Soma Spirits and the Golden Mean Fallacy

Soma Spirits is a neat little RPG about philosophy and choices you should check out. The premise is that, after the world erupted into war, the gods split the world into two spiritual planes: the World of Joy, where everyone is always happy, and the World of Sorrow, which lacks the unchecked emotion that led to the war. This worked pretty well for a while, but now the worlds are becoming unstable and There Can Be Only One. Each god obviously wants their own world to dominate, and you are led through five scenarios where you must solve a dilemma by either curbing unbridled joy or alleviating sorrow. Generally, this comes down to a choice between personal happiness and societal responsibility. I am all about that stuff.

Unfortunately, the conclusion leaves a lot to be desired. The warning signs become obvious the moment you learn there is a true ending. Though the game’s description claims that “you may find that the choices made in Soma Spirits are not so black and white. Every major choice made will have some impact on the story, and there are rarely any ‘correct’ solutions”, there is objectively one correct choice: make a perfectly even number of Joy and Sorrow decisions to create a fully balanced world. Deviate from this at all, and the game makes sure to inform you that you are crazy, stupid, and/or evil. As much as the game loves to tout that every individual decision has logical merit, it doesn’t extend the same tolerance to aggregate decisions.


What it ultimately comes down to, I think, is a violation of show don’t tell. Your small-scale interactions with the NPCs should reinforce the game’s themes and give you an understanding of the worlds, but they don’t do that with any consistency.

For me, the fundamental dilemma is this: What is the value of the World of Sorrow? Happiness has intrinsic worth. It doesn’t need to justify itself. But bizarrely, the game doesn’t seem to think the sadness has to justify itself either. The characters argue until they’re blue in the face that sadness is totally necessary and important, but, well… is it? Supposedly, the idea is that the Joy inhabitants can’t deal with real problems and are blind to the suffering of others, so it’s about awareness and responsibility. Yeah, I agree that that’s an important angle to consider. I really, really wanted that to be true. I wanted it so bad I took notes on literally every conversation with every character in both worlds, but what I found is that what we’re shown doesn’t match what we’re told:

  • Each worlds’ protagonist is introduced by getting woken up by their sentient alarm clock. However, the Joy clock insists you have to greet the day, while the Sorrow clock shrugs and says that wallowing in bed all day is also a legitimate option.
  • In the starting area, both worlds’ inhabitants are distressed by the inciting event, but the Sorrow inhabitants show neither concern for the affected party nor a desire to fix it; they just pawn it off on the main character. So Sorrow inhabitants do not actually demonstrate awareness or a desire to help others.
  • One of these characters opens an item shop shortly after this… in both worlds, despite the Joy version showing no interest prior. So Joy inhabitants are totally capable of working hard and being industrious.
  • In the next area, when you encounter a blocked door, one character jokes that the employee responsible will be getting a pink slip. So Joy inhabitants are capable of dealing with real-world problems.
  • In the area after that, a Sorrow inhabitant informs you that there’s a good treasure at the end of a long path – but they don’t have the energy to get it themselves. So Sorrow inhabitants are just too depressed to even move most of the time?
  • Later, we learn one character has been scammed: his dream is to get a boat, but he got tricked into taking a truck instead. He is unable to notice the problem in either world, but in Joy, he learns to enjoy his truck anyway, while in Sorrow he’s ambivalent.
  • In the same area, there’s a deactivated elevator in a mine. When you fix it, the Joy miner is just grateful, but the Sorrow version just grouches that now he has no excuse to work. The greeters right next to him sing a happy song about the mines in Joy, but refuse to do anything in Sorrow. So Sorrow is not just a dreary place, it’s flat-out not functional, if everyone refuses to work.

And the single most baffling choice has to be this: in the True End, the main characters draw strength by remembering a flashback to when they were kids and learned to accept each others’ different ways of life – except we only see the Sorrow guardian visiting the World of Joy, as if it’s somehow Joy that needed more time to justify itself, or perhaps that Sorrow’s adherent is just an antisocial grump who has to learn how to get along?

So it seems like if anything, Sorrow is the world where people choose personal happiness over their responsibility to others. But they’re not even happy in a different way like I initially assumed, they are genuinely miserable and do nothing but wallow in that misery. Meanwhile, the Joy inhabitants can take care of themselves just fine, and always make the best of a bad situation. Why, then, do we need the World of Sorrow? Why is a world of pure happiness so bad?

(Oh, because it is bad, it is very very bad and you are a badwrong doubleplusungood person if you don’t agree. If you choose to alleviate sorrow in every single choice, the Joy representative becomes an arrogant, insane monster who takes peoples’ sorrow by force and cares only for the destruction of the World of Sorrow. Even though the game is willing to acknowledge there are logical arguments for each choice individually, it does not seem to think there are logical arguments for accepting the same flavor of logical argument five times in a row, and the only reason you could possibly have for doing that is if you’re motivated by arrogance and emotion.)

Perhaps this would make more sense if we had a clearer idea of how the split worked – the versions in each world seem to be literally the same person, as they remember conversations from the other world, but what does that mean? Are all the Joy inhabitants secretly miserable and using their Sorrow counterparts as an outlet? If that’s the case, then what’s so bad about destroying the World of Sorrow? In the Bad End where that happens everyone sobs about how they’re going to die, but if they’re the same person shouldn’t they just get folded into their Joy counterparts? I don’t understand.

Even on an artistic level, the World of Sorrow gets the shaft. This is what the World of Joy looks like:

Joy

Here is the same area in the World of Sorrow:

Sorrow

So the World of Joy looks like the real world plus a layer of saturation, while the World of Sorrow looks like a circle of Hell. I get that the monochrome aesthetic is supposed to represent the World of Sorrow being more emotionally subdued, but in my experience with video games and other media, that aesthetic doesn’t just represent difference, it represents incompleteness. There is supposed to be color in the world, and here it has been drained out. The World of Joy looks like a complete existence, but I felt a constant emptiness from the World of Sorrow, like it was missing something. (Further nails in the coffin include the World of Joy being treated as the default – the stages are automatically set to Joy when you enter from the hub world, and you enter the World of Joy in both the “Sorrow in jeopardy” and balanced paths just before the climax – and, of course, the balanced world in the true ending looking way more like the World of Joy, simply because Joy is the only one with color.) I really think the World of Sorrow could have used a different color palette instead of no palette at all; perhaps darker, cooler colors to contrast with Joy’s brightness, or a “real is brown” aesthetic to emphasize its focus on gritty reality.

I think part of this may also be that the choices aren’t very well executed. They’re all pretty simple, and were over and done with too quickly for me to gain a full grasp of the situation or an emotional attachment to the participants. The characters are very obviously just props in a morality play that disappear as soon as they’ve served their purpose – and that’s a big problem, because the worth of sorrow is supposed to be based on consequence, and if the game isn’t willing to commit to those consequences, there’s no reason to take joy instead of sorrow. If the forest really can survive without Acre and everything’s going to be fine, there’s no reason not to let him go. If organic life isn’t going to die from the eternal winter, there’s no reason to force the snowpeople to melt. If the tragic widower’s wedding ring is right there and he’ll stop overworking people once he gets it… well, there are theoretical reasons to make him move on anyway, but in practical terms, the damage has already been done.

It actually makes me think of OFF – it had a similarly episodic structure and high-minded plot, yet each zone managed to establish a distinct atmosphere, and I felt like I had a good understanding of the characters and their problems. If there were fewer choices but we had more time to explore each one, the story might have been stronger.

Or perhaps the game shouldn’t have been an RPG at all. The fact that everything has to be resolved with violence and climactic boss fights greatly restricts the narrative, particularly in that it necessitates overt villains. The way the entire narrative is framed as an ideological war between the gods with the player characters as unwitting dupes really strips the player of agency. A visual novel would have had less filler, better detail for each scenario, and potential for more nuanced endings.

And on an unrelated note, despite most characters being cartoony non-humanoids, they are all male. Why do sentient rocks and trees even have a concept of gender? The only female characters are one of the gods and an artificial golem created by a lonely wizard (not to be his wife, thankfully). Oh, and one of the characters also had a wife who was killed in a painfully textbook fridging, right down to her dying because of a stupid mistake she advised him away from.

So, ultimately the game is very disappointing. It’s ambitious, but it doesn’t have anything new, brave, or particularly interesting to say. It’s just the same “the answer lies in the middle” fallacy we’ve all seen dozens of times before. Despite its preaching of tolerance and moderation, it refuses to engage with extremism fairly and logically, instead branding it as complete lunacy that only monsters would ever agree with.

10 Comments

  1. Septentrion says:

    So, this game is Shivering Isles devoid of any depth?

    In case your not familiar with that Oblivion expansion, there was Mania and Dementia. Both sides had clearly unhealthy characteristics, and I don’t think either side was preferred.

    1. illhousen says:

      I wouldn’t call Shivering Isles particularly deep, though. It’s been awhile since I’ve played it, but I don’t really recall the story trying to say anything meaningful about the nature of humanity or anything like that. The devs just wanted to create a crazy Wonderland-esque place with a thematic conflict and did exactly that.

       

      (Also, I recall Dementia choices being pretty boring. Mania was just more creative overall.)

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      1. Septentrion says:

        I only played it once so I don’t know how everything is balanced. It didn’t seem like the chioces should matter despite how people are affected.. There was also quite a lot of aesthetic contrast with Mania, Dementia, and Order.

         

        I guess my point is that this game seems to be a giant leap behind in concept.

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  2. illhousen says:

    I see the rock at least is happy in both worlds.

    1. Huh? You mean the black enemy blob? Come to think of it, it is a bit weird they didn’t make a different sprite for each world.

  3. Xander77 says:

    I’ve seen “the balance of Good and Evil” so often that I can’t even be bothered to care. You could at least start to make an argument that “negative” and “positive” emotions are both necessary to some degree (even if not to the same degree) but the whole point of “Evil” is “things you want to minimize”.

    1. The annoying thing is that I think that’s exactly what it was trying to go for! The World of Sorrow isn’t evil, it’s just depressing, and the characters argue until they’re blue in the face that sadness is totally a necessary emotion because reasons. The problem is just yet another instance of show don’t tell — we don’t see instances where the negative emotions are actually necessary. I feel another big part of it is that the cutsey Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic works at cross-purposes. It’s hard to take a story about how in the REAL WORLD you have to make TOUGH CHOICES when this clearly isn’t the real world. Do sentient alarm clocks have the same physiological needs and psychological issues as humans? Probably not. What are the resource constraints of this world? Limited resources is one of the biggest reason why people can’t be happy all the time, but… it never really explores that angle. It’s too fantastic to have any bearing on real-world reasoning.

      “negative” and “positive” emotions are both necessary to some degree (even if not to the same degree)

      Also, I think that qualifier brings up a really important point. Like I said, happiness has intrinsic value, but the only value of negative emotions is their ability to bring greater happiness in the long run. They’re not equal; negative emotions are situational things. There’s no point in being sad for the sake of being sad like there is for being happy for the sake of being happy.

    2. illhousen says:

      Ugh, the balance of good and evil is just so annoying. Mostly, it involves redefining evil as something not actually evil. Like, I’ve seen quite a few speeches about how, in moderation, the seven deadly sins are actually good because they provide people with drive to move forward and improve, and sure, I can dig it, but if you moderate the seven deadly sins and, for example, just have pride in your work and your life rather than allowing pride to carry you away to become an arrogant myopic asshole, well, then it’s not evil to begin with.

      I think it ties with the perception of evil as something you are (either inherently or by virtue of feeling certain feelings and thinking certain thoughts) rather than something to do, which leads either to self-flaggelation or apologia.

      On related note, I remember reading Necessery Evil, a fantasy book that was basically built around the concept. Apparently, it’s pretty popular among fantasy crowd, and… I honestly don’t get why. It’s a trite adventure story, just with the protagonists being evil-aligned, though they don’t actually get to do much if any evil, and also the head good guy is not actually good on account of being a rapist, which just cheapens the themes of the book and undermines its message.

  4. Xander77 says:

    I’m too invested in utilitarian ethics to really understand what people mean by “evil” in a context other than “acting so as to increase suffering and decrease happiness” (even though proper Utilitarian thinkers are rather leery of using a term like that).

    I suppose it would make more sense to someone with “the perception of evil as something you are (either inherently or by virtue of feeling certain feelings and thinking certain thoughts) rather than something to do”, but I can’t really grok that perspective.

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