The following article covers in-depth plot points from the game, SOMA.
One of the breakthrough games of 2015 was SOMA, created by acclaimed Amnesia developer, Frictional Games. Light on action and heavy on exploration, narrative, and plot, SOMA explored horror from a science fiction perspective. Protagonist Simon Jarrett finds himself centuries in the future amidst a decaying and dying world, with his only friend a computer A.I. named Catherine Chun. Together, they wander PATHOS-II, an underwater research facility populated by horrific robotic monsters.
There are wrinkles to this plot, of course. Catherine was once a human whose mind was transferred into digital form. Similarly, Simon Jarrett isn’t quite human himself, since he is now a brain scan that’s been transferred into a robotic shell. The course of the game involves heavy discussion between these two as Simon attempts to save the last of ‘humanity,’ who are themselves brain scans placed into a paradisaical Ark. It’s Simon’s goal to send this Ark into space, where the last of humanity can live on in digital form for perhaps thousands of years.
The narrative throughout the game has been praised and the discussions between Catherine and Simon provide interesting ground for discussing what constitutes our humanity. However, one point of argument that has arisen has been over the character of Catherine herself. For many fans, there is a disagreement regarding whether she is portrayed consistently. Consider the following.
Part of the game’s exposition comes in the form of audio logs from the people Catherine used to work with. These descriptions often portray her as aloof and shy. Discussions with her don’t necessarily match her portrayal in audio logs, and she can be quite insistent, demanding, and occasionally cruel toward not only Simon but the robots inhabiting the station. However, are these two facets of Catherine truly at odds?
It would be wrong to consider Catherine’s character only from the perspective of her coworkers. Shyness and anger are not mutually exclusive emotions and can manifest in different conditions. For instance, it may be true that she was shy with regard to her peers, but is the Catherine we see shy about her work? No. In fact, she’s quite insistent about pursuing it. In one audio log, we’re treated to a discussion between her and a colleague in which she admits one of her subjects committed suicide. While the colleague insists they tell their supervisor about the incident, what is Catherine more concerned about? Continuing her work.
Is the shyness her colleagues talk about truly shyness, or is she disconnected from the majority of personal connections? Do they hold less value to her than her work does? Does a suicide concern her because it’s a suicide, or because it will hinder her work? In the context of what we witness, it can be argued that her shyness was a human disconnect, and that her passion truly centered on her work rather than the people around her. The Ark she’s constructing might hold the last of humanity’s consciousness, but maybe she wants it to succeed less for the people inside of it and more to say she accomplished it.
After all, during the course of the adventure together, Catherine (despite being an A.I. herself) reveals constant disregard for the robots populating PATHOS-II. In fact, she encourages dismantling them where possible and dismisses them as anything intelligent. Again, this is in contrast to being an A.I. herself and pushing Simon to launch the Ark. If she has so little regard for the minds inside these robots, what makes those inside the Ark any more valued? Because they were her friends? Not likely. There’s only one character she remotely comes close to showing any true affection for in all the discussions the player has with her.
The Catherine we talk to in-game has far more in common with the Catherine we listen to in the final audio log. Discovered on her dead body, through this log we find out she was murdered while fighting the crew to launch the Ark into space. This is the Catherine we witness throughout the game – one single minded in the pursuit of her work, who has come this far and isn’t going to back down under any circumstances. It’s a Catherine who will disregard anything, indeed anyone, to see the work completed. Her aloofness in other circumstances was simply her disregard for personal connections manifesting in a different way.
Writing character in games is tricky because the player gets to witness and interpret things from multiple angles. They have the direct interactions they experience, but also what they’re told about the character from recordings, notes, and other people. Imagine wandering into your friend’s room where you could learn everything they ever said or did when they weren’t around you. What if you had access to their journals, or recordings of their conversations with other people from vastly different circumstances? Would they be the exact same person you perceived beforehand?The likeliness is probably not, because we all wear masks that are appropriate for different circumstances. In SOMA, all the masks come off.
There’s a fractured face of Catherine that players see on the opening menu. When the game concludes, that face has been assembled, with every piece in place. Maybe the takeaway is that we’re finally seeing the whole Catherine, and not just the pieces.