System Shock 2 is going to be a difficult game to write about. This has nothing to do with its popularity (there’s still a lot to be said about this game), but because there’s just so much to talk about. System Shock 2 is such a dense, multifaceted game that picking one point of discussion feels impossible. Nonetheless, I’ll give it a shot. What stands out about System Shock 2 for me (IE what I think the game devotes most of its energy to) is its deep interrogation of the biology/machine divide. These are already common motifs in science fiction, and although System Shock 2 hedges closely to its source material, it carries the discussion into unexpected new territory.
It’s a discussion that makes itself known from the story’s earliest moments. As an elite soldier enhanced with cybernetic upgrades, you find yourself exploring the remains of the USS Von Braun. Xerxes, the AI made to control the ship, has been taken over by a life form known only as The Many, and the rogue AI goddess SHODAN threatens to make a return. Already, we can see a similar framework to that of Phantasy Star II: warnings about a technological utopia future in which we sacrifice all agency to the goddess within the machine. And although System Shock 2 is just as interested in social issues as its predecessor, more of its interest lies in exploring Xerxes and SHODAN as contrasting deities. Technology is feminine, individualistic, and lacking in emotion. It sees you as an insignificant nothing, and it posits liberation through the acquisition of power. Biology, on the other hand, is masculine, collective, and preoccupied with unity above all else. In the eyes of The Many, you are but a sheep that was separated from the flock. They posit liberation through the abnegation of desire itself.
I could list some more parallels, but I don’t know how much good that would do. System Shock 2 isn’t as interested in picking a clear side as it is in exploring why this dichotomy exists in the first place. For the game, it all boils down to the promises of control and self-betterment that lie at the heart of speculative science fiction. Technology and flesh are deified because each one sees humanity as something that needs to be transcended (obviously through whatever path each one espouses). Yet it’s that same idea of necessary transcendence that lends both religions so easily to sabotage in the first place. The only reason the Von Braun fell into calamity in the first place is because The Many could better deliver on the same promises that led those aboard the ship onto it. We know this because the game begins by drilling into you the military’s ideals of self-betterment, and given how the Von Braun is a military ship, we can safely assume the people on board were already familiar with these ideals.
Indeed, System Shock 2 has an innate fascination with what happens when control is taken from us. It’s where the game’s most powerful moments come from: the jittery animations on the flesh-based enemies; the surreal theatrics when you encounter SHODAN and The Many; even the plot, which is better characterized as a loose connection of events haphazardly thrown together. Each one of these references ideas of self-sacrifice and how they ultimately leave us with the same suffering we were trying to abandon. The machine forces you against yourself, and try as you might, but you can never transcend your fleshly limitations. If Phantasy Star II was optimistic about the human ability to achieve and decide for ourselves, then System Shock 2 abandons any such notions and complicates matters immensely. All we’re left with is dread.
What especially catches my attention is how strongly these themes are represented during play. They’re obvious enough through the game’s choice of genre. System Shock 2 frames itself as a survival horror game (and it’s more than competent enough to commit to the role), a genre that creates tension by explicitly taking control away from the player. Yet I want to look at more specific examples, like the environments. Their defining features are their sharp angles, their tight hallways, and the rare moments of respite they offer. The best you can do is a small room here and there, and even then, it’s easy to be cornered within your one haven. So it’s easy to become scared. There’s always the sense that something’s lurking around the corner, searching for you, waiting to kill you. Nothing escapes your suspicion. Within this world, violence becomes your only option.
I realize how common a lot of these motifs are, but when considered within this specific context (aboard a spaceship drifting through space), they do a great job of reinforcing the game’s themes. These areas weren’t designed by accident, but to better the lives of mankind. More than that; they were built to empower people and make them better than they already are. To see them so easily facilitate the violence that surrounds you demonstrates how technology breeds the very suffering and division it’s supposed to overcome. Would violence against the infected members of the Von Braun even be necessary if its corridors weren’t so claustrophobic? Probably not. And despite ostensibly being created to protect people, you only ever see the turrets littering the ship as enemies. Suddenly, Xerxes’ ideas about the unity of the flesh start to look more credible.
However, you could also read the environments along psychological lines. It’s a tempting way to interpret the game, especially considering all the tools you’re given to do so. The definite perspectives associated with these areas (namely, those of SHODAN and The Many) animate them not only with life, but with personality. They function as extensions of these gods’ wills, and at first glance, looking at the world like this appears to support and elaborate upon the themes I’ve touched upon before. For example, we can see in SHODAN’s mechanical body a sort of technological womb and an inversion of the protective power we’d normally associate with it. It’s the source of her power; she sees the division and instability inherent in her scientific body as the very things that lend her her divine authority. Meanwhile, for as disorienting as your time spent navigating The Body of the Many can be, it exudes a stronger sense of cohesion than anything you’d seen until that point. I could also mention more specific and pointed moments, like the digital environments that bookend the game or the erratic theatrics during the game’s big reveal.
Still, though, I’m curious what role you’re supposed to play in all this. As simple a question as that may sound, it definitely complicates the game’s psychological reading. No matter whose perspective you consider, you’re ultimately a foreign entity within these gods’ bodies. Your cybernetic implants make you not quite human, but your fleshy body also alienates you from being a machine. So what are you? If we’re to believe what SHODAN says, you are a parasite, worming your way through these areas so that you might wreak havoc upon them. Thus the violence you feel against your very being through the game is something that’s particular to your own existence rather than something that can be generalized across all of humanity. The ease with which other living entities (both biological and mechanical) navigate this unfamiliar world only further solidifies this idea of violence against you rather than from the machine. Not to mention the distance the game puts between you and any other non-enemy creature. Again, System Shock 2 doesn’t lend itself well to easy answers.
The interface only complicates matter further. At first glance, it looks straightforward enough:
Yet there’s some context that I need to elaborate upon. The menus you see before you aren’t abstractions or constructs made for the player’s convenience, but tangible things that exist within the game world. More specifically, they’re part of the protagonist’s cybernetic implants. Although they’re illegal within his world, it’s easy to see why people would want them in the first place. They allow you to transcend the limits of the flesh (the ones SHODAN references during the introduction) and realize a power far greater than the human body ever could have achieved on its own. Knowledge becomes demystified. Rather than the slapshot “guess and check” method that characterizes real world research, research in System Shock 2 is a linear process. Get the right chemicals, and you’re guaranteed the knowledge you seek. And freed from your biological shackles, you’ll eventually be able to carry several times your weight in military equipment and alien artifacts. It appears that science has fulfilled its promises of empowerment and self betterment.
But it only appears that way. Despite your increased capacity to carry things, all you ever feel are the system’s limits. Even at that early stage depicted in the screenshot, I was bumping up against my inventory limits. While advancing through the Von Braun somewhat alleviated that pain, it also revealed a deeply unsettling truth: I could only realize my freedom by sacrificing it to the machine. In one sense, you become alienated from your own body, since that sacrifice interferes with natural abilities you would otherwise have. You can’t swing a weapon while in Use Mode (IE while the interface is up), nor can you turn your head. (Strangely, you can’t even climb a ladder correctly without looking up, even if you’re outside Use Mode.)
System Shock 2’s use of RPG mechanics only further elaborates on these ideas. Usually when RPG mechanics show up in a non-RPG setting, it’s to exalt the player’s ability to choose and define themselves. Here, though, they take on a different meaning. While you can certainly feel the increase in power from dumping points into Endurance or Hack, the system severely limits the ways in which you might realize that power. In fact, the only way it gives you power in the first place is by fostering dependence on the machine. The way the game gives you cyber modules (the currency you use to upgrade) is eerily similar to that of a Skinner box: just keep completing the tasks assigned to you, and you’ll be rewarded with a steady flow of pellets. Wish to forgo that system? Then good look starving. Because your body is entirely mechanical at this point, no amount of hard work will improve what you’re capable of. At this point, I find myself asking what the nature of the machine/body relationship is. Were the machines made to serve man, or was man made to serve the machines?
More worrying is how the interface renders division a fundamental part of your very being. It doesn’t create order from the chaos; it creates chaos itself. The glut of windows cluttering your vision divide your attention across numerous fronts. The audio logs don’t do much better. Thanks to them, past and present blur together into this unrecognizable soup. Did that zombie’s groan come from around the corner, or is it part of the recording? Before you can decide, your commanding officer cuts off the log with an important email. This isn’t even getting into the literal ghosts (glitches, as your commanding officer calls them) haunting the Von Braun. Not is System Shock 2 questioning technology’s ability to improve our lives, but the very thinking that goes into that promise. It can only solve problems of its own creation, the game posits, and will inevitably create much deeper problems in doing so.
Ultimately, what makes System Shock 2 work so well is how embedded ideas of control already are in video game culture. We already approach digital worlds as places where we have complete power to do as we please. Hence why this game’s heightened sense of awareness packs as much punch as it does: not only because it uses its toolset to the fullest, but also because its commentary cuts right to the heart of FPS conventions. Yet it’s never limited by them. Despite all it has to say on those conventions, its arguments would still hold merit even outside that specific context.