'Soma' Nailed Existential Dread About AI Long Before 'Westworld' Came Along
The latest episode introduced a concept that harkens back to Frictional’s existentially horrifying game.
All Westworld images courtesy HBO
Spoilers for Season two, episode four of Westworld and all of Soma ahead.
In this week’s episode of Westworld, HBO’s show about a western-themed amusement park populated by semi-sentient “host” robots, and all the horrors their existence entails, bumped right up against Soma, one of the most existentially scary games ever produced. The show has been a little aimless this season, with fractured storylines all over the place in time and space—though there is, I think, a point to all of it—but the recent episode finally saw the Bernard storyline paying off a bit.
In the show, it was revealed that one of the purposes of the high-tech, expensive playground was an massive R&D campaign to create robots that are so lifelike, so complex, and so high-capacity that they could essentially house the human minds of the ultra rich and powerful. To let them live, essentially, forever.
It makes a certain amount of sense. Of course, the hyper-powerful would only spend their billions in search of immortality. We already know that Westworld is a massively expensive project—from the high-tech programming in each host’s brain to the geo-engineering required to change the world in upkeeping its various storylines (MMO-style). It all makes Walt Disney World, a 43-square mile entertainment complex in the real world, look like a rinky-dink quarter-operated toddler ride in an off-brand Walmart parking lot.
We find that out through the course of the episode, as an almost-successful experiment on one of the park’s first major investors, an ultra-rich biotech CEO, plays out. He doesn’t know that he is a robot, that he died some years before. His memories, at least for a time, are intact. He has a fully functioning body, and though he lives in a sort of Ikea-cool glass prison, he can do all the usual things: listen to music, exercise, jerk off, etc.
But, naturally, things don’t go so well for him.
In Soma, much of the thrust of the game comes from learning that Simon—your player character—is only a copy of the memories from the original Simon, a dude who died almost a century before the events of the game. At more than one critical, queasy, terrifying juncture, you “copy” yourself into a new body or environment, leaving the other copy to die slowly, or at least, rot amongst the other human-machine hybrids that never really functioned successfully.
That revelation, in both Soma and now in Westworld haunts me. The implications of it: to be a mind in search of a body, or many copies of that mind, some of which get lucky, some of which do not, and become discarded—put a knot of dread in the pit of my stomach. Human life is nasty enough: we live in a world dictated by greed and hurt, where human beings are already treated as things, often on massive, systemic bases.
But this is a different, personal sort of horror, the kind that never ends, fundamentally changing the human experience in order for that to be possible. The first part of Soma’s ending knocks that particular notion out of the park, where one Simon copy gets to go off and live in something like a paradise and the other is forced to live out an eternity—or as long as the batteries last—with nothing but a parade of sick, dying machines to keep him company. The usual logic about death, and the only comfort that brings, the “this too, shall pass” nature of it, stops applying. There is no peace or respite.
I don’t think the concept is handled as well in Westworld as it was in Soma—the CEO in question is a giant asshole, and there’s plenty of weight given to the idea that yeah, the world is better off without him. He sucks, and on some level, the show says he deserves to suffer. But existential horror plays better when it’s given weight and a little silence, some time to let the toxins sift into your brain and settle there. It’s less effective when its cut with wild west chase scenes and, of course, explosions.
But it still works, as it plays out, and gave me my first real reason to be excited about the show again.
How about you, readers? Do you have a favorite horror trope that just won’t let you go? Let me know on the forums.