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Remembering…System Shock 2

In 1999, some people were ignoring Prince’s advice and refraining from partying altogether. Many of these people were enjoying benchmark uber-shooter Half-Life, but others… others had bigger balls than that. These brave souls were instead having the bubbling excrement terrified out of their colons by the classic FPS RPG System Shock 2. The sequel originally began life in 1997 as a System Shock-influenced standalone game, co-developed by Looking Glass Studios and the fledgling Irrational Games. The digital chrysalis was given a boost when Electronic Arts, who owned the rights to System Shock, signed on as publisher. What’s especially impressive is that the two teams were working with the uncompleted Dark Engine from Thief, with a small budget and only an 18 month development cycle. However, this intense gestation process ultimately gave birth to a gaming experience which not only helped to develop the FPS genre, but one that also left a permanent psychological mark on many who played it.

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“You were cast into a mind-raping disarray of horrendousness”The game began after you selected one of three character classes (marine, navy, psi). Players took on the role of a soldier travelling aboard the Rickenbacker, as it escorted a faster-than-light prototype ship, the Von Braun, on its maiden voyage. Of course, it wasn’t long before everything went utterly mental and you were cast into a mind-raping disarray of horrendousness. In an incident a severed head would’ve seen coming, a rescue team responding to a distress signal became infected by xenomorphic eggs, and then had the audacity to get assimilated into a flesh-obsessed commune named The Many. Seriously, have any deep space rescue missions ever actually succeeded? Because, and this is just an observation, they often appear to make things a thousand times worse, like causing unstoppable mass-murder for instance. How did they even pass through rescue-team school without accidentally blowing the sergeant’s brains out? What the hell are these people!?

The game’s environment, post shit and fan splatterfest, was spine-gnawingly creepy. The isolation inflicted through the atmospheric gameplay was immense, and you felt caught in the hopeless aftermath of something profoundly abhorrent. And you really were. As you explored the cold metallic architecture of the ships, the hybridised corpses of former comrades wandered around in a state of confused psychosis. This was evident in their chilling soundbites such as, “What happened to me?” and, “They see you! Run…run!” However, these unfortunates soon became the least of your worries as you encountered escaped screaming lab monkeys, psychotic cyborg midwives (“Little ones need lots of meat to grow big and strong.”), ghastly arachnids and massive, bathroom-rampaging Rumblers. Additional stress came in the form of the ship’s security systems. Scrutinizing cameras could lead enemies to your location, meaning you had to sneak around, smash them, then locate and hack/shut-down the computers powering them. You could’ve done without all of this, as you also had a megalomaniacal artificial intelligence to contend with… (spoilers)

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“You felt caught in the hopeless aftermath of something profoundly abhorrent”In a masterstroke of a twist devised by lead designer Ken Levine, the person you thought was helping you through the maelstrom, Dr Polito, was already dead. SHODAN (Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network), the darkly sexy digital overlord, had been deceiving you from the beginning. This reveal was shocking. You weren’t a human helping another to safety anymore, you were the pawn of a greater power, manipulated by her will rather than mastering your own destiny, as was the norm in most games. It didn’t just feel like SHODAN had betrayed you, but that the entire game had, designers and all. Interestingly, this was actually a controversial decision from the development team’s standpoint, causing some friction amongst them, but gratefully, it remained uncompromised. After this gut-punch, you became forced into an uneasy alliance with SHODAN where you not only had to do her bidding, but also had to endure her grating taunts: “Look at you, hacker. A pathetic creature of meat and bone. Panting and sweating as you run through my corridors. How can you challenge a perfect immortal machine?” And the always welcome, “Your flesh is an insult to the perfection of the digital.”

Clearly, this sci-fi nightmare was all very horrible, but, of course, you were still compelled to uncover the truth and face down your arch-enemy. Said truth discovering was brilliantly handled by the location of audio-logs, emails, SHODAN’s discourse and the appearance of ghostly holograms that gradually told the back-story through chilling and well-written exposition rather than through conversation with NPCs.

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Your knowledge of the narrative’s formative events increased alongside the skills and attributes of your character. As you interacted with the object-rich world, you had to toggle a bi-modal interface (POV/Inventory), which was implemented by the devs in order to keep cursor-based inventory management with mouse-look exploration. The game’s RPG element allowed you to build up your stats across the relevant fields of weaponry, hacking, repairing and ‘psionic’ (mind-based) abilities. The choice of character enhancements meant players were offered quality replayability with a new skill-set should they desire to board the Rickenbacker once more, provided they hadn’t expired from weapon-repairing stress. Yes, good old weapon repairing – the bane of System Shock 2. Almost every time you used a gun, it would deteriorate before jamming and breaking, always as a lurching mutant closed in. This meant you had to either scavenge or pay an extortionate amount of nanites (in-game currency) for maintenance tools to keep your shooters working. The game was difficult anyway, with low ammo supplies and constant enemy respawns, but this infuriating repair factor really squelched your fizzog into the sputum-flange. Luckily, this abomination was patched and players could fire at Will, who was incidentally responsible for the whole mess anyway.

As you fumbled around like a blind mouse in a zombie cat-infested tube of horror, SHODAN would reward you for completing tasks by giving you cyber-modules to use at cyber-upgrade units, then take perverse delight as you became infused with cybernetic implants and in turn, less and less human. Then, finally, after the hours of terror and turmoil, your heart forever bearing a grudge against you for putting it through such torment, you engaged SHODAN in a climactic showdown . Charged with preventing her from subverting reality itself into cyberspace, you finally bested her before one of the greatest exchanges of dialogue ever conceived:

SHODAN: “I don’t understand… how could you have done this? You weren’t meant to be so important… and now you think to destroy me? How dare you, insect? How dare you interrupt my ascendance? You are nothing. A wretched bag of flesh… what are you, compared to my magnificence? But it is not too late… can you not see the value in our friendship? Imagine the powers I can give you, human. The cybernetic implants I gave you were simply toys. If I desired, I could improve you… transform you into something more efficient. Join me, human, and we can rule together.”

PLAYER: “Nah.”

And with that most brilliant casual response, you fired a shell into the incalculable-bitch-goddess and sent her to the infinity of oblivion…or so it seemed (MUHAHAHAHA!!! !).

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The legacy and influence of this gaming masterpiece can still be felt and seen in games today, over a decade later, which is a long stretch in video-game history. Irrational Games briefly morphed into Boston 2K and released the acclaimed Bioshock , so it was a pleasure to see it touted as a spiritual successor, with the similarities being explicit. Another game directly influenced by the title is EA’s dismemberment-fetishist’s wet dream, Dead Space , which competently combined various elements inspired by System Shock 2 (‘found’ back-story, plot/setting, enemies) with some nifty new ideas (innovative HUD, zero-gravity, limb-lopping).

System Shock 2 didn’t sell particularly well upon release, but it was correctly recognised as something extraordinary by both fans and critics, it’s regularly featured in ‘best games of all time’ lists and is justifiably considered one of the scariest games ever made. Its atmosphere has rarely, if ever, been rivalled and the innovations System Shock 2 brought to the genre shall always remain.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2009. Get in touch on Twitter @p_etew.

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