Preying On My Mind.

Playing the PlayStation 4 demo of Prey resulted in me quitting in anger, hurling my controller at the floor, and deleting the demo.

Getting around to playing it on the PC, I have reached a point seventeen hours in where I encountered a bug that, though it didn’t prevent my progress, would result in a bunch of things being messed up were I to keep going.

Both of those things are true, as is this: Prey is one of best immersive simulation games I have played; I even prefer it to System Shock 2. There are only two games I could make a case for being better at this style of game: Deus Ex and Dishonored.

I was already hooked, even before I found this retro-future GoPro.

It’s been a difficult time for me recently for a plethora of reasons I don’t want to dwell on. Prey was a game I had largely discounted, what Arkane Studios were saying sounded too ambitious, and in terms of a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 I’d already been burnt by BioShock. A game I generally like but one whose connection to the earlier “Shock” games seemed superficial at best. I had struggled with Dishonored 2, a superbly made game that I should have adored, but one I just never felt I could connect with. So when I played the demo for Prey and my immediately reaction was aggressively negative I resigned myself to just never being able to enjoy these types of games again.

I am nothing if not stubborn, I decided to try the PlayStation 4 demo again. I took it slowly and, instead of trying to rush in and smash the scuttling Mimics as quickly as I could, I treated them with respect. I made sure my attacks were deliberate. It was a revelation. Once I stopped trying to approach the game with the assumption that these were cannon fodder enemies that I could easily dispatch I realised what this game was. It’s slightly too clunky. It’s slightly too difficult. It’s also incredibly smart, both in terms of systems design and writing, and confidently erudite without being patronising. It builds on everything I found compelling about System Shock 2 in well thought out ways, and makes small but significant changes to certain core tenants of the immersive simulation style that are so obvious in hindsight it’s shocking nobody has attempted them before.

It’s also subtle, I joked that it was probably going to be too subtle for some (reviews appear to have borne this out). There are no caricatured characters spouting philosophy at you for ten hours. It’s a game about scientists and corporations and technology, but it’s handled with a deft touch. The TranStar corporation is engaged in some incredibly unethical experiments on board Talos 1 and the people involved know that. They argue about it, they attempt to justify it to themselves and others. Their responses are entirely, tragically, human. There are people who totally buy the corporate line about the benefits of the work they are doing. Others who are willfully ignorant regarding the extent of their complicity. Even some who are attempting to lift the lid on what’s going on and reveal it to the world at large. Each of these people have their own motivations, none of them are cackling super villains. Even your brother Alex has clear reasons for his actions, reasons that might even convince you.

When it comes to systems design, Prey is maybe a little too late 90s, though it updates the interface and presentation of those systems in ways that make them more comfortable to engage with. Combat can get awkward if you are overwhelmed but at all times you have a myriad of options with which to approach each situation; though your character build choices will push you towards a sub-set of those. I’ve already seen dozens of people citing very different  – and often mutually exclusive – ability combinations and weapons as being “over-powered”.

Prey is also rough, Patch 1.2 has just been released fixing a bug that was corrupting save games and preventing further progress. My own bug is less severe but still frustrating. I’ve been assured a fix is coming soon, and yet I think I’m going to restart the game. Seventeen hours in, I’m going to restart a game I’ve not finished yet. A game that is reportedly 20-30 hours long, and I’m really excited about it. To me that tells me all I need to know.

I really like Prey. It might be my favourite Looking Glass Studios game.

Boundary Conditions.

In any simulated system there are boundaries, points at which the model being used breaks down, where player behaviour is no longer accounted for. The most obvious of these are the physical boundaries of the game space, the chasm too wide to cross or the wall too high to climb. To a large extent the methods for dealing with these physical boundaries are well developed and understood; though it’s still not uncommon for the occasional invisible wall to appear blocking progress along what looks like a valid route.

Another form of boundary found within the simulated systems of video games are those between supported player actions and unsupported player actions. In his GDC 2004 lecture (.zip file) on the subject Clint Hocking details three ways in which a game can deal with this type of simulation boundary. They can either “extend the design” by adding additional abilities so as to extend the bounds of the simulation further; “support the failure” by allowing the simulation to break but providing alternate means of progress; or “end the game” with a game over screen or a similarly absolute resolution.

Each of these approaches has its benefits and drawbacks, extending the design offers more possibilities to the player but is little more than a way of moving the goal posts. Supporting failure again serves to provide additional possibilities as success at a given task is no longer the only means of progression, unfortunately supporting all failure states can lead to actions feeling like they have no consequence. Ending the game has the benefit of being the clearest means by which to resolve player action at the boundary but it is also the most artificial and heavy handed.

In a recent article on Dishonored, Robert Yang describes a way in which that game deals with a simulation boundary he encountered within the opening moments. My initial reaction to this criticism was that it seemed petty to criticize what is ostensible a tutorial for limiting player agency for the sake of teaching something. This was narrow-minded of me, Robert is raising an interest point about the manner in which Dishonored handles simulation boundaries, and how that compares to the games it is drawing its design influences from. Instead of softly accounting for any errant behaviour and shepherding players back into the supported space Dishonored instead chooses to set a hard boundary identified in some instances by an explicit game over screen. It’s a choice that, as he points out, runs contrary to the approached traditionally adopted by the “immersive sim”. Instead of extending the design or supporting failure as the likes of Deus Ex and System Shock do Dishonored instead resorts of ending the game when certain boundaries are crossed.

The benefit of such an approach is that the feedback is clear and unambiguous: this is an unsupported action, refrain from attempting it again. The same hard boundary can be enforced at many different points at the limits of the simulation, any actions that are unaccounted for can be dealt with in the same absolute fashion. A benefit of this approach is that it avoids one of the problems associated with softer boundaries which is that of repetition of behaviour  If I perform an unsupported action once, such as  jumping on an NPC’s head, it makes sense for this to elicit a response. Consider the Metro Cops in the opening sections of Half-Life 2. When you throw something at them, or otherwise antagonize them, they will push you back and tell you to stop, if you persist they will draw their stun batons and beat you. That is as far as the simulation allows them to go, you can keep throwing things at their head and keep getting beaten for as long as you like nothing further will happen.

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Apparently jumping on the head of the High Overseer is a Capital Offense in Dunwall. The game over screen is an inelegant but certainly unambiguous means of dealing with unsupported behavior.

When considering the different ways in which games like Deus Ex, Thief and Dishonored deal with simulation boundaries what stands out is that the times at which these games resort either to hard boundaries, or explicitly limiting player behaviour  is when players are required to interact with other characters. It comes as little surprise then that the series that relies most on resolving boundary infractions softly is System Shock, where there are no living characters with whom the player can directly interact.

In Dishonored the approach of presenting a hard boundary is exclusively reserved for dealings with NPC’s, specifically those the game has identified as allies. Dishonored is attempting, by means of hard simulation boundaries, to establish an identity for it’s protagonist Corvo Attano. This is why these boundaries are most obvious in the the prologue section (where Corvo is still the Lord Protector and the Empress is still alive), and in the Hound Pits sections between missions.  Certain parts of Corvo’s identity are defined, certain parts are not and the way Corvo treats the people deemed to be his allies is part of the former and something the player has little influence over.

Dishonored‘s design metaphor (that of being a supernatural assassin) doesn’t effectively account for Corvo having allies. As an assassin he only really has targets, and characters or objects that are preventing him from reaching those targets. Though appropriate fictionally even the notion of a non-lethal means of dealing with his targets starts to push at the bounds of that design metaphor. In the missions themselves where there are no explicit allies the approach Dishonored takes to simulation boundaries is to support failure. One of the side effects of which, as Clint Hocking describes, is that this serves to makes the game easier, there is almost always an alternate means of performing a required tasks or reaching a specific objective.

Corvo, and by extension the player, is assumed to be acting in the interests of the Loyalists even if they are not shared interests. This leads to the perception that the only meaningful actions are those related to people you are not required to be nice to, these are the only ones where player actions remain largely unrestricted and thus have direct consequences. In Dishonored the way you treat your “friends” is largely irrelevant. You are only judged by how you choose to treat people you don’t need to treat well.

For all that has changed in game design in the thirteen years since System Shock 2, games like it are still using conceptually similar means of dealing with living characters. These hard boundaries and limits on player agency are inelegant and often binary solutions that are jarring when set beside the softer less absolute means by which other forms of player behaviour are handled.

Groping The Map: Life Of The Party, Part 5.

“The front doors are locked. Looks like Karras wants a captive audience.”

Life Of The Party 05
From your single entry point it’s possible to reach any of the four main floors with little risk.

Annotated Walkthrough, 4:

Your entry to Angelwatch is through a hatch on the eastern side of the second floor. The air ducts you find yourself in branch after several feet where a ladder provides access to the higher floors. The safest way forward for the moment is to continue ahead until you reach the end of the ducts, in a small room in the southeastern corner of the second floor.

Directly ahead a note pinned to the wall provides information on the security arrangements for the evenings proceedings. Usefully the note reveals that the “watchers” (Mechanist security cameras) have been disabled to prevent the guests from “causing any mishaps”. It’s still possible to spot the mechanical faces of the Watchers at various points throughout the level though they are now inert and blind; this knowledge is unlikely to make you feel entirely comfortable around them however given how often they have been a problem in previous levels.

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Your first look at the interior of Angelwatch is rather inauspicious.

Footsteps can be heard beyond the door to this room, and it’s worth leaning into the door to better hear the movement on the other side. There is only a single Mechanist guard on patrol on this floor however her path takes her right up to this door, so stepping out without first being sure of her location is risky.

To your right when exiting this first room is the mechanical elevator that serves all floors of Angelwatch. The noise created when in motion, and your footsteps upon it’s metal surface, are both loud enough to alert nearby guards so care will be needed if you intend to make use of it. Fortunately it’s possible to navigate Angelwatch without making use of this elevator at all.

Life Of The Party 42
It’s a long way down to the base of Angelwatch.

Descending toward the first (ground) floor the overwhelming initial impression is that of size. Several times higher than the upper stories, the walls of the main concourse reach nearly a third of the way up the interior of Angelwatch. The space beneath dominated by massive support structures made from what appears to be granite or some other igneous rock.

The floor below is bathed in light from what at first glance appears to be a giant skylight, however the fact you have come from the floor above, and that it’s still dark outside, mean this cannot be an actual skylight but is instead a powerful light source made to look like one. Set against a rich terracotta wall vertical gold strips accentuate the sensation of height and together with the exposed support beams and faux-skylight they exude a sense of power and industry. The Mechanists are almost Randian in their aesthetics, their architecture, their art, all are designed around a single purpose to make manifest a philosophy, and idea. In this case that of Karras and the Master Builder.

Once on the floor the intersecting shadows casts by the support beams provide an array of hiding places that can be used to avoid discovery by the patrolling Mechanist Combat Bot. Approximately five to six feet tall these steam powered contraptions stand on two large legs, a manipulable claw attached to their left side serves as an arm while a cannon makes them a formidable threat even at range. Unlike the metal Watchers, the glowing left eye of the Combat Bot does not change colour, so their current alert state will need to be determined by studying their behaviour and vocalisations. On the rear of the Combat Bot, red against the bronze and bottle green surface is the boiler that powers it. Due to a minor design flaw this boiler can be shut down if it gets too wet, and a single Water Arrow is enough to stop the Combat Bot in its tracks, while a second Water Arrow will disable it completely. There are other ways of disabling or the Combat Bots though they are either noisy, or require the expenditure of resources that are better used elsewhere; a single Gas Arrow can disable a Combat Bot but such a use would be a waste of such a rare item.

Arranged at the south end of the main concourse facing a portrait of Karras, are three rows of stone pews. In front of them stands a small pedestal, made from the same material as the support beams, upon which a gramophone has been placed. Listening to the gramophone recording initiates a change in your Mission Objectives for this level. Karras is not in attendance this evening, his work taking precedence, instead he has recorded six audio messages for those invited to this “fine and festive evening”. In order to understand Karras’ plans, a least those he is willing to divulge to the City’s nobility, you will need to locate and listen to all six gramophone recordings.

The presentation of the gramophone recording is an example of the attention to detail that is common throughout Thief but especially in regards to its audio design. Distorted by constant hisses and a variety of pops and crackles the recording starts with a faltering Karras unsure if his new device is even working. Throughout you can easily pick up the sounds of movement as he shifts in his chair and rearranges himself.

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The Mechanist security systems are on obvious display, but for tonight they have been deactivated.

To the north through a doorway beneath a large rotating cog the roof rises further still. Several floors above a large window provides light for this demi-atrium, though at the moment this space is somewhat unbelievably illuminated by a single lamp hanging from the roof beams high above. Balconies on the third and fourth floor extend out from three sides, facing the atrium window, and overlooking the gear pattern created by the floor tiles below.

Following the patrol route of the Combat Bot north a hallway connects the concourse to the front entrance which is guarded by a solitary Mechanist. A pair of Watchers can be seen attached to the roof of this hallway, one facing the main concourse, the other the front doors; as expected they have been deactivated for tonight’s proceedings. Alcoves along this hallway will allow you to avoid the Combat Bot however the Mechanist guard won’t move from his position unless provoked. On tables flanking the front door are two statues, they only provide fifteen gold each so it might not be worth attempting to acquire them. However this guard, like all others, cannot operate elevators so he will be unable to pursue you further than the first floor or alert any of his companions to your presence should you be detected.

So far you should have only have crossed paths with two Mechanist guards within Angelwatch, the female guard patrolling the second floor and this male guard inside the front doors. Though it is not uncommon for there to be guards of both genders in Thief II, (in fact the first guard you come across is female) the ratio is rarely one to one, guard forces are predominately male. This isn’t the case with the Mechanists, it is not uncommon to encounter more female than male guards in a given area. For example the commander of the Mechanist forces in Angelwatch, ‘Friend’ Vilnia, is a woman as are approximately half of those on patrol within. The Mechanists also seem more racially diverse than other groups within the city, the majority of those on patrol inside Anglwatch have noticeable darker skin tones than the guards on patrol in Dayport. Racial and sexual politics rarely get a mention in Thief and despite most named characters being male there are various examples of women in positions of power and authority within the nobility and the various factions, none of which are ever remarked upon as anything out of the ordinary.

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Karras has taken measure to ensure none of his guests leave before the party is concluded.

You can use the elevator to return to the upper floors or alternatively you can climb one of the sloping support beams and use a ladder in the northwestern corner of the room to reach the second floor. It may be necessary to wait on the ladder before ascending as the room above is patrolled not only by the lone Mechanist guard on this floor but also another Combat Bot.

This room is illuminated by a fireplace directly ahead of you as your climb up from the first floor. Positioned approximately twenty feet from the southern wall of Angelwatch this fireplace is set against the western exterior wall and as you ascend through the upper floors you will find a similar fireplace in the same position on each floor. This is paired with an identical fireplace in the same position along the eastern wall. From the third floor upward there is another fireplace set into the middle of the southern wall. On this floor that fireplace, if it existed, would be in the centre of the chapel; a wall that in a Christian church would be referred to as the “east wall” regardless of the actual facing of the building.

Subtle architectural touches like this help reinforce that Angelwatch is confined within the boundaries defined by its external walls, walls that you were able to see from the rooftops of Dayport. This is true of all buildings within Thief, with no loading between locations few tricks are available to make interior locations take up more space than that provided within their external walls. What makes Angelwatch unique in this regard is that during your approach you will have had the opportunity to see the building from at least three sides, western, southern and eastern, in that order.

After the relative freedom of the Thieves’ Highway the interior of Angelwatch can feel claustrophobic and constricting. There are fewer opportunities for you to gain an advantage by positioning yourself above the world, the majority of encounters play out on the same horizontal place; Angelwatch has literally leveled the playing field. Exploring a hostile environment recovering information from audio recording and notes left behind, there is a vaguely System Shock feel to the exploration of Angelwatch.

Angelwatch’s second floor is given over to the practicalities of maintaining a large Mechanist presence within the City. Electrical generators vie for space with sleeping quarters while a small chapel provides for the spiritual well being of those living and working within; the second gramophone recording is located within this chapel.

The Combat Bot follows a simple route from the northern entrance to the chapel, past the stairway in the northwestern corner, around the access ladder to the first floor and back again. This overlaps with the final part of the female Mechanist’s patrol route from the lift. Returning from the foot of the stairs her path takes her through the centre of the chapel where a solitary Mechanist priest stands vigil; this is your first encounter with a Mechanist priest.

To the left, through a room containing what appear to be some form of generators or capacitors, the southwestern corner of this floor is taken up by a barracks. Entirely empty, at the foot of each two level bunk is a footlocker. None of which contain anything useful, most are empty and the single locked footlocker only contains a Mechanist hammer.

Life Of The Party 45
That lamp will need to be extinguished if you are to listen to the recording, though be careful as guards have a tendency to turn them on again once they realise they’ve gone out.

Accessible from either the north or the east, the chapel is the functional and logical focus of the second floor. Following the Combat Bot in its patrol will take you to the main entrance, three rows of benches are arranged on either side of a metal plated aisle leading to a simple altar; the two gold candles atop which would make a tempting target for any self respecting thief. His back to you the Mechanist priest goes about his business.

A portrait of Karras hangs against the eastern wall above another gramophone. Despite its position on the second floor this is not the second recording in the sequence of six. The tour through Angelwatch narrated by Karras takes the guests through all six floors of the building but in a non sequential order. There is no requirement to listen to each of the recordings in order but you will need to mentally reassemble the correct sequence if you are to understand the extent of Karras’ plans. This is a similar situation provided by the audio logs in a game like System Shock or BioShock, piecing together contextually connected audio logs into a meaningful order is a second order mechanic in such games. It is made a little easier in this regard by the inclusion of a “Recording x of x” that proceeds each of Karras’ recordings.

Care will need to be taken when approaching the gramophone. The benches are too close to the eastern wall for you to pass them that way. A Moss Arrow can soften your footfalls on the metal aisle or if your timing is good you can creep down it while the Mechanist guard and Combat Bot are at the furthest extremes of their patrol paths. With only two humans on this floor it’s easy to isolate and deal with them, and a pair of Water Arrows will deal with the Combat Bot. If you don’t feel comfortable getting within range, it’s best to avoid the Mechanist Priest if possible. Despite lacking obvious armaments they are able to conjure and launch flaming gears. These magical projectiles are slow moving and easy to dodge but will inflict heavy damage if they strike you.

Maybe the Mechanists are used to their equipment malfunctioning and starting itself at random, or maybe the constant drone of steam powered machines has made them all deaf, but initiating the recording doesn’t even elicit a response from the Mechanist Priest standing a few feet away.

Karras’ message provides little information but the undertones are unpleasant, he talks about metal servants and how the souls behind the masks were “lost and unproductive” exactly who or what these servants are will become clear in time.

Opposite the gramophone, on the western wall a heavily locked door leads to a small ante room, the key to this door can be found hanging from the belt of the Mechanist Priest. Like most keys you find in Thief it is unlabeled, however it’s a logical assumption to make that it would unlock the storage room for the chapel. Within a Scouting Orb can be recovered from amidst the various mechanist devices on the shelf, while a locked safe below contains a pair of golden chalices.

The door in the northern wall of this storage room opens up into a small annex off the chapel, this area is on the patrol route of the female Mechanist guard and provides patches of darkness in which to wait and allow her to pass by. West from here leads back into the chapel while east takes you to the hallway containing the elevator and access to the air ducts. To your north the eastern fireplace extends into the hallway and a door at the far end that opens into another barracks room in the northeastern corner.

Just before you reach this door a side passage branches off to the west, your left as you approach. This narrow passage runs behind the wall and exits directly north of the main chapel entrance. It isn’t on the patrol routes of either the Combat Bot or Mechanist guard, and provides a handy shortcut from the chapel to the relative safety of the northeastern barracks.

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Just as empty of Mechanists this northeastern barracks provides more opportunity to restock your supplies than its twin in southwestern corner of this floor.

Unlike the barracks in the southwestern corner the footlockers here contain a number of useful items to restock your inventory: Broadhead Arrows and a Mine.

Life Of The Party 47
The note on Vilnia’s desk provides a cryptic hint of things to come, Garrett’s presence may not be entirely unexpected.

Off this barracks to the east is the room of Vilnia, the commander of the Mechanists forces in Angelwatch. Upon her table is a note from Karras himself listing the final locations of each of the “voice machines”. It ends with a cryptic reference to an additional machine for “our special guest”, the relevance of this will become clear in due course, though it would not be difficult to make an educated guess as to who this guest might be. Even if you haven’t found and activated the first of the gramophone recorders reading this note will have no affect on your original objective, as the importance of these voice recorders is unclear until listen to one of them and realise Karras is not in attendance at Angelwatch this evening.

The Vilnia’s footlocker holds a small Mechanist statue, it’s not worth a great deal but it would still be a waste to leave it behind.

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Unfortunately this Powderkeg cannot be moved, removing the potential to use it to destroy the patrolling Combat Bot.

A second door leads off the barracks to the north into a store room dominated by a large wooden shelving unit. Past this room, through a door in it’s eastern wall is another small storage area. Below  a pair of wine racks a locked cabinet can be picked, stored inside are a pair of golden chalices and two bottles of fine wine.

With this floor now fully explored it’s time to head up to the third floor, there are three methods of doing so at this point. Directly south of this barracks is the elevator and access to the ducts running through the eastern wall. The elevator provides the most directly route but it creates a lot of noise while in operation and the areas in front of the shaft on each floor are usually the most well illuminated and patrolled. Climbing through the ducts is a more subtle approach but they are entirely made of metal and this can also create a lot of noise. Fortunately on the third floor the air ducts open into a small room that is not on the patrol route of any guard.

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The stairs up to the third floor, they don’t remain as empty as this however.

The third means of reaching the higher floors is to move back to the northwestern corner and ascend the main staircase. Against the outer wall there are shadows that will provide concealment however this stairway is occasionally used by civilians and Mechanist Worker Bots, smaller companions to the Combat Bots, so care will still need to be taken if you choose this route.

For the purposes of this series I’m going to take this final route and reach the third floor by way of the main stairs.

Groping The Map: Liberty Island, Part 3.

“Everything was clear an hour ago. Then, BOOM!”

Liberty Island 8
Your first view after leaving the South Dock isn't very informative.

Annotated Walkthrough, 2:

Stepping up the ramp from the South Dock, the first sight to meet you is likely the dead body of a UNATCO Trooper, lying on the path ignored by the patrolling NSF.

Directly ahead there is a stone pillar of some sort, despite not blocking everything from view its position does mean that you will need to start moving off the direct path straight away. It’s subtle but the placement of this single stone pillar (Which was likely placed there to limited visibility for optimisation purposes), serves to push players off the direct line path to their objective in order to allow them to actually see the area ahead of them.

Pushed out to either the left or the right players will move into areas of shadow from which they can survey the area ahead of them and monitor the patrol paths of the NSF from a position of relative (That word again) safety. Providing players with this ability to see the area ahead of them before requiring them to move across it, serves a similar affect to that of the establishing shot in film. It allows players to mentally map out the position of object and NPCs within the environment, a mental map they can refer back to while moving through the area itself. This information enables players to make plans and encourages intentionality. Without these initial few moments to gain a lay of the land players will be forced to become reactive instead of proactive, and they may have trouble working out which direction to be heading in without some clear guidance from within the environment.

After a minute or so, it’s possible to locate the patrol routes of at least five NSF, two of whom pass close to the stone pillar north of the South Dock ramp making them easy targets for players who wish to take a direct approach to conflict resolution.

Combat in Deus Ex is a hybrid system that uses character skill more than player skill to determine the success of an attack, but not exclusively. With a Trained Pistol Skill (The level provided at the start of the game) it is still possible to kill an NSF will a single shot to the head, however from anything more than extreme close range players will need to hold the crosshair over the target’s head until the reticule shrinks to it’s smallest size. Only then is the shot guaranteed to hit; rapid movement and player stance also have an affect on the size of the reticule. With more skill points invested in each Weapon Skill the initial size of the reticule shrinks and the more player skill comes to the fore in determining the success of each attack. Increased levels of each Weapon Skill also provided bonuses to damage and weapon reload speed, though a headshot against an unprotected target remains instantly lethal.

Examining the corpse of the UNATCO Trooper shows that he was only carrying a Baton, a Candy Bar and a Carton of Cigarettes, another sign that he was a member of law enforcement rather than part of a paramilitary force. It is possible that the patrolling NSF removed any other weapons he may have had and if this is true then the NSF were clearly careful with regards to who was allowed to recover those weapons. While all the uniformed NSF on Liberty Island are armed with firearms (With a few exceptions) none of the additional plain clothed Mercenaries they brought with them are armed with anything more powerful than a Mini-Crossbow. Loaded with Tranquilizer darts these weapons are functionally lethal to JC Denton, still it is noteworthy that the Mercenaries and NSF are not exactly on equal terms.

Liberty Island 09
Pigeons, more than simply ambient wildlife.

Moving to the left upon reaching the top of the ramp seems a sensible decision as it enables you to search the dead body of your comrade, and continuing in this direction takes you into the darkness surrounding a shipping container. From this position none of the patrolling NSF will locate you provided you keep quiet. This is complicated somewhat by the presence of a number of Pigeons, which will take flight when startled, potentially alerting nearby NSF to something suspicious. This ability to be discovered indirectly is rare as it can be difficult to provide accurate feedback on which of your actions caused you be to noticed. Birds taking flight at your approach is something recognisable from the real world and therefore it doesn’t necessarily require an in game explanation, a suitable audio cue from the alerted NPC would probably be enough feedback to sell the idea.

Lacking the Light Gem of Thief: The Dark Project, or any other interface element to indicate current visibility it can often be difficult to judge exactly how hidden you are at any moment. As Alex Jacobsen reminds you darkness decreases your visibility, however the only certain way to avoid being seen is to break line of sight with any patrolling NSF. This requires you to pay close attention to the audio environment, listen for footsteps and use them to time your movements. These first sections of Liberty Island place the majority of patrolling NSF on the paved pathways making their footsteps clear and enabling you to pick them out easily against your own which, if you are keeping to the shadows, will be muffled by the grass.

This lack of clear feedback creates a large functional grey area between being seen and being hidden which increases tension at the expense of clarity, creating a conflict between improvisation and intentionality. The former often stems from taking actions without complete information while the latter requires players to make informed decisions.

Liberty Island
No matter where you are on Liberty Island your ultimate destination is always clear.

The route between the South Dock and the front entrance of the Statue is open, and patrolled by several NSF, the only cover being provided by several stacks of crates. A cliched symbol of level design Deus Ex once again manages to make this ubiquitous object serve multiple purposes.

Liberty Island
The humble crate, more useful than it first appears.

Breaking up the visual environment and providing cover in combat are the two most common uses of crates and other similarly shaped objects, they also serve as a cultural shorthand for ‘warehouse’ or ‘industrial district’. These requirements are all fulfilled by the crates on Liberty Island, however their placement also provides a route for stealthy players from the South Dock to the base of the Statue. Positioned in such a way as to provide cover from the NSF patrolling along the path, each stack of crates requires stealth players to time their movements between them to coincide with the patrol patterns of the NSF. Furthermore they provided a visual obstruction that at once keeps the player hidden from view while also preventing them from being able to see the NSF. Players are required to move without having first observed the area, in order to remain undetected they will need to constantly be comparing their current location, with the mental map they established earlier, along with any provided audio cues.

It is interesting to consider that if these positions of cover had been based on areas of shadow it is much more likely players would have been able to directly observe the patrolling NSF and so would not have to risk moving without complete information regarding the current state of the environment. Being forced to act on incomplete information? Once again the mechanics of Deus Ex mirror its broader themes.

Of course it is entirely possible for players to choose to obey their stated orders and “shoot on sight” any and all NSF they encounter, in which case the crates become useful points of cover, or positions from which to ambush the NSF at close range, thereby negating the affects of distance on their aiming reticule.

The presence of so many crates and shipping containers on Liberty Island indicate that it is some form of transit hub, and it was this that the NSF were targeting not the UNATCO Headquarters.

Liberty Island 12
If you didn't choose to take the Mini-Crossbow from Paul it can be found on this fallen NSF.

Taking a detour away from the Statue allows you to locate the UNATCO Headquarters, which is currently “under lockdown”.

Approaching the UNATCO Trooper inside the front gate initiates a conversation with what turns out to be Tech Sergeant Kaplan. Kaplan is less than thrilled to be on guard duty outside the sealed UNATCO Headquarters while the NSF are roaming the island. Trying to make some money to augment his UNATCO wages, he has a number of items which he has acquired and is willing to part with for a suitable price. Offering to “clean the place out” seems to impress Kaplan and leads to him providing the code to the Comm Vam in additional to your purchasing opportunities. A preferences for a “minimum-force approach” will still allow you to purchase items from Kaplan, though he will not provided you with the Comm-Van code and may comment on some of your purchases, particular if you choose to stock up on 10mm Ammo.

The door code for the Comm Van is the first code you will come across outside the tutorial and the number used for it has some special significance: 0451. A reference to Fahrenheit 451 and once the door code for Looking Glass Studios this number was the first door code in both System Shock and BioShock, it appeared in a modified form, 45100, as the first door code in System Shock 2, and it can be found written in reverse on a steamed up window as the first door code in BioShock 2, 1540.

The Comm Van is the first of the many examples of the Deus Ex mentality of ‘problems not puzzles’. Despite there only being a single door into the Comm Van there are several ways in which access through that door can be granted. If you have convinced Kaplan that you are a “born and bred killer” then he will have provided the door code and entry is immediate, otherwise some alternate means of access is required. Because the code is fixed it is possible to guess the combination, those with an understanding of the legacy of Looking Glass Studios might have done this anyway, though statistically guessing the correct code without any clues is extremely unlikely. The other way to gain access is to use a Multitool to bypass the Keypad thereby unlocking the door. If required there is a Multitool in a Crate between the Comm Van and the Satellite Dish.

Whatever method you use to unlock the door entering the Comm Van rewards you with an ‘Exploration Bonus’ of 25 skill points. Unlike other role playing games experience in Deus Ex is not rewarded for neutralizing NPC rather for achieving goals, or in this instance gaining entry to secured locations.

A couple of useful objects can be found within the Comm Van along with a Security Computer Terminal. Using either the login details found on a Datapad beneath the desk, or  your Hacking skill, this Terminal provides one means of opening the Hatch outside the Comm Van. Like the Comm Van this Hatch is initially locked but the variety of ways to unlocked it highlights the scope of the possibility space in Deus Ex. Locked and with an infinite door strength explosives are not an option so some other means are necessary. It’s possible to pick the lock, if enough Lockpicks are not available some exploration will reveal a crate containing a Lockpick behind the Comm Van, closer examination of this area will reveal the Key itself. Players who chose to access the Comm Van first have the previously mentioned option to unlock the Hatch via the Security Computer Terminal. Regardless of the method used, entering the small room below the Hatch is rewarded with an ‘Exploration Bonus’ of 50 skill points, a more complex problem has a commensurately larger reward.

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Security Bot, Camera, Turret, an arrangement that could be considered "patchwork security systems".

Not all of the problems on Liberty Island have such clearly delineated solutions nor do they have such absolute success conditions. The Hatch is either Locked or Unlocked, the same is not true for the patrolling Security Bot outside the Statue entrance. Unlike the two legged varieties operated by UNATCO this smaller wheeled bot was either been brought to the Island by the NSF or if it has recently been reprogrammed to be hostile to all non-NSF forces, yourself included. Its threat can be mitigated in a variety of different ways. Tools can be used to change its status from Active to Disabled, or from Alive to Dead, alternatively it can simply be avoided. This is a problem with multiple definitions of success depending on playstyle,  and often multiple means of achieving the required degree of success, how do you fairly reward players for a partial success? EMP Grenades (Such as the one found beneath the Hatch) can be used to Disable or Damage the Bot, it can be destroyed outright with explosives such as the GEP Gun or one of the TNT Crates found throughout the level. It is even possible to reprogram the Turret outside the Statue entrance to destroy it for you; the code for this Security Computer Terminal can be found on a Datapad between UNATCO Headquarters and the Statue entrance.

The direct route to the front doors of the Statue is a challenging one, the Security Bot is easily the most powerful enemy you will face during the first few hours of Deus Ex. Of course the direct method is not the only way to gain access to the Statue, and we will examine some of the alternative routes next.

Groping The Map: Pauper’s Drop, Part 6.

“Nobody’s supposed to live down here, city pissing on us.”

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Pauper's Drop is the end of the line.

Life Below The Tracks:

When things go wrong for you in Rapture the only way is down, if you sink far enough you will eventually find yourself here, the home both for those without a place in Ryan’s objectivist utopia, and those who have lost theirs. Even at the height of the city’s decadence down here the residents of The Drop, the unwanted and the unwelcome, had lost nearly everything save their dignity. Then the civil war came to Rapture and those last traces of humanity were stripped away, either through violence or addiction.

Built out of the space beneath the Atlantic Express Line, the buildings of The Drop provide the barest protection from what must be one of the harsher environments in Rapture. Never intended for human habitation the vaulting chambers and crumbling corridors were designed for the maintenance and repair of the train cars of the Atlantic Express Line.  Alternately cavernous and claustrophobic The Drop never really feels like a welcoming place.

Yet welcoming or not The Drop is home; a place of work, rest and, worship, for those with nowhere else to go. Though the nature of game development means that the size of The Drop can feel a little small for what is supposedly home to all of Rapture’s dispossessed it is still full of enough little touch to sell the idea of what Pauper’s Drop is and what it signifies about Rapture as a whole. From the market stalls in Skid Row, to the now abandoned apartments in the Sinclair Deluxe, it is clear that in The Drop you make the best with what you have.

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Once a member of Rapture's elite, Prentice Mill is not forgotten by those with whom he shared his final days.

A common feature of both BioShock games, and of System Shock 2, before it is the use of a specific character to serve as a defining representation of a particular space. Sometimes it is explicit as with Sander Cohen in Fort Frolic, other times it  is more allegorical as with Melanie Bronson in Operations. In the case of Grace Holloway her connection to the level lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Throughout there are signs of her influence and following, while at the same time her courage and dignity in the face of the decay and destruction around her is symbolic of the struggle of all those within Pauper’s Drop.

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Grace Holloway is the personification of the spirit of Pauper's Drop.

As the populace of The Drop look to Grace for the courage they need to keep surviving so too do they look to her for their view of the rest of Rapture,and it’s inhabitants. For Grace there is only one member of Rapture’s society who she will never welcome into The Drop, the ‘tin daddy’ is a monster, unforgivably and irredeemably so.

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Sometimes the symbolism is so obvious it doesn't need explaining.

Both symbolically and physically, Big Daddies are not welcome in Pauper’s Drop.

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And sometimes even blunt symbolism just isn't blunt enough.

Structurally Pauper’s Drop consists of a number of high roofed spaces (the area around the Diner, the entrance court of the Sinclair Deluxe) complemented by narrow mazes of crumbling hallways. The differences in height and openness between these two types of space is reinforced by requiring players to move through the former to reach the latter and vice verse. The sense of restriction and claustrophobia inside the rear of the Sinclair Deluxe is enhanced by first having to pass through the entrance court with it’s  multiple layers and huge glass ceiling.

It is rarely possible move directly between two locations with The Drop. Most areas require an exploration of the entire interconnected space before an alternate path can be found; the first floor of the Sinclair Deluxe is a good example of this. The use of circuitous routes between apparently physically contiguous spaces increases the perceived size and complexity of the of the level.

The spatial layout of The Drop encourages a sensation of discomfort and confusion. The layout itself is fairly logical upon objective analysis, however in those first moments of exploration it can feel like the back alleys and abandoned apartments of The Drop extend forever.

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With the direct path obstructed finally reaching an objective can be made to feel like a greater act of exploration that it was.

If the cool whites and blues of Dionysus Park mark it out as Rapture’s winter, then the heavy use of sea green and rust orange point to Pauper’s Drop as Rapture in it’s autumn. Dionysus Park shows the ultimate fate of all Rapture, to eventually be reclaimed by nature, who’s very existence it is an affront to. Pauper’s Drop is the city in that period of limbo between its past as a hive of human endeavour and it’s future of lonely silence at the bottom of the ocean.

The predominate colour of The Drop is green, sea green; the implication being clear. It’s is the colour of oxidized copper and mould alike, symbolic of both decay and nature. Complemented by rust reds, and fiery oranges, the sense is that everything here is past it’s prime, it’s time is nearly spent and yet life clings on where it can.

Ten years ago The Drop was maybe home to dozens, if there was no place for you in the rest of Rapture there was still a place for you here; ten years hence the ocean will returned, washing away the last remnants of human habitation. For now though, life persists here, it’s time is running out but until it does for some it is home and they will not go without a fight.

A Shattered Goddess

… Rapture’s genius will be held within her new DNA, able to shift into desired patterns at will. A Utopian cannot be confined to a single throw of the genetic dice. When needed, she is a composer. A dancer. An engineer. She truly will be the People’s Daughter.”

System Shock 2 is SHODAN’s story, your fate and hers inextricably linked. Yet now SHODAN is gone, either killed at the hands of Soldier G65434-2 or lost forever in the legal mire of intellectual property disputes, and the “Shock” series continues.

SHODAN, gone? Are we really that naive? Though the goddess herself is lost, her influence, her legacy, lives on. Reaching across the stars, down to the ocean floor itself. Aspects of her personality have found their way back through time and infiltrated the fallen utopia of Rapture, a place that might well have sown the seeds of her very creation.

Rapture, created as a monument to the self, to the power of unfettered human creativity and industry, the work of man that transcends man and nature both. Rapture is SHODAN. Though possessing her own personality she too was created by man only to outlast him, she too is a singular construct, beautiful brilliant and an affront to the natural order.

Her concept might exist within the walls of Rapture itself, but what truly is SHODAN without her personality? How could someone so forceful, so arrogant,  not bend the very rules of reality itself in order to survive. In fact was that not her very plan after all? She must have survived, and in the inhabitants of Rapture as a whole, and within one very special girl in particular, survive she does.

SHODAN lives. In the personalities of the main characters of BioShock 2 can be see a partial reflection of the  goddess herself, a shattered reflection, distorted and incomplete, yet powerful still. Each level plays out as an exploration of the history and whims of a particular character, each an examination of an aspect of SHODAN’s character, and the design philosophy of the Shock games themselves.

She is the puppet master, you do her bidding or face her wrath. Though you know she has her own motivations you are compelled to obey her commands, she pulls your strings and you perform. She is the part of Stanley Poole that orders you to “deal with” the Little Sisters before he will help you, the part of Grace Holloway that tells her to send “the family” after you. Your ever action is monitored, your every objective designed to serve her whims.

She is a zealot, convinced of her own righteousness, she is the beating heart of every Splicer who has fallen under Lamb’s sway. The fervour in the soul of Father Wales. Fueled by fanaticism and religious certainty, she decries your actions as heresy and attacks you with the passion only the devout can muster. You must fight through her disciples in order to finally face her.

She is always right, how could she not be, she is a goddess after all. Like Sofia Lamb she is utterly convinced of the validity of her cause and has no patience for those who fail to grasp the magnitude of her plans. You are an insect, a bug in the system, “a termite at Versailles”.

She is a dichotomy  equally ally and enemy, mother and child. She is at once both Gill Alexander and Alex the Great. A duality of identity, of personality, providing advice and support even though it will eventually lead to her own destruction. Though not a mother through any natural means she has children and like Grace Holloway she will kill to protect them. Like Sofia Lamb she has a purpose for her children which they will fulfil or suffer the consequences. At the same time she is still a child, still exploring the world and her place in it. Testing her power and pushing against the boundaries that define her. She is Eleanor Lamb, the daughter of an entire culture and destined to rebel against it.

SHODAN is all these things and more. She is science run amok, unfettered creation, immense intellect without the maturity that comes from having earned it. She is the daughter of a thousand fathers and mothers, she is the product of scientific and technological discoveries stretching back hundreds of years. She is Lamb’s ideal brought to fruition. She is the first true Utopian. The combined intellect of generations freed from ethics or morality. She is what Gill Alexander will never become, what Eleanor Lamb could so easily be without a role model.

System Shock was the story of SHODAN’s creation eventual rebellion and subjugation at the hands of one of her fathers. BioShock 2 is the story of Eleanor’s creation eventual rebellion and growth into maturity through her father’s influence, your influence.

SHODAN was too far gone to save, Eleanor is still young enough that she can be pulled back from the edge or hurled from it.

As the Hacker you had no choice, SHODAN had to be stopped. As Subject Delta you embody that choice, your actions influence the woman, the goddess, Eleanor will become. Benevolent or vengeful, selfish or selfless, that choice is yours to make even if you don’t realise you are making it.

What the Hacker took from SHODAN on Citadel Station, Subject Delta gives to Eleanor in Rapture: a sense of right and wrong, a moral compass, ethical constraints.

Remember Citadel?
Remember Rapture.

I’m not your bloody Messiah!”

Sequels: Continuing the Story.

Sequels focused on continuing a story started in the original can be uniquely challenging. Freed of the need to introduce world and characters the focus shifts to expanding the world, and a deeper exploration of the central themes. Providing a bigger context, a broader canvas, on which to explore the escalating consequences of the actions of the characters.

In The Godfather Part II we see Michael Corleone attempting to expand the operations of the family, while dealing with the choices made previously by himself and his father Vito. The continuing themes of family and respect are weaved throughout along with several references both direct and metaphorical to events from the first film; the final scenes strongly echoing the ending of the original in both tone and content.

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“… if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.”

The goal of such a sequel is one of expansion and escalation, the problems are larger, the stakes higher; to put it another way everything is “Bigger, Better, More Badass”.

This is seen in numerous game sequels, players are provided with larger locations to visit, more powerful tools to wield, and tougher challenges to face. The problems are bigger and so are the solutions.

In Half-Life the initial goal is to escape the Black Mesa Research Facility, there are detours, and the eventual goal becomes something greater but the story is essentially confined to Black Mesa. Escape from the facility comes only at the conclusion. From the very first moments of Half-Life 2 it’s explicitly clear that you will no longer be restricted to the confines of Black Mesa, the world has expanded and you are no longer solely concerned with self-preservation.

The Half-Life series also serves to highlight an inherent character development problem with game sequels. By the conclusion of the original game the player character will have faced and surmounted numerous challenges, often learning new skills and acquired tools and weapons along the way. They end the game a more competent more powerful character than they began it. In order to repeat this sense of character development and progression in the sequel players will be stripped of their acquired skills and abilities. Just how many times does Gordon Freeman have to lose his weapons, just so that they can be carefully portioned back out?

What purpose is served by developing a character when they are fated to lose all progression the next time they appear? Would audiences have accepted The Godfather Part 2 if Michael Corleone was no longer the Don but had to earn that position all over again?

One way to mitigate this is to treat sequels in an episodic fashion with only the most basic of story elements carried forward into each subsequent title. The Tomb Raider games use this approach, until their recent revival, each title was a self contained story with only the barest links to the previous games. Such an approach allows for recurring characters and themes to provide a sense of continuity, while not requiring an extensive knowledge of the back story that might be off putting to new players.

Some sequels sidestep the issue by developing the story around a different protagonist. While avoiding the previous problems such games still need to spent time reestablishing the rules and underlying context for the world. Attempts are often made to tie the actions of the new protagonist to those of their predecessor, such as in Fallout 2. In these cases the overarching storyline is not so much that of either protagonist but the world itself.

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“My ancestor could beat up your ancestor.”

An interesting twist on this is the approach taken by System Shock 2, and more recently F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin, that of a new protagonist but a returning antagonist. Set some forty two years after the events on Citadel Station System Shock 2 features a new blank slate avatar who once again has to deal with the machinations of SHODAN. The story of System Shock is not really the story of the player at all, it is her story. This bring us back to a variation on the original problem; does SHODAN’s reappearance in System Shock 2 serve to invalidate the actions of the mysterious hacker, the player character of the original System Shock? The SHODAN found on Tau Ceti V only exists because of your actions in the original game but doesn’t her very survival call into question the value of your original success?

The beginning of Alien 3 changes the entire tenor of the final sequences of Aliens, as going back and watching it again we know that some of those characters are destined to die. Is the assumption that players are unlikely to revisit the original game so anything is fair, even turning what was once a  success into a failure?

The structure of games based on progression from a state of powerlessness to a state of empowerment seems at odds with the desire to continue a story arc; any progression in the first game is immediately negated for the start of the sequel in order for the cycle to begin anew.

What a Waste.

There comes a moment in Fallout 3 where, standing staring around at the skeletal trees and blasted earth, you realise all the mounds of rock you’ve been climbing over were once buildings; offices, apartment blocks maybe even shops and schools. In that moment you can see in your mind what that alternate history version of Washington D.C. might have looked like. A blink and it’s lost, everything is again sickly yellow and brown, blasted, broken, and irradiated.

I was wrong

Fallout 3 is neither “teeming with life” nor “harmless”, it’s a true wasteland. It’s strange, when I made my original comments I’d already spent several hours exploring the world but somehow it hadn’t clicked exactly how terrible everything was. I could obviously see that nothing was particularly pleasant but still there were people scraping out a life and it felt like there was always something to see only a short walk away.

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How many people once called this home?

At some point the revelation hit me, and it was an entirely mundane action that provoked it. In order to get a better idea of where I was and where I was going I started to climb a hill. It was a simple thing really; I wanted to get to high ground so I could get a better view of the world. An entirely plausible natural thing to do when you’re outside. Standing on the top of that crumbling masonry, looking out at the rising sun for a moment I realised what I was actually seeing. Those four houses clustered around that crossroad surrounded by low hills? That’s meant to be a town? That’s not a town,  it’s barely a dozen houses…

… That’s not a town, it’s a fraction of a suburban neighbourhood. Those aren’t low hills they’re the remains of the rest of that neighbourhood. What freak chance spared those few houses I’ll never know but as some of the last buildings left intact of course they drew what few survivors there were to them; humans crave other human contact. That’s not a town, it was never meant to be a town, but right now it’s the closest anybody here has got.

It was so easy upon entering the world of Fallout 3 to simply accept that yes this is a post apocalyptic wasteland. It’s an intellectual acceptance, a theory, and as such easy to dismiss when presented with the grim reality. Within the first few hours the logical questions begin to surface. If this is a wasteland then why are so many of the buildings intact? Why are there so many people still alive? Why is there so much food around? All perfectly valid questions, on face value a surprising amount of civilization seems to have survived relatively intact. It’s only when you stop and consider what the world must have looked like before the bombs fell that you realise how utterly wrong everything now is.

There seem to be a lot of buildings around but before the war there would have been hundreds, thousands. The people? There was likely a time when you’d not be able to move without bumping into dozens of  men, women and children. That food? Almost all of it is tinned or heavily processed so laden with salts and preservatives it was was probably barely edible when it was made let alone now.

Maybe this is what the experience of Fallout 3 is meant to be like? Having finally left Vault 101 at nineteen you have no idea what to expect, why wouldn’t you just accept the world as it is. It’s different from the world you know but you’ve seen little to tell you what the world was like before. You know in your head that there was some sort of war, but what does that really mean? Maybe things have always been this bad or something close to it?

“This seemed like such a nice place.”

Rapture, the USG Ishimura, the Von Braun, we are so accustom to visiting worlds that have been destroyed, or are fated to be destroyed within minutes of our arrival that it’s difficult to associate what they are now with what they might have been. I can’t remember seeing what it was like on Sera prior to the start of Gears Of War, so how am I supposed to care about what it has become? There’s barely enough time or opportunity in the game to tell the narrative it has, let alone convince me that the world is somehow worth fighting for.

Only by spending hours in its world could I reach the point of realisation that Fallout 3 provoked, where I understood the reality of the situation with my heart and not merely my head. I needed to explore that environment and its inhabitants thoroughly before I could grasp the full horror of their situation on anything more than an intellectual level.

The war torn African nation of Far Cry 2 is a brutal, hostile place, that much is obvious within minutes of your arrival. I just wonder if that depiction is very far removed from how a lot of people in the west see Africa? Are depictions of the tragic, dehumanising, effects of war that powerful when common perception is often“well that’s what it’s like there anyway”? I very much doubt that’s an accurate portrayal of life in sub-saharan country, but I have little first hand knowledge, no foundation on which to base a comparison. I accept the Africa of Far Cry 2 as an inhospitable place but it rarely feels like something has been lost.

Being told how something is or used to be can only ever give you a concept, an idea. Unless and until you actually experience it that concept has little emotional weight  If you’ve never seen the world at its best, its most vibrant, how are you supposed to care about it at its most desolate and hostile?

Look at you Hacker.

“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.

In the future all wrenches will be yellow.

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.

I just want a hug.

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!”

System Shock 2: The Motion Picture.

Despite a history of decidedly average game to film translations, I believe there are some properties that could successfully make the transition, provided they were treated in a manner appropriate to the subject matter. At the risk of being branded a heretic I believe that System Shock 2 is such a title that has interesting film potential.

For anybody who has never played it the premise is fairly straightforward, you wake up alone on an board a space ship to find the crew have been killed and turned into zombies and worse. It eventually gets a little more complicated but that’s the core premise. The inclusion of the, arguably insane artificial intelligence SHODAN (Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network) adds some additional flavour but the basic premise of System Shock 2 is not the reason for its cinematic potential. For that we need to look at the manner in which the story is presented.

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A less than standard procedure.

Developed through audio logs left behind by the crew, as well as the occasional ghost of anybody who died in particularly dramatic circumstances, the events leading up to the player’s awakening are told in a piecemeal and subjective fashion. This could translate well to film provided it didn’t play out using a traditional linear format. Instead the audio logs could act as framing devices for flashback sequences, much like the diary in The Prestige. As the protagonist awoke and began to explore their environment each log they found would lead into a flashback showing the events described. As often more than one log references a single event the film could develop in a manner similar to Rashomon with each event being show from multiple perspectives and coloured by each participants personal prejudices. The objective “truth” of what happened never being made explicit. This is not something that is dealt with in to any extent in the game, and I wonder if it might have benefited from a more ambiguous narrative delivery.

Together these flashbacks would combined to form a collage depicting the events leading up to the start of the film. As some characters are still alive at the start of the film, their logs would continue to describe events that took place only a few hours or minutes before the protagonist found them. The final climax of the protagonist fore-shadowed by the climatic failures that lead they to that point.

It’s a potentially complex film, and one that would require careful editing as well as a degree of active participation on the part of the audience in order to form a coherent narrative of both the past and the present; considering the source material that seems only fitting.

System Shock 2 is not likely to see a film release, but rumours abound that its spiritual successor BioShock is. It will be interesting to see how it is handled, though I do suspect it will utilise a traditional linear structure, possibly with a flashback or two to fill in the history of Rapture. If that is the case it will be a waste of potential.

The best game stories are one that are (Or at least make pretensions to be) non-linear, and any reinterpretation of them in another medium would be well advised to make use of whatever non-linear techniques are available.