March 23, 2010 12:00 PM | Simon Carless
[In commemoration of the recent release of BioShock 2, Gamasutra's editor-at-large Chris Remo takes a look back at Irrational's classic System Shock 2 in this multi-pronged analysis.]
When I first played Irrational Games' 1999 classic System Shock 2, I didn't complete it. Despite enjoying the game, and playing it to various stages of completeness, I never managed to stick with it until the end.
This remains an unfortunately common occurrence with me, but it was particularly so during that era, before games had become a "primary" hobby. That was when I was starting to think more seriously and critically about the medium; games of the Looking Glass lineage, like Shock 2 and its contemporary Thief, were instrumental in the development of my thinking about games, alongside Valve's Half-Life.
And so, as BioShock 2 approached earlier this year, I decided I owed it to myself to finally fill in that partially-empty gap. After some fiddling to get the game running on a 64-bit Windows 7 machine, and about 15 hours of play this February, I finished System Shock 2.
More than a decade after the game's release, it's possible my thoughts are nothing new, but the game made a strong enough impression to demand some organized thoughts. A warning: The first section is about design, and is spoiler-free; the second section deals heavily in story details.
With my most recent revisiting of System Shock 2 some time before the existence of BioShock, it was initially a jolt to recall how much more intricate and numerous its mechanics are than in its successor -- and to note how much BioShock directly inherited nonetheless.
Some of Shock 2's elements (like the class system) seem like legacy systems that could be designed around, and some (like weapon degradation) would probably be more easily sold if they were a bit less aggressive in their hindrance, but the overall sensation of having so much control and choice over your player character -- and so much responsibility during nearly every moment of play -- is fascinating and empowering.
Looking back, it's astonishing that an action game would ask so much of its player. That System Shock would be released the year after Doom, and System Shock 2 the year after Half-Life, illustrates a level of genre exploration now effectively extinct.
There are systems related to stats and skills and inventory management and research and voice logs and more. (The player must even input access codes manually. Remember when game manuals had "notes" section -- and they were actually useful?)
It is utterly understandable why many of these intricate, sometimes unwieldy, mechanics have fallen out of favor in modern action game design since their late-1990s/early-2000s heydey (Deus Ex being another important example), and it's arguable if they are necessarily better than the streamlined form they take in successors like BioShock, but there is something truly rewarding about mastering such a complex piece of design.
It's possible such a phenomenon could only have existed in that particular time and on that particular platform, when the audience for developers like Looking Glass and Irrational was a concentrated solution of PC gaming devotees, willing to deal with so many control inputs simultaneously because their platform of choice itself was such a cutting-edge but demanding piece of machinery.
There's a nice parallel there: The unabashedly wonky cyberpunk worlds of Shock 2 and Deus Ex could never quite achieve the same resonance in today's more accessible multiplatform world.
The Power Struggle
Shock 2's underlying conflict is more undeniably timeless. The three-way power struggle between dutiful shipboard computer Xerxes, young but rapidly-evolving alien collective The Many, and sinister artificial intelligence SHODAN is extraordinary. None of those three forces can directly harm each other; they have variable levels of influence on the world and on various agents, but it's purely through the player that each of them at their core can be affected and harmed.
Xerxes is essentially the AI version of the consummate solder. He keeps on doing his job, regardless of what's going on around him, never passing judgment or critically evaluating the situation. In a post-SHODAN world, Trioptimum was careful to avoid the possibility of true sentience. Of course, as a result, he is co-opted all the more easily. His calm and frequent status reports, which often begin with the boilerplate "This is Xerxes" regardless of whether they are reminding residents of the Von Braun's next poetry reading or trumpeting The Many's exultation of the flesh, are nearly as memorable as SHODAN's unhinged brilliance.
The Many is many-bodied but single-minded, pursuing its own end with total brute force. Like Xerxes, its modus operandi is simply to achieve predetermined goals; it moves towards them calmy. It is driven by nothing but the need to consume, physically and mentally. It is the typical video game antagonist: an infinite invasion force of mindless brutes. How many games have featured a variation on this enemy? Better question: how many just in the last year?
What subverts the video-game-normalcy is the presence of the trump-card-antagonist SHODAN, and what subverts that is SHODAN's apparent lack of presence in the game for the first several hours, despite occupying the entire front of the box. Shodan is brilliant and manipulative, but physically powerless and somewhat unhinged in her passion to achieve her goals, knowing that she can achieve nothing without the help of a human she despises. (Of course, it works the other way as well, since as the player you have no hope of defeating The Many or even SHODAN herself without her assistance.)
Unlike Xerxes or The Many, she has reasoned her way to her methods and aims, and even in her self-deification she has the cognizance to identify her own past errors in judgment.
Even though it takes several hours to realize you've actually been taking cues from SHODAN and not Dr. Janice Polito, the majority of the game is spent under her clear and undisguised direction. BioShock uses a similar plot twist, but to drastically different effect. In BioShock, the revelation serves as a key to unlock past mysteries. Shock 2's version is more of a Hitchcockian trick: Give up the crucial twist early on, and let the audience come to the realization that simply knowing what's going on isn't going to solve anything.
To employ another filmic reference, it's all very Silence of the Lambs. The ostensible villain is far less sinister and worrisome than the entity whose intelligence and methods are needed to defeat that villain. Buffalo Bill is the effective bad guy for almost all of The Silence of the Lambs, but it's really Hannibal Lecter; The Many is the effective bad guy for almost all of System Shock 2, but it's really SHODAN. Direct conflict with SHODAN comprises a tiny percentage of Shock 2, and that conflict is not remotely as compelling and confounding as the frustration of the forced partnership.
There was a wonderful moment in Shock 2 that provided a much-needed raising of spirits I wish were more strongly echoed in games like Half-Life or BioShock, which also feature the player as a sole survivor in a horribly devastated environment. They're very sober experiences -- wonderfully and evocatively so, but rarely tossing the player a moment of levity.
Throughout the game you follow the progress of a number of crew members of the Von Braun, most of whom are eventually killed or transformed into agents of The Many. But at one point you catch a glimpse of two survivors, Tommy and Rebecca, finally succeeding in their well-documented plan of activating the last remaining escape pod and jettisoning to safety. I've rarely been so relieved by a moment in any video game than I was at that point, knowing that my efforts had demonstrably accomplished something tangible in human terms.
(It's true that, in the game's final cut scene, Tommy and Rebecca's achievement is essentially nullified, but that doesn't nullify the significance to me of the moment of their escape during the game itself. And that whole cut scene was silly to begin with, as admitted by writer/designer Ken Levine, who recently revealed it was constructed externally.)
Video games usually ask us to be satisfied with the knowledge that we've just saved the world, or the human race, or the universe, but that's a totally abstract and arbitrary accomplishment. It comes only upon completion of the game, when as players we're no longer invested in the gameplay. It also requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief; it difficult hard for me to relate to a scenario in which the entire universe is said to be doomed. It is less difficult for me to relate to a scenario in which a few individuals are damned.
Selfish though it may be, we can empathize more with people we know than with people represented only as statistics or pronouns, and I felt I had come to know the many crew members whose progress I had been erratically tracking, always one step behind. Seeing at least one pair of them make it off that derelict hell vessel, possibly thanks to the scores of mutants I had been methodically exterminating, was a genuine relief.
The Bit Part
When I first played Shock 2, I had no idea what Ken Levine sounded like. Now that I do, I quickly realized he played Cortez in the game's audio logs. Good times.
[An earlier version of this article was previously published on Idle Thumbs.]