Revisiting … System Shock 2

System Shock 2 System Shock 2 (Article) Header
Format: PC
Developer: Irrational Games / Looking Glass / Night Dive Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: FPS / RPG / Survival Horror
Release Date: 1999
By: Staff


Within gaming’s pantheon of revered, foundational experiences, few are as revered and perhaps misunderstood as System Shock 2. Although its sales failed to elevate it to blockbuster status, its horror-based gameplay nevertheless helped to pioneer many ideas that have since been adopted throughout the industry. Appropriately enough, few have mastered their nuances quite like designer Ken Levine, who’s since explored them more fully throughout BioShock and his most recent effort, BioShock: Infinite. Playing through this groundbreaking title anew on modern computers, thanks to a distribution deal with (Good Old Games), is a reflective experience both literally and figuratively.

To once again behold its creativity and innovation first-hand, so many years after 1999 when it landed on shelves and hard drives everywhere, is to marvel anew at its audacity and to feel echoed backwards through time its full impact on the very face of the first-person shooter genre. It’s an astonishing experience, truly, not because it holds up exceedingly well—though it acquits itself quite well—but because it illuminates the full range of influences that its efforts continue to produce to this day, and how finely Levine has honed these tools to create successively important worlds.

To discuss System Shock 2 is to first discuss its plot of many insidious horrors. Aboard the Von Braun, a spaceship adrift among the stars, you’ve awoken prematurely from cryogenic sleep to discover your shipmates are largely either dead or mutated into some sort of monstrous abominations. It’s up to you to engage in a long series of tasks throughout this structure in order to reach the mysterious and stern Dr. Polatli, who verbally guides you in these errands in your goal to eventually reach her so that you can both escape.

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This is a storyline that should ring more than a few bells for any modern gamer, and not because it’s an enervated, violent riff on the “haunted house” trope that’s borrowed so well from Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise. It’s also the very same template that’s applied so expertly to the BioShock series, which appropriates this exact structure for each of its iterations, whether it’s set on the ocean floor or amongst the clouds. Of course, the broader themes change over each of the BioShock games, from objectivism to collectivism to theocracy and a host of other issues, but the base concept of “hero seeks escape from isolated, broken society” serves as a solid foundation for each.

It’s not until you settle back into System Shock 2 after many years away that you also notice it’s been spiritually adopted nearly wholesale by other games, most notably Dead Space. In this modern classic, you’re trapped aboard a spaceship that’s gone adrift after the crew has been mutated into horrific, murderous creatures thanks to a mysterious artifact and the influence of a dark religion—sound familiar? Of course, its core gameplay of jump-scares and limb-slicing veers from the core experience of System Shock 2, but the story is virtually identical. As is the case with the BioShock titles, however, it’s a testament to the craft of the developers that it manages to feel like its own story despite making such thorough use of another.

In playing through System Shock 2, it’s also interesting to observe that the means with which its story is communicated to the player has since been copied not only by its own creators but by the larger gaming community. To allow the player to participate fully in the rich backstory, and to fully appreciate the tragedy and chaos of the ship’s downfall, the game offered a series of audio logs littered throughout the Von Braun’s nooks and crannies. They illustrated the crew’s personalities, their relationships, and most importantly, their hideous and gradual transformation from a flawed expedition to a jabbering mass of humanity doomed to death or mutation. Without these characterizations, your time within System Shock 2 would seem a purely mechanical endeavour, albeit a still-terrifying one. Instead, these touches give meaning to your fight, and more importantly, provide pathos to your barely human foes. It’s an important, effective tool which had its fair share of predecessors—e.g., the books littered throughout Baldur’s Gate—but it was here that it was honed in such a way that provided genuine emotion and immediacy to your efforts.

It’s no coincidence then that the same application of the technique became prevalent in subsequent FPS titles striving for the same levels of pervasive atmosphere. Interestingly, the majority have been within games attempting to convey dystopian or simply broken societies, including System Shock 2’s spiritual successors BioShock 1, 2, and Infinite, which sussed out their own excuse for an old-timey, era-appropriate equivalent. Outside of the Levine universe, it’s perhaps appropriate that it’s made the greatest mark in games like Dead Space, which already borrows incredibly liberally from System Shock for plot and theme. Even Dishonored—whose terrifically implemented teleportation powers makes Infinite’s skyhook system feel somewhat familiar at first—takes this approach and runs with it quite enthusiastically, offering not only voice recordings but also books and overheard conversations. Indeed, the latter item is something that’s also used in Infinite, perhaps proving that borrowed ideas can come full circle after all.

It’s worth noting that System Shock 2 is, above all, a game. This may sound astoundingly self-evident, but unlike its successors, this title is perhaps most concerned with the direct gameplay experience, rather than the social or personal commentary buried within its talk of horrific physical assimilation. Instead, it presents a heavy RPG-style action-adventure that weaves atmosphere with a wide variety of complex and unforgiving gaming mechanics. In fact, the game wears its role-playing influences on its sleeve, as the game opens by offering you multiple paths for your military background which in turn dictate your starting statistics, not unlike the Ultima and Elder Scrolls games. These statistics weigh heavily throughout your time on the Von Braun, as they very precisely affect what you can and cannot do, and delineate in a very unforgiving way the range of abilities you have at your disposal. The combat skill tree allows for use of heavy weapons, while the engineering path makes you a wizard at hacking computers and security systems. There’s also a resource-intensive psionic path, a superpower-style tree very much akin to the plasmids and vigors of its successors. While the BioShock games provide you with enough resources to cover almost all of your genetic abilities and weapon upgrades over time, System Shock 2 broaches no such populism; if you fail to fully commit your upgrade points to your chosen path of either combat talents, engineering talents, or psionic powers, you dilute your talents and will likely end up quite thoroughly underpowered and quite dead mid-way through the game. Of course, there is some necessary overlap between the three, as some basic skills in weapon repair are mandatory unless you wish to drive yourself mad with guns that perpetually break and jam. These statistics are just part of the larger tapestry of mechanics that System Shock 2 asks you to puzzle out and adapt to as you play, including research and inventory management. Moreover, for all the game’s intense atmosphere and engaging story, it is a tale told for its own sake, purely for the purpose of entertainment rather than edification; while there are references to collectivism, they are entirely within the service of horror and not commentary.

Conversely, it could be argued that its successors—as brilliant as they are—have much greater focus on storytelling. This may well be the result of its change in format, what PC gamers refer to as the “consolification” or simplification of a gaming experience in order to make it playable for console audiences (for the most egregious example, see Deus Ex: Invisible War, with its significantly smaller areas and stripped-down gameplay mechanics). With its convoluted interface, System Shock 2 would be nigh unplayable on consoles, and so it’s not unconceivable that the concessions involved in BioShock and its sequels were simply about rewiring the players’ brains to focus on the tale being told, instead of on the gameplay proper. Indeed, this is the case as you traipse throughout Rapture and Columbia; aside from powers, weapons, and assorted modifiers, the BioShocks seem less concerned about forcing you to understand its mechanics and more about understanding its world and the messages it conveys. This is of course not to demean the heavy conflicting themes of religion and individuality that System Shock 2 puts forward, as they can be taken at face value or as deeper statements on personal belief and identity. They are, however, perhaps more peripheral and less integral, with its perspectives standing a clear second to its gameplay.

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There could be and indeed has been no small amount of argument as to whether the simplification of these systems has been harmful or helpful. Streamlining with an eye on efficiency is crucial for the improvement of any system, and the argument can certainly be made that the “research cameras” in BioShock 1 and 2 are a step up from having to hunt down and make room for individual chemicals in storage closets throughout the husk of a baddie-filled ship, as is the case in System Shock 2. While the plasmids and gear of its successors provide more of an RPG vibe than is present in most modern FPS games, they’re still considerably stripped down from the intensity of their predecessor. As before, this certainly allows for the world and the commentary to be a much more present element of the experience, something that was less of a concern aboard the Von Braun when the most salient commentary—though utterly horrifying—was simply, “Stay alive.”

The evolution of the series’ approach over time, then, has been incremental but nevertheless dramatic. Whereas System Shock 2 could easily be seen as the progenitor, with its defined setting, structure, and whispers of thematic leanings, BioShock took a bold approach to its perceived strengths and weaknesses with a streamlined interface, slimmer RPG elements, and heavier intellectual messages. Infinite takes that a step further, with an even more simplified take on RPG-style customization, a much stronger focus on story, and an even heavier hand with regards to its themes, which are greater, broader, and better integrated.

In many ways, Levine has been remaking System Shock 2 since he created the original. BioShock 1 is a direct callback to that earlier game, and BioShock: Infinite is a direct callback to its original namesake (we will, for the sake of this discussion, ignore the generally entertaining BioShock 2, which nevertheless was made by a different team, and whose improvements are mechanical and not thematic). Over the course of 14 years, Levine has toiled over the exact same generalized emotional and mechanical core in one form or another. Arguably, his greatest accomplishment across the continuum of these games is how each one builds upon the layers of its predecessors to produce experiences that are similar but identifiably unique.

Some have argued that these are less about “variations on a theme” as they are “reproductions of a theme,” and in looking at the surface or structure of each game, it’s difficult to argue otherwise. In each one, the protagonist is trapped in a society that has utterly collapsed—Von Braun, Rapture, Columbia—and it’s your job as the player to guide them to their Point A to Point B to Point C before finding their escape. In all three cases, its denizens have been subjected to significant body horror, their forms altered—alien virus, plasmids, vigors—and their energies directed at ending your life as quickly as possible.

However, in each case, the hard, metallic structure offered by System Shock 2 is warped and bent to different purposes, creating in each case something distinct. With BioShock, the Von Braun became the underwater city of Rapture, with its haunting, claustrophobic visuals built not into a ship but into a city, whose people are in decay thanks to the philosophical and moral failures of its rulers; it became more than a “game” but rather a story to be experienced and debated, though it retained its own “rug out from under you” twist, which to many defined System Shock 2. Infinity takes all of this a significant step further, bringing its thematic focus even more strongly to the fore as it further simplifies its gameplay, all while retaining the requisite brain-melting twist.

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In the end, then, to admire the towering achievement that is BioShock: Infinite is to admire BioShock is to admire System Shock 2. While most of modern FPS gaming has happily plundered its bones, none have truly seized its heart, though many have come close; the rich treasure trove of atmosphere-building tools it wielded so expertly have since emerged throughout the genre, but its penchant for intellectual proselytization amongst the gunplay has largely been left to the wayside. The few games that have stood out for even trying, such as Spec Ops: The Line, have been noted as ambitious failures, a distinction that speaks to Levine’s growing skill in weaving intelligent discourse with bloody death-dealing. Generationally, each of his iterations has built upon the last, each ostensibly about a strong, atmospheric sort of horror that has moved over time from a focus on complex gameplay to increasingly complex and rich storytelling.

All of which is to say that System Shock 2 remains a monolith of game design that remains crucial and foundational for the FPS genre, and indeed for the future of gaming as a whole. While violence as a vehicle for storytelling may seem like an unavoidable element of the medium, System Shock 2—as well as the BioShock titles it spawned—uses it in a way that seems necessary due to failure of leadership and morality and philosophy, allowing for a deeper exploration of any number of ideas. As mainstream gaming continues its struggle to mature beyond its status as pure entertainment and into something more meaningful, it seems easy to see that the effort first put forth by Ken Levine and his team back in 1999 are at the heart of the closest things we’ve seen to achieving success on that front. Its revival as a playable item on modern systems is a revelation, and while it might not pack the same punch today as it once did, this is only because its long-standing impact on the industry has been so thoroughly pervasive. In its current form, System Shock 2 remains a fascinating piece of gaming history, a master class in atmosphere, and a damn fine game in its own right.

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