The Somnium Files is set in a world much like our own. There a diners, entertainment companies, abandoned amusement parks, and yakuza hideouts. Police investigate crimes committed by killers who use mundane weapons like ice picks or knives. Streamers play video games, dance, and sing for online audiences and promote their content on social media. Even the mythology of this world is that of our own: Egyptian gods such as Horus and Set or legendary Japanese creatures like the kappa will likely be familiar names. Yet for all the ways in which AI mirrors our own world, it has within it elements that are deeply fantastic. It is a science fiction game, challenging the boundaries of what real-world science is currently capable of and what it may ever be capable of.
Science fiction as a genre is most fascinating to me when it has some foundation in reality. That reality may not be proven science, but that space where ideas are just grounded enough to be plausible is the sweet spot for me. It’s fun to be playing AI and encounter some classic science fiction staples – Aasimov’s laws of robotics, for example – but the moments that truly shine are the ones that make me wonder if these were theories that any real people believed once upon a time. How many of Iris’s conspiracy theories are based on real-life conspiracies? To what degree is Psyncing based in legitimate scientific research and to what degree is it hogwash? (A very scientific word.)
Those are the questions I plan to learn the answer to today. I want to look at the science of The Somnium Files and learn which parts are real science, which parts are fake science, and which parts are real fake science. Any articles of research that I find I’ll be sure to link so you too can check them out, and look for anything that they cite in order to further read on the various topics.
THE BLOOD BRAIN BARRIER
The BBB is a key part of the theory that makes Psyncing work. Specifically, it’s the idea that nanotechnology small enough could actually get behind the barrier and interact with the human brain. This seemed like a good starting point, as it seemed like an obvious bit of real science that the rest of the fake science would be based off of. A quick Google search led me to multiple articles about the blood brain barrier (which it turns out people really do sum up as the BBB), the most prominent of which is on Wikipedia. I skipped over that one and instead jumped to one on the Queensland Brain Institute website, which was originally shared on a website called The Conversation. The blood brain barrier is a real thing and needing to find a way past it is a real thing too, but the reasons are a bit more straightforward than hacking another person’s brain. It actually comes down to the treatment of brain diseases.
The blood brain barrier protects the brain from toxic chemicals in the blood. This is done through a semi-permeable barrier that lets certain substances in while keeping others out. Think of it like a water filter – the fluids that the brain wants to get in can do so safely while the gunk it wants to keep out stays on the other side of the barrier. The problem is when the brain is legitimately sick, the “gunk” is actually a valuable medication that doctors are trying to give the patient. Luckily the solution to getting inside the BBB is a lot simpler than using nanotechnology to craft incomprehensibly tiny cables to run through a person’s eyeball.
In real life, necessary medicine gets behind the BBB through a sort of trojan horse approach. The medication attaches to molecules that are already allowed inside the barrier, allowing them to pass through to the brain without incident. Other studies have shown ultrasound to be an effective tool for temporarily opening the barrier. This treatment is particularly effective in helping to address the adverse effects of Alzheimer’s. So we can add the blood brain barrier and the need to find a way behind to our list of real science – just maybe not the solution ultimately reached by Pewter in The Somnium Files.
THE MANDELA EFFECT
It becomes clear early in The Somnium Files that Iris believes in parallel worlds, AKA a multiverse. When Kaname Date finally sits down with her to ask why, one of the examples she cites is the Mandela Effect. She describes this as a phenomenon that occurred when Nelson Mandela died in 2013 – apparently a not-insignificant number of people were surprised because they explicitly remembered that Mandela died in prison in 1980. Even when she described it, I experienced a sort of mini Mandela effect of my own; I thought he’d died quite some time before 2013. Despite my own mind playing tricks on me, I assumed that the Mandela Effect was more of a conspiracy theory than a legitimate scientific event. So I was surprised when The Conversation ended up having an article about that too!
The Mandela Effect is better described scientifically as confabulation or false memory. It’s the idea that our memories are not, in fact, as infallible as we assume them to be. Sometimes when we remember things, we fill in missing information using our biases or simply by playing a little game of word association in our heads. One example given is the Deese-Roediger and McDermott paradigm, where listing a bunch of words related to the concept of sleeping but not actually saying the word sleep can still cause participants to “remember” the word sleep in the list. The article also gives the example of a study conducted by Elizabeth Loftus in which 25% of a sample told a false story about their own childhood didn’t even recognize that it was false.
I’ve heard in the past that each time you remember something, you are not actually accessing the “original” memory – in reality you are remembering the last time you remembered it. Like an ongoing game of telephone, this eventually causes details to become distorted. This explains how the internet can contribute to the Mandela Effect as well. One common example I’ve seen cited is how Darth Vader doesn’t actually say “Luke, I am your father” in The Empire Strikes Back. All it takes is for the wrong words to be “remembered” one time, and then that is stuck as your memory of the event the next time you recall it. This can further be influenced by the popularization of the false memories in other media. Vader may not say “Luke, I am your father,” but many memes or parodies of the movie reinforce the false belief that he does. So while I was inclined to think that the Mandela Effect had no basis in reality, the event did take place and there’s definitely a population of folks out there who believe the same thing as Iris. So chalk this one up under “real pseudoscience.”
When hanging around inside the Somnium of one Iris Sagan, it is possible to defeat a zombie in the world of Shovelforge that then reveals an image of what Aiba calls THIS MAN. She explains that THIS MAN is a face that apparently makes an appearance in the dreams of many unrelated individuals. There’s a lot of weird dream stuff in AI and for a lot of it there’s not necessarily the science yet to back up whether or not dreams really work that way, but this seemed like the sort of thing I could research. Maybe it would lead me to some interesting research about mass hallucination or something. Instead, this particular rabbit-hole went in a completely unexpected direction.
My first step was to stumble on a VICE article interviewing the creator of the THIS MAN website. Apparently this individual was a psychologist whose patient drew a picture of a man who regularly makes appearances in their dreams. The psychologist also saw this man in his own dreams, and after some anecdotal research with other clients and some of the other psychologists he worked with, he discovered multiple people who all saw the face of THIS MAN, someone they had never met or seen before in their lives. There were apparently 2000 THIS MAN dream sightings, but to call it a scientific phenomenon would be a bit of a stretch. Turns out a few hours later some folks brought it to the attention of VICE that the whole thing was a marketing campaign.
The “psychologist” in question turned out to be a marketing dude from a place called Guerilla Marketing. They do exactly what they sound like they do, and THIS MAN was just one of their many successful projects. Well, successful may not be the right word – turns out the movie that they were advertising for by creating the THIS MAN website ended up being canceled, so we’ll never know if the shenanigans were worthwhile. Rather than being a mass hallucination or really any kind of mildly scientific dream phenomenon, this just turned out to be completely fake. But although that may not have been a scientific discovery, it was certainly a fun one!
During my research I stumbled upon an article which pretty effectively sums up how science is used in The Somnium Files. The phenomenon is referred to as woo, or sometimes woo-woo, but either way it captures the idea of using sciencey-sounding explanations to back up arguments that are not in reality scientific. It relies strongly on anecdotal rather than experimental evidence and pulling knowledge from a variety of fields in order to try to strengthen the false argument. What’s interesting about woo from the perspective of AI is that it is exactly how Ota and Iris convince Date to give any kind of serious thought to the idea of parallel worlds.
Everything that Ota describes in order to substantiate the idea of parallel worlds existing is a wholly anecdotal story. The sister watching TV and calling out to a sister who was never home, or the boy whose friend lost his eye and then turned out not to exist – it’s easy as an outside observer to call BS on these stories but you can’t really argue directly with anecdotes in the way that you can with ideas or data. Ota can’t prove his stories, but Date can’t disprove them – that’s part of the woo effect.
Then there is Iris, who attempts to be more scientific but does so by dancing around concepts and using lots of loosely related examples. We already know that the Mandela Effect is better explained by false memories than by parallel worlds. Or consider the bouba/kiki experiment, which Iris uses to assert the idea of a quantum-computer style collective consciousness but really is better explained by a connection between the shapes our mouths make when we say the words compared to the shapes in the experiment. Iris flabbergasts Date (and even Aiba) with some scientific-sounding jargon that’s just convincing enough to woo them into thinking seriously about parallel realities.
“But Ian, isn’t The Somnium Files a science fiction game? These kids could be describing science that is real in their world but isn’t in ours.” You’re totally right, and I can see an ending for this game in which parallel worlds and THIS MAN and prophetic dreams are all real things in the universe of AI. However, I think the game is doing a really good job of leaving open the possibility that Date is being hardcore swindled (perhaps intentionally, perhaps not) by his emotional attachment to these kids. One of the biggest questions at the midpoint of the game is who exactly you can trust in this setting.
At the point I have reached in the game, the reliability of every character in The Somnium Files has been called into question. Iris has medical reasons why her perception of reality may not be accurate. Her father Renju has behaved suspiciously ever since his ex-wife was murdered. So Sejima was found leaving the warehouse where Iris’s body was discovered, making anyone connected to him suspicious as well. There’s likely a mole in the metropolitan police department, meaning that Pewter and Boss are also potentially suspects. If Iris’s conspiracy theories are true, then Aiba cannot be trusted either. Even Date, the character through whom we experience the entire world of AI, isn’t a reliable narrator. No one was with him when he saw Iris dead in the warehouse, not even Aiba. There’s no evidence her corpse was ever there.
In a game where you cannot trust anyone, even the protagonist through whom you experience the game, any of the pseudoscience could very well be woo. I can certainly see a world where the game takes the Zero Escape route and all the fantastical elements are entirely true, leading the game firmly in the direction of a science fiction story. However, I can also see this story ending with a “gotcha” that reveals how the more scientific explanations for everything that has happened turn out to be true. I almost think that ending – an ending in which the conspiracies and the pseudoscience fall away to reveal a very mundane, very heartbreaking murder – could be even more impactful. But only time will tell.