I suppose, with recent announcement from GoG, it seems an appropriate time for me to bring my voice to speak about just why it is opinionated PC-gaming assholes in their thirties speak about System Shock 2 as it if was in fact Jesus Christ 2: This Time There’s Tits. I haven’t been thinking about this, and thanks to the challenge of emulation – not to mention the gigantic pile of games I have to work my way through as of this past year – this will mostly come from my remembering and imagination.
System Shock was one of those old-school videogame demos, where they just cut a single level of the normal game and expected you to muddle your way through it without the monster of a manual, making the demo yield a month of playtime just because the game was so fucking hard. It was complicated, too – planted somewhere between the Ultima Underworld and Shadowcaster model of control, before games like Doom had educated developers in how a simple control mechanism could improve the play experience. This game had modifications, text logs, videogames you could run on your own head, battery and energy systems that ran off your own body and regenerated from two different sources, drugs as powerups, a large variety of guns which didn’t have a unified ammunition system, an inventory system that was, to say the least, a pain in the arse, individually tailored weapon upgrades with weapon systems, the ability to lean around corners and three stages of crouching, the ability to look and aim independently, mouse-aiming, drawbacks, addictions, hacking, psychic abilities, and I shit you not, this was all in the demo. Would it be explained?
Would it hell! System Shock wasn’t here to impress you! Well, okay, yes, it was, and yes it did, with real 3D levels, secrets all over the place, a dreadful, interesting post-apocalyptic plot, tons of reading, and a truly balls-tightening sense of atmosphere. I still hold up the moment I walked towards a generator room as one of the scariest moments I ever felt in a videogame – and it wasn’t with the lights out and all that malarkey. No: As I walked down a blocky, ugly corridor, zombie blood on my boots and wrench, suddenly, both my communication screens were seized by the now-iconic image of SHODAN’s face, and my interface was treated to the one-line message:
Now, I was probably only about twelve at the time, but I swear I damn near shat my pants, turned my character around and RAN.
It didn’t matter what happened thereafter. SHODAN had, in the same way as Jessica Rabbit and Nargun of the Stars, burned itself in my consciousness. From thereon, in my life, when my religious mind tried to grapple with the idea of a near-omnipotent but distant force that hated me, that wanted to kill me, what I would later realise was the compartment for a dark and dreadful god, it was her. It was SHODAN.
I don’t want to talk too much about System Shock 2 without playing it properly, recently. Talking about the surrounding details about the game, though, talking about the impact the storytelling is, to my mind a better thing. It might be I’m blinded by nostalgia, astounded by one of the boogeymen of my childhood rising up from under my bed and finding me as an adult. I can’t tell you if the game stands up, but I can reassure you: This game is atmospheric, dark, crushingly hard, and absolutely worth your time.