Horror Done Right: Identifying The Player in System Shock 2

by Karl Parakenings

These days, it’s probably better known as the spiritual influence behind the Bioshock series, but in its heyday it was one of the first 3d games that used the technology for immersion and tension instead of showing off hardware. The first game, the eponymous System Shock, detailed the creation of a rogue AI gone bad, SHODAN, who was so evocative that she now serves as the shadow behind many of gaming’s better-known moments and villains. In the second game, you are given the choice of defining your character, up to a point: after walking into a recruitment centre on Earth, you’re asked to run through a series of training programs related to the tours of duty you’ve chosen. You can become a marksman, a psionic expert, or hacker par excellence, and after running through your training regimens, you’re sent off to the Von Braun for a supposedly-routine assignment.

I’m willing to bet that most forget this introduction to SS2; however, it’s probably the most vital part of the game when it comes to preparing the player for horror. Terror is the anticipation of something being revealed; horror is the realization or exposure of something once hidden. Each requires the other.

The introductory sequences, figured as moving through computerized space – the essential skill for gamers, trained since DooM – prime you to identify the player character as yourself: when you pilot the character around the decks of the Von Braun, you’re moving, albiet viewing it through a glass window. That’s a prerequisite for experiencing effective horror: you have to remove as many of the obstacles between playing a game and feeling as though you’re controlling an avatar in another world.


So when you’re dumped from a cryogenic pod onto the floor of a malfunctioning, disaster-struck spaceship, and a voice identifies itself as Janice Polito and tells you that there’s been an accident and you’re so brain damaged you have no memory of what’s going on, it works both to wipe the slate clean for character & skill progression mechanics and to establish links between you, the player, the player character, and Polito as an essential guide. Without the player character, you wouldn’t be able to enter the Von Braun. Without the player, the character wouldn’t have direction in a very literal sense. Without Polito, neither of you would have a chance. She’s your guide to the Von Braun, for better or for worse, and you have no choice but to trust her.

If there’s a central pillar to evoking horror in gameplay, fiction, and cinema, it’s uncertainty. System Shock 2 is fondly remembered precisely because it keeps you off-balance in almost every aspect of its game systems and narrative design. Uncertainty leads to tension: your anticipation of bad things happening is terror, and your violent reaction to them happening at last – release of tension, unwillingness to face the event, and rush of adrenaline – is horror.

It’s tempting to go through the game line by metaphorical line and underscore how almost every mechanic contributes to this feeling of uncertainty. Even your own inventory and weapons work against you. Briefly, almost everything you can do as a player focuses on your own body or the things you carry. The only way you can interact with the “outside” world is picking things up, activating them, shooting them, or downloading them. This means that your “game body” is in a constant state of change; your weapons are degrading, your resources are constantly needing to be used and replenished, your knowledge about the Von Braun is embodied in the audio logs you pick up and record from Polito’s transmissions, and your skills and abilities are continually modified by Polito’s augmentations. In most games, you get better and better at manipulating the environment and enemies until you’re strolling along without a hitch. In System Shock 2, it’s all you can do to stay alive and to maintain your body, both “physical” and conceptual. You’re running just to stand still, and it’s this fight just to maintain a presence in the world that makes the early hours of SS2 so harrowing.

Given the early age of most of the tech used to make System Shock 2, it can often edge over from “uncertain” to “frustrating,” particularly when you’re inexperienced at the game or mismanage something and die as a result. That’s the danger of making horrifying games as a designer: because you spend so much time making the player uncomfortable, it’s possible to have it all come down at once and alienate them from the game completely. In a sense, tension in gameplay is built by having a given set of actions and being barely able to survive and progress; this is one of the dynamics which make DayZ so interesting, for example. But this is only effective as long as you feel like you have options available; it’s about being chased no matter where you run, not about having nowhere to run.

We’ll consider System Shock 2 more later on, because SHODAN’s reveal and the broader dynamics of the plot deserve their own focus; next week, we’re looking at what we can learn about horror from games outside the horror genre.


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  • http://www.facebook.com/jamiethomas.durbin Jamie Thomas Durbin

    It’s interesting you mention this, because even System Shock 1 had an element of horror that many overlooked, perhaps because of the cognitive dissonance between the intro (third person) and the game itself (first person).

    Watch the intro again. Then remember that the hacker from the intro and the hacker in game (you) are the same person.

    While you can share the blame with Diego, it’s *your* fault. The deaths on Citadel, the mining laser, the events of System Shock 2… Your fault.

  • http://twitter.com/casimirsblake Chris Wigman

    There’s nothing frustrating about this game. It is practically perfect, aside from the fact that it ends. Looking Glass and Irrational made something close to the best kind of immersive first-person gaming in System Shock 2, and leaving aside the old-school visuals, it has not since been bettered. Bioshock was far to histrionic, linear, and over-scripted to be as enjoyable. No-one makes games on this level any more, the closest we have experienced since SS2 is Deus Ex Human Revolution.

  • http://www.facebook.com/simon.benarroch Simon Benarroch

    The most terrifying thing in a game with half-decent atmosphere is a fork in the road; a moment of crisis when you know going left just means that you’ve let all the dangers to the right get behind you, out of sight. Not to mention the fear of getting ever-more tangled in the sim/organism. The ship is a goddamn nightmare-come-to-life. It took advantage of space as a setting for vulnerability better than anything I’ve run into since Space Odyssey. You get the feeling that the whole pretense of the Von Braun’s mission was to plunge into infinity for no real reason, just to marvel at itself alone in the darkness, and suddenly it goes to hell. Basically I think the essence of System Shock 2’s horror is how it nailed the feeling of being totally un-anchored.
    I also love how the time-window between your experience and those recorded on the audiologs shrinks as you approach the end of the game–you hope against all hope that you’ll get to meet one of these poor bastards, but by this point the game has taught you to pray only that they left some cyber modules or bullets on their corpses.

    Also, Swinekeeper.

    Great post, by the way. Just discovered this blog today, man it’s the shit! I’d been keeping Killscreen Daily on my homepage just to gape at their impossible pretentiousness. I think I’ve found a replacement now. This stuff is twice as thoughtful, and (from what I’ve read so far) a hell of a lot more honest.

    • http://www.mediumdifficulty.com/ Karl Parakenings

      Glad you (and RPS) liked the article! Kill Screen has done and continues to do good work – I wouldn’t discount them out-of-hand. That said, we appreciate the compliment!

      More on System Shock 2 tomorrow.