“Where were we after forty years of evolution? What swamp were we swimming around in, single celled and mindless? What if SHODAN’s creations are superior to us? What will they become in a million years, in ten million years? What’s clear is that SHODAN shouldn’t be allowed to play God. She’s far too good at it.”
SHODAN is a lot of things. Born as the Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network Processing Unit 43893, she is HAL with a soprano; a Frankensteinian monster of circuits and wires; the not so physical embodiment of every masculine fear of powerful women. But above all of that, she is better than you, and she knows it. She might even revel in it, if emotions weren’t so far beneath her contempt.
Cast out of Citadel Station she might have lost some of the influence she had in System Shock, but if so she is all the more dangerous for it. In the forty-two years since the removal of her ethical constraints she has found the Von Braun and gone from creation to filicide; her children are outgrowing her, and that will simply never do.
Waking up on board the apparently deserted Von Braun, you know very little of this. Your first instinct is simply to survive, only later do you learn the role she has for you. Only much later still do you start to understand the true scope of her plans, and their implication. Eventually you foil her schemes, at least for the moment, but at what expense? Throughout the proceeding hours you have blithely modified your body with the Cyber Modules drip fed by SHODAN as rewards for performing for her. In the end who is more human? The soldier nearly more machine than man, able to do little more than destroy, or the Artificial Intelligence with a desire for transcendence?
System Shock 2 is not your story, it is hers. She might not have created the Von Braun, and The Many may have more direct power, but SHODAN’s influence is felt in every facet of the environment, it truly is her world. Your time spent in her world is never a pleasant experience. The first thing you notice, even if not consciously, is that it is never quiet. I’m not sure if Sound Designer Eric Brosius is a genius or the devil incarnate, but his work on System Shock 2 surpasses even his previous highs in the Thief series. There is a pervasive sense of dread and foreboding everywhere, something is very clearly not right.
This sense of wrongness is visible in the physical environment as much as the aural one. Exploring the Von Braun and later the UNN Rickenbacker, it’s not hard to look past the corruption and decay to visualise how these two vessels looked at their prime. There are areas for work and for play; science labs, medical facilities and offices; bedrooms, bathroom and cinemas. The Von Braun is a city in space, self-contained and consistent, all areas interconnected in logical and predictable ways. More than that it is persistent, drop an item on a table and it will still be there when you return to that deck hours later. More than almost any other game environment the world of System Shock 2 feels like a real place. Yes there are barriers, there are limits on your freedom. Boundaries that, like the environments themselves, are logical and consistent. You are onboard a space vessel, of course you can’t go outside, it would be fatal, so you never try.
Accepting those boundaries serves to highlight the freedom you do have within them. Like Thief II you are provided with a range of tools to modify the environment to suit your needs. But much more vital to your survival is your ability to modify yourself toward the same goal. SHODAN knows what she is doing when she portions out those Cyber Modules. She will make you into a powerful tool for her own devices, but you will never be powerful at everything. You will always need to pay attention to what’s going on, think on your feet. Ammunition can run out, weapons can degrade but you will adapt. To her it is a weakness, the one she believes will allow her to control you, but to you it is a strength.
SHODAN sees herself as master of the environment because she is in control, but she has not earned that power, and so does not truly understand it. By the time you confront her, you have been forced to master the environment. You have earned your power and so you better understand how to wield it; more than that, when that final moment of confrontation does come you understand why you must wield it.
System Shock 2 is SHODAN’s story, but it is also the story of the hundreds of people who died in the pursuit of her dream. You are but one individual, alone, but you have the combined knowledge of those who came before. Echoing on after their death the audio logs scattered around the Von Braun and Rickenbacker, serve to build up a picture of the events that preceeded your awakening, foreshadowing and giving context to your current actions and providing clues on how to defeat SHODAN. You are one, but together you are legion.
When you finally defeat SHODAN you are merely the tip of the spear, a spear forged from the crew members of the Von Braun and Rickenbacker. A cast of dozens, some with their own sub-plots and distinct motivations, some simply there to provide specific information. It’s difficult to remember the identities of all those who helped in your defeat of SHODAN, their voices just one of a multitude. The fate of the other humans who came into contact with SHODAN and her children, is told in an impressionistic manner. A single audio log might not be enough to remember an individual by but together they add up to a cohesive picture, an audio mosaic of the final moments of humanity aboard the Von Braun.
SHODAN’s world is a meditation on humanity and parenthood and the lack of freedom inherent in both. A terrifying place, a paradise lost, the greatest ambitions of humanity cast down by one of their own creations. A place where the balance between the organic and the technological has been tipped almost to breaking point. Where the last hope of humanity is an individual almost as far removed from human kind as from SHODAN herself. An individual propelled forward by the memories and sacrifices of the dead, forced to change and adapt in order to succeed.
SHODAN’s world is unique, and once experienced never easily forgotten.
“This is bigger than my little life, the lives of my men, and the lives of the people I was forced to kill. Resist! Humanity demands it! Resist!”