If I had to pick one game that was responsible for my fixation on the “haunted derelict hell-hole in space” genre, the answer would be Irrational’s System Shock 2.
System Shock 2 feels like one of the last horror games that used my own imagination to fill in the details. Even at the time of its release 20 years ago, its engine had fallen behind the rapidly-shifting technological curve of the late 90s. It avoided human characters almost entirely (the few you encounter are usually sealed behind glass), and all the monsters its text attempted to describe so vividly were rendered as crude, blocky piles of polygons. The humanoid zombies that hunted you through the halls had Rob Liefeld-like extremities, their limbs trailing off into vague, murky points rather than articulated feet and hands. The alien monsters that resembled the writhing biomass that spawned them were little more than smears of low-resolution textures across a few enormous blocks that stood in for torsos and limbs.
You could play System Shock 2 for hours and never exactly see it. Or at least, you wouldn’t see it right there on your monitor, but would instead watch it happening projected within a theater of the mind where the game’s simple models and art would give way to the things they symbolized. The game never looked realistic, but still feels immediate and convincing in a way I rarely see matched.
Don’t think that I’m saying System Shock 2’s achievement is transcending its limitations. I think there was something about those limitations themselves that helped it achieve a deeper resonance. Within some severe constraints, the artists, sound engineers, level designers, and writers at Irrational made a game that has been under my skin and inside my head ever since I first played it.
Take the game’s most bog-standard enemy, the Hybrid. If you look at still frames of those zombie-like enemies, then the models and textures are incredibly crude and ugly. But that’s not how they were in the game, not really. In the game, you hear the hiss of a door opening and then irregular, meaty footfalls on a polished metal deck. You look down a long, dim hallway just as that unnaturally-elongated human form rounds a corner, with its oddly hooked elbows and jerking gait, and you aren’t looking at that character model anymore but instead you’re seeing something completely different. Something wrong, twistedly familiar but repellently alien. “Something…” it wheezes. “Out of place.” And it dawns on you that it is talking about you. It hasn’t seen you, but it knows. You don’t belong here, and suddenly you feel like you’re not fighting a single enemy but instead an entire immune system bent on eradicating the virus you represent.
Like a lot of the various “walking simulators” that the Looking Glass Studios-Irrational Games design lineage inspired (remember that Irrational would basically remake System Shock 2 with Bioshock, changing much of the story but retaining its structure), the central motivation in System Shock 2 is figuring out just what the hell happened before your character arrived on the stage. You know this is humanity’s first interstellar voyage, led by the starship Von Braun but entirely owned and operated by TriOptimum, a company with the power of a major nation state. When you wake up at the start of the game, just about everyone is dead, and there are monsters on the loose.
This was a less haggard concept in 1999, as were the audio logs that System Shock 2 uses to tell its story. Perhaps because there were such a memorable part of Looking Glass’s original System Shock, or because they were not yet regarded as an exhausted trope, System Shock 2 embraces them without reservation to unfurl an entire three-act tragedy to in which you can play only the briefest part at the very end. This game may begin with some zombies, but they’re only one facet of a story that involves a violent mutiny, the rise of two fascist warlords (one of whom just happens to be right about what’s going on, but is such a violent and repellent character that they end up isolated and defeated), corporate interests corrupting judgment in ways large and small, and an alien collective slowly infecting and subverting the will of its most suggestible victims. Plus there’s SHODAN, an evil supercomputer from 1994’s System Shock that returns both as a cause of this disaster and perhaps your only ally in stopping it.
The audio logs also tend to be origin stories for the enemies you’ve encountered, or will encounter. So we learn that the zombies are not really zombies, but humans undergoing a process of mutation and psychic enslavement to a collective will called “the Many” (in retrospect, it’s not hard to see writer / designer Ken Levine working on the themes of collectivism, individualism, and corporatism that would become over-familiar across the Bioshock franchise). When they spot you, you might hear a strangled entreaty, “Kill meeee!” or a sudden accusation “Your song is not ours!” depending on which will manages to express itself. It’s still just a basic enemy with a club or a weak shotgun, but knowing what it represents makes it chilling well into the game.
One of the scariest and most capable enemies in the game is an assassin robot. Despite having played the game three or four times I’d never really gotten a good look at it until I looked it up on a fan wiki just now. Trapped within a still frame of animation, the cyborg assassin is little more than a set of panythose topped with a sheet and a webcam (honestly, it’s a Scooby-Doo villain), but in the game itself it’s lack of definition and vagueness become more suggestive. It is a fluid piece of a shadow, something you can’t track fast enough to bring down until it’s on top of you. The sound it makes… to this day I can hear it in my head, a strange warbling zip-buzz that is the sonic equivalent of an imagined movement in the corner of your eye. The first time you hear it, you won’t even be sure that you did.
If System Shock 2 (available on Steam and GOG) thrived on the suggestion of evil, alien things or the perversion of the everyday and mundane, the increasing fidelity and detail of the horror games that followed increasingly meant that they could and had to depict the kind of creatures and horror that existed in the text of their story. System Shock 2 can’t do that. Instead, it provides players with prompts for their own imagination. After 20 years, I’m not sure another horror game has done that better, or been allowed to.