Talking SOMA: Let Us Submit Together

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There is a room in my memory, pitch-black with terror and hushed excitement. It’s August, 2010, and my friend wrenches his gaze away from the TV as a shadowy monster in Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent turns to face us. He’s so effing scared he can’t even look at the screen. Peering only through peripheral vision as if the beast can sense direct eye-contact, he struggles to move away, fumbling around barrels and wooden crates. When the fear was just too much, he passed the keyboard and mouse off to another player on the couch as we all sat and reveled in the terror.

Playing Amnesia with friends like this was a revelatory experience not because we were playing a compelling horror game. It was revelatory because I immediately knew that playing it with friends was the only way I wanted to experience narrative horror games from then on. Years later, playing Frictional’s own SOMA alongside exposing myself to writing about different types of play, I realized we acquiesced — collectively — that night.

This collective submission to the design of Amnesia was euphoric in a way that other games, and playing them together, couldn’t produce.

While multiplayer horror games aren’t remotely a new concept, the path it took me to recognize this ritualized experience was a roundabout one. I have to look back on some post-college experiences which enabled me to learn the vocabulary to speak on player agency and kink as a type of play design. The first step comes from my time with a classic Valve first-person shooter.

On the precipice of thrilling

Years before Left 4 Dead, Counter-Strike spawned a myriad of silly, competitive, immersive, and ambitious custom maps. During some Steam free weekend for Counter-Strike: Source, my friend and I jumped in for the heck of it. I wanted to try a series of maps called “Zombie Escape” since they sounded silly and, c’mon, it’s hard to fuck up zombies. The map type’s conceit is simple but significant.

Most players spawn as humans (dressed as Master Chiefs, Harry Potters, and Hatsune Mikus, of course). Just like normal Counter-Strike, they can buy guns, grenades, and more to fend off the zombies. Their goal is to run away from the undead through an entire map, deftly crouch-jumping their way through obstacles to an endpoint. A few players spawn as zombies. Equipped with only their knives, which convert other players into zombies in a single hit, and a vastly increased running speed, the abominations are always hot on the trail of the humans, nipping at their ankles. But, as soon as you start firing at the assailants, you notice that their life points total in the multiple-thousands compared to the humans’ standard 100. Because of this, it’s not constant DPS that the humans have to worry about so much as knockback per second from sustained gunfire.

Submachine guns and assault rifles could reliably buffet enemies back, and every AWP magnum round could slam into zombie heads to rocket them a good 15 feet. As I played more, I noticed I was getting way more out of this weird janky map mod than any of my time with Left 4 Dead, despite both of them sharing a common theme. It’s the direction of movement that had cliched it. In L4D, you’re moving through a zombie horde alongside friends. In ZE maps, you’re moving away from a steadily encroaching force. The texture of play is totally different, especially how you relate to your teammates. Whereas L4D teammates are always a source of comfort and unity, things are a little more nebulous in ZE. The game plays off of this uncertainty by utilizing a series of ‘gates’ throughout the map, where humans must repel the zombos as they wait for a security door to fully open, a transporter to power up, a bridge to lower, and the like. Until that time, however, the humans can’t run.

That’s where shit gets real. In Zombie Escape, you implicitly know that you don’t have to be the fastest person, you just need to be faster than the slowest. At each gate, you understand that to keep the horde from inching closer, you literally can’t stop emptying magazines into them. But this doesn’t mean anything when it’s only one person firing; everyone needs to be blasting full-time to stand a chance of staying alive for a little longer.

This is all in service of Zombie Escape’s central concept: you have to work together, but also be ready to abandon everyone at a moment’s notice. Each gate exerts a crushing and inescapable pressure to run away first once it’s completed. I was thrust into a liminal space in those moments: you feel the intense pull to your comrades for safety and solidarity while also recognizing that their struggling invokes a kind of voyeuristic pleasure. There’s really not a good way to describe this feeling, but it’s something like a combination of not being “it” in Tag and successfully running away from the cops. It’s you, successfully eluding this constant, oppressive, growing, crushing force. It’s magical. I remember the swirling excitement just stuck in the pit of my stomach and even when I fucked up a jump or mistimed a crouch and got turned, I was so ready to jump back in. The structure of Zombie Escape maps demand a different kind of attention and pulls the player in and out of tense situations to unseat a traditional flow state.

Uneven flow

In mainstream criticism, that is, major game websites, YouTube critics, and average consumers, the flow model of videogame design is fairly ubiquitous and well-regarded. Basically anyone who’s taken a Psychology 101 class can probably plot the graph where one axis is player ability and the other is relative difficulty of the game, with the ideal flow state represented by the linear y=x equation. The result of adherence to this model is to focus exclusively on mechanics and play that seeks to utilize these mechanics as skillfully as possible. I know that for most of my teens, my entire understanding of game design was that it should be exclusively tailored towards creating a flow state (oops, it’s also part of my screenname). Fortunately, as I broadened my horizons, it became clear that there’s a lot more space games can and have explored.

As Lana Polansky (Full disclosure: I support Polansky’s work through Patreon) writes in Against Flow: “This is the frustration. None of the games which achieve flow are necessarily, individually distasteful. The problem is that the form of “game” as we understand it currently implies an extremely limited set of subjective experiences which are fundamentally mechanistic and affectively numb. The celebrity of “flow”, among other things, in games discourse has encouraged a situation where games which are ideologically (and aesthetically) confrontational or self-aware don’t make it through any of the culture’s major value systems.”

Polansky’s article is almost three years old now but honestly you could’ve written it 10 years ago or today and it’d still be completely relevant. It’s the enduring legacy of the Iwata Satoru school of design; that games “are meant to just be just one thing: fun. Fun for everyone.”

Fortunately, the horror genre is where mainstream games frequently subvert this focus on empowering the player. From indies all the way up to AAAs, a common conceit is to strip the player of agency; this can come in the form of limited/unreliable resources in a survival horror game like Resident Evil, complicating or contradictory information being presented to the player in a psychological horror title like killer7, or just disarming the player completely like in Amnesia or SOMA.

Working out the kinks

It’s October, 2013. I’ve just heard that Frictional Games will be developing another horror title and my heart skips a beat. Yeah, I had played The Chinese Room’s Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, but it was wildly different than the original and I really bounced off of it. I was hoping SOMA would let me reinhabit, or at least grasp at, that room in my memory.

Luckily, it did.

I played the game exclusively with my partner and it evoked a lot of feelings from the past. We curled up together and supported each other through the tough times. Surprises were opportunities for experimentation and connecting with each other. But how could I come this far into adulthood and not been able to pinpoint what was so uniquely thrilling about this kind of ritualized play? I was lucky enough to come across Mattie Brice’s (full disclosure: I support her work on Patreon) Play and Be Real About it — What Games Could Learn From Kink and it completely changed how I approached horror games.

Brice draws from Steve Wilcox and anna anthropy’s writing to put forth play as “an exercise to understanding contexts, and that act of understanding is empathy.” The lack of empathy is common to mainstream game releases. We don’t need to look further than the Iwata quote above to see why. What initially seems like a nice sentiment is actually very cynical; that there is some universal game design that will appeal to everyone, regardless of context or their values. It’s a sentiment in service of capital. If this paradigm does exist, it means that companies will be able to make products that everyone will want to buy. This also implicitly means that products that only resonate with certain people or values are inherently inferior.

Brice rebukes this kind of capitalist design by outlining a framework of a submission and dominance kink enacted by the player and designer, respectively. The first step, as in any sexual relationship, BDSM or otherwise, is consent. She begins, “Because of how our (I’m speaking as an American) culture works, we aren’t really supposed to talk about sex, rather, hop into a dark space with each other and hope for the best that the other knows what they’re doing.”

Actively recognizing consent is powerful and it transforms the space of play, whether you realize it or not. According to Brice, it “is the process where you find out exactly what each other wants before you play, and acknowledgement of what you definitely don’t want to happen. What is consented to could typically be seen as mean, out of place, or degrading, but consent is its own context that allows play to be both affective and expressive.“

Just as regressive sexual politics cause friction within our own relationships, so too does the lack of consent’s ubiquity mar game design. Brice outlines where games “tend to obfuscate the effect they will have on the player because of a perceived importance of content and entertainment value. If everyone knew exactly everything about the game and how it works, it would interfere with the typical model of selling games, where PR hypes up products and players go in trusting they will have a good experience.” SOMA lacks the immediacy of direct human-to-human interface in designing its play, but it’s completely upfront about what it will offer players. It is a horror game and it will scare you. It does not rely on jump scares or unearned misdirection to invoke terror. Challenges are presented to the player earnestly and we must act affirmatively to get through them. It is always the dominant game that receives our submission and not the other way around.

At its core, consent in game design centers around the cycle of power between two forces, the designer/game and the player. Without it, the ability to work in different contexts is diminished. Connecting back to the inherently commercial mode that AAA design is tethered to, Brice concludes that “we only have instrumentalized fun in mainstream games because context is hard to sell.” Actively consenting lets us construct a door to offer ourselves to another place where power can flow in different directions, getting tied up can be normal and desirable, and we can be controlled; gently, forcefully — but always with care.

While the way we react to the stimuli presented might surprise ourselves, we are able to renegotiate consent at anytime during play. Within collective submission, we have the option of hitting pause, speaking with our fellow players to bring us out of the digital subspace to reality, or just passing off the keyboard/controller to someone else who affirmatively consents. SOMA’s players have already demonstrated their propensity for negotiating their own terms in creating the No Enemies mod. Frictional themselves has supported giving players options, as they have taken note of the mod’s popularity and added a Non-Hostile mode to subsequent releases of the game. What’s important is there’s no wrong way of playing the game as each person brings their own conception and value system in consenting.

The next step of the dominant/submissive simulation is the scene. This is where the inevitable friction between a dominant force and submissive bodies happens. As SOMA is a horror game, it is uniquely positioned to surprise and unseat our expectations. While playing it, we never knew exactly what to expect beyond that it would scare us in some way. But, I never felt like its tools for realizing horror became samey or rote. This is a key part of Brice’s conception of scene. She explains, “just because there is consent doesn’t mean play is completely predicted, rather, the domme and sub have the same goals and will have their own ways of getting there. It is in the scene that the power dynamic is established and life contexts are introduced to play.”

It’s just fun to submit to a domme and have them surprise you. Although unpredictability can make you afraid, that fear can be energizing with care and consideration. As Brice explains, this recognition of power disparity “is important as it mixes our culturally imbued traits with a certain relationship with power… The scene allows the players to be flooded with cultural contexts through kinky play, engaging with hyperbolized contexts through play.”

Regardless of whether we’re engaging in some kind of specific roleplay kink or not, we’re still playing parts when we submit or dominate. In the scene is where collective submission actively opens up. It’s important to recognize that multiple people are playing the game, regardless of who is controlling the character. All people involved are bringing their own experiences, emotions and beliefs to this kind of play. Brice goes on: “They play these roles to deeply feel these contexts on their bodies, and through that, practice empathy. Typically valued games don’t take players deep into cultural contexts like this.”

If I’m controlling the character and I react in a certain way, my reaction is part of the play experience and is also experienced by the other players. This in turn can provoke empathetic responses from other players and even their response can reflect back onto me. Players who aren’t behind the keyboard or controller still color the experience with their input: offering advice to solve a puzzle, making jokes to lighten the mood and disarm tension, or just getting scared and verbally communicating it. Those moments are inimitable. I can still recall each one from playing SOMA. Frictional Games picked an apt name for their company as this is where emotions spike and collide with each other as we materially experience play.

While scene comprises the majority of our play, the collective submission is incomplete until we debrief and take stock of our experiences. You can’t just go straight from subspace to a normal state of mind without properly ushering a sub back. We do this through aftercare. Brice states, “play on this level is psychologically trying and a debriefing back into reality is needed for complete contextualization. The players were brought down to intense places commonly need reminders after play that they are a good, loved people no matter where the scene went within its consensual bounds.”

SOMA eschews the flow model of design and allows a lot of downtime for players to engage in aftercare. The game’s structure takes us through extremely tense situations but is constantly invested in just having us sit with the player character Simon, his partner Catherine, and their thoughts about the situation. When we are safe and have time to reflect, we can make sense of the noise and pressure that we’ve chosen to endure. Brice says aftercare “allows all parties to clearly see the context of play juxtaposed against the context of their lives. Partners see themselves in the scene as a part of the whole identity, and aftercare aims to ease that transition process. It creates a moment for reflection and integration. It allows a person to complicate their views, complicate their identity.”

Nowhere is this more evident than when Simon and Catherine climb into a diving cage headed for a station 4,000 meters below the surface of the ocean. I remember narrowly escaping a shrieking phantom and then coming right up against some “oh god no” existential horror beforehand. My partner and I were slick with sweat and I didn’t know where the game could possibly go from there. We climbed into the lift and headed down, into the abyss. Then, the game’s pace slowed to a halt and Catherine began to recount her life back in Taipei as a little girl, when she climbed up on top of her building and looked out at the city below.

The smog rising and falling, the warm wind blowing through her hair, the sun setting, the smell of street food vendors… It’s a serene and evocative moment. Catherine says she “felt connected to the world in a way I never had before.” It’s a sentiment that naturally guides us to consider our own circumstances. Moments like this are not uncommon in SOMA. As I continued to play the game, I realized it set itself apart from mainstream titles not just through its dedication to horror, but also in its execution. Brice explains, “mainstream games rarely afford us a debrief because they assume traversing in and out of play is simple. Leaving is as easy as turning off the TV, because you aren’t meant to feel much more besides bemusement or an evening’s worth of thoughts. These games don’t expect you to be transformed or touched by anything other than superficial storytelling devices.”

When we submit, it’s not all about the times where we’re pushed, unmade, and curled outside of ourselves and our bodies, it’s also about what comes after — reconciliation, relief, the re-connection to life and our place in it. SOMA is explicitly designed to feature these moments frequently, so over the course of a full playthrough, players engage in a full consent, scene, aftercare ritual multiple times. It rejects the standard AAA design template and is instead concerned with the empathy of its characters and players. SOMA, despite its horrifying premise, is a game about quiet, sad little moments of humanity.

Meaning, pressing, bit by bit

Right from the start, it’s clear that SOMA wants the interiority of its main characters to be front and center. SOMA reveals two big plot points that in a mainstream game would definitely have been held for endgame twists: that Simon is really a robot and that a comet has wiped out all surface-dwelling life on Earth. Instead, they’re part of the first act. The game wants us to sit with those facts and really face them instead of just leaving them to be forgettable stingers. More than just a posthumanism story, SOMA is a game about finding meaning for ourselves. In the face of an entire world that’s just completely, utterly, dead, how do we find value? More care is also shown to its multiple ways to resolve certain puzzles. In a more conventional title, these “moral decisions” would be graded as a ludic element. But SOMA throws away the menus and morality sliders; they’re just an opportunity for the characters and players to discuss their own values.

Instead of making games to appeal universally, it’s clear that Frictional Games’ president Thomas Grip is concerned with something else. Speaking with iNews in 2016 about horror games, Grip explained, “The recent rise in popularity has come from a quite particular genre, one that I like to call the ‘horror simulator.’ What makes this special is that…there is no standard gameplay that underlies the experience. Instead the horror itself is what make (sic) the game engaging to play.” When the goal is not to appeal to everyone, players can explore new contexts and the domme to sub relationship can be realized through play.

As a nonbinary trans person with many bodythoughts, I was taken with Simon’s fraught relationship with his body. I don’t think I had played a game that placed so much emphasis on the thingness of a person’s body before. He’s actually displaced threefold: in time and space, from 2015 Toronto to 2104 PATHOS-II; in conceptual body, his mind is a copy placed into a robot; in physical body, the majority of his artificial husk is from female PATHOS-II engineer Imogen Reed, kept together with a substance that interfaces technological and organic matter. Simon is simultaneously nonhuman and inhuman. The game furthers this point when Simon is required to transfer his consciousness into a body that can handle the abyss’ crushing depths, this time forced into choosing the remains of Raleigh Herber, another female PATHOS-II employee. SOMA is a first-person adventure that limits our ability to see ourselves, and I’ll never forget the moment when I first saw Simon look into a mirror at his new body, his new reality. It doesn’t happen until we’re well and good into the game, and it caught me completely off guard. It’s at once terrifying, warm and resigned. It felt like the frame of the mirror was curling around us. I couldn’t do anything except stand and stare, just as Simon did, just as we all did. We are constantly unmoored in SOMA’s world and taking the time to inhabit a foreign space invites us to reflect on our own bodies as well.

Submission to the new real

It’s true there’s a lot of horror media outside of videogames that seem to provoke a similar response. One of the most prominent theories to explain the popularity of horror film is excitation-transfer, which posits that as we watch a movie, we sympathetically undergo the same heightened emotions of a character in a life or death situation, but that feeling resolves into pleasure after we take stock of not being in any danger. I think this is inadequate to address the features of collective submission. We explore videogame worlds in a way that we don’t do in film. I don’t mean that in a spurious “videogames are a superior medium for conveying meaning” way but rather that games have a different semiotic language.

It is a vastly different situation emotionally to have some agency and then have it stripped away completely than it is to have someone statically viewing a movie, never having agency in the first place. Excitation-transfer doesn’t go far enough to account for the creation of the digital subspace that players inhabit during the scene phase. The theory also argues that the state-change from terror to pleasure is akin to an on/off transaction that comes with the realization of safety, contrasting with the kind of introspection and contextualization of emotion that takes place between scene and aftercare. What might feel sharp and final in a film can feel hazy or nebulous in a game as we can poke and prod at the surroundings. And when we take stock of the popularity of horror videogames compared to other horror media, it’s hard not to notice how ubiquitous streaming them is.

that is not TRADITIONAL FIRE

It’s not a stretch to say many career Twitch and YouTube creators cut their teeth on streaming horror games. Folks like PewdiePie and Markiplier built entire brands on being scared and showing those reactions to a captive audience. I mean, hell, Amnesia: The Dark Descent became a household name from all the stream publicity, so there’s definitely something uniquely pleasurable about experiencing horror games in groups. With videogame content creators moving towards livestreaming as their primary revenue, there’s a greater chance for immediate interaction between a streamer and their audience. I honestly think most people who habitually view horror game streamers have been engaging in a kind of collective submission already. There is of course a layer of obfuscation as streamers are performing for their audiences, but the reactions that they have, whether real or heightened, are still the main draw.

It’s 2018,

And I’m fed up. I’ve had this piece about horror games and kink half-written for years now, and I can’t seem to get it all out. Have you ever had a feeling weave in and out of your life, touching on things you do everyday as much as ones you do a scant few per year? At times, in work and sex and eating and relationships and living, I’ve felt limited and waylaid. I couldn’t speak to experiences that I considered important, but through the work of others I think I’ve finally been able to let go. I’m grateful for SOMA, the dark room in my memory, countless friends and partners to rely upon in horrorscapes and just plain scary reality alike. My lips are sensitive and worn, but I have a voice! Here’s it saying, “let’s submit together, y’all.”