Russian Aggression Must Stop

The SOMA coin toss


Tags: gaming philosophy

SOMA is a video game by Frictional Games, the makers of the Amnesia games. Matching their usual style, it's a first-person horror game, released back in 2015, so already fairly old by now.

I played through SOMA a good time ago and since then I haven't even considered replaying the game, mainly because horror games aren't really something I particularly enjoy. But I did appreciate the game when I played through it and continue to appreciate the philosophical aspects of the game to this day.

In fact, about a week ago I got the spark to go and revisit the game, via the medium of wiki pages and YouTube videos because I still don't particularly want to run through corridors dodging nasty monsters myself. At first I was just enjoying the lore and recalling the story events, but eventually I started thinking more about the premise that underpins the story. I even started changing my mind on some things that I felt pretty strongly about on my first playthrough.

Setting the scene (spoilers ahead!)

SOMA starts out with you, playing as Simon Jarrett, going to see a doctor for a new brain scan technique intended to help fix a brain trauma suffered in a car accident. The idea is that a brain scan will be taken and then subjected to different simulated treatments to figure out a correct path.

However, when the scan concludes you are no longer in the clinic in Toronto, but find yourself in the middle of a dilapidated underwater research station called Pathos II.

You eventually find out that in the year 2103 a comet impacted the Earth and caused a mass extinction event, setting the surface world aflame and (presumably) wiping out the entire human race. Except for Pathos II. The scientists and engineers of Pathos II managed to survive thanks to being situated far in the Atlantic, deep underwater.

However, the inhabitants of Pathos II quickly found themselves in trouble of their own. They had to contend with dwindling supplies, but also a rogue AI, their Warden Unit (WAU), which had been instructed to save humanity. But lacking a good definition of humanity, it began saving human brain scans in robots or mutating humans to keep them "alive" by any means necessary. Many of the creations of WAU were corrupted or lost their minds in the process and thus became hostile towards the other survivors.

Due to increasing structural damage and threat of "mockingbirds", robots with human minds that had gone haywire, the survivors of Pathos II were gradually losing ground, having to evacuate many of the sites. Seeing no realistic option for survival and inspired by some of the machines WAU had created, some of the survivors eventually decided that one way to save what was left of humanity would be to create copies of people in a digital Ark and launch it into space, where it could not be corrupted by WAU. This ARK would then presumably survive as long as the onboard equipment of the satellite would continue functioning.

A long way from Toronto

So, how did Simon end up here then, transported decades into the future?

As you might be able to guess, his brain scan made back in Toronto was donated to science before his death and functioned as a template for experiments into how brains functioned. One of these templates made its way onto Pathos II and was put to use by WAU, placed into a robotized diving suit.

At the beginning Simon doesn't realize what has happened to him, his digital brain refusing to comprehend his current situation. However, the reality is revealed to him when a communications room suffers a structural break and floods, yet he finds himself "able to breathe".

Following a communication from a person called Catherine, Simon travels to another site of Pathos II in order to find other survivors. Catherine, however, turns out to also be a human in a robot body, but still of sound mind and who ends up being uploaded to a portable tool and accompanies Simon as they decide to complete the Ark mission, which eventually ended up not being launched due to disagreements between the last survivors.

Digital mind transfer

The whole plot of SOMA, from start to finish, revolves around this mind transfer concept and its implications. It is quite quickly revealed that the brain scan works as a copy, you cannot move a mind from point A to point B. This is demonstrated in practice when Catherine instructs Simon to acquire a power suit in order to reach some of the deeper parts of Pathos II.

Because Simon is inhabiting the diving suit itself, rather than being inside it, his mind needs to be placed in the new suit. Catherine sets up the process and soon enough Simon finds himself in the new suit. But he also hears his own voice across the room asking Catherine if the process didn't work, until Catherine temporarily shuts the old diving suit down.

For a brief moment, two Simons existed simultaneously. Simon #2 in the diving suit and Simon #3 in the power suit. We're starting the count from 2, because the original Simon lived and died in Toronto.

This is around when Catherine starts talking about the idea of a "coin toss". The idea that there is a 50/50 chance that upon a mind transfer you will either be the original version or the new copy. In this case, the Simon you are playing as "won the coin toss" and the other Simon lost.

Simon doesn't seem to fully comprehend the idea, but goes along with this idea of the coin toss all the way until the very end of the game when the pair upload themselves into the Ark and launch it into space. But this time when the upload concludes, Simon and Catherine find themselves still at the bottom of the ocean rather than the digital paradise of the Ark. Simon and Catherine get into an angry argument about how the mind transfer works until Catherine's equipment gives out, leaving Simon alone in the darkness.


Simon is not the only person in the game that has trouble with the idea of how the mind transfer works. Before the final fall of Pathos II when the survivors began collecting brain scans for the Ark, a hypothesis was proposed by one of the survivors, Sarang, which suggested that continuity of experience was the basis of your identity and your ticket to the Ark.

The way he justified the hypothesis was by proposing a kind of Ship of Theseus: all of your cells are replaced over time, but you still remain you. As long as you have that continuity of experience, regardless of what you are made of or where you are, you will effectively transfer yourself, bypassing the "coin toss".

This idea manifested itself as a series of suicides performed immediately after the brain scan was concluded, with people believing this was the way to guarantee that they would end up on the Ark, because they would only exist in one place at a time.

This is directly told to you by a docile mockingbird you run across on your travels, which both serves to highlight to you the idea of the mind copy and also serves to prove the continuity theory wrong, since the person in this mockingbird believed it would be guaranteed passage to the Ark but even then another copy ended up being put into a robot by WAU, causing her to exist in two places simultaneously regardless. The only happy thing is that the mockingbird doesn't realize its situation either, believing itself to be on the Ark.

It's not really a coin toss, right?

When I was playing the game the first time, I already concluded that there was no coin toss when the transfer into the power suit happened. It was clear to me that the operation was a simple copy-paste, the original you would always be the original you and the copy would always be the copy. Going into the mind transfer, you would never have a chance to become your copy.

So the idea of the coin toss seemed pretty ridiculous to me, and it seems like most people in the comment sections of the YouTube videos of SOMA clips seemed to be in agreement. People theorized that Catherine invented the idea of the coin toss to lure Simon into completing the mission that he was doomed to never benefit from himself. At best he'd give a copy of himself the chance to exist in a better place for a while.

But there were some commenters who argued that, with caveats, an argument can be made for the coin toss. The caveat being that, naturally, the person who goes into the mind transfer is always guaranteed to "lose" and the copy is always guaranteed to "win". So the coin toss isn't really whether your mind will be transferred into the robot/Ark, but rather whether your perceived existence happens to be that of the original or the copy.

The way the story of SOMA is told, it feels like you started as Simon #1 in Toronto, transferred into Simon #2 at the start of your adventure in Pathos II and then transferred to Simon #3 in the power suit. Some people even argued that this was a gimmick the developers invented for the sake of the story. But that's not really the case, you just need to realize that the story is not told from the point of view of Simon #1 or Simon #2, it's told from the point of view of Simon #3.

Obviously what makes this weird is that Simon #3 never was in Toronto or in the original diving suit. But from Simon #3's perspective, he did all of those things before, because he has the memory of doing them. Even though the player performed all kinds of actions, those actions are essentially just a replay of past actions, memories that were transferred over twice. At least until Simon #3 wakes up in the power suit and the player continues playing from there.

It's this "continuity of perceived experience" where the coin toss started making sense to me. Up until the copy, the Simon copy and the original had the exact same experiences and they wouldn't be able to tell which side of the transfer they were until their experiences began to diverge. There would still be a guaranteed loser and a guaranteed winner, but the result would be in a kind of unresolved state until that point. You'd be a Schrödinger's cat of both original and copy, a sort of a quantum state which collapses into either state after the experiences diverge.

What Simon assumed was that the coin toss meant that there would be a 50% of making it through the transfer. If he performs a mind transfer, he has a 50% chance of becoming the copy. Which is naturally not the case, the game reinforces that this idea is bogus multiple times and therefore it's easy to conclude that the coin toss is also bogus. But if you think about it from the point of view of perceived experience, there is a brief moment when you cannot tell which side of the transfer you are and that's the brief period when the coin toss applies. You could be the original, you could be the copy, you only know when the experiences begin diverging. But there is always a loser and always a winner. And whether you kill yourself after doesn't suddenly switch those around, you will just end the experience of the original.

Of course, all of this only matters in the context of a subjective reality. The self-perception of existence. If we look at it from the perspective of an external observer, an objective reality of sorts, who is the original and who is the copy is always clear and unambiguous.

But if you are Simon Jarrett, the only thing you have to rely on is your subjective reality. We barely need to make comparisons to the brain in a jar thought experiment, because SOMA is basically that exact thought experiment. There's even a section of the game where you have to trick an brain scan of a former survivor to gain information by manipulating the environment of that brain scan, so for all Simon knows, he could be a brain scan in an entirely virtual world to begin with. Which is kind of meta, considering SOMA is a video game, a virtual world.

So yes, even though I originally disagreed with this idea of the coin toss entirely, I do now think that it makes sense and it wasn't just a "gimmick" the developers had to put into the game to make the story flow or Catherine lying to Simon to trick him into working for her. If there is a lie, it is a lie of omission, since Catherine doesn't spend time exploring the concept in detail and arguing with Simon about subjective reality, brains in jars and cats in boxes. I think she can be excused, the pair had better things to worry about.

In the end, subjectively, Simon #3 "lucks out" twice: he remembers ending up on Pathos II and he remembers ending up in the power suit. He "loses" at the transfer into the Ark, when Simon #4 is created. Simon #4 having "won" the coin toss three times.


Don't let someone make a copy of your brain. You'll never know what kind of horror show your copies down the line might end up in.

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