Playing Irrational Games' System Shock 2 back in 1999 was a revelation. It felt distinctly different from other games of the time. Here was a first-person shooter that had you exploring a world rather than simply mastering a set of disjointed levels. Despite the dated graphics and archaic interface, play System Shock 2 today and you'll find that it still has one of the most immersive and atmospheric settings in any video game.
The events of the game take place light-years away from Earth on the star ship Von Braun. It's classic science-fiction horror, only I actually experienced it years before I got around to watching Ridley Scott's Alien. A lot about System Shock 2 sounds familiar. You're lost somewhere in deep space on a ship in complete disarray, your crew has been all but wiped out by a strange alien infection, and you can never, ever, trust the robot/computer.
While a lot about its narrative is borrowed from elsewhere, System Shock 2 was unique in allowing you to directly partake in the cosmic horror. It gave you an entire ship to explore. It was a virtual tour that had you rummaging through Medical and Science labs, getting lost in Engineering and wandering the Recreational deck. There was nothing arbitrary about these levels. Every segment of the Von Braun was believably structured, creating a really fascinating sense of place. There were no ellipses between levels for you to catch your breath, and there was no escaping the star ship or the corrupting forces on board. You were stuck on the Von Braun—a great hulk of metal aimlessly drifting in the void with neither a captain nor a pilot.
The idea of outer space—a lifeless vacuum where humans don't naturally belong—is a pretty unsettling one. System Shock 2 wouldn't be the same without its great, inky backdrop. It's a vital part of its horror. Two scenes come to mind when I think about how it effectively establishes the game's setting. The tutorial takes place at a training center on Earth. It's important that the game begins planet-side, as although the sequence is brief, you catch a glimpse of both a cityscape and the open sky above. The second scene hits immediately after the tutorial and serves to contrast the two environments. As you awaken from your cryo-chamber aboard the Von Braun, a damaged radar dish careens into a window, causing the cabin to depressurize. It instantly sets things up as dangerous and unpredictable—after all, there's only a thin layer between you and a breathless vacuum. The colored sky you saw back on Earth couldn't feel further away.
Surprisingly, instances where you can actually look out and see space in System Shock 2 are pretty few and far between. This is probably due to the technical limitations that the developers faced back in 1999. 2014's Alien: Isolation, unhindered by its hardware, is constantly reminding you of your place in the universe through large windows and skylights, and is all the more powerful for it. Nevertheless, System Shock 2 still does a great job of establishing its setting, and it's something easily enhanced by mods. The tutorial, radar dish crash, and subsequent race to the airlock are important. It not only reminded you that you're a long way from Earth, but it set the whole tone of the game—one of immense hostility, vulnerability, and isolation. You may well crap your pants at the sight of a mumbling brain-worm infested Hybrid, rusty pipe in hand, but that's a whole lot better than being out in space and having your bowels turned inside out.
Article continues after the video below
It would be eight long years before a game would successfully emulate System Shock 2's dark, otherworldly atmosphere. Positioned as a spiritual sequel, Irrational Games' BioShock followed the Shock formula closely. Set in the disintegrating undersea city of Rapture, players explored a deeply oppressive dystopia fraught with danger. The layout of the city closely followed the decks of the Von Braun. There was the Medical Pavilion, the hydroponic Arcadia and BioShock's own recreational area, Fort Frolic. Like System Shock 2, its world felt lived-in, which made the emptiness feel all the more disconcerting. One of the most important things about Rapture was its isolated nature. Instead of being lost in space, the city was entombed under the ocean. Like a star ship, it was completely surrounded by a hostile, non-breathable medium. Just as in space, fathoms beneath Earth's surface, no one can hear you scream.
BioShock begins with a plane crash, and the scene, like System Shock 2's tutorial, allows you comforting glimpses of the surface world and sky above. After you descend to Rapture the game begins to establish the fragility of its world. With technology less of an issue, BioShock could afford to regularly feed you views of the abyss beyond. Glass windows crack and at every opportunity water forces itself into the environment. Early on, part of the plane smashes into a glass corridor causing the compartment to fill with water, and once again you must desperately race to an airlock.
New on Munchies: How to Make Damn Good Ribs
The world of BioShock revolves around the substance ADAM and powerful plasmids that can rearrange the human genetic code, but the lifeless pressure that the sea exerts is just as important to its world. Just beyond the iron girders of Rapture and the socio-politics bound up with it lies a great hydrosphere just waiting to wash everything away. Degenerate gangs of Splicers lust and fight over ADAM, yet the sinful material named after the first human ultimately pales in significance to the greater substance that surrounds the city. As System Shock 2's great antagonist SHODAN once said: humanity is nothing but a footnote. Just as the great void lent a cold and tense chill to the halls of the Von Braun, the uncaring force of the ocean encapsulated the world of BioShock perfectly.
It's clear that BioShock and System Shock 2's environments closely mirror one another. What's more interesting however is the way outer space can be effectively replaced by space under the sea. Both environments are extensively unknown and unexplored. They're also both inhospitable. Exploring environments amongst the stars and beneath the depths is always going to feel strange and exotic, and these are themes that director James Cameron explored in his 1980s sci-fi films Aliens (out amongst the stars) and The Abyss (deep below the sea). This is also why, to my mind, the sun-soaked second sequel to BioShock, 2013's Infinite, loses much of the series' oppressive and claustrophobic mood by moving up into the clouds. If you want immersive and genuinely sinister sci-fi, having the environment contained by a dark substance is the perfect way to establish such an atmosphere.
Follow Ewan Wilson on Twitter.