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System Shock

Entry updated 6 September 2019. Tagged: Game.

Videogame (1994). Looking Glass Studios (LG). Designed by Doug Church. Platforms: DOS (1994); Mac (1995).

System Shock is an early First Person Shooter much influenced by Computer Role Playing Games. It is set in a Cyberpunk world, with gameplay which combines puzzle solution, exploration and combat. Interestingly, the difficulty of the puzzles and the amount of combat can be set before starting the game, allowing players to choose the mix of action and Adventure they prefer. The game begins with the player character waking up from a medically induced coma, to find himself trapped on the Citadel space station with SHODAN, an insane female AI with plans for global domination. After being contacted by the station's owners on Earth, the player realizes they have no choice but to destroy the AI. This forces them to fight their way to its core, destroying or evading its Robot servants and the disturbing mutants that are all that remains of the crew after their exposure to mutagenic compounds. On occasion, the player also needs to enter Cyberspace using a neural implant, where they are opposed by hostile security programs. The plot has many twists; the player will repeatedly find themselves defeating one of SHODAN's plans to attack Earth, only to discover that the AI is preparing another and more dangerous weapon. As the player progresses through the game, the embedded story (see Interactive Narrative) of how SHODAN went rogue and took over Citadel is gradually revealed through log files. The player character, it emerges, unintentionally caused the AI's insanity while hacking into the station's systems six months earlier. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the game is the relationship that develops between the player and SHODAN, who watches them constantly and mocks them at every turn. While the interface can be clumsy, System Shock succeeds in immersing the player in its menacing world, in which their only contact with other humans comes through occasional terse messages from Earth and reading dead men's journals.

The sequel, System Shock 2 (1999, Irrational Games / LS, Win) designed by Ken Levine, has gameplay closer to that of a true CRPG. Notably, the player selects their character's skills in such areas as Psionics before the game begins, and then improves them during play. As in System Shock, the game starts with the player character regaining consciousness after surgery. In System Shock 2, however, the character is partially amnesiac, unable to remember the purpose of the operation. The setting is Earth's first Faster Than Light Starship, the von Braun, which is returning from a test voyage to Tau Ceti. It rapidly becomes apparent that the ship is badly damaged and the rest of the crew have been absorbed by a mutagenic organism which calls itself "The Many". The primary narrative, as in System Shock, is embedded, obtained from audio journals and the ghostly images of dead crew members, visible through the player character's Psionic implants. In System Shock 2, the horrors of the past are always present. As the game progresses, the player is contacted by an unseen presence which claims to be the sole survivor of the crew, and instructs them in how to deal with The Many. Ultimately it emerges that this is the voice of SHODAN, who escaped from Citadel Station before it was destroyed in the first game, aboard a pod containing samples of her mutagenic experiments. SHODAN eventually drifted into the Tau Ceti system, where her lifeboat was discovered by the von Braun. Subsequently the crew were absorbed by The Many, a Hive-Mind organism descended from the original contents of the pod. After achieving a position of power aboard the ship, SHODAN had the player character cybernetically enhanced as a weapon against The Many. SHODAN thus becomes the ultimate enemy, as she was in the first game. In System Shock, the player must destroy their character's creation; in System Shock 2, they must destroy the AI that made them what they are. While the first game is perhaps more intellectually interesting than the second, System Shock 2's horribly human monsters and dark, haunted atmosphere make it far more viscerally disturbing than the original. [NT]


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