Terror In Space: Revisiting The Sci-Fi Horror of ‘System Shock 2’ On Its 20th Anniversary


The System Shock games remain some of the most intriguing works of science fiction horror to this day. With today marking the 20th anniversary of the critically successful System Shock 2, let us embark down a nostalgic road of chilling sci-fi delight.

The game takes place aboard a spaceship in the year 2114; you take on the role of a soldier with amnesia who awakens in a cryo-tube. The ship is infested with mutated beings, controlled by an alien hive mind called “The Many.” Upon awakening, you are contacted by Dr. Janice Polito, who guides you through the ship and instructs you to find her. From there, it is up to you to survive and put an end to all the threats that await you.

Co-developed by Irrational Games and Looking Glass Studios, as well as designed by game auteur Ken Levine, System Shock 2 is an iconic landmark in the first-person shooter and survival horror genres. Along with its terrific atmosphere, the game incorporated role-playing depth into its FPS gameplay, while providing an intriguing narrative. 

As a whole, the ship embraces a cold and haunting atmosphere. Through audio logs and ghostly apparitions that appear at times, one is able to learn more about the game’s backstory. The environment exudes a grim appeal that is similar to films like Alien. Levin and the developers really hit the nail on the head with this environmental storytelling, providing a setting that establishes emotion, while also feeding the player bits of narrative context. Players can also hack machines and research enemies, providing further depth into System Shock 2’s world and gameplay.

The RPG elements come in the form of what military branch the player chooses at the start of the game, as well as how they develop their avatar overtime. Each of the branches offers a particular specialization; for example, the “Marine” branch has stronger expertise in weaponry compared to that of the “Navy” branch. “Cyber-modules,” which can be collected through completing missions, can be spent at “cyber-upgrade units” to build upon your character’s stats. Along with guns and melee combat, there are also that of psionic powers (such as invisibility and the ability to shoot fireballs).

Narratively, System Shock 2 involves SHODAN, an evil A.I. and the antagonist of the first System Shock; however, another aspect that makes System Shock 2 so fondly remembered is how SHODAN is utilized in the game. Spoilers ahead. At the end of System Shock, the player destroys SHODAN. Later on in System Shock 2, the player comes to find out that not only is Dr. Janice Polito dead, but the voice of the doctor that has been speaking to them has actually been SHODAN. She decided to mask herself as the doctor in an effort to gain the soldier’s trust. She shares that she is responsible for the Many aboard the ship and wants to guide the player towards defeating them (since they are beyond her control now). Towards the end she reveals her desire to merge cyberspace and real space, and it is up to the player to defeat her.

What is fascinating about SHODAN within the narrative is how she manipulates the player. With the introduction of the doctor, it is normal to assume that she is there to assist the player and navigate them through objectives. Because of such gaming conventions, it comes as a surprise when SHODAN is revealed and the player has been doing her bidding. This narrative component of the game not only makes the story all the more interesting, but also creates a fascinating meta aspect. Funny enough, this meta element is something that Irrational and Levine would explore further in System Shock 2’s spiritual successor: Bioshock.

Not only did System Shock 2 release to a wave of critical praise, but it received several “Game of the Year” awards. To this day System Shock 2 is remembered as a heavily influential title in gaming history; from its unique take on storytelling, to its innovative merge of RPG, shooter, and adventure elements, System Shock 2 has gone on to impact numerous video games.

For years fans have been wanting a sequel to System Shock 2. At the time of this writing, a remake of the first System Shock is in production (you can pledge funds towards the production and learn more via this link), and a fully-fledged sequel was first announced a few years back, with behind the scenes troubles meaning we only got a first look at it earlier this year.

System Shock 2 is one of gaming’s most powerful works of nostalgia; while it may not graphically hold up to modern titles, its story, gameplay, and environment, still make for a fun and intriguing experience. System Shock 2 remains an important title in the world of science fiction horror, while also being responsible for new shifts in video game design and development.

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