The most frightening video game ever made, and one of the least known. System Shock 2 occurred during a particularly turbulent era of video game evolution, when the likes of Half Life, Deus Ex and myriad others were redefining what video games were capable of in terms of narrative and world building.
A quiet release from the now defunct Looking Glass studios, System Shock 2 was the child of talents who would later go on to create the industry-shattering BioShock and BioShock: Infinite, games which owe more than a little to System Shock in terms of their atmosphere, mechanics and the manner in which their respective narratives are communicated. But whereas the BioShock titles tend to preoccupy themselves with metaphorical explorations of certain notions and ideologies, System Shock has only one agenda on its mind: to scare the player utterly witless, which it succeeds at more aptly than any game I have ever played.
Set aboard the city-scale star ship, the Von Braun, System Shock 2 picks up some years after the original game's conclusion, in which the dominant Tri-Optimim corporation dominates practically every market, industry and political structure on the planet. The Von Braun is the latest and most ambitious venture into space travel humanity has ever attempted; what is supposed to be Tri-Optimum's crowning glory. As an anonymous soldier sent to serve on the Von Braun's security detail, you awake from “cryo-sleep” to find that something has, inevitably, gone wrong: the ship is a wreck, entire areas deserted, running on automated systems, others sealed off where hull breaches have occurred. You have no memory of recent events, but have been surgically outfitted with a number of military grade cybernetic enhancements. A survivor of whatever catastrophe has occurred, Doctor Janice Polito, contacts you from the ship's science deck, guiding you through the early portions of the game.
Despite being graphically crude even upon its original release, the game immediately bleeds atmosphere; the setting fraught and claustrophobic, lights failing, steam issuing from ruptured pipes, the entire structure resonating with strange sounds; screams, whispers, sputterings.
Sound is highly significant in this game, more than making up for its graphical crudity; not only are there myriad environmental cues which serve to enhance the player's sense of isolation and paranoia (the clicking of security cameras, the clanking of service and security droids...the organic squelch and shrieks of the creatures infesting the ship). Not only is sound merely a passive or atmospheric factor, but, for arguably one of the earliest instances in video game history, the player must actively make use of it: enemies are intelligent and sensory beings; they respond to your footsteps, your gun fire; if you throw some item of rubbish across the playing space. This makes tactical combat and stealthy approaches to encounters the order of the day, arguably more so than any first person title of the era, beyond Looking Glass's now iconic Thief series. It also serves to heighten player tension to ridiculous extremes; you become hyper aware that you can be heard and sensed, even when the enemies cannot see you or you cannot see them. A consistent state of paranoia reigns, especially since many of the enemy's own expressions are masked by or resemble the natural sounds of the ship. It is very easy indeed to jump at shadows in this game, or the sudden venting of a steam pipe, the crackle of nearby circuitry. Each creature and entity aboard the Von Braun also has its own particular range of expressions, from the zombie-like hybrids (who constantly mutter and growl a range of phrases to themselves and one another) to the chittering, hooting, arachnids (arguably the most terrifying enemies in the game).
Not only does sound serve environmentally, but the story is communicated almost exclusively via voice recordings and data logs; a system that would later be carried over to the BioShock series. Voice acting and writing are superb throughout, the player encountering a number of fragmented sub-plots that span the entire ship and which detail the history of the Von Braun and what happened to reduce it to its current state: even though most of them are never met, the player becomes familiar with certain key characters (Captains William Bedford Diego and Anatoly Korenchkin, Doctor Janice Polito and Security Sergeant Bronsen), all of whom are extremely well developed and occupy differing or conflicting positions on the situation (Captain Korenchkin, for example, is one of those entirely assimilated by the collective entities known as “The Many,” and who comes to regard them as beautiful; a means by which his species can transcend itself; to do away with “..the tyranny of the individual.”). Many of these audio logs range from the distressing to the utterly terrifying, those infected by the worm-like parasites that constitute “The Many” audibly transforming over a series of entries, to the point whereby they lose themselves entirely, becoming monsters, or murdering themselves before they can). Of particular note in this slowly accruing back story is that the game takes great pains to explore how absorption into “The Many” is not necessarily undesirable; that those (like Korenchkin) who surrender to it find a state of joy and expansion of consciousness that is almost metaphysical; all parameters of self, of division, dissolve, to the point whereby they become one with all who have ever become part of the mass; a collective flesh and consciousness, against which their former, separate states are nothing.
Weighed against this are those who consistently defy “The Many;” security Sergeant Bronsen and her staff, Janice Polito and the player character, with whom “The Many” directly communicates on occasion, in some of the most distressing encounters one can find in horror video gaming.
Oh, and SHODAN. The long-standing icon of the System Shock series, SHODAN (Sentient Hyper-Optimised Data Access Network) is a rogue artificial intelligence and the creator of “The Many.” However, having grown somewhat annoyed by the “unruly” nature of her creations, SHODAN contacts and enlists you as the player character as an avatar of her will. Not only is SHODAN a uniquely terrifying entity (a thing of pure ego, regarding herself as a goddess), but she provides an interesting ideological counter-balance to “The Many;” whereas they are flesh, togetherness; the ultimate dissolution of self and ego, she is the opposite: technology, ego, singularity. If there is a fault in the game, it is that the player character does not have much element of choice when exploring these factors; it would have been fantastic to have the option to choose where your loyalties lie; to side with Korenchkin and “The Many” against SHODAN and her technology or vice versa (alongside the option to side with neither).
As it stands, the game does peter out towards the end, as is generally the way with most horror titles, but while it sustains, stands as one of the most immersive, engaging, consistently horrifying pieces you will find in video gaming.
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