On Difficulty: A Few Hours With System Shock 2

It's not a very happy game, really.

We all have our embarrassing secrets. For instance, Jim has never hopped, too scared to take such a risk with gravity. Adam never realised you were supposed to apologise to ducks. And I’ve never played System Shock 2. It’s not my fault – I was busy. But with my first gap in my schedule since August 1999, I’ve been having a go at the freshly re-released version on Steam. It’s… it’s not easy, is it?

For me, System Shock 2 has become more of a beacon for what games no longer are, than what it perhaps is in its own right. It’s a fascinating piece, a fusty grandfather of the few FPSs still using their imaginations, a knowing father of games that defined my twenties like Deus Ex. But at the same time it echoes dying features of the 90s, some missed, some well abandoned. For instance, it’s been a while since I thought, “I really should have read the manual”.

So I’m not writing about the story here – I’ve not played enough of it yet to do that. This is about the mechanics, and how they’ve split my mind down the middle, both recognising what I’ve been missing, and how I have to admit to appreciating some levels of simplification.

The game begins with you – a nondescript soldier – training for accompanying the first FTL ship, the Von Braun, on its maiden voyage. And you’re given huge choices to make without any context. After a few perfunctory tutorials that entirely fail to teach you anything important about the game you’re about to face, you’re asked to choose between the Navy, the Marines, or the OSA. What is the OSA? Details aren’t clear. I picked the OSA, because I’d heard they were the most interesting, and they started you off with psi powers – supernatural abilities from your braintubes. What I should have picked was the Navy, because it turns out they’re the ones who focus on hacking, which is always my preferred route through a game.

This done, you’re then asked to pick two further particular fields of training, without any context to make that choice, and sort of hope they fall in your favour. The training doesn’t actually teach you anything, but rather sends your character away for a year of unseen brutal education that changes a stat once you’re finally in control. Oh, and you’ve been fitted with all sorts of cybernetic enhancements, which I don’t remember agreeing to. Something about a distress call. Something about alien eggs. Something about cryo sleep. SPACESHIP.

A detached voice, supposedly but obviously not Dr. Janice Polito, is giving you some sort of narrative guidance, while the ship’s on-board computer Xercies is telling you off for paying attention to her. And neither is being particularly helpful in terms of how you’re meant to not be dead all the time on a labyrinthine ship filled with shotgun-wielding zombie alien mutant hybrid things, and telekenitic monkeys.

“Polito” sort of talks you through your array of on-screen furniture. You’ve got a Tetris inventory, a minimalist character sheet, an awkward area for selecting psionic abilities, another section containing details about health and Psi levels, along with a Research button, the map, and two slots for items about which I have yet no idea. Then there are the recordings of dialogue from Polito, crew members whose recordings you’ve found, and hints about what you’re supposed to be doing, next to a button that says “MFD”, and another tab that collates the key access you’ve so far gained. Splurge.

Most bizarrely, the instructions for most of these elements, and more importantly how they relate to the world around you, are found in Information points mounted to the walls in the baddie-infested corridors. Even reading how to flipping play the game is dangerous. Because all those elements are further complicated by the need to charge some of them up via occasional charge points, others require the use of injections, food, boosters, software, and many other never-explained bits and pieces.

Despite appearances, I’m not an idiot. I fathomed pretty much all of it as I needed to. But I became aware that the process of fathoming as I go along is not one I miss. I think a game released today that was so muddled, so jumblingly complicated, would be criticised for it. But I’m certain there are Shock 2 fans currently boiling blood out of their eyeballs in rage at the paragraphs above. And I sympathise – I don’t doubt that games are far too over-simplified in terms of their first impressions these days. While I don’t wander into the scary world of RTS gaming, where I suspect such complexity likely still resides, certainly in the world of the FPS you’re lucky if you need to know more than three buttons and one menu.

But while I would love to see more intricate, complex systems returning to games, I am going to be heretical enough to say I wouldn’t want it to be delivered as opaquely as appears in Shock 2. Because for me, this process of being bemused by the game’s mechanics got in the way of enjoyment, and that’s where I think a line is crossed. Because System Shock 2 is really enjoyable.

And bloody terrifying. Oh my goodness, I’d forgotten what it was like to have a game be so unrelentingly tough and cruel. Even replaying the exquisitely frightening Thief a couple of years back, that game at least gave you down times, moments of respite. SS2 never lets up. You can’t clear an area of enemies – they can reappear from somewhere. But more terrifyingly, not in a predictable way. It doesn’t respawn them after so much time, or have everything reset when you revisit a previous location. It’s just, sometimes, seemingly at random, somewhere that felt safe suddenly isn’t any more.

And you’re weak. So, so weak. Everything about you is weak. If you’re not a Marine, you can’t even fire a gun when you start. As an OSA I was wandering the grey metal corridors armed with a spanner and a psi orb thing that let me fire off a slow, weakly bolt of cold that would eventually take out enemies if I ran away at the same time. If you can fire a gun, that gun is weak, degrading as though it were allergic to bullets. Tiny stupid monkeys can kill you in a couple of hits. Giant stomping robots probably don’t even notice you were there before they’re done spilling your blood. You’ve got tasks you need to complete in these tunnels-o-horror, you’re compelled to keep heading back and forth having retrieved a necessary code from the grossly mutilated corpse of a former crew member. But… but it’s scary!

It’s the unrelenting nature of that scary that makes SS2 most stand out to me. Deus Ex, which I’d argue is far more of a spiritual continuation of the game than anything within BioShock, had so much downtime. Time spent in safe offices, chatting with safe people, creeping around safe toilets of the opposite sex (how do you sex a toilet? female ones don’t have wee around the base). You got to occasionally climb off the tight rope and cling to a secure wall and get your breath back. Not here. Here it’s avoiddeathavoiddeathavoiddeathavoiddeathavoiddeath without pause. And it’s exhausting.

Good exhausting? A large part (not that part) of me wants to pretend that yeah, it’s great! Games like they used to be! None of this modern mollycoddling that’s raising a generation of gamers only capable of following another man’s bottom while they do the shooting/door opening for them. What will they all do when the Hagrons attack Earth from Dimension U? Not like us, eh? Raised on System Shock 2 and Terror From The Deep, ready for anything, capable of opening doors for ourselves. Admitting to anything else would highlight me as a pathetic wastrel, not suitable for games journalist, just some simpering idiot who should stick to Farmville.

Well, I’ve never played Farmville either. So take that. But wow, I’m not sure I possess the mettle for System Shock 2. It’s not the scares – I’m loving those – it takes a lot for anything to make me jump, and SS2 has had me bouncing in my chair. But for the unrelenting, incessant sense of vulnerability, of being on the very edge of failure, holding on with the tips of my fingertips.

But what I’ve taken from this is a far more acute awareness of just how far things have gone the other way. Games tend to either make us irrelevant to the events (Modern Warfare, Medal Of Honor, etc), or ludicrously beyond heroic, ultra-powerful in a world of flimsy papier-mâché competition. We’re given an extraordinary weapon that gets upgrade after upgrade, along with reality-warping powers that let us play with enemies like paper dolls. It’s a power fantasy, and while it’s often a lot of fun, System Shock 2 immediately reveals what a loss it really is.

(It’s worth mentioning the middleground between those types of more modern games – the nonthingness of RPG abilities, where you’re dripfed new statistics on old skills that allow you to maintain equilibrium against ever-scaling enemies. You’re always half a step ahead, and never an interesting distance behind or in front.)

Shock 2 reveals just how potent and atmospheric it is to be pathetically weak. It creates a bleakness that’s unachievable by just painting your backgrounds grey-brown and having the gruff post-apocalyptic super-soldiers shout curse words as they trot ever forward. It’s a bleakness that’s not superficially aesthetic, but intrinsic, and overwhelming. I really am overwhelmed by it. My heart is heavy when I think about carrying on playing this obviously excellent game, knowing what an ordeal I’ll be putting myself through.

Where I’m left is divided on how I feel about that. Perhaps it’s my frame of mind at the moment, perhaps I’m getting old, perhaps I’m growing weak. But that just doesn’t strike me as the most appealing notion.

Yes, so jeer at me, condemn me, cancel your subscription and petition in the streets that I have the temerity to write about videogames. I deserve it. But I do want to stress that I’m not settling for the status quo.

System Shock 2, as incredibly difficult, incredibly intense, and incredibly unnerving as it is, has strongly reminded me of what I’m missing from games. Explained to me why I bounced off BioShock: Infinite like it was made of space-rubber. I don’t want everything reduced down to a left or right mouse button, binary choices along predictable skill trees. I loved Dishonored, but Dishonored was a piece of piss. I was a GOD in that game, a GOD amongst puny underlings, crushed beneath my might. And that was probably the major thing wrong with it. Games just aren’t difficult enough, are they? Sure, you can turn the “difficulty” up, but that just makes it harder to get stuff done – not actually harder. A difficulty level doesn’t change the philosophy of a game. So no, I confess, SS2 is over a line for me that I once never had. But it’s revealed a pathway I long to be walking down in more games. Just, maybe, not this one?

Except that I just went back and played a bunch more.

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