How Soma Echoes Star Trek's Ethical Dilemmas

Soma is a survival horror game that has both monsters and a main character that's forced to deal with deep existential issues. Coincidentally, many of these issues were tackled in various Star Trek episodes, oftentimes more than once. So, it seems no matter how far you go into the future, questions about human existence remain a conundrum. Especially when you involve transporters and holodecks.


WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for Soma and certain Star Trek episodes.

The Star Trek franchise is approaching its 50th anniversary. Between five decades, six television series and ten movies (12 or 13 if you count the reboots), Star Trek has had a long history of covering a multitude of different topics related to high technology, society and ethics. It's tough to contend with a franchise that has touched on just about every sci-fi issue ever imagined thus far, but the independently developed survival horror game Soma manages to hit some the big issues involving the life, the afterlife, and the dark side of technology without pesky Starfleet rules to get in the way.

Man Out of Time

Time travel in some shape or form has always been a go-to Star Trek feature, with the 20th Century being one of the most favored eras. However, Simon Jarrett (the main character in Soma) is an accidental time traveler. As one of the prototype volunteers from when brain scanning was an emerging technology, there's a copy of the Simon on almost every brain scanning machine for troubleshooting and testing purposes. It's practically by chance that his template was downloaded into a fully functional and self aware body, one of the WAU's (an artificial intelligence running the PATHOS-II station) only successes at creating a biomechanical hybrid human.

The original (human) Simon died over a century before the game occurs due to issues stemming from a traumatic brain injury, but his brain scan is data, so it is effectively immortal and frozen in time until it is brought back online. The Star Trek reference that immediately comes to mind is Neutral Zone, from Next Generation's first season. In it, three individuals who were cryogenically frozen in the 20th Century due to terminal illnesses, and their chambers somehow ended up light years away from Earth.

Although the Star Trek episode was hastily written, and everyone's Rip Van Winkle syndrome was more or less resolved by being dumped on Earth, the spirit of the episode was meant to highlight how different the 24th Century is from the 20th. Altogether, it seems the frozen travelers take pretty well to discovering that extraterrestrials exist, and they're stuck in a world where everyone they knew is dead, everything they had is gone, and all their social values are completely antiquated.

Similarly, Soma only touches lightly on the issue of being left out of time, because let's face it, being trapped in a crumbling deep sea facility - even when it's a space gun - isn't really representative of 22nd Century living. There are moments when Simon reminisces to Catherine about his life as a living person, and she reveals a little bit about herself too, but these sequences are brief. They don't compare their worlds experiences. For the most part, they stick to trying to make their way across the station amid crumbling infrastructure and lots of patrolling monsters, which is too bad. Considering one of the driving themes is trying to get through the end of the world, it would have been nice to a better idea of how far humanity progressed before it got wiped out.

Unfortunate Coin Flips and Transporter Accidents

Apart from the warp drive, the transporter has to be the single most impactful piece of fictional technology ever introduced into pop culture. Even people with a vague, passing, knowledge of Star Trek know the phrase, "Beam me up, Scotty," and what it references. Not bad for something that the book "The Physics of Star Trek" describes as utterly implausible given what we know currently know about matter.

But the plausibility of it isn't so much an issue as what the technology represents. According to "The Physics of Star Trek," a transporter can only work one of two ways. Either it breaks people and objects down to atomic components and fires them at the speed of light to be rebuilt at a destination point, or it makes a perfect scan of those things, destroys the original, and creates a replica using available resources at the destination point. Although the previous is the accepted process of beaming, there are episodes - like when there are transporter clones - that can only happen if the latter is true.

The problem with the second scenario is the same one that Simon has to wrestle with in Soma. As it turns out, there is no way to move a brain scan from one media to another. You can only copy it. That means, if you copy a scanned mind out of one vessel, you essentially have two of the same person. One gets to move on, while other is stuck in whatever situation you leave them in. What do you do with the obsolete copy? A cult following on PATHOS-II determines that the best way to resolve that issue is to commit suicide right after the scanning process is complete.

When Simon is copied over the a deep sea diving suit, he has the option to drain the battery from his old suit, shutting down his copy. The alternative is to leave him behind so that old Simon will wake up, alone and confused in the station, with no knowledge of what happened or why he was abandoned. Although Star Trek generally finds ways to be comfortable with how it deals with transporter clones, Soma players are left with either killing old Simon (which is actually more of an indefinite dormancy) or leaving him to a fate that's worse than death until the battery runs out naturally.

As Soma observes, one version always has to end up with the wrong side of the coin flip. A truth that Catherine, a copy of the original PATHOS-II scientist, is surprisingly accepting of the issue. It appears, some people are just better suited to being artificial life than others.

Artificial Life

The other problem with converting people into data is that it decreases the value of that life. The experiences of that individual are no longer unique if you can create perfect copies of them infinitely. We don't know if this is the first time virtual Simon has been activated, or if hundreds of thousands of him have been awakened, deleted, and reset as part of the computer system's diagnostic program. At one point, Simon wonders if each of those copies has a soul, and if there is a heaven now filled with millions of his versions, which leads to the next logical issue.

As video games often demonstrate, death becomes less of an issue if you can revert to a backup copy. In Soma, you meet the last living human being on Earth, who is ironically hooked up to a life support system. In the exchange, she begs you to kill her, but you have reservations. All the brain scans loaded into the Ark are just copies, but she's the real thing. Singular, original, and alive. But with her health failing, and the rest of humanity supposedly wiped out by a comet, she states, "we have to go with second best."

Each Star Trek series has treated artificial life differently, which include giving both androids and holograms individual freedoms and ranks, often with the conceit that they cannot be copied, except when it's convenient to the plot. Apart from the ship's computer and most holodeck recreations, artificial life is generally treated the same as organic life. Conversely, these inorganic life forms often strive to be more human.

However, Star Trek glosses over the fact that it's impossible for artificial life to know what it's like to be human, unless they were once human or copied from a human. The logical fallacy is fully demonstrated the WAU's efforts to try to save the remnants of the human race, often with monstrous results. "Human" and "alive" are loose terms. What's close enough? Forcefully hooking a person up to life support and never letting them die? Transferring their minds into maintenance robots that are bound to go mad? Or rebuilding them until they have some semblance of living, walking around as zombie-like creatures that are in constant agony? WAU can't tell the difference between life and making a mockery of it, which is a situation that makes the Borg look like a better alternative.

In Soma, players can choose whether or not to recognize virtual life as something worth preserving. Actions include deleting brain scans (including your own), destroying a semi-aware robot that thinks it's human, and whether or not to destroy WAU and all the monstrosities attached to it.

When Virtual Beats Reality

Reality is very flexible term when it comes to Star Trek, but the virtual world of the holodeck deserves special attention because of the TNG episode, Ship in a Bottle. In it, the holodeck character, Professor James Moriarty, attains self awareness and demands to be freed into the real world. The episode is famously resolved by convincing Moriarty that he has been given a living body and his own small spacecraft, when in truth, he was transferred to portable computer system with enough memory to provide a lifetime's worth of new experiences.

Coincidentally, that is exactly what the Ark program is supposed to do in Soma, except that the volunteers are aware that their brains are being scanned. Practically the entire crew of PATHOS-II is ready to jump aboard their own ship in a bottle, where they can live thousands of years in a virtual paradise, running on a pod floating in space. It's not surviving the end of the world, but it's the next best thing. Besides, Earth is in ruins, PATHOS-II is falling apart, and there's an insane AI trying to turn the last remnants of humanity into mutants. Screw the real world. Lt. Barclay, who famously suffered from holo-addiction, had it right all along. Even Christopher Pike from the original series was allowed to live out the rest of his life in an idyllic fantasy world.

It's just too bad the originals are left to die painful deaths on Earth while their digital copies are sent up to paradise. But, as stated before, one version always gets the wrong side of the coin flip.

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