Tuesday, October 13, 2015

SOMA is totally a metaphor for euthanasia

Note: This article contains spoilers for SOMA. If you haven't finished the game yet, it'll still be here when you do. And if it's not still here, you'll have no evidence that I promised otherwise.

So you've finished SOMA, then, have you? I know this because you would have heeded my warning if you hadn't. So how about that ending? Real gut punch, right? I really do think this'll rank as one of my favorite games of this generation, even if it's got a couple of pacing and narrative issues that I couldn't ignore in my review. Because despite my qualms, this is the sort of thing science fiction was invented for -- to explore important human themes in situations we have not (yet) been confronted with. And while SOMA leaves you with a lot to think about (which is why I love it), I want to talk about one thing that I briefly touched upon in my write-up, which is what I perceive to be the developers' stance on euthanasia, i.e. mercy killing.

Let's briefly recap the plot. In the early 22nd century, Earth's surface is destroyed by a comet, and the only survivors are the inhabitants of PATHOS-II, a research facility at the bottom of the ocean. Resigning to the futility of the situation, the scientists devise a plan to "preserve" the human race: by creating digital copies of the remaining citizens, compiling them onto a device called the Ark, and then launching it into space, allowing humanity to continue its existence in some form regardless of what happens to the survivors' physical bodies. The protagonist himself, Simon, was the first subject of such a brain scan, and nearly a century after his death, he's been reinstated in a mechanical body for initially unknown reasons.

This is an oppressively bleak game, in large part due to the hopelessness of this situation, and how well the developers sell it. It's bad enough that most of humanity has been wiped out, but the remaining members are stuck at the bottom of the ocean, completely removed from sunlight and under constant danger of being crushed under the tremendous pressure. To make matters worse, a rogue AI called "WAU" is using a biomechanical substance called structure gel to transform anyone it can find into half-human, half-machine abominations. Humanity is, in its physical form, completely screwed. The Ark really is the only thing we're clinging to.

Near the end of the game, we meet a human named Sarah, who is untainted by structure gel but nevertheless in very poor health. She's in possession of the Ark, and she hands it over with one request: that we pull her life support, putting her out of her misery.

So, yeah, that scene obviously, unambiguously deals with euthanasia. But let's look at the broader picture here, and why I believe SOMA is also making a more nuanced statement. What makes this decision so complicated is that throughout the course of our entire journey, which spans the complete length of the PATHOS-II facility, Sarah is the only living, breathing human that we encounter. Which means, yes, she is literally the last human on Earth. She's already dying, and she wouldn't be able to reproduce and perpetuate the human life cycle by herself anyway, so we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the species is doomed. But to kill her is to make the human species extinct with our own, bare hands. It's a heavy, burdening moment.

Let's fast-forward to the ending. The Ark has been launched, and in a post-credits scene, Simon awakens in the simulation, portrayed as a lush, calming forested area. He reunites with Catherine, his companion, and expresses his relief that the plan came together and that the fate of humanity has been secured for potentially thousands of years. If you watched the scene out of context, you'd think it was a happy ending.

But it comes after the real conclusion, in which Simon successfully launches the Ark and watches in disbelief as it takes off without him. Catherine explains, as she had already done earlier in the game, that a human consciousness cannot be transferred from one location to another; it can only be copied. So while a new version of Simon is safely aboard the Ark, the one we've been controlling is stuck, left to wither away and die, alone at the bottom of the ocean.

Now, if you cater to the belief that machines can have souls and that a digital copy of a human can be human itself, this ending can be interpreted as, uh, not a complete loss, since we completed our mission and some form of Simon is indeed safe, sound and headed far away from this planet. To me, though, this ending punishes both Simon and the player for succumbing to a false sense of hope in a world where all hope is lost. Our failure to accept the fall of humanity leads to the hollowest of victories.

I mentioned in my review how vital SOMA's setting is to the effectiveness of its themes, and this is exactly what I'm talking about. We walk through unappetizing grey corridors. We hear the creak of metal as PATHOS-II bends under the pressure of the ocean. We see human corpses being reanimated into biomechanical monstrosities. We see the collapse of civilization. We watch the last human on Earth dying right in front of us. At a certain point, you have to ask yourself: What's the use? Why preserve this? We've lost the battle. It's over. If turning humans into machines is an acceptable compromise, then the ending should be a happy one. But I'm betting that for most people, it isn't.

SOMA is, at the end of the day, a game that asks us what we'd do if we were in the position to play Kevorkian with the entire human race. I think it's got a powerful message about prolonging the inevitable. Especially if you read the Ark as some sort of spiritual afterlife and, oh god, that's a completely different blog entry right there.

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