Ten Years Later, A Return to the Von Braun
I want to start with some history to edumacate those of you who may never have even heard of a ten-year old game or understand its importance.
In August of 1999, Irrational Games and the now-defunct Looking Glass Studios released System Shock 2, a first person shooter with heavy role-playing elements. It was critically acclaimed and yet never managed to find an audience.
System Shock 2 is widely regarded as one of the best games ever made. I’m not kidding: it has a handful of “Game of the Year” trophies and consistently hits the top ten in all the lists by all the publications. It has a place in the hallowed halls with Pong, Tetris, The Legend of Zelda, and even modern classics like Portal (which really wouldn’t exist without SS2).
I played System Shock 2 for the first time in the year 2000. Now, ten years later, I have finished it again. It was – and remains – The Scariest Game I Have Ever Played.
After a decade, the gameplay shows some wear and tear. Time has proven a few gameplay elements to be poor experiments (the massive level of weapon degrade, some of the ways that context switching is handled) while others have become staples of first-person RPG games.
The interface itself feels a tad clunky. Default keybindings are sometimes awkward. The triggers feel wrong. The inventory screens feel inverted. Ten years of usability studies have occurred since the game was released, however, and it could be (and likely is) that my irritation at the controls comes from a decade’s worth of handling more intuitive systems.
However, I don’t want to talk about the game’s mechanics. I want to talk about the experience of playing the System Shock 2. About how the simple concept of granting the player choices makes the game scarier than anything I’ve ever played.
It’s pretty fuckin’ scary, my friends.
This concept alone tells me all I will ever need to know about whether or not “good graphics” make a game better. A good game makes the game better. When there’s a phase spider chittering towards you and you’re down to only one bullet, you don’t really give a shit so much about the visual fidelity applied to its fangs.
(Ditto for the cryokinetic monkeys with cybernetic brains.)
One of the most important engines generating SS2’s nightmare fuel is the sound design. You nearly always hear what is going to eat you before it makes itself known. This gives your lizard brain enough time to simmer in the understanding of the Big Suck That Is About To Happen.
When Doom III was released, it was claimed to be the “scariest game ever made”. That was bullshit: the game’s fear factor was artificially generated by the fact that your character, a marine, could not figure out how to duct tape a flashlight to his gun. Monsters didn’t inhabit the game world; they lived in secret closets and jumped out at you
without warning. After this happened the fourth time it was expected – and once something is expected, it can’t be startling. “Oh, the bad guys will be coming out of the floor over there as soon as I’m past this trigger point.” There’s no fear because there’s no tension. There’s no tension because you don’t have to make any decisions.
A typical System Shock 2 “Decision Time” goes like this: You’re crouched in a small alcove on the personnel deck. The walls are smeared with blood. Between you and your goal, around the corner (a first-aid station), you hear the shuffling feet and psychotic whispering of a demented, possessed crew member. He probably has a shotgun and you’ve only got five hit points. If he hits you, you’re dead.
Four of your weapons – the ones you have plentiful ammo for – are broken and useless. You do have three shotgun rounds but you want to save those for a real emergency. Normally you might just run in there and smack the guy’s skull with your space wrench, which doesn’t break and doesn’t use ammunition. But seriously: if he hits you at all it’s game over, load an old save.
What do you do?
It is moments like this that create the tension in the game. In Doom III, your options are pretty much “just shoot everything” since you can’t really find alternate routes and you can’t formulate a plan for a room since it’s nearly always going to be “the super silent monsters are going to drop from the ceiling without warning”.
If, as a player, you are not required to make choices there’s no reason to be afraid. Why bother? You’re just on a train-ride. If you fail, you fail. Might as well watch a movie at that point.
Decision time: You have one repair tool. You have two weapons that are broken. One of them is pretty effective against robots but shitty against fleshy targets. The other is excellent at pulpifying dudes but just dents machine entities. Which one do you repair? What’s the likelihood of there being robots in the area I’m heading into? What if I fix the pulperizer and then run into a combat mech? Ugh ugh ugh.
This focus on player choice crops up everywhere. Even from the very beginning, during character creation: Are you going to be a soldier, a hacker, or someone with mental powers? Okay, now make some further choices. And whenever you get the game’s equivalent of experience points (cyber modules), how are you going to spend them?
You’ve been getting your ass kicked pretty hard lately. Maybe you should invest in some more hit points? But, you know, you’ve almost got your hacking skill maxed out, and that’s super useful. Maybe you should up your heavy weapons skill? You don’t have much call for them very often but when the Big Monsters come running, being able to bazooka one is pretty awesome.
I love the game Half-Life. It’s got some scary moments in it (partly because it, too, uses sound to start the terror engines). However, it doesn’t have many choices: you are going to go from point A to point B. You never have to decide what abilities to grow and which ones to allow fallow. It’s far more twitchy; success or failure in the game ultimately comes to clicking the buttons at the right time.
Half-Life doesn’t really serve as a “horror” game. I think in order for a horror game to be successful, the player has to be injected with self-doubt. Is this the right thing to do? Or that one?
Except for the entire “not being scary” bit: while Bioshock forced you to make choices (not many of them, mind you), there are no real consequences for making a choice, good or bad. The meticulous balancing of the game protects even the worst skill choices, leading to the same tepid boss fights having the same tepid difficulty.
Sure, you can choose to eat the little kids instead of rescuing them. However, no one who understands even rudimentary game theory is going to do that: the reward for saving them is so much better than for eating them.
In System Shock 2, a bad build choice will result in extreme difficulty for everything. Better: you won’t know how badly you’ve screwed yourself until you can’t go back.
There is a strong argument to say that is bad game design – that the enjoyment of the player is of paramount importance, all other priorities rescinded. It doesn’t matter how great a game becomes if the player quits in frustration early on. This is a true statement but makes several assumptions about the target market which may or may not be accurate. Sometimes, people want difficult games. They want to be afraid.
Players want to feel like their choices matter. If I make a choice and it is the right one, I feel elation. If it is not, then disappointment. I fear disappointment. I hope for elation. It’s that simple.
Reduce or eliminate that tension and there’s no point to even playing the game.
Shock 2 is long out-of-print but you might be able to find copies on eBay for a small handful of ducats. Once you’ve got a disk, you’ll need to do some magic to make it work in modern hardware. This can be frustrating but ultimately is worth it. there are several mods that update the graphics, even.
And some mods that make the game harder.