'Look at you hacker, a pathetic creature of meat and bone, panting and sweating as you run through my corridors.
How can you challenge a perfect immortal machine?' - Shodan
The System Shock series is a cyberpunk 1, first-person shooter computer game, that combines elements of RPGs2, science fiction and horror to form a cult hit that was way ahead of its time when it was released for PC by Looking Glass Studios3 in 1994. It was then followed in 1999 by a sequel that somehow managed to be even more scary than its predecessor. The plot of the first game revolves around an anonymous hacker, while in the sequel the protagonist is a soldier. In both cases they are battling against the nefarious Artificial Intelligence Shodan4.
'God, the title suits me well.' - Shodan
The year is 2072. In the city of New Atlanta an anonymous hacker5 has just been arrested for hacking into the computer systems of the mega-corporation Tri-Optimum. He is shipped to Tri-Optimum's Citadel space station in orbit around Jupiter for sentencing. But Edward Diego, one of Tri-Optimum's CEOs offers him a deal, if the hacker breaks into the station's computer Shodan and removes its ethical constraints, then not only will the charges be dropped, but the hacker will also gain a cyber-interface that will allow him to link his brain directly to a computer. The hacker is put into a coma while the cyber-interface is surgically implanted and in the mean time all hell breaks loose.
When the hacker awakes he finds that Shodan has taken over the space station, all the machines have gone crazy and the crew are either cyborgs, mutants or dead. A communiqué from Tri-Optimum reveals that Shodan is moving the space station towards Earth and the hacker must get up to the station's bridge to stop Shodan before it is in range of using the station's mining laser against Earth.
As the game is played through the first-person perspective, System Shock lets you explore the space station, battling Shodan's creations and uncovering bits of what happened in the time the hacker was in a coma. You uncover most of the game's story through audio logs left all over the station by various members of the crew. These messages can vary from mundane maintenance reports to the crew's last cries for help. You also receive voicemail not only from Earth, but also from Shodan itself. The Station's AI by this point believes itself to be a god; its messages are given a chilling edge by the constantly distorting cold female voice. That gives the AI the cold-hearted tone of the machine mixed with a disconcerting, almost schizophrenic, tone of a mind without any ethical code. It also creates the impression that it is always watching you and like George Orwell's 'Big Brother', it knows where you are, what you are doing and even what you are thinking.
Shodan's omnipresence, and the terrible sense of isolation combine into a chilling and oppressive atmosphere that sent System Shock rocketing up many gaming websites' 'most scary games of all time' lists and Shodan up the 'Best Villain' lists.
Despite rave reviews from the gaming press, System Shock was a commercial failure. Many put this down to simply bad timing. Released at the same time as Id software's blockbuster Doom 2, System Shock never stood a chance. But over the years it has gained the accolade of 'cult game' and is often used as the defining example of the cult game genre. It bears all the hallmarks of high critical acclaim, poor sales, unique gameplay and an obsessive fanbase, that are typical of most cult games.
Eventually System Shock's reputation spread enough to warrant a sequel, this time by Looking Glass Studios.
System Shock 2
It is 35 years after the events on Citadel Station and humankind is anticipating the launch of the UNN Von Braun6, the first space ship capable of travelling faster than the speed of light. Its maiden voyage with its escort ship the UNN Rickenbacker7 is bound for the Tau Ceti system and whatever secrets the stars hold.
’This is Dr Marie Delacroix of the UNN Von Braun, we have been hijacked by an unknown force, the ship's security has been compromised. Do not allow the...[static]...I repeat do not allow the ship to leave under any circumstances. I don't know what we are up against here.'
In System Shock 2 you are an anonymous soldier, who after awakening from cryogenic sleep discovers that the ship has been taken over by an alien force calling itself The Many. The Many are a parasitic worm-like life-form that are all linked together telepathically into a collective consciousness or hive mind. Anyone who is infested by The Many is drawn into the collective consciousness until all sense of individuality is gone. The Many has also taken over the Von Braun's computer Xerxes8 allowing them complete control of the ship. But following messages from one of the survivors, the AI specialist Dr Janice Polito, you begin to work your way through the ship, trying to find a way to stop The Many.
'What is a drop of rain compared to a storm? What is a thought compared to mind?
Our unity is full of wonder that your tiny individualism cannot even conceive.' - The Many
System Shock 2 is much more of a RPG than its predecessor. It features all the usual stats and skill points that have become standard in most RPG games. Like most RPGs you have different character classes which have particular skills and lean towards a particular gameplay style. There are three classes in System Shock 2, representing three branches of the military. First off is the Marines, specialising in weapons and lends itself to a 'going in guns blazing' gameplay style. The second class is the Navy, which specialises in computer hacking, allowing you to bypass the Von Braun's security systems to avoid detection and even turn the ship's defences against your foes. The Navy also specialises in technical skills, like repairing and upgrading weapons that have become damaged through use in the game. Finally there is the OSA (Office of Special Abilities) that specialises in 'psionic' skills, which allows you to use your mind to generate magic-like abilities like casting fireballs.
This all may sound quite different to the first game, but the atmosphere, plot structure and characterisation are still very much in keeping with the original. If anything, System Shock 2 is even scarier than its prequel. As well as the audio logs telling of the lives and deaths of the crew, you also see their ghosts wandering the hallways of the Von Braun, often re-enacting their last moments. But probably the scariest thing is the near silence of your environment. For long periods of the game, all you can hear is either the low hum of the ship's engines or the quiet humming song of The Many.
What does this have to do with the evil machinations of Shodan? Well I guess you'll just have to play the game to find out.
Oh and please remember to salt the fries.