by Jenelle Salisbury
The game “SOMA” is a first-person sci-fi horror game. I study philosophy of mind and cognitive science, so I was thrilled to find that it addresses the issue of personal identity by taking you through the perspective of an uploaded mind.
In the game, you play “Simon Jarrett”, a young adult male with a terminal neurological condition. Simon has agreed to take part in an experimental study that involves taking a full brain scan at a precise level of detail and uploading that data to a computer program. Researchers will then use the program to quickly experiment with a number of potential cures. If you’re familiar with fission cases and uploading in the personal identity literature, you know where this is going — but Simon didn’t. He didn’t seem to think about the copy of his consciousness on a flash drive. The game hints at it when the doctor says, “You know, Native Americans thought pictures stole a piece of their souls.” Then the doctor pushes the button and everything goes black just for a second.
This is the first instance of “fission” in the game. In the moment when the button was pressed, I had no idea where I’d open my eyes. The idea is that at the moment of the scan, all of Simon’s memories, his psychological characteristics, in effect the entirety of his subjective perspective up until that point are preserved. Anytime you ran the program it would feel, subjectively, like a continuation of original Simon’s identity. It is as if they stored a moment of time in his stream of consciousness, ready to be deployed. They could run the program as many times as they wanted. There could be hundreds, thousands, of other Simons that opened their eyes thinking they just got scanned, and something must have gone drastically wrong. Imagine the terror you’d feel, not knowing what will be done with the data. With you.
But, it’s a game. I, as the player, know that the designer of the game will probably only have me follow one possible timeline of Simon-hood. It is also likely that I will not open my eyes in that same, dreary, unclean non-hospital room. When I do open my eyes, I’m in a dark, empty cavernous room, 100 years into the future. A comet has hit the earth and civilization has retreated to a small community of scientists living at the bottom of the ocean floor. This community was humanity’s last hope, but something went terribly wrong. It was empty, lifeless – I saw only a few Ais and no biological humans, except those absorbed by the WAU. The WAU was a kind of mechanistic cancer, snaking its way around the camps and manifesting itself as various shadowy figures from which you had to escape.
One of my main sources of human connection during the game was a conscious upload of a researcher named Catharine, who lives inside my “omnitool.” She is my only solace, and the only break from the loneliness at the bottom of the ocean floor. She was human once, a biological human, but now she just exists on this device. She says the time in between when she is plugged in from one place to another just “disappears.” It seems quite obvious, of course, why would she be able to perceive the passage of time when she is not conscious at all?
After meeting Catharine, the story takes real shape. She confirms the downfall of civilization, but she was part of the team working toward the future of humanity. Since Earth is pretty much shot, the last hope is the “ARK,” a simulated universe populated with uploaded consciousnesses embodied in simulated bodies. Catharine’s mission, and mine, is to make our way over to its location so that we can upload our minds and send the ARK into space, where everyone can live happily ever after. Life on the ARK is supposed to be indistinguishable from living in a physical body. It sounds quite beautiful.
I am not sure what I will do when I get there, or whether life on the ARK will be comparable to life on Earth. But regardless, in the game, I yearn to make it there. I might not know what I will do when I get there, or whether my future will just seem long and dark, cold and empty, devoid of real meaning, but I have the natural instinct not to stay on this dying Earth.
At one point in the story I need to find a password from Catharine’s colleagues. They are long dead, but their consciousnesses are stored in these little drives. I need to plug them in and talk to them to figure out the password. It was clear from these interviews that these people did not know what they were getting into when they uploaded their brain data. They were thinking they were going to wake up in the scanner room, and copies of themselves could exist somewhere else. They didn’t seem to realize the implication that they could wake up millions of times and all the times it would feel like a direct continuation, exactly how it feels for the one that wakes up in the scanner room. If I ran their simulations in anything but that scanner room, they freaked out and started having an existential crisis. I finally found the man with the password and Catharine talked to him as if the scan had been normal. It had to be as casual as possible, so we had to try a few times to get the wording just right. It was eerie, really. Like talking to a ghost, or the broken record of a person’s life.
There’s another point of fission towards the end of the game. Simon still doesn’t get it, but this is when it finally starts to hit him. He needs to wear a new suit so that he can better travel where he needs to go, but the suit is solid – he can only get inside by uploading. So, he sits on a scanner chair and waits for Catharine to push the button. I don’t know what it is he thinks will happen, poor Simon. He still seems to mistakenly think it is like teleportation, like he can just physically transfer his consciousness from the robot body to the suit. Catharine pushes the button … and I open my eyes in the suit! Sweet, it worked! Simon looks over and notices another Simon sitting in the chair still. The Simon over there is unconscious for a moment because of the nature of the scan, but will wake up eventually, thinking something went wrong with the scan.
I decide to kill the other Simon sitting in the chair. He doesn’t deserve to wake up and be stuck here, thinking something went wrong with the scan. Of course, it would be different if he wasn’t going to wake up in such a dreadful, dreadful, place.
But Simon-in-the-suit gets angry. I don’t think he even realized up until now that his self in Toronto continued living. He thought he was frozen in time and emerged 100 years later. He questions what he is, what existence is, whether he himself even counts as “Simon.” The existential dread was real. He said, “If there’s an afterlife, is it already populated full of people who would call me an imposter?”
Simon hasn’t come to terms with the fluid nature of identity. He simply yells at Catharine, saying she tricked him. Catharine isn’t sure how to comfort him, but he gets madder when she remains silent. She tells him a mundane story about her childhood to comfort him. Sometimes I forget that she was human once. Simon asks her what is the first “human” thing she will do on ARK, when she finally has a body. She says she would like to watch the clouds go by.
I was so excited to upload to ARK – I wanted to make it to heaven! I was holding out hope that the game would have a happy ending, despite the WAU creeping ever more deeply into my consciousness. Finally, I made it to Phi, found the rocket, put ARK inside, and plugged Catharine in to tell me what to do. This is when I realized: Oh my goodness, the whole game it only lets me follow along one perspective. I have been so excited to make it to ARK, but what if I don’t get to see it? What if the game keeps me in the perspective of suit-Simon, doomed to live out his days in the bottom of the ocean? This fear is perfectly rational. However, you also know that you will make it to ARK, since ARK-Simon and suit-Simon are both you. It seems suit-Simon should have reason both to be scared about staying on Earth and to be excited about being on ARK, simultaneously. Thus I tried to hold this perspective. Suit-Simon and ARK-Simon are both me. It doesn’t matter, I said to myself — it isn’t a coin toss, they are equally me pre-scan.
I get even more nervous when I ask Catharine when I will upload, and the upload button is the same as the liftoff button — is she trying to trick me? I really will upload, right? Simon in the game wasn’t scared though, he still trusts her despite how mad he was at her before. And so I push the button and a 20 second countdown starts, with a screen indicating upload progress. I genuinely wanted to make it on, I wanted this project to succeed – it was humanity’s last hope. So when the timer got to 3 seconds and upload was still incomplete, I began to panic, I was at the edge of my seat.
3….2….1…and my upload completes RIGHT at the last second. “YES! I MADE IT!” Simon said in the game, the buildup of emotion ended in success!
But… I’m still here. I’m still at the bottom of the ocean. I knew suit-Simon would have to stay at the bottom of the ocean. But I really, legitimately, did not want it to be me. I know that if I’m Simon, I made it on the ARK but… I wanted to see it. Poor Simon in the game feels worse. He yells at Catharine again that she tricked him. She is hurt, I think, defensive, and trying to make him understand — We made it! she says. She is excited, and rightfully so: Catharine and Simon made it to ARK. She says “we lost the coin toss, that’s it, but we made it.” Then her screen cracks, the computer breaks, and I, suit-Simon, am stuck at the bottom of the ocean in a post-apocalyptic Earth, the only sentient being still in existence, a deep pit in my stomach, watching the future of humanity fly off into the distance. I will never get to see it. I will never see clouds or feel warmth or fall in love or laugh or cry or eat or anything ever again. Who cares if my copy made it? I am alone, forever — and that deep sense of loneliness is terrifying.
It is important to note that there are real limits to addressing fission cases in first-person narrative form. My feeling at the bottom of the ocean was — I wanted to go to ARK. When I pushed the button, I knew I would stay on the ocean floor and also upload, but I wanted to be the one to upload. I can comprehend the legitimacy of this desire because I am saying this as the gameplayer — I wanted to view the perspective of the Simon that went to ARK. Would it be rational for suit-Simon to think this way – to wish that it had been him who uploaded? I think not – for had things been the other way around, he would be in exactly the same situation he is in now. In the real world, there is nobody on the outside looking in on our experiences, who hopes before the scan that they are the one who opens their eyes on ARK on the other end. There is just Simon, pushing the button, excited to upload and get to ARK, and then a Simon that stays at the bottom of the ocean upset, and also a Simon that successfully made it to ARK. The one that makes it there will just feel like everything went according to plan.
After the credits, I opened my eyes and looked down and saw I had hands. Human hands. I have hands again? I wasn’t even a robot! And there were trees, and sun around! This must be ARK – I’m back to the moment of upload, with the unique opportunity to experience an alternate ending of the same person’s story.
I walked along the path, taking it all in, looking up at the sky. I stopped at a terminal along the way to take a survey on the nature of my experience. How did I feel? How were my senses? How connected did I feel to this body, and how was my sense of self? Is there meaning in this new world? Do I want to keep going with the project? I was pretty excited, so I answered them quite positively. My senses were good, I felt more connected to this self than the robot self at the bottom of the ocean. I even had skin again! I could smell and feel the breeze against my skin. Maybe we can find a new sort of meaning in this new world. I walk along the bend and I see a woman, it’s Catharine! Behind her is a big, sparkling, brand new city, she says hello and runs toward me and it fades out into black.
The final shot was of the rocket in space. ARK was all that was left of humanity – a simulated world, filled with simulated humans but with real consciousness. The people inside had no way of seeing where the rocket was going. In fact, they had any way whatsoever of interacting with the outside world.
But does that matter? Was their simulated world any less “real” for being simulated? In a sense, no, as long as it really is the case that they are all conscious and find a way to lead happy fulfilled lives. But of course, there is a clear sense in which it is limited. They will always know there is a reality outside the ARK. There is no way for them to reach that reality. Such a closed off existence seems… bleak.
But what else could they have done? When the future of the human race is at stake, you do what you can. You might not worry as much about what counts as “real” reality. Maybe in the future they had decided this was simply an irrelevant question. Maybe their “completed physics” told them that it doesn’t matter what things are made of, just what information they carry. Is there any difference? Does it matter that humans created the ship? Does it matter that everything on the ship, including the people, are lines of code? Can everything in existence be codified? Are we missing something by not including in our reality the parts of nature that resist codification, if any exist?
On the whole, the game was enjoyable, and a fantastic way to give perspective to the question of personal identity in fission cases. From the first-person perspective, it certainly feels like a real question where you will be after you push the button. But no one is playing a first-person adventure game through your eyes; there is no one on the outside wondering which narrative they will be taken through when the story of your life splits into two.
If this kind of dystopian technology ever becomes actual, I’d recommend you refrain from scanning (excepting, perhaps, if you are the last human alive on earth). As we don’t need a dystopian future video game to tell us, you never really know what will be done with your data once it is out there.
Jenelle Salisbury (she/her/they, @jenellegloria) is a graduate student in Philosophy at the University of Connecticut working under Susan Schneider, Dorit Bar-On and William Lycan. She works on philosophy of mind and cognitive science, and especially likes using anomalies from neuropsychology to inform her research. Her current project is on the unity of consciousness and the first-person perspective.