelling.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      *sigh*I wanted to talk about this in the end,but fine.

      I agree with you,the game doesnt do anything interesting with all the things it throws at you.Theres this cool idea about killing yourself so that your copy becomes “the real you”,which Ive seen loooooooong ago.Heck,it even predates star trek,the show that can be said to bring the idea about copying people to the broader audience with its transporters.But does this game do anything interesting with it?Nope,it just shows you that a few people did it.End of story.Ummmm….ok.

      Then there is the drug aspect with the anuses.Every time you use one,you put more and more of your hand inside.It even sparks one conversation.Aaaand….it leads nowhere.It doesnt even tie with you ending wau,where you have to get your hand cut off inside it.

      Then there is the matrix in the end.Why was there a matrix in the end?Whats the purpose of that whole thing?I thought the point of the satellite was to preserve people so that they can reseed the planet once it becomes habitable again.What purpose does a matrix have in that plan?I mean look how quick you go from being uploaded to being downloaded into a new body.You dont notice the time passing while you are in storage.So why does this storage have the matrix in it?

      • Benjamin Finkel says:

        The Ark isn’t a reseeding plan. “The Matrix” that is shown literally is the plan. Catherine’s best hope for humanity is simulated existence ad infinitum. The full details of how that works (immortality? Fixed population, with mortality? What?) is left murky.

        Lots of people criticize this plan. I think it’s not too bad when faced with the projected alternative of surviving a scant few years more on the bottom of the ocean – or with the (equally vague) fate of succumbing to the WAU’s machinations for Earth’s future.

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          I thought it was used to store them until they can come back and repopulate the planet wit artificial bodies.But if matrix is the plan,then thats a moronic plan.

          • PeteTimesSix says:

            Why?

            I mean, personally, Id prefer living in the matrix to, you know, not living at all. Its not much of a plan, but its a whole lot better than straight up extinction.

            (disclaimer: did not actually play SOMA)

            • Daemian Lucifer says:

              Because its not living.First,you arent storing yourself in the matrix,you are storing your copy in it.You still die outside.Pretty horribly in some cases.Second,because you cant accomplish anything.Everything you do in the matrix has zero impact on the real world.Third,once the hardware starts breaking down,you wont have any way of repairing it.So its a doomed existence.Fourth,because the resources spent on making this ridiculous project couldve been used to attempt something more meaningful.Sending an ark away from earth.Making a settlement underground or underwater.Anything.

              • Angelo says:

                1~3: The point is that they aren’t trying to fix the situation, because it can’t be fixed. The ark was about allowing something that was at least partially human “survive” and be happy for however long possible. It’s not a “plan”, it’s a last ditch effort.
                4: Most of the infrastructure and a big part of what became the “ark” was already in place. They didn’t waste resources, they simply didn’t let the resources they had go to waste.

                “Sending an ark away from earth.”
                What do you mean by this? It’s exactly what they did. Do you mean a shuttle with people on board? They didn’t really have the infrastructure or resources to shoot shuttles fit for humans in orbit.
                “Making a settlement underground or underwater.”
                With what? The surface of the planet was already an unlivable hell. How could they build another underground/underwater complex in that kind of situation?

                P.S.: Please put a space after the punctuation marks, it makes the text more pleasant to read.

                • Kylroy says:

                  The game’s whole premise is that humanity is basically doomed; the surface is completely unlivable, and these underwater colonies aren’t self-sufficient, and that’s *before* the WAU goes all H.R. Giger on the residents.

                  I can see checking out of the story given it’s incredible bleakness, but the ark plan is as good a plan as any…since they’re all futile.

    • Alex says:

      Having beaten my head against the wall of idiots who don’t understand how this stuff works (and has put thought into the sort of tests necessary to confirm a technology doesn’t fall into these pitfalls, or how it can be used ethically even if it does), I’m certainly willing to believe that SOMA’s core premise seems deeper to the layman than it does to me.

      My real problem with the game, though, is that it contains a great deal of things I like, but only in the same sense that the smoking remnants of a house fire would. It is so obnoxiously grimdark that I cannot and would not immerse myself in the story. It’s still interesting from an academic perspective, but I have not bought the game and never will purely because of this problem.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      ADENDUM:

      You know what story popped in my head the first time I was playing soma?Sixth day.A Schwarzenegger movie.That one at least did something interesting with the premise.And thats not even one of his better movies.

  17. INH5 says:

    Regarding all of the models in the intro that never get used again, I wonder if some of those assets were bought from stock 3D model sites like http://www.turbosquid.com/. For obvious reasons, it’s a lot easier to find stock models of real modern stuff than of weird future stuff that fits your game’s particular aesthetic.

  18. FuzzyWasHe? says:

    The art museum is MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) not soma. It’s in NYC and is awesome.

  19. Sleeping Dragon says:

    RE: the marketing bait and switch that Shamus was talking about at around 24 minute mark.

    No! F no! Before I played Gone Home I double checked on the net and then had RL friend swear to me up and down that it’s not a horror game and I still got stomach ache from stress. I want my scary games clearly marked and covered in bright yellow warning signs that glow in the dark. Though to be fair the cat would be out of the bag way before I’d actually buy the game.

    • Ranneko says:

      Yeah I agree, Gone Home is even better when you go in not knowing if it is a horror game or not. I spent a lot of time turning on all the lights in that game.

      • Ninety-Three says:

        There’s a simple test that makes it very obvious whether or not you’re playing a horror game where monsters will try to kill you: Is there a sprint button? If you’re locked at a calm walking pace, you can safely assume you’ll never have to run away from a hostile monster, and that made it clear to me from minute one that Gone Home wasn’t a horror game.

      • Kylroy says:

        I think that the bait and switch nature of the game contributed to the backlash it received; if you bought a game seeing Clock Tower, and got Firewatch, I think it’s fair to be pissed. (Note I said “pissed”, not “embarking on a crusade”.)

    • Sadbench says:

      I am a huge wuss and being terrified of Gone Home significantly hampered my enjoyment of it.

      Although I hear other people appreciated the uncertainty, I was too busy being afraid a ghost would pop out to concentrate on the story it was trying to tell. :<

      • Gruhunchously says:

        Gone Home is interesting because a first time through can be a relaxing, even banal experience, or a nerve-wracking nightmare depending on what mindset you enter it in (and how much you’ve been spoiled).

        Though I suppose the same could be said of many horror games, so I ‘unno.

  20. Mr Compassionate says:

    Yay Mumbles! A rare treat.

    Also yes I agree most media doesn’t get dreams right. The opening here is much more similar to my experiences especially given the lack of detail and peripheral vision. I find dreams are almost always hugely abstracted and nonsensical, in fact I think most people find that. Dream sequences rich with obvious symbolism and detail always seemed silly.

  21. Steve C says:

    I know absolutely nothing about Soma. Never played it. Never heard anything about it. I haven’t even read the comments above. I’m pretty sure I know what the twist is going to be regardless. I played a tabletop RPG with this exact premise at GenCon back in 2000.

    The guy in Toronto (it’s definitely Toronto) went to the office, got scanned and then he…lived out his normal life to a ripe old age. The end. His story concluded long ago and we are not playing him.

    The brain scan that was made of him hung around well afterward. Many years later the scan is loaded into an artificial body. That’s what the player character is; digitized brain data that believes it is Mr Toronto Guy.

    That is what happened in my tabletop game. With the difference that we (the players) were made to believe we had our brains extracted by aliens and surgically inserted into gorilla bodies. Well, at least that was the conclusion everyone else jumped to. I hadn’t consider that angle until the others though of it. I was the only one who jumped to “we are a copy of a human in an ape” first thing which turned out to be true.

    Fun times. It was a memorable game.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Yup.Not that hard to guess it.

    • Angelo says:

      You guessed right, but only in part.
      What you wrote does end up happening, but it’s not “the twist”. As in: it’s not a big revelation at the end of the game that flips everything on its head, but rather something that is established rather early on in the story, and then explored and discussed in several ways.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        The thing in the end doesnt really flip anything on its head.Particularly because you get a second ending after it.

        • Angelo says:

          Sure, but I don’t think it was really trying to, nor did it explicitly need to.
          For me the story was more about understanding the implications of what was happening rather than setting up the shocking reveal of “what was actually going on all along”.
          I don’t really think the ending was trying to give the player an unexpected final gut punch, but rather to explore to what length some people are capable of fooling themselves to chase hope. After all the game even shows you first hand what was going to happen, TWICE, and you spend quite a while digesting the information and talking about it.

  22. Jonathan Scinto says:

    SOMA’s plot becomes very… dull if you have read any hard science fiction written in the past few decades.

  23. Traiden says:

    When did a screwdriver become a syringe? That was a tool to work on the computers there in the past/present, not a medical tool to work on people.

  24. Redingold says:

    Funnily enough, Frictional just posted this on their blog today. Good timing, there.

  25. Aaron says:

    ‘oh dont worry guys this wont be like that last horror game we made fun of, we take this one seriously. you can tust us. we’re from the internet we’re here to help’

    yeah, you’ll hopefully excuse me if i have doubts about how ‘tots cerial’ the spoiler warning crew is about this game
    it does look interesting though

  26. Eric says:

    And angry hordes of beavers descended on Shamus and crew for not knowing the difference between Canadian cities and provinces.

  27. The Mich says:

    I think the assessment that every character in the game is not ill-intentioned is not entirely correct: there’s some guy who, after a period of voluntary isolation (he refused to join the evacuation of a part of the facility, remaining the last guy to stay there to do God knows what), went bonkers and became some sort of WAU worshiper, thereby gouging his own eyes out and compromising a big chunk of the rest of the facility upon joining the rest of the survivors.

  28. Smiley_Face says:

    I grind my teeth every time Shamus changes where he thinks we are in Canada. I mean, I get it, he’s from New York, he has no reason to have a frame of reference about Canada, but it’s weirdly irritating to listen to people be repeatedly and casually wrong about your city.

  29. Kelerak says:

    I always feel like I should play the game before I watch the Spoiler Warning season, because Josh’s antics makes it really difficult to take the game seriously.

    Oh well.

  30. BurningHeron says:

    I know I’m super late to this party, but… has anyone seen that movie The Witch? Because that got the same criticism as SOMA, that it wasn’t scary, and it’s opened up a really interesting conversation in my mind.

    Do horror games or films or what-have-you HAVE to be scary? That is, can they be successful by discussing something scary, even if they’re not actively trying to scare the audience?

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