SOMA (2015) by Swedish developer Frictional Games, most famous for 2011’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent, is arguably the queerest game ever made. Drawing from the philosophy of Derek Parfit, and alluding to the work of Donna Haraway, Mel Y. Chen, Lee Edelman, and Karen Barad, SOMA challenges players to rethink their beliefs about what “human” means in a world where “human” as we know it no longer exists. What, then, does “human” mean in the world of SOMA? Does it require a physical body? Or is it our minds that define us as “human”? The inhabitants of SOMA are constructed through a series of queer assemblages and relationships between human and machine, biological and mechanical, living and dead. It is also, despite its futuristic setting and deployment of science fiction tropes, deeply indebted to the Gothic. Through concepts of selfhood and identity, posthumanism/cyborg feminism, hybridity, and the porous boundary between life and death, SOMA embraces multiple tenets of queer ecologies such as interconnectedness, transformation, the animacy of “toxic” materials, and futurity and signals a thought-provoking direction for future ecohorror video games.
Suffering a traumatic and terminal brain injury after a car accident that kills his friend, protagonist Simon Jarrett undergoes an experimental treatment in which simulations of treatments are run on a scan of his brain until one that will work in real life is found. He awakens in PATHOS-II, a research facility on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge owned by the multinational military-industrial corporation Carthage Industries, not knowing how he got there or why. As the game progresses, Simon learns that he died a century earlier, just a month after beginning treatment, and that his brain scan was used as a blueprint for constructing the technology to “digitize human consciousness” (“SOMA”). Worst of all, a comet–fittingly called “Telos”–has destroyed life on the Earth’s surface, leaving the employees of PATHOS-II as the last remnants of humanity. During his journey to find those humans within the vast complex, Simon encounters robots known as “Mockingbirds” who, believing they are human, speak and act accordingly—they can even feel pain and still see their own bodies as human—as well as “Proxies” and “Fleshers,” hostile humanoids infected with the structure gel powering the bioengineered artificial intelligence known as the Warden Unit, or WAU. Other mutated creatures prowl the facility as well. Simon’s only companion is Catherine Chun, a Taiwanese computer scientist and lead developer of the ARK program who was murdered by another employee during an argument about the fate of the ARK. As Catherine’s brain scan was an early test run, she is unaware of what has happened over the past year—including her own death—and is eager to return to her project. However, she is confined to Simon’s omni-tool and cannot act on her own.
Not fully understanding what humanity is but attempting to preserve its remnants nevertheless, the WAU has created the Mockingbirds by uploading the brain scans of PATHOS-II employees to robots throughout the station. The few remaining humans, meanwhile, can exist only while attached to the WAU via tentacles it has inserted into them, through which it infuses the structure gel that allows tissue to reanimate. The result is that both matter and memory in the game are continually deconstructed, creating new perceptions of what it means to be human as well as examining the inherent transness of matter through the reshaping of both organic and inorganic beings into new, hybrid forms. Having no memory of his physical death a century earlier, Simon is himself a Mockingbird uploaded into two diving suits—fusions of machine, structure gel, and female corpses—at various points during the narrative, thus inhabiting, along with the robots, what Donna Haraway (1990) terms “the utopian dream of the hope for a monstrous world without gender” (p. 181). But these monsters, as we will see, “can also be a source of political agency. [They] can empower and radicalize” (Barad, 2015, p. 392), as my reading of SOMA endeavors do to.
Simon seeks a way back home—though that concept, too, has been completely redefined by both the comet impact and the ARK, a simulated reality in which the brain scans can “live” for thousands of years on solar power once launched into orbit. This recalls both Haraway’s and Barad’s discussions of the virtual as a material space; for the brain scans, the virtual world of the ARK is as real as the physical world they once inhabited, and so are their virtual bodies. SOMA thus engages with several complex philosophical questions rarely confronted in video games, some of which I will try to untangle here.
The Gothic and the Cyborg
Jack Halberstam (1995) argues that Gothic fiction is a “technology of subjectivity”—in other words, it produces subjectivities opposed to that which we define as normal, healthy, and good or “pure,” and only through these aberrant identities can we know those they contest (p. 2). This is, of course, a “false opposition,” one that horror parodies (p. 167). They further contend that Gothic novels have a multiplicity of meanings, that horror emerges from recognition of this lack of meaning, and it is through the monster that this horror is symbolized (p. 2). Halberstam’s claim that sex and gender are the primary markers of difference that monstrosity embodies in contemporary horror makes their work highly significant to SOMA, which can be read as a Gothic text (the dark, monster-haunted, labyrinthine corridors of PATHOS-II are the futuristic equivalent of a castle; the boundaries between dead and alive, human and abhuman are exceptionally porous and “slimy” due to the structure gel; the past is always haunting the present) and one in which a primary concern does appear to be the undoing of sex and gender aided by the WAU’s “monstrous” technology.
Sex and gender are thus deeply unstable concepts in SOMA and in the Gothic in general, operating in a cycle of reconstructed identities rather than on a binary. Halberstam writes:
While both males and females are connected to the WAU, it’s Simon, not Catherine, who must hide from the Mockingbirds and Fleshers, who must copy himself and make a difficult ethical choice about the previous “Simon,” who must inhabit corpses. Catherine is monstrous in the sense that she is a former Mockingbird now trapped inside an omni-tool, but Simon is literally lost without her. As the deuteragonist, Catherine thus supplies female and female-identifying gamers with the access to power Halberstam suggests.
All the monsters in SOMA, including Simon himself, are versions of cyborgs, a popular science fiction trope and one famously claimed by Haraway as a political construction in her “Cyborg Manifesto.” As a hybrid of machine and organism, the cyborg belongs to the Gothic as much as it does to science fiction; it’s a technological update to the old Gothic fears of the animal/human amalgam common in works such as Dracula (Haraway’s protégé Allucquére Rosanne Stone, in fact, views vampires as a kind of cyborg. See my chapter The Eco-Vampire for more). The difference is that our entanglement with technology in virtually every facet of our lives has, according to Haraway (and suggested by Stone, as noted later in this chapter), made us all cyborgs. The importance of the cyborg is that it “speaks about both social power and politics of representation” (Melzer, 2006, p. 41), and if we read SOMA as a trans* narrative, then there are few better choices than a figure whose very existence transgresses boundaries. Melzer writes that since the cyborg recognizes “the destructive dimensions of patriarchal technoscience…the implosion of binaries facilitated by technology will make it possible to think and act beyond Western dualistic reasoning—including binary gender categories” (p. 41). Since the female body has always had an ambiguous relationship with technology, the cyborg is a critical feminist intervention into notions of biopower, conceived of by Michel Foucault (1978) as a form of political power in which modern modern nation states regulate their subjects through “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations” (p. 140). The cyborg is thus important because both women and machines:
As we will see, the cyborgs of SOMA often repulse the assumed male subject—the gamer—and as the WAU illustrates so violently, they cannot be controlled. Thus, while the cyborg can be “a patriarchal fantasy of dominating technologies,” as it was in-game for Carthage Industries, which was involved in numerous classified projects prior to the impact event, it can also be “a feminist tool of resistance” (Melzer, 2006, p. 42) because it embraces contradiction and evades categorization, as all monsters do. As I will discuss later in this paper, both Simon and the Mockingbirds disrupt the notion of a gender binary, Simon because he inhabits two female bodies, and the Mockingbirds because they don’t see their genderless robot bodies but those of the humans they once were.
Toxicity, Animacy, and the Queer Gothic
Toxicity plays a vital role in SOMA, as the structure gel injected into humans by the WAU is deadly in large amounts—but also the only thing keeping them “alive.” It is also creating new types of cyborgs. Suggesting Mel Y. Chen’s insistence on the queerness of the bond between living and dead, and that disability also disrupts heteronormativity, the “dead” humans queerly attached to the WAU, which is without gender, perceive themselves as too injured to move rather than as victims of the AI. They are, like Chen, disabled, queer, and toxic, their coupling “monstrous and illegitimate” but also “potent myths for resistance” (Haraway, 1990, p. 154). The WAU is, in effect, the “queer bioterrorist” Chen (2011) mentions, and indeed, their question, “What becomes of life when human bodies…are themselves pervaded by xenobiotic substances — that is, substances not intrinsic to, not generated by, unadulterated bodies…— and nanotechnology?” (p. 272) might have been written specifically for the game. These bodies are not only toxic, queer, and often disabled, but feminized as well, as they have been penetrated in some way, either by the WAU’s tentacles, by structure gel, or—at least in Simon’s case—a male brain scan has been uploaded into a female body. That his consciousness inhabits these female bodies is never a concern for him, only the fact that they are corpses, the primary figure of abjection. Simon still recognizes himself as male, much as the Mockingbirds still see themselves as human, but this queer binding of living and dead disrupts and dissolves heteronormativity as thoroughly as the WAU does.
In this way, SOMA presents Simon’s journey as a trans* one. Susan Stryker (1994) writes that the trans* body “is a technological construction. It is flesh torn apart and sewn together again in a shape other than that in which it was born” (p. 238). This is echoed in Allucquére Rosanne Stone’s (1995) assertion that:
If one reads a video game like SOMA as an extension of cyberspace, then “physical space,” in which the trans* body is rendered unnatural, no longer exists. Because there are no “natural” bodies in SOMA, there is no screen upon which to project “the war between unnatural and natural, speech and silence, monstration and effacement” (p. 181). Simon’s bodies are assemblages of organic material and machine, a less-than-human embodiment that aligns him with the rest of PATHOS-II’s denizens in a space where the unnatural has become the norm. Here, “[t]he promise of monsters is a regenerative politics, an invitation to explore new ways of being in touch, new forms of becoming, new possibilities for kinship, alliance, and change” (Barad, 2015, p. 410). The “hegemonic oppression” (p. 412) of nature is negated in PATHOS-II, where in its undoing, trans* natures are indeed claimed as natural and Simon claims kinship and alliance with other monsters. It is this very promise of his own monstrosity that renders Simon a queer, destabilizing force against heteronormativity.
Life and death are also queer, destabilizing forces in SOMA. Chen analyzes life and death as categorical crises, which is central to SOMA in that every character (including the WAU) could be considered both at the same time. Even in the virtual world of the ARK, “Virtual particles are not present (and not absent), but they are material. In fact, most of what matter is, is virtual” (Barad, 2015, p. 395). In the dance between life and death that defines SOMA’s world, “Virtual particles are…on the razor’s edge of non/being” (p. 396). Chen (2011) urges a reconsideration of terms and prompts the use of “animate” and “inanimate” instead of “life” and “death,” acknowledging that toxicity’s inherent queerness gives it animacy and that the presence of human bodies are not a requirement for something to be animate. The definition of animacy is thus weighed by “how you interpret the thing of concern and how dynamic you wish it to be” (p. 281). The WAU, despite being an “artificial” intelligence, is partly organic and highly animated. The Mockingbirds, too, while made of “dead” material like metals and plastics, rove through the corridors of PATHOS-II and along the ocean floor, “still very much beings with wants, needs, thoughts, a sense of identity, a sense of self and an affinity towards fear, pain, and death” (Arcane Workshop). This animacy extends to the brain scans not uploaded into some kind of body, Catherine being the obvious example but including Brandon Wan, the consciousness from whom Simon must obtain a code to access another part of the facility. Despite being a virtual construct, Brandon experiences mental trauma each time he realizes the computer simulation Simon is running isn’t the ARK. Finally, the humans Simon does encounter are effectively dead, reanimated only by their connection to the WAU, which makes them more like zombies. Nevertheless, they can move and speak; detaching the WAU’s tentacles kills them at once, with an almost orgasmic moan.
As with any Gothic text, a “perverse” kind of sexuality simmers below the surface; likewise, Haraway (1990) describes the cyborg as committed to “perversity,” among other things (p. 151). Reid McCarter (2015) observes:
This revulsion is typical of many cis-het male gamers when encountering queerness. That Simon’s only method for healing himself is to “fist” one of the anus-like openings recalls Leo Bersani’s (1987) argument that rectal penetration is an act of subversion against normative masculine identity: “But if the rectum is the grave in which the masculine ideal (an ideal shared—differently—by men and women) of proud subjectivity is buried, then it should be celebrated for its very potential for death” (p. 222). Each time Simon heals himself, he is ironically killing heteronormative concepts of the masculine subject. He is the cyborg that considers “more seriously the partial, fluid, sometimes aspect of sex and sexual embodiment” (Haraway, 1993, p. 180) and who can “suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies…to ourselves,” (p. 181) not only by enacting this homoerotic rejection of prescriptive masculinity, but also by inhabiting female bodies while he does so.
Penetration is also a hallmark of the Gothic, with its porous bodies and boundaries, its fusion of fear and desire, and the sexuality beneath it all. Revulsion is also, according to Halberstam (1995), indicative of “fear of and desire for the possibly latent perversity lurking within the reader [him]self” (p. 13). The attachment, both literal and figurative, of the humans to the WAU highlights these perverse Gothic desires as well as the interdependence of everything in PATHOS-II, as nothing in the complex exists without the WAU, and the WAU has no purpose without humans to preserve. Where many might see this symbiotic relationship and the creatures resulting from it as monstrous, we can also consider it as Chen (2011) might: “In perhaps its best versions, toxicity propels, not repels, queer loves, especially once we release it from exclusively human hosts…inviting loss and its ‘losers,’ and trespassing containers of animacy” (p. 281). The WAU’s queer, toxic love of humans and its desire to preserve them is ironically the only thing sustaining them. As Haraway (1990) writes, “Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert” (p. 152). In SOMA, the living-dead humans do little more than lie on the floor, in contrast to the dynamic actions of the machines still attempting to do their jobs.
Antinatalism, Queer Death Studies, and the (Un)reality of the Self
Like the WAU, the humans of SOMA are obsessed with their preservation but, because they will live as brain scans for thousands of years, they express no interest in creating more people. Patricia MacCormack (2020) argues that antinatalism, a philosophical position that negatively judges birth and views procreation as immoral, is a queering agent for “both the purpose and function of gender and human species” (p. 105). Far from being fanatical and eugenic, antinatalism asks that we dismantle human exceptionalism and anthropocentrism. There is no heterosexual, human reproduction in SOMA; the WAU alone reproduces—or rather replicates, by queerly producing new cyborgs. While some romantic relationships are implied, there are no children since none were present in the research facility—we must assume they were all killed in the extinction event. Since the only brain scans that exist are those of the PATHOS-II employees, there are only adults on the ARK, adults who can’t produce children since they no longer inhabit physical bodies. The only futurity is that of the adult brain scans who will orbit the Earth; what’s more, none of the characters even address the lack of children. Freed from “the all-pervasive, self-congratulatory, and strategically misrecognized narcissism endlessly animating pronatalism” (Edelman, 1998, pp. 21-22), they embody Lee Edelman’s queer opposition to imaginaries that assert the child as the symbol of a fictitious future. MacCormack (2020) echoes this disdain for pronatalism when she writes, “[A] claim that one’s own DNA is more important than any other is in itself a claim of superiority, and simultaneously a refusal of death through the idea that one’s children allow one to live forever” (p. 105). The world of the ARK is not one “imagined for fetuses and children” (Edelman, 1998, p. 25) but a rejection of a future as a form of reproduction and one that, reflecting Edelman’s vision of the queerest potential future, one that will indeed end with the uploaded scans. Heterosexual reproduction is meaningless and unnecessary—even obsolete— since the scans will exist, never aging, for thousands of years, after which they will simply deactivate. In the meantime, they exist in a world that was not constructed for children as its subject; “the child as figure of futurity” (pp. 29-30) has indeed died, and so the ARK’s inhabitants have insisted “that the future stops here” (p. 30).
If, as Chen and others urge, we dismantle the binary of life and death and question “the human exceptionalism of death,” we can understand “death, not as an exceptional moment in human life, but as processes of transformation that form part of life itself” (Radomska et al., 2020, p. 90). Pushing this idea even further, MacCormack (2020) views death as a “gift”—“In a crisis, in despair, death is nepenthe” (p. 105). SOMA, however, demands that we consider death in terms of all the queer, non-human life populating PATHOS-II, from the Mockingbirds to the dormant brain scans. Do we give them the gift of death, one MacCormack states is not ours to give (p. 105), or do we abandon them to a lonely eternity on the ocean floor? Do we have the right to make such a choice? The dilemmas with which players are faced in SOMA contest human exceptionalism and death as a uniquely human experience; injured Mockingbirds wailing in pain and dormant brain scans alike force players to decide which lives are worth preserving and mourning. At every turn, SOMA challenges the idea of death through a queer retrospection. Radomska et al. (2020) note:
The player is instead confronted with these sovereign, disabled, queer, and more-than-human subjects, culminating with Simon’s meeting of Sarah Lindwall, a thoroughly chilling scene because at this point, the player understands that Sarah is the last living human on Earth. Hooked up to life support in the infirmary, she is unaware of what has happened to the rest of her team until Simon tells her, at which point she makes one final request—to die, since she is too weak to pull the plug herself. The weight of this decision again rests on the player, who is offered a rare opportunity to mourn a disabled body (and a female one at that) as representative of the entire human race.
But what if personal identity is ultimately meaningless? How do we mourn these bodies—and should we? Derek Parfit’s work on identity informs a great deal of SOMA’s philosophical underpinnings; Eleonora Mingarelli (2013) explores Parfit’s views on “what it means to be a singular individual, how a person can remain the same over time, and what makes an individual an original being with specific characteristics” (p. 87), all concepts the game investigates through the characters of Simon and Catherine, who are brain scans—their physical bodies dead—and the Mockingbirds. These questions also apply to the WAU, which tries to understand humanity by keeping the employees of PATHOS-II alive at any cost. In entangling its structural gel with their tissues, they are reconstituted into something other than human yet retain their sense of self. “Characters…both fear and desire the monster’s monstrosity; on a very general level, they desire it because it releases them from the constraints of an ordered life and they fear it because it reveals the flimsy nature of human identity” (Halberstam, 1995, p. 112). If technology is the “monster” of SOMA, it is because of its ability to disrupt our sense of security in who we are and our ability to Other it: “We are no longer unproblematically secure within the nest of our location technologies, whose function for us…is to constantly reassure us that we are without question ourselves, singular, bounded, conscious, rational” (Stone, 1995, p. 182). Thanks to the WAU, no one in SOMA is “themselves.” Contrary to reassuring people of their ontological status as human beings, it has dismantled the meaning of “human” altogether in its ironic quest to discover just that.
For Parfit, his “intent is to deny that personal identity refers to a real separately existing entity, and, thus, to undermine the traditional way of thinking of persons as the privileged viewpoint” (Mingarelli, 2013, p. 90). In other words, people do not exist separately from their physical and mental experiences; they are not the sum of a consciousness originating only in the brain. While SOMA at first seems to reflect a Cartesian dualism of mind and body and draw from the first of Thomas Foster’s two concepts of cyborg imagery as “the disappearance of the body, the downloading of consciousness into an abstract, computerized realm—subjectivity…based on disembodiment, and consciousness itself…viewed as separate from the body” (Melzer, 2006, p. 256), there is a second major narrative. In this, it is “‘an abstract notion of the body as the naturalizing ground of a unitary and universalizing notion of the self’” (Foster, “Sex Appeal” 281 qtd in Melzer, 2006, p. 256) that disappears rather than the material body. Why Parfit is critical to SOMA, then. is not only in the deprivileging of personal identity but also in expanding on Locke’s concept of conscious memory by introducing “an impersonal quasi-memory, which does not entail that the experience remembered must be absolutely mine” (p. 94). As Mingarelli (2013) explains, one’s life is made up of a series of experiences along what Parfit terms the “Main Line”; however:
The potential, then, is for the various versions of Simon to share memories of each other’s experiences—a horrifying prospect if the player chooses not to deactivate them, as they will remember being discarded at PATHOS-II by one of their selves. Here we might also consider Barad’s (2015) perception of remembering as “tracing entanglements,” since each of Simon’s selves is connected to the others, and the anguish those superfluous Simons might experience in their “yearnings for connection, materialized into fields of longing/belonging, of regenerating what never was but might yet have been” (p. 407). Each new version of Simon leaves behind what never was, while representing what might yet be.
Simon learns the painful realities of “identity” without a permanent body once he realizes Catherine has been less than honest with him. Benni of Arcane Workshop (2023) describes Catherine’s deception in keeping from Simon how the brain scans and “copying” actually work:
Catherine uses the analogy of the coin-toss to induce Simon to move forward with launching the ARK, and with it, their uploaded consciousnesses. Simon soon understands, when he needs a stronger diving suit to withstand the crushing pressure at the bottom of trench where the ARK launch site is located, and which requires transferring him into it, that Catherine hasn’t been entirely truthful about what happens to the previous Simon. “At one moment in time these two copies were exactly the same, but as time continues these copies will experience the world in different ways and thus diverge, becoming different beings” (McGill, 2016). If Parfit is correct, these different “selves” may also experience each other’s memories. The decision is left to the player: either abandon the previous Simon to PATHOS-II, including the monsters there, or deactivate him so there is once again only one Simon. If self doesn’t matter, then neither do any of these decisions. The fact that most players of SOMA, myself included, have emotional reactions to these choices would appear to be a criticism of Parfit’s philosophy which is designed into the game and references “the danger of discarding those posthuman bodies that do not align with a persistently exclusive definition of ‘human’” (Melzer, 2006, p. 356), since this second Simon, as well as all the Mockingbirds and the various humanoid mutations, are left behind.
The Myth of the ARK
Can virtual reality offer a “cure” for human nature? What might be left behind? Writing in the mid-1990s, Stone (1995) argues that the end of the 20th century is a time at which human and machine collapse into each other in what she describes as a “mutual annihilation” that will result in a new kind of creature (pp. 166-167), which we can assume is the cyborg. This reflects Haraway’s “leaky distinction” between organism and machine: “machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines” (Haraway, 1990, p. 152). This is precisely what has happened in SOMA, as every organism on PATHOS-II is now a fusion of human and technology, from the robots to the brain scans. With a bleaker perspective than Haraway or Barad, Stone (1995) views the internet, video games, and virtual realities as forms of “prosthetic communication” in which our culture speaks rather than us speaking of ourselves and sees this as a kind of Doomsday scenario (p. 167). This presents an intriguing philosophical question to apply to SOMA, given that the only “humanity” left are the brain scans uploaded to the ARK.
Matt McGill (2016) questions whether, given that “the virtual world of the ARK is a simulation of a deciduous forest with a park” and “far less expansive than the world we now live in with a far smaller and likely less diverse population,” the ARK is simply “a depressing solution that aims at delaying the inevitable end of humanity through creation of an inferior world for ourselves.”
Thus, while Haraway (1990) hopes cyborgs can “subvert the apocalypse of returning to nuclear dust in the manic compulsion to name the Enemy” (p. 151), Stone (1995) sees a nuclear holocaust as preferable to the kind of “quiet death” produced by virtual reality and other technologies (p. 167). She contends, “[T]he idea that technology in and of itself is going to change the world for the better, as the myths surrounding VR would have it, is merely pernicious” (p. 169). In other words, virtual reality will not, and cannot, cure human nature:
Melzer (2006), referencing Hayles, concurs: “Posthuman embodiment, in cyborg feminism, is not about being bodiless but about an empowered boundary transgression that enables bodies to resist exploitative power relations” (p. 43). There is no indication that the scans won’t engage in the same exploitative power relations—it is, in fact, highly unlikely they will not—in which they have since the beginning of human history. The ARK, then, is itself a mirage of a world that cannot exist, because humans still have not addressed the fundamental flaws of our species. In time, far sooner than the thousands of years it will take for the ARK’s solar panels to stop functioning, we can expect this virtual society to descend into the same hierarchical, racial, and sexual battles that have plagued humanity for millennia.
Parfit argues that we would rather exist as replicas on Mars than “live a painful life” (Mingarelli, 2013, p. 100). This seems true of the PATHOS-II employees, many of whom committed suicide after their brain scans to eliminate the possibility of another self left to endure in the derelict facility. MacCormack (2020) requests a more peaceful solution, one that does not advocate suicide but embraces antinatalism:
While the Earth’s surface is no longer habitable (though we can assume that, as a comet strike jump-started the process of evolution billions of years ago, this is what will happen again), neither Catherine nor Simon is ready to gracefully embrace the death of humanity. Nor, it would seem, were the humans who programmed the WAU with the protocol that nothing is allowed to die, a directive the WAU misinterpreted and which led to the monstrous Mockingbirds, Proxies, and Fleshers. The entire idea of the ARK, and the fact that—posthuman though they are—the brain scans aboard it will resume their normative human appearances, realize MacCormack’s fear of “prioritizing mythical Earth and its inhabitants,” ensuring that “humanity—and, implicitly, humanism—remains the primary reference for identity” (Melzer, 2006, p. 199). Yet the ability to copy brain scans into other bodies, and the interconnectedness of all life in PATHOS-II imposed by the WAU, indicates that “the boundaries between others and self have blurred…leaving the spectator with unease about who is out saving whom” (p. 199). The Simon on board the ARK is at least the fourth version of himself; we don’t know how many others may have existed prior to the events depicted in the game. Additionally, if he is the blueprint for all the other scans, then he is in some sense a part of everyone. Who is the self he has saved?
Perhaps in an acknowledgment by the designers that the scans on the ARK are engaged in self-deception, the epilogue addresses this resistance to death by offering Simon one last choice. At a kiosk in the ARK, after Catherine has managed to upload their consciousnesses and they have launched into space, he can disconnect and end his existence. Except, of course, there is still at least one other Simon—two, if the player chooses not to disconnect the first one—now abandoned at PATHOS-II.
SOMA engages with queer ecologies by “legitimizing queer behavior…and delegitimizing the binary constructions of sexuality and animality that have informed scientific and cultural discussions of sex” (Mortimer-Sandilands and Erickson, 2010, p. 32) primarily via the cyborg. It is improbable that, given the depth and breadth of queerness in the game, this was not an intentional move on the part of the developers, who appear to view science fiction as political theory the way Haraway does. Horror, for which Frictional Games is best-known, is a site of political theory as well. “Horror…is a critical genre and one that exposes the theatricality of identity because it makes specular precisely those images of loss, lack, penetration, violence that other [media] attempt to cover up” (Halberstam, 1995, p. 153). Identity is the core theme of SOMA and the source of its horror precisely because no one in the game knows who they are anymore, especially Simon.
SOMA ultimately remains ambivalent toward technology, as evidenced by the examples provided throughout this chapter as well as the character Dr. Johan Ross, who was involved in the WAU’s development and decided it needed to be terminated after witnessing its mutations. In his Proxy form, he telepathically contacts Simon several times, begging him to end the WAU.
As with all difficult decisions in the game, Simon can choose what to do. It’s normal to remain skeptical about the possibilities of technology, even to fear it, because, as Stone (1995) notes:
I choose to look at the cyborg and other potential monsters of technology not as threats but as opportunities, as all monsters are, to reimagine “our potentials and goals as well as our concepts of agency and resistance” (Melzer, 2006, p. 356). The monster is a cultural body that resists normative desire and identity. By queering our relationship to technology and embracing our cyborg nature, we can transgress the destructive binaries likely to sabotage the ARK’s utopian fantasy and begin to rebuild a better future for humans, posthumans, and more-than-humans here on Earth.
Arcane Workshop. (2023). SOMA and the most frightening sentence in the English language [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZeHvDWBY_Vs.
Barad, K. (2015).“Transmaterialities: Trans*/matter/realities and queer political imaginings. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 21(2-3), pp. 387-422.
Bersani, L. (1987). Is the rectum a grave? October, vol. 43, pp. 197-222.
Chen, M. Y. (2011). Toxic animacies, inanimate affections. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 17( 2–3), pp. 265–286.
Edelman, L. (1998). The future is kid stuff: Queer theory, disidentification, and the death drive. Narrative, vol. 6(1), pp. 18-30.
Foucault, M. (1976). The history of sexuality vol. 1: An introduction. Pantheon Books.
Grip, T. (2015). SOMA. Frictional Games. https://www.somagame.com.
Halberstam, J. (1995). Skin shows: Gothic horror and the technology of monsters. Duke University Press.
Haraway, D. J. (1990). Simians, cyborgs and women: The reinvention of nature. Routledge.
MacCormack, P. (2020). Embracing death, opening the world. Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 35(104), pp. 101-115.
McGill, M. (2016, February 12). Why SOMA is more fact than fiction. With a Terrible Fate. https://withaterriblefate.com/2016/02/12/why-soma-is-more-fact-than-fiction/
McCarter, R. (2015, July 16). SOMA and the horror of perception. Kill Screen. https://killscreen.com/previously/articles/soma-and-horror-perception/
Melzer, P. (2006). Alien constructions. University of Texas Press.
Mignarelli, E. (2013). Is personal identity something that does not matter?: An inquiry into Derek Parfit and Alfred N. Whitehead. Process Studies, vol. 42(1), pp. 87-109.
Mortimer-Sandilands, C., and Erikson, B. (2010). Introduction: A genealogy of queer ecologies. In C. Mortimer-Sandilands & B. Erikson (Eds.) Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire (pp. 1-42). Indiana University Press.
Radomska, M., Mehrabi, T. and Lykke, N. (2020). Introduction: Queer death studies: Death, dying and mourning from a queerfeminist perspective. Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 35(104), pp. 81-100.
Stone, A. R. (1995). The war of desire and technology at the close of the mechanical age. MIT Press.
Stryker, S. (1994). My words to Victor Frankenstein above the village of Chamounix. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 1, pp. 237-254.
Leave a Reply