“What is consciousness?”
I can’t remember the exact moment that I asked myself the question, but once I did I couldn’t stop thinking about it. After that I read everything I could find on the subject, but it never really satisfied my appetite. While there were lots of scientific articles and plenty of works of fiction that delved deep into the mysteries of our subjective selves, it felt like I could only observe the concept from a distance. Consciousness is all about what something is like from the inside, and secondhand accounts just didn’t do it for me.
At end of 2010 it had become clear that Amnesia was going to be a success, and we were ready to take on a new and much more ambitious project. My questions about consciousness came to mind. Would it be possible to let the player explore these questions interactively? This was the first seed of SOMA.
From that first step it was a long and difficult journey to develop the game. The aim for the game – to allow the player to experience the mysteries of the mind firsthand – was quite fuzzy, and it was often unclear what we should focus on. As a foundation we had a collection of research results and thought experiments, but these wouldn’t create a game on their own. We had to figure out ways of interacting with them, and to wrap it all into a coherent narrative.
We ended up focusing on questions of identity and moral worth. We let the player come across situations where they had to make difficult choices, forcing them to consider uncomfortable questions about the nature of self. Then, as the game progressed, we put the player in similar situations themselves, letting them experiencing these things first-hand. By having the previous choices as build-up, we were able to get a lot more impact in the first-person experiences, achieving our desired effect.
This solution might seem self-evident in hindsight, but it took a lot of trial and error before we hit upon it. The end result is a game that we are really proud of. My own favorite part is seeing how players end up giving totally different answers to the philosophical questionnaire at the start and end of the game.
While SOMA has its share of creepiness, it is not, as this post hopefully makes clear, a pure horror game. At its heart it is a narrative-heavy sci-fi experience. The monster encounters are there to make the world feel more alive, to reflect particular concepts, and to up the stakes. Unfortunately this has meant that there are some people who – because they don’t like being terrorized by deadly creatures – have been unable to experience the story.
Because we want more people to be able to explore the story and to interact with our fundamental premise, we’ve decided to present the console exclusive Safe Mode, a version of the game where there are no hostile encounters and where you can simply focus on the unfolding narrative. We hope this will let even more people dive into the mysteries of consciousness and question what it means to be human.