Jon Gracey's

Games That Rocked My World – #4: System Shock 2

In PC, Steam on October 3, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Title: System Shock 2

Format: PC, Steam

Released: August, 1999

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2114. Experimental starship, the Von Braun. Flickering lights. Echoing silence. Desolate corridors, empty but for the bloodstains. A former crewmate rounds the corner, neck swollen and contorted by an alien parasite, swiping metal piping into your face whilst gargling the words: “Kill me.”

System Shock 2 is the scariest game I have ever played. I was fourteen when it came out, which certainly put me in an impressionable position when it came to horror. This was slap-bang in the middle of the film/sleepover era, which despite flirting with many genres, was most at home with horror. We’d often rent a terrible action film to laugh at the dialogue, or a dreadful martial arts number to check out the bad-ass moves – and to laugh at the dialogue – but for me it was always horror that worked best. We’d all be camped out downstairs, often in a rural Essex farmhouse conversion – which was a brilliant setting for scares in itself – and after pizza and videogames, we’d bust out the sleeping bags, gather round the TV, and fire up a scary film.

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Be it Silence Of The Lambs, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or The Exorcist, it was always a thrilling group activity to get immersed in a genuinely chilling horror film, watching even your most hardened of mates duck behind their sleeping bag with a yelp when Leatherface comes tearing out of the trees, chainsaw screaming in fury.

But there was always the comfort of company. Despite the roaring of the wind and the shaking of the trees outside seeming like the tapping movements of countless potential serial killers on the frosted windows, we’d always laugh and share the experience as a unit. That didn’t stop my mate Robbie waiting until I’d gone to the toilet at 1am after we’d stayed up to watch Event Horizon to jump out at me shouting “WEIR!!” at the top of his voice until I practically voided my bowels, whilst he danced around me cackling at his victory – but regardless of such events, horror films always made us a team, bringing us closer together whilst whatever imperceptible menace lurked beyond four walls of the living room, impotent to touch us. Horror games, on the other hand, were by necessity a more solitary experience.

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I love playing games with mates. Single or multiplayer. Nothing beats working out a puzzle with your friend giving tips over your shoulder, pointing out a button you’ve missed, indicating a sniper you need to pick off, helping you beat the odds together. For some this may sound like a faux pas up there with backseat driving, but I love it. Yet horror is such a personal beast. It’s all about isolation; the frightened few pitted against unimaginable odds. Survivors splitting up time and again, even though you yell at them to stick together as they explore the Haunted Funfair above the Indian Burial Ground next to that Abandoned Children’s Hospital where those scientists conducted arcane experiments using that Animal Graveyard by the Spooky Old House where that old woman died and those teenagers summoned a demon last summer…you get the idea. Isolation is scary.

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Games are well positioned to capitalise on this. A good narrative-based game should be an absorbing solo experience. You inhabit the character, the controller in your hands acting as the go-between for their movements and choices. And if a game plays its cards right, their peril becomes your peril. I recently re-played the original Resident Evil, and it actually plays like a classic horror game. By this I don’t quite mean it’s the gaming equivalent of watching a classic horror film; in some ways the comparison is moot, because the media are totally different, in the same way reading a scary book is a different (yet similar) experience from watching a scary play. Yet Resident Evil has the feel of a genre-defining piece that, despite having been bettered in so many ways technically, still has the power to genuinely frighten and unsettle when it counts, even if you know where the big scares are coming.

This comes down to the piece as a whole. Resident Evil’s fixed camera angles, clunky controls, limited ammunition, staggeringly bad dialogue, well-timed set pieces, use of sound, and many other flaws and virtues all combine to make a game that whilst slow-paced and occasionally frustrating, is, crucially, still scary. This applies even more to System Shock 2.

For a game that borrows so flagrantly from so many horror sources, it has become hugely influential to gaming itself, be it with regards to its audio-log heavy, cut-scene light approach to plot development, or the way it combines shooting and RPG (role-playing game) elements into a cohesive whole. But, let’s cut to the chase: the game is fucking scary.

This is one article that will not feature quite so much shameless nostalgia, because my biggest memories of playing System Shock 2 come from about 2 years ago, when I found it in the attic of my parent’s house, where it had been gathering dust. It was one of the few games that would play on my even-then hilariously out of date Acer laptop, whose favourite pastime was to shut itself down from overheating after a paltry hour of play, like a portly Southern gentlemen who loves being in the sun, but just cain’t take that thar heat.

System Shock 2, like the cursed toy so often found by unfortunate teens whilst cleaning their attic or in the corner of a creepy antiques shop, caught my eye, whilst engendering feelings of uncertain trepidation. I climbed down the ladder of my loft, game in hand, mesmerised by its dusty beauty, and that fact that it was in a CD case and one of those awesomely impractical old PC game boxes that had no right to be even half the size they were because they just took up loads of room and besides the manual never needed to be that big anyway.

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Regardless, I started playing it again, for a few reasons, but one in particular – System Shock 2 was top of a list of games that I’ve been slowly compiling for a number of years now: The Ones That Got Away. The list consists of games that I’ve owned and that I have, for one reason or another, been unable or unwilling to complete. In the old days, this was due to not having the requisite memory on my Amiga, or Matthew Murray spilling a glass of coke over my disc 1 of Superfrog I HAVEN’T FORGOTTEN but in the case of System Shock 2, the reason was a source of no small personal shame: I was too scared to carry on playing it.

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I’d played the opening through a good number of times over the years – because it’s some of the best early hours of a videogame money can buy; it’s brilliantly paced, exciting, and most importantly: really scary. The pace does drop in the middle act, though this is forgivable seeing as the game throws you one of history’s greatest curve-balls about 5 hours in. The plot struggles after this, but in the same rather noble way that a film like Full Metal Jacket struggles in its second half, simply because it’s done so much right that your standards have been hugely raised; there’s less shame in failing to maintain such standards when you’ve done so much to attain them in the first place.

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But there comes a point about two thirds through, where the game forces you to enter the biomass nest that is the epicentre of The Many – the alien parasites that have perverted and corrupted your entire crew – and I stand here before you today, reader, and admit it: I genuinely didn’t want to go in there. This was a very different fear from that created by a horror film, where although you may engage with and relate to the protagonist, and don’t want them to go into Scary Place X, you at least don’t have a say on what they do when they get in there, beyond yelling impotently at the screen.

Gaming engenders a different kind of helplessness. In System Shock 2, not only did I have to force Soldier G65434-2 (our silent protagonist) to enter this unspeakable den, I also had to maintain composure and shoot the shit out of countless mutated monstrosities while I was in there. And I couldn’t do it. This is the only time a game has ever got the better of me. A couple of days later I did a file clean up on my PC and somehow deleted my saves which did odd things to the game, teleporting me to the place I’d last saved without any items and unable to open any doors, meaning I had no choice but to leave the game alone from then on, but this was after the fact.

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This is a real point of kudos for the game, and also one of the reasons I was so desperate to replay it – I had this unfinished loop in my head of how the story might end, and there was this half-buried desire to see it through which seeing that dusty box once more powerfully reignited.

And so having dug it out of the loft, and being fuelled by memories of the younger me being scared shitless, I fired it up and started playing. And it was just as good as I remembered it. Plot is exquisitely doled out, audiologs (a relatively new idea in 1999; ubiquitous now) are well-spaced and compelling, gradually filling in the details of the horror that has enveloped the Von Braun, and aside from a few dick moves in weapon maintenance and repair, the RPG and combat elements are brilliantly implemented, and surprisingly ahead of their time.

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I would like to reiterate once more: it’s fucking scary. Playing it alone in my room with headphones in, even the shittly little £10 ones I had, emphasised to me just how important sound design is to horror. The scuttling of spiders, the screeching of tortured primates, the dual-layered voices of your infected crewmates; it all weaves into a rich and grotesque tapestry of Kronenberg-esque body horror and Alien-influenced space-chills that grabs you by the spine and never lets up. You never meet an ally in the flesh, your only support coming from radio communications with the ship’s captain, and paranoia and tension hang fetid in the air.

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The game is a melting pot of horror influences, from the world of both films and games, whilst adding enough innovation to hold up surprisingly well against many of today’s offerings. At 14 it showed me what horror could be, not to mention an early lesson in world-building. At 23 it showed me how solid design and innovation trumps flashy graphics and mimicry anytime, not to mention the benefits of manning up and going back to past failures and addressing them. If I had to make a horror comparison – and I do – it reminded me most of It; the worldly-wise adult being dragged back to the site of childhood nightmare, facing it down, and, fittingly for the Hive of The Many itself, going into that horrible lair I had been so scared to enter at 14 and finding the bad effects actually made the big monsters within a lot less scary.

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But it was good to purge, and regardless of the fact that it never quite maintains the quality of that storming first act, System Shock 2 is still the scariest game I’ve ever played, and a brilliantly designed one in the bargain. If you’ve played Dead Space and Bioshock and want to know who their lecturer was at Games University, the one who taught them all the tricks they know but was just never quite so purty, you’d do a lot worse than finding yourself a copy of System Shock 2.

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If you ask nicely, I might even lend you my old CD copy. Though if I go through that dusty attic again there’s no telling what horror might be unleashed…

Or get it on Steam! Seriously. You should do that.

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