Atmosphere, story-telling and gameplay in an amazing union
For many years, I refused to play this game.
That was because I wasn't interested in games in which the player is trapped in one location and has to fight monsters without being able to talk to anyone.
I'm still not very interested in such games. It took me an extremely long time to get into "System Shock". It's a tough game because it offers you so many possibilities and such rich gameplay from the get-go, while being confined to one location only, the space station. But the game kept attracting me, like a magnet. I came back to it again and again, until I finally knelt in front of its greatness. To be honest, I can't handle "System Shock" very well even now. It is devilishly addictive and deeply claustrophobic, and not all feelings it evokes are positive. After a session with "System Shock" I feel tired and overwhelmed. I can only play it in small portions and with gigantic rest periods.
It's not easy to sum in one sentence the genius of "System Shock". Ask those who played it what they loved most in it, and probably they will give you entirely different answers. For some people, "System Shock" is above all a cleverly told, suspenseful horror story. For others, the rich interactivity and the exploration possibilities are the things that matter most. And there are also some who play "System Shock" exclusively for its amazing atmosphere, for the sensual experience it offers.
I think that the greatness of "System Shock" lies in the fact that it combines all the three main aspects - atmosphere, gameplay, story - into a homogeneous whole. Every part of "System Shock", be it the meticulous interaction with objects, the eerie music, or the gradual discovery of the past struggle against Shodan - everything is so flawlessly integrated into each other, that when you begin playing "System Shock" you feel as if you were swallowed by some powerful entity with rules of its own. Maybe it's a strange thought, but I find "System Shock" not entirely dissimilar to the villain it portrays.
Perhaps atmosphere is indeed the decisive factor in the game. At least it was for me, because I can safely say that was what I cared for most. Perhaps they could have removed the sophisticated gameplay and the story elements - I would probably still be able to enjoy the game for its incredible atmosphere. "System Shock" puts you into its world with a force that some people might find nearly terrifying. You can read here on MobyGames another review of "System Shock", in which the author confesses that the game influenced him mentally, causing him to have nightmares. I don't think he is exaggerating. I've played many games in my life, including some with extremely horrifying and disturbing material. But "System Shock" is one of the very few that forces me to mentally prepare
before I begin playing it. That is the reason why I couldn't endure it for a long time. It is impossible to just play "System Shock" casually. The moment you fire it up, you are immersed with such intensity, that the world of the game becomes your world. I've played many games with heavy atmosphere, and am generally a sucker for such things, but "System Shock" is truly outstanding in this aspect. It draws you inside and imprisons you and doesn't let go. I don't know how it does it, but it does.
The story here must be "felt", lived from within the game. When written down on paper or told to someone, it loses its meaning. It is basically a story with two characters, the protagonist and the antagonist, the female computer Shodan. The whole idea of the story was to show how a regular human being (and not a particularly virtuous one - after all, the hero of the game is a hacker, a kind of burglar) single-handedly defeats a mighty artificial intelligence. You and Shodan develop a morbid kind of relationship over the course of the game. Shodan keeps intimidating and teasing you, adding even more horror and stress to your perilous exploration. She is so arrogant and so sure of herself that she doesn't get angry, she is always calm and even sounds indifferent, and that's what is scary about her. I was afraid to proceed at first when Shodan began to threaten me when I was approaching a crucial part of a level.
Shodan becomes a part of your life, and there is something creepily intimate in her constant interaction with the player. The way she would suddenly send you e-mails and talk to you was genuinely scary. The only other similar moments in a video game I recall was when the Avatar and his friends were happily walking through the sunny countryside, and suddenly the Guardian laughed quietly behind the scene in Ultima VII
The game world is in a way another big enemy of the protagonist. Finding your way through the ultra-complex space station, solving its riddles, finding the items you need, gathering information, struggling against the hordes of enemies Shodan sends at you - the story of the game is directly experienced by the player, and let me assure you that it is a dramatic and intense one.
But of course, the highlight of the story is the revolutionary "retroactive" story-telling. Basically, beside the story that unfolds now, in front of our eyes, there is another story in "System Shock", the one that happened before we arrived. You unravel it by reading logs left by the crew members. The idea was absolutely genius, because this way story-telling truly becomes an integral part of the gameplay
. I still don't understand why so few games used this technique. Finding out what happened by actively searching for information is exciting. You learn about the tragic fate of the people who once inhabited the space station. You get to know them when it is already too late. The "retroactive" story itself is perhaps less interesting than the one of the sequel
, and definitely less interesting than the one of Bioshock
, which had much more captivating and fleshed-out characters with a wide variety of dramatic personal stories; but "System Shock" was the one that first introduced this technique, and it was a great achievement.
The gameplay of "System Shock" was not only revolutionary for its time - it is still unsurpassed by most games. The way the gameplay manages to stay suspenseful and tight, while at the same time allowing you to interact with everything and to explore is yet another testimony of the game's genius. First, the interaction is absolutely incredible. You can pick up nearly everything you see, you can smash and throw things - almost nothing of what you see is a mere decoration, everything can be interacted with in this or another way.
The level design is another brilliant aspect of the game that contributes to its great gameplay. Despite being set in only one location, "System Shock" is a very non-linear game in the sense that the way through the game is not shown to the player; he has to find it himself, and this is perhaps the biggest challenge of the game. Each level in "System Shock" is absolutely huge and very complex. Since you can usually choose any path you want during your exploration, the levels turn into small "worlds" that have to be explored, learned, understood, and completed (there are usually one or more main objectives on each level, plus several secondary ones) to proceed. The exploration process is a delight in itself.
And of course, there is the hunting for logs, which can be attributed to both story and gameplay. I can't stress enough how great this feature is. After the atmosphere, it was my most favorite aspect of the game, a genius move that merged story and gameplay into one in a way only a video game can.
Coupled with the heavy atmosphere, the gameplay of "System Shock" - which is at the same time the discovery of its story - makes playing the game a very addicting experience. The game always pushes you forward. You want to stay in this world, you want to explore everything, you want to grab more objects, you want to read more logs. It is hard to quit because it offers so much.
Which genre does "System Shock" belong to? Some people call it a RPG, but I don't quite see it as such. While its sequel is undeniably a RPG, the first game only has a few elements of this genre, such as upgrades you can use and equip. But the core of the gameplay is action adventure. It plays like an adventure game in an FPS outfit; it has the soul of an adventure, but the shooter canvas are added to make your exploration not only suspenseful, but also dangerous. I consider adventure the primary genre of "System Shock", but it also plays perfectly well as a "regular" FPS, with plenty of very cool weapons, many dangerous enemies and plenty of action.
As much as the story-telling, the atmosphere, and the rich gameplay of "System Shock" are fantastic, its technical side is absolutely awe-inspiring. "System Shock" is one of those rare games that are daringly innovative, ground-breaking, and utterly perfect from technological point of view, without neglecting in the least the creative content. But simply viewed as a technical product, "System Shock" is amazing. It had incredible graphics for its time, and an outstandingly flexible engine that opened to the player interaction possibilities unseen before. Everything you do in the game is shown as a graphical effect - tossing things on the ground you can see how they bounce, and it is simply incredible that such an effect was achieved with such an early, primitive physics system. When you smash things, it is shown graphically. The level design is not only creative - it is also technically astounding, with objects everywhere, with a huge amount of detail stuffed into every place you see.
"System Shock" was a surprisingly user-friendly game. Despite the large amount of actions you could perform in the game, the interface was simple and comfortable. There was an auto-map, logs and e-mails you could keep in your inventory, and other helpful features. I absolutely loved
the difficulty level system. Basically, you are allowed to customize every aspect of the game. Want to solve tricky puzzles but feel inept in combat? You can choose the puzzles to be hard, and the combat easy. Satisfied with the overall challenge, but can't adapt well to the cyberspace? No problem, just leave everything on high difficulty, but put cyberspace all the way down, making it a nearly automatic journey. Like moderate challenge in everything? Be my guest. Or maybe you just want to immerse yourself in the heavy atmosphere of the game, without being bothered by pesky enemies and riddles? You can do that, too. "System Shock" can fully suit your needs, whatever they might be. I really can't understand why other games haven't implemented this system.
The game was immaculately crafted, with equal attention paid to pretty much everything. Its creative vision reaches far into the future; in some ways, "System Shock" is more advanced than many of the games released today. That is why "System Shock" continues to astound players years later just as it did when it was released.
Like any other early 3D game, "System Shock" doesn't go easy on the eyes, and its graphics haven't aged very well. This is not a criticism, but rather an inevitable side-effect. I know people who couldn't get into "System Shock" for this reason, even though they loved the sequel
. I also played the sequel before the original, and my enjoyment was somewhat reduced because of that.
The part that really annoyed me was the cyberspace. It took me ages to figure out how to move in the damn place, I was constantly struggling, and in the end simply avoided it whenever I could.
The Bottom Line
In retrospect, it looks like "System Shock" was one of the very few games in the history that managed to be a daring experiment and a perfectly crafted, balanced product at the same time. It is strikingly advanced on both technological and artistic levels, without sacrificing one for the other. Gameplay, atmosphere, and story-telling reach a remarkable, unsurpassed unity in this game. Breaking through genre barriers, sending a powerful signal far into the future, "System Shock" is a masterpiece in every sense of the word.