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The Horror of Consciousness – When Psychological Horror Truly Messes with the Mind

Using your imagination against you.



The Horror of Consciousness – When Psychological Horror Truly Messes with the Mind

SOMA is a dark game. Not just in its visuals, setting, or monster design, but in its themes.

I downloaded SOMA when it was a PlayStation Plus free monthly game sometime long ago and let it sit in my Library, unplayed but forever drawing my eye. It sat there until Halloween of 2021, when I finally decided to boot it up and see what all the fuss was about. I didn’t expect much – just a fun little walking-sim-style horror to enjoy in the spookiest of months – and at first, it seemed I was correct in my assumptions. That feeling didn’t last.

The unsettling nature of being trapped at the bottom of the ocean – crushed below the weight of several million tons of water and unable to see what, if anything, was lurking in the inky darkness beyond – certainly played into my pre-existing fears. As did the disturbing monster design and utterly gruesome visuals that pop up whenever you are caught. It held my attention in the moment, but I had the feeling I would forget it all the moment the credits began to roll and I moved on to something new. That was until the game’s story started to unveil itself, and its themes made themselves known. Themes on the nature of consciousness, of the soul, and what truly makes us who we are. Questions and ideas, horrors, that have stuck with me long since finishing the game.

Image: Frictional Games - The terror is more than skin deep.
Image: Frictional Games – The terror is more than skin deep.

Getting Under the Skin

When it comes to video games, there are many types of horror. There is the Survival Horror of Resident Evil and Dead Space (a genre that is making a most welcome resurgence), the more Action Horror of The Last of Us and Dying Light, the “Cat-and-Mouse” First-Person Survival Horror of games like Outlast, and many more. All of these genres are great fun to play in their own right and play with scares in their own way, but the only games to truly scare me are Psychological Horrors.

Of course, many horror games mix these genres together in interesting and unique ways, but I would class any that play with the minds of their characters and their players as Psychological. Horrors that mess with the mind are much more powerful than those that don’t – they linger. Monsters may give players nightmares, but these are the games that keep you up at night.

SOMA is a game about consciousness, but more specifically, the horrors that can be afflicted on the human mind when we mess with technology we don’t fully understand. It starts with main character Simon receiving a brain scan that inexplicably transports him to an underwater research base one hundred years in the future and ends with a last-ditch effort to save the few remaining copies of human consciousness from a dying world. The entire game revolves around copying and transferring consciousnesses, and the horror comes from the unbearable realities that doing such a thing would bring into being.

Generally speaking, the brain scans in SOMA merely copy a person’s consciousness, not transfer it. Meaning the original consciousness stays in its original body and now two copies of the same consciousness exist in the same reality. This is something the characters in SOMA either cannot fully comprehend, or choose not to fully understand. And this leads to characters raging that they were “left behind” when a copy was made – unable to grasp why they weren’t physically transferred into a new body – or leads them to delude themselves into believing in the illusion of continuity – that the only way for the copied consciousness to go on as a continuation of a person’s life and memories, is for the original to die, immediately.

Such ideas take root in the mind, percolating as the player explores the research base and runs from the biomechanical terrors that haunt it, and grow into all manner of existential quandaries. If there are two perfect copies of the same mind – does it matter which one came first? And even though they share the same thoughts and experiences, are they still the same person, or did they split when the copy was made?

And then there’s the horror of inserting these consciousnesses into machines. Are they still alive if their mind is but a digitized construct of the person they were before? Are they still human? And that’s not even mentioning the abominations that are born when an AI will stop at nothing to keep its human charges “alive”, in the vaguest possible use of the word. While the visuals are deeply disturbing, taking just one minute to stop and think about the ramifications of such acts – how you would react if it happened to you – takes the game to another level of terror.

Image: Frictional Games - What does it mean to be alive? To be human?
Image: Frictional Games – What does it mean to be alive? To be human?

Delving Deeper into Darkness

SOMA was not developer Frictional Games’ first attempt at psychological horror (though many may argue, it was their best), their previous game, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, delved deep into the horrors of the human mind.

Playing with the fear of the unknown and the fragility of the human psyche, Amnesia is distinctly more Lovecraftian than SOMA, and wears its inspiration on its sleeve. The horrors it depicts – the gruesome Gatherers and terrifying invisible Kaernk, the madness brought on by forces beyond our comprehension – are shown to be real, with notes describing their origins and the effect looking at them has on the characters, but it could easily all be taking place in main character Daniel’s mind. The mind is a powerful thing, after all, capable of convincing the body, and itself, of anything.

Its sequel Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs may not have been developed by Frictional Games and may not have been as directly engaging to play, but the abstract nature of its horror is through the roof. Driven mad by a vision of the horrors of World War I and the sight of his sons falling in the bloodbath that was the Battle of the Somme, protagonist Mandus loses his mind.

He builds a machine to destroy humanity before it can unleash the very real horrors of WWI, WWII, and the atomic bomb on itself. He sacrifices his sons to this machine, to bring it to life and spare them the suffering they would have endured in the Great War. He turns people into pigs and sacrifices child workers in order to bring his Machine to full consciousness. As with SOMA, these revelations are awful to see, but so much worse to think about. And it brings to mind the fact that World War I truly was an unimaginable horror, one so terrible that a man would be willing to destroy humanity itself to prevent it.

Image: The Chinese Room - Humanity is a horror unto itself.
Image: The Chinese Room – Humanity is a horror unto itself.

Questioning Reality

Games that play with the minds of their characters can create scenarios and terrors that stick with the player for years after putting down the controller. Games like Call of Cthulhu and Silent Hill 2 are brilliant at putting the player into the fractured minds of their protagonists, pulling monsters from their broken psyches and making them see things that aren’t really there. But it’s so much more disturbing when games start to mess with the player’s mind.

Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem is the perfect example of this. Caused by allowing the player character’s sanity to drop below a certain threshold, the game’s “sanity effects” will trigger at random, almost certainly catching the player off guard. These effects range from messing with the characters (randomly killing them, causing them to grow or shrink in size, making their heads roll off) to messing with the player’s TV (making it look like the volume has been turned down, the TV has turned off, bugs are crawling across the screen) to messing with the game and (more terrifyingly) the game’s data (congratulating the player for finishing the “demo version” of the game, wiping their inventory, deleting their save data). Every single one of these effects will have the player questioning their own sanity more than the character’s, and asking, did that really happen?

But games can be subtle and still elicit the same response. Dear Esther, while not a traditional horror, is a good example of this. While wandering around the lonely island, players may discover they are not as alone as they thought they were. Mysterious ghostly figures may be spotted appearing at certain points around the map, only to disappear a moment later or when players get too close. The fact that they are never brought up in the game’s story can leave many players wondering whether they were ever really there at all.

Image: The Chinese Room - Is there anything out there? Or is it all in your head?
Image: The Chinese Room – Is there anything out there? Or is it all in your head?

Psychological Horrors are uniquely terrifying not because of the horrors they depict on screen, but because of the horrors they conjure in the mind. After all, as I said, the mind is a powerful thing, capable of convincing itself of anything.

Max Longhurst is a keen gamer, avid writer and reader, and former teacher. He first got into gaming when, at the age of 8, his parents bought him a PS2 and Kingdom Hearts for Christmas, and he’s never looked back. Primarily a PlayStation fan, he loves games with a rich single-player experience and stories with unexpected twists and turns.

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