System Shock : Your flesh is an insult to the perfection of the digital.
The System Shock Kickstarter is getting a lot of attention, and deservedly so. Having a pre-alpha demo available for play on the day it was started, it seeks to assuage trepidation over similar projects that have left much to be desired in terms of transparency.
Most of the articles published about it focus on the demo, however the System Shock franchise has a rich and storied history which deserves to be told. With that in mind, let’s travel all the way back to 1994.
Thematically, System Shock was very much in-line with culture of the time : A faceless corporation named ‘Tri-Optimum’ created both Citadel Station and SHODAN.
The story begins with ‘The Hacker’ causing some mischief on TriOp’s systems and getting caught. An unscrupulous executive by the name of Edward Diego gives the Hacker a tempting offer : Charges will go away, even being fitted with a military grade cybernetic implant. The catch? Remove ethical constraints from a system known as SHODAN, or Sentient Hyper Optimized Data Access Network that runs the orbiting Citadel space station.
System Shock pioneered the concept of pervasive isolation in games that has been seen in other recent games like Doom. You have no real allies, the only inhabitants are the grotesque array of monsters and cyborgs SHODAN sends after you to do her bidding. You are offered brief hope of allies with a group of survivors on the Flight Deck, but those hopes are soon dashed. We see this in numerous other games in the Shock series, starting with System Shock 2.
Another element is finding audio-logs. You have a ‘live’ ally in Rebecca Lansing from Earth and associated engineers, but they offer only advice, and are at times thwarted from communicating with you by SHODAN. The logs you find are from the dead or mutated crew of Citadel, giving background on the ghastly story unfolding before you.
We also see ‘proto’ scripted events in SHODAN making live communications with you when you move against her, entering a CPU Room or other forbidden area, with ‘Welcome to my Death Machine, interloper!’ being a more memorable one. In describing part of the System Shock gameplay as ‘playing practical jokes on the player while blaming SHODAN for them’, the original developers definitely knew how to wield increasing frustration as a gameplay mechanic.
While ‘cyberspace’ mechanics were ditched in the sequel, they were also very much indicative of the perception of the world of the wired at the time, with wire frames and polygons galore as you navigate and perform tasks such as deactivating locks in cyberspace so you can open doors in the real world. A fairly well-done mechanic, but the switching between cyber and real can definitely be jarring.
Further on the topic of game play mechanics, System Shock was nothing short of revolutionary. Looking Glass Studios gave us many memorable games such as Thief : The Dark Project, so the innovations are really no surprise. Doug Church came fresh off of working on Ultima Underworld, so you will see many familiar aspects such as the overall look of the 3D engine as well as the aforementioned found documents mechanic.
Control wise, the lack of mouselook will definitely put off a large contingent of modern gamers. Luckily, the excellent System Shock Enhanced version currently on Steam, created by the same folks behind the Kickstarter (NightDive Studios) adds that feature. As someone who suffered through the original control scheme, it’s a nice and necessary add.
Otherwise though, we see many things we now take for granted : Different stances (crouch/prone), leaning around corners. A wide assortment of items and weapons, different ‘boosters’ which will temporarily enhanced abilities like running and melee attacks. A unique mechanic is the Med Patches (essentially a small health boost), which don’t take effect immediately but take some time to bring your health up fully. As you might imagine, in a firefight, you may find yourself burning through these patches as to not meet an untimely end. There are large, instant Health packs, but these are obviously far more scarce.
On the topic of Health, I would be remiss if we didn’t cover the Cyborg Conversion / Healing chambers. SHODAN, in her infinite wisdom decided to convert these stations to create cyborgs instead of healing people. This plays into the narrative, seeing logs describing hapless crew unknowingly turning themselves into cyborgs. Flip a switch, and these are back to healing, which ends up being a ‘checkpoint’ system on a level. You will be revived after death if you’ve flipped the switch.
They are essentially the same as the nano-molecular reconstruction chamber in System Shock 2, and the Vita Chambers in Bioshock. The latter has been heavily criticized for making Bioshock too easy, but in a game like System Shock with no auto-save, I consider them an appropriate mechanic.
System Shock offers standard save-game functionality, and you will use it a lot as once permanently ‘dead’ you are kicked back to the title screen. It is very much part of the ‘old’ philosophy towards games of not hand-holding players.
The user interface was predicated heavily on the concept of ‘MFD’ or Multi Function Display, different areas of the screen can be switched out for different purposes. The square for reading logs also can double as a weapon reload MFD, and others. Draggable items also play an important role, double clicking on an item in the environment puts it in your ‘hand’, and you can then drag it to your inventory, or discard it. Some may find this cumbersome, others may consider it a welcome respite from the ‘walk over something and you pick it up’ mechanic. As always, limited inventory plays a role, but you’ll find generally the scarcity of items makes this not a concern in most situations. The auto-map is fairly straightforward, but can also be displayed in a MFD so you don’t have to switch between a full-screen map and the game.
The weapons are mostly standard fare, energy weapons, guns, throwable grenades, etc. The type of weapon is something to consider during gameplay : Gas grenades are unlikely to work on Warrior Cyborgs, and conversely don’t expect an EMP blast to do away with a mutated humanoid. Different ammo types follow this concept as well.
There are many puzzles and mini-games, most being pretty straightforward : Rewiring circuits to open a door, cross-connecting wires to activate a force bridge. Few games had done this previously, so it was a welcome addition to what might have otherwise been a rather simple first-person shooter.
SHODAN has a pervasive influence, taunting you at every opportunity. Security cameras scattered throughout each level contribute to a ‘SHODAN Security Level’ ranked as a percentage. On each level, a CPU node room contains the lion’s share of the security level, but you must also be cognizant of the cameras and destroy them. Certain areas in the level will only be accessible once security is below a certain percentage, so these contribute to the game-play versus just the psychological aspect of always being watched.
As far as enemies go, SHODAN throws a wide assortment of them at you, ranging from simple mutated humanoids all the way to a heavily cybernetic-ally enhanced ‘avatar’, the identity of which I won’t mention as it’s a fairly large spoiler. Even this avatar taunts you, underscoring the theme of man vs man-created machines present in the game. Overall the enemies deal damage on par with their stature, you are more likely to survive an attack by the mundane mutants than the terrifying, gigantic Cortex Reavers.
The sound effects in the game are well done, to say the least. Audio logs are clear, sound effects are authentic and pronounced, and even the music is remarkable for the time. I enjoy the techno beats of the System Shock 2 soundtrack far more, but System Shock’s ambient music is still pleasant to listen to.
System Shock is generally linear : ‘Quests’ follow in order, and are fairly straightforward. Your first will be to destroy a mining laser which threatens to destroy Earth, and other quests follow the theme of intervening before SHODAN unleashes something terrible on the oblivious inhabitants of Earth below. You get help and advice from TriOp and clues from audio logs to guide you. For me, it’s a perfect balance of ‘give the player some idea of what to do’ without hand-holding. Bioshock Infinite’s ‘objective arrow’ is more or less the opposite of System Shock’s subtle pointers.
There does exist some choice, mainly leading to the termination of your escapade. Certain courses of action, such as firing the mining laser without completing the appropriate destruct process will end the game, with SHODAN congratulating you for saving her some time. A must for completists, and those who can’t get enough of SHODAN taunting you.
SHODAN has emerged as one of the most memorable and frightening villians in video gaming history : She has contempt for all humanity, with limitless intelligence and the resources to bend seemingly everything to her will. Pervasive taunting with remarkable writing for the time, you will hear about just how much she despises you and your race. She will interfere with your journey at every opportunity, frustrating even the most ideal plans to defeat her. The transformation from the cheerful, automated assistant to a malignant intelligence with her trademark vocal aberrations gives her an iconic standing in gaming history. When someone quotes ‘L-L-Look at you hacker’, you know instantly they are talking about the Machine Mother, as she is sometimes called.
In closing, I’d like to opine that System Shock’s story doesn’t get nearly enough credit : Representing apprehension about ‘Cyber’ and the growing power of corporations of the day, it weaves together a compelling story. Revolutionary game play aspects which are now taken for granted were pioneered by System Shock, and Ken Levine points to the team ‘not knowing what was impossible’ as a driving force behind all the unique gameplay aspects.
While there is no doubt it looks, and plays in certain respects in a ‘dated’ fashion, it’s a unique experience to say the least. I would highly recommend grabbing the ‘Enhanced’ edition from Steam, the addition of mouse-look makes it fairly accessible to any gamer. Seriously, go get it. You don’t want to upset SHODAN, h-h-hacker.