WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for Soma and the System Shock series.
System Shock 2 video game storytelling to a new level when it released in 1999. Like its predecessor, it was a sci-fi horror game where a player awakens from cryo-sleep with amnesia. By then, the crew of the space vessel had been either killed off or mutated into violent creatures. Beyond it was a malevolent super-intelligent AI named SHODAN, who didn't have a very flattering opinions about humanity. So, it was up the player to figure out what was going on, then stop the threat from reaching Earth.
The game's cliffhanger ending left plenty of room for a sequel, but a number of factors made it impossible, relegating the game to the status of a cult classic. That is until BioShock, the famed spiritual successor to the series, released in 2007. Although BioShock has some fantastic themes, incredible visuals, and excellent gameplay, it actually bears very little resemblance to its spiritual predecessor. Apart from superficial elements like being a sci-fi first-person horror game with the word "shock" in the title, characterized by conveniently placed audio logs (and one or two ghosts) to provide background information, and a disembodied voice telling you what to do (leading to a sudden yet inevitable betrayal), the BioShock and System Shock series are completely different. But considering how well BioShock was received, most fans seemed relatively content with what they got.
Then the independently developed horror survival game Soma released last week, and even though it doesn't have the moniker, it might actually be a worthier successor to System Shock than BioShock. It features a man named Simon who awakens inside an abandoned installation with no clue how he got there. The setting, an underwater installation populated by crazed killer mutants, practically begs for a BioShock comparison, with themes of free will and Objectivism replaced with trans-human Existentialism. However, I argue that there's more to it. Despite very obvious difference, underwater facilities have some key commonalities with outer space locations. You need a special suit to go outside, decompression is a big problem, and you're often trying to navigate a maze of narrow, darkened, corridors. But Soma shares themes with System Shock that go beyond setting.
System Shock's famous antagonist is SHODAN, the AI that imagines herself as a god, and wants to remake humanity into slaves while wiping out the rest. Soma almost tells an inverse story using the same themes. Instead of being freed of its ethical constraints and going insane, the PATHOS-II artificial intelligence WAU is bound by its programming to try to save the remnants of humanity. The only problem is, there is no fixed definition for what is "human" or alive, and WAU was never programmed for abstract thinking.
Therefore, it goes about the task of preserving humanity the best way it can, but finding a way requires a lot of experimentation. So, it tries a variety of approaches, which happens to include mutating some of the inhabitants of PATHOS-II into creatures that most people would describe as monsters. The fact that practically all of its experiments went insane is either irrelevant (since they're technically still alive), or a problem that can be overcome with more testing. It's little different from the experiments performed in the System Shock series to augment creatures. I still harbor a particular disdain for psychic monkeys, and let's not even start on the ninja cyborgs.
The point is, the opposing AIs are two sides of the same coin. Where SHODAN was allowed to open her mind up to new possibilities and had dozens of military experiments at her disposal, WAU is very much constricted by its programming and resources, and went out of control in its attempt to save everyone.
When Change is Necessary
System Shock 2 features a second antagonist called The Many, a biological experiment that evolved out of control. Its goal is to spread itself by incorporating humans into its ever growing biomass, where they become part of a singularity. It sees itself as a transcendent form of life. One that is not divided by petty individualism, nor limited by a fear of death. From its point of view, it's doing humanity a favor by trying to bring them all together. Players are tasked with destroying The Many before it can reach Earth, but it's presumed that it's the right thing to do.
Soma doesn't introduce an alien life form, but it does take on themes of change and survival. The inhabitants of PATHOS-II are doomed, and the last remnants of humanity will die with them. Copying their minds to into a computer system called The Ark, where they'll live out virtual lives in a simulated world, is a last ditch effort to preserve some aspect of the human race. Even if they aren't technically alive, they can still think, feel, and act in an artificial world.
Unlike System Shock 2, Soma at least allows players to think about whether a virtual existence is one worth having. At certain points, they can choose to either erase these digital personas, or just have them sit there until the day some future race or aliens happen upon them and figure out some way to reactivate them. To the digital persona, it would be a Rip Van Winkle effect of unimaginable proportions, but they would at least continue to exist in some way.
The Many wants to uplift humanity to a new existence. Project Ark is all about copying their minds over to a computer probe and launching it into space. Both are ways to save humanity while leaving the arguably human part behind. However, both games also fail to let players decide if it's worth it. Is a species that launched violent psychic monkeys out into space on a half-built spaceship one that's worth saving? At the same time, how long before the inhabitants of Ark grow weary of their immortal virtual existence and turn suicidal or insane?
It's clear that Soma benefits from gameplay elements that were first introduced in System Shock 2, like picking up recordings left behind by the deceased to figure out what's going on. At the same time, there are significant differences, like how the protagonist in Soma can't fight any of the horrors he comes across, while System Shock always involves a character that can use high-tech weapons and cybernetics.
However, we can look beyond those differences. In the end, both games leave players floating in space with a number of unanswered questions.