Week o’ Scares Day 7: System Shock 2By Yannick LeJacq | October 30, 2011 | Features | No comments | Share
“Remember that it is my will that guided you here. It is my will that gave you your cybernetic implants, the only beauty in that meat you call a body. If you value that meat, you will do as I tell you.”
Games, we either rejoice or lament, seem to take many of their cues from film. This seems particularly alluring for horror games given the visual and aural power upon which many games seem to rest. But as I remarked several weeks ago in an article about the subject, this can often lead to hopelessly awkward results. There were many moments in Doom when I would accidentally be looking in the wrong direction before noticing that some scary monster was pounding down the door at the other end of the room. I grew so accustomed to the inanimate necromorphs in Dead Space that I started chipping away at them long before they ever had any opportunity to scare me. F.E.A.R, for me, felt like a reskinned version of Call of Duty with a cameo appearance from the little girl from The Ring.
This is not to say that these games were not good, or even great. But playing them felt like I was approaching a strange, indescribable impasse. Games seemed bent on becoming more visually stunning and self-consciously cinematic, but in doing so, they were holding themselves to a bizarre and self-defeating artistic standard. Inviting the comparison to film so readily suddenly turned the meaningful differences of games into glaring shortcomings. Trying to control player perspective would always frustrate gamers, productively or not. And horror, a genre that is largely predicated on an animalistic sense of terror at the realization of our own innate impotence as small, weak, and often insensate creatures, seems to stand deliberately at odds with genres of games that allow you to embody hulking and impossible hunky protagonists who carry inhuman amounts of firepower with the grace and finesse of a ballerina.
“What is a drop of rain, compared to the storm? What is a thought, compared to a mind? Our unity is full of wonder, which your tiny individualism cannot even conceive.”
Trying to describe System Shock 2 doesn’t make it sound all that different at first. You play a nameless protagonist who carries around large guns and gives himself inhuman powers through tiny battery-like devices known as “cybernetic implants.” While the game’s aesthetic and design are ambitious, the graphics are so clunky that fans of the series have often implemented their own upgrades. The game requires a good deal of patience to play on modern computers and operating systems (to save you some time, try downloading a Mod Manager and some patches at a community website, which allowed me to run the game with occasional crashes but great performance). And, by modern FPS standards, the action can feel like a slow and blocky exercise in strafing.
“We do not know death… only change. We cannot kill each other without killing ourselves. Is your vision… so small… that you cannot see the value of our way?”
So why am I even talking about System Shock 2 when I could be mentioning Resident Evil, Fatal Frame, Silent Hill, or any other of a long list of potential games that fit in more seamlessly than some of the other games we’ve been discussing this week? Because, to me, this game represents the potential of horror games, not just horror stories with interactive elements. Irrational Games realized something important with System Shock 2. Instead of relying on excessive gore and overtly scripted sequences (the often maligned “monster closets” of horror games) to shock the player, gameplay could instead induce an emotional mindset so persuasive that introducing even the slightest visual cues can become overwhelmingly terrifying. This is the beauty of System Shock 2: the horror of its isolation.
For a large sci-fi universe, the setting of System Shock 2 is relatively small. Most of the game takes place on the Von Braun, a spaceship that, in classic sci-fi horror form, was sent light years from earth to gather precious minerals that—whoops!—invite a zombie-inducing parasitic organism into the ship’s humans. Your first and primary contact is with Dr. Janice Polito, a surviving crewmember who sends your instructions. Soon after, however, a disembodied chorus of voices begins speaking to you. Their talk is gibberish about babies, metal, and the glory of the flesh. You try to ignore it and calm your nerves. But in the loneliness your player character finds himself stranded as he winds slowly through the hastily deserted offices and corridors of the ship, this line of communication hammers home the reality of your weakness, your isolation, and ultimately your ignorance of the larger design in which you suddenly and uncontrollably find yourself enmeshed.
“Your time is running out. This place is a womb, where we grow our future. Your weapons fail, your ammunition runs low, and you’ve yet to see our most beautiful creation. All you have is your hatred, and your… individuality. Now don’t you wish you joined us? Would you then feel so alone?”
What System Shock 2 compromises with its graphics, then, it makes up for with its atmosphere. Levels are claustrophobic and tightly wired mazes that make you feverishly switch back and forth to the map and your inventory to find ways around large turrets and security cameras. The voice acting and sound are stellar even by today’s standards. Enemies cry out in anger and anguish as they stalk through the levels. The sudden whine of metal grating on metal, the cough or murmur of some demented crew member, the soft plod of footsteps nearly indistinguishable from the hum of the ship leave you breathless as you try to escape or, failing that, find whatever it is that’s hunting you before it finds you. The clatter of your footsteps in the ship’s dense hallways ring out in a staccato rhythm just fast enough to suggest your character’s panic.
The Illusion of Player Agency
“Babies must sleep. Babies must rest. Wise is the one who does not waken them. Leave this place now, or we will wound you… as you have us.”
There is, of course, another way that games can be uniquely disturbing, and that is by forcing players to perform actions otherwise deemed reprehensible. This is why we find characters like God of War’s Kratos so captivating even though we know we shouldn’t really like him. Today, critics and gamers often celebrate the presence of function of meaningful choice in games to such an extent that the ability to do incredibly mundane (read: boring) tasks has suddenly become a required feature of many “open-world” experiences.
Irrational Games realized something important with System Shock 2. Instead of relying on excessive gore and overtly scripted sequences to shock the player, gameplay could induce an emotional mindset so persuasive that introducing even the slightest visual cues can become overwhelmingly terrifying.
Perhaps this is part of the fantasy that makes games alluring for so many players. But fear is registered at the loss of control rather than through its admission. The terror of playing Manhunt doesn’t come strictly from the power the game gives you to murder in a manner so gratuitous and pornographic, it comes from the weakness you are demonstrating by following the director’s orders so completely.
System Shock 2 subverts any notion of player agency. As you continue to follow the lead of Dr. Janice Polito’s radio messages, the voices around you grown more strained and desperate. They threaten you, but then they begin to bargain. They ask you to leave their babies to rest when you walk into a batch of unhatched eggs. They implore you not to follow the instructions of “the metal mother.” You find tapes and messages scrawled on the wall telling you something more sinister is at work, but Polito rushes you along. You continue to destroy these apparent monsters unabated, but their shouts and taunts, you begin to realize, are cries for help. But still you continue.
Fear in games is different than fear in literature or film, it is an anxiety that you have made the wrong choice, tread down the wrong path past the ephemeral comfort of a save point. And ultimately it is a fear, System Shock 2 reveals in a stunning moment, that perhaps there isn’t some mythic horde of zombies that you can simply eradicate to do away with all evil. Evil might be something far more complex than we can hope to understand.
System Shock 2 forces its players to reconsider their own role and agency in a form that commonly defines itself through the overwhelming solipsistic fantasy of empowerment. As a horror game, it is the only game I have played that was procedurally disturbing by the very structure of its gameplay and story. Like its contemporary, Deus Ex, System Shock 2 is hailed as a revolution for the first person shooter. But also like Deus Ex, few games seem to have followed in its footsteps. Hopefully more horror games will start learning from Irrational in the future.