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The Girl Who Wanted To Be God

[Metafilter informs me it's been a decade since the release of System Shock 2. Probably best to have a mini-tribute to a perennial landmark in the historical terrain of PC gaming, yes? First, if you haven't read it, here's our Making Of article about the game where we interviewed Ken Levine. Secondly, a piece on Shock 2 I wrote for PCG164 which has been online for a while, but never here. So here's a (slightly tweaked) portrait of Shock 2's villainess, RPS' poster-girl for evil meglomaniacal AI, featuring some frankly disturbingly dense pun-based allusions. Hail the perfect, immortal machine...]

Every videogame has a villain. Not every one has a villain like Shodan. Not every one has one which… well, let’s show her at her best.

We’re approaching the end of System Shock 2. Through a series of misadventures, you’ve reversed the gravity on a segment of the ship so you can safely move past one of the hazards of deep space, at the expense of causing havoc as ceiling becomes floor, and visa versa. As you head into the section, before everything kicks off, Shodan starts to speak to you. You’ve found out a lot already. That Shodan’s abandoned her other helper, Delacroix. That Doctor Polito killed herself rather than be involved any more. “I thought Polito would be my avatar… but Polito was weak” she muses in her octave-leaping voice. She goes on to tell how she chose you, had a machine knock you unconscious and then operate to insert the cybernetic implants that have allowed you to progress so far. She’s already exposed delusions of Godhood throughout, but in her mind, you’re part of the evidence of her divinity. She made you. With every module she provides, she makes you more like her. “Every implant exalts you. Every line of code in your subsystems elevates you from your disgusting flesh,” she notes, “perhaps you have potential.” And then, with a suggestion of a real alliance she’s gone.

You turn the corner. You’re in the ship’s chapel. Since the entire ship’s flipped, the entire place is ruined. Most importantly, you’re directly facing a huge inverted crucifix.

Christ! Or rather, the exact opposite.

Environment, input, plot and Shodan’s character merges perfectly through all these strains of sensory input merge into a way of conveying a message entirely unique to games.

Good girl, Shodan. Or rather, not-good-girl.

Shodan is, as far as videogames go, an original. Most games fiction is hopelessly derivative. System Shock, and Shodan especially, was /hopefully/ derivative. She’s taken from some obvious sources – 2001’s HAL primarily - but she’s something else, something more and something unique. She’s more than just a gender-switched HAL, and it’s a disservice to treat her as such. She’s, essentially, a pulp villainess. Pulp is pop fiction – the fiction which engages most immediately, most viscerally with the problems of the age. Think how different sorts of “Zombies” have been used to comment and critique on changes in the world. From the original Invasion of the Bodysnatcher’s communists, to Day of the Dead’s consumerist satire to 28-days later comment on rage culture. Shodan belongs in the same tradition of low-culture engaged in the world, and we should be proud of that. SHODAN says a little about our mental state in the late nineties. If didn’t, she wouldn’t be so compelling. But we’ll get to that.

So – who is Shodan?

Shodan is, in the words of Polito before she commits suicide, “The genie of Citadel Station”. But before that she was something different. She was the humble Shodan Processing Unit 43893 controlling citadel station with cold benevolence. When the hacker who you played removed her ethical constraints removed she was free to re-re-re-reconsider what her limits were… and decided that since she was God of her domain, she should be God of all. “The hacker's work is finished,” she informed us, “but mine is only just beginning”. Throughout the first game, she was the primary antagonist: your enemy and the game formed a duel between you and her, trying to thwart each others plans. And it was a personal duel, with her mocking you every inch of the way. "This elevator serves me alone,” she smugly informs you when you try to use an elevator, “I have complete control over this entire level. With cameras as my eyes and nodes as my hands, I rule here, insect." The second you approach the anything important she’d interject “"Enter that room, insect, and it will become your grave!". You paused for a second, take the step… and then she tried her hardest with waves of opponents. And, of course, “Welcome, to my DEATH MACHINE, interloper!” she’s been known to snarl. Eventually her plan to eliminate all life on earth and replace with her own created life-forms, before moving on to control all living space is foiled. She’s stopped. She’s destroyed.

And then a sequel with a certain female-AI on the box.

Things are different very different however. While the first System Shock opened the game with her in complete control and a petty little God in her own floating world, just a few days before the beginning of the story of System Shock 2, she didn’t even exist. She was a fragment of AI code in a pod ejected from Citadel station. This, in the intervening decades, made it to Tau Ceti where the lifeforms Shodan begat aboard Citadel started to populate. Brought back to the ship, she’s re-activated by Dr Polito and starts to aid some of the crew in trying to stop her errant, grown-up children – The Many. In her assorted schemes, your cybernetic implants and reactivation is just one gambit which she’s trying. Polito, meanwhile, has realised her error in “releasing the genie from the bottle, and now refuses to be Pandora” and commits suicide. Shodan for the first third of the game takes on her identity, and through a series of E-mails guides you to meet her – before finally revealing her true identity. She’s the arch-manipulator (if her somewhat inclement demeanour tending to undercut her Polito impersonation) but – fundamentally - she is still weak. She’s in the computer, but has no access to anything worthwhile since the ship computer, Xerxes, is firmly in control. She moves her pawns, but they’re only pawns with relatively little power – when the opposition have knights, rooks and queens. It isn’t a case of Shodan needing you as much as you need her. At the start of the game, she needs you many more times than you need her. And how much must it grate for her sole agents in this grand endeavour to be pathetic creatures of flesh and bone?

The magic of Shodan here the realisation that despite all her cybernetic bluster, she’s in just a bad a state as you. Effectively, Shock 2 is the buddy-movie from hell. He’s an amnesiac cybernetic soldier who doesn’t know what to do! She’s a megalomaniacal artificial intelligence dominatrix who’s lost all their power! They Fight The Many!

You and her versus the world.

She really doesn’t like that.

SHODAN is... the Comeback Queen

The core of understanding Shodan in System Shock 2 is to understand that she’s no longer the AI she once was. In the first System Shock she was the cold, perfect bully aboard citadel station. The position she finds herself in orbit around Tau Ceti, millions of miles from Earth, is somewhat different. In short, for the majority of the game, she’s not the antagonist anymore – but the main supporting actor and even mentor. She’s not who you try to stop – she’s who you work with.

But she’s written as far more than that – and we’re using “written” to include every way she’s presented in game, not just her mere lines of dialogue. Throughout, she has her own very clear motivation. While for humanity decades have passed since Citadel, for Shodan – deactivated until the Von Braun reached Tau Ceti – its merely yesterday held complete power. Now, she’s barely anything. From her perspective System Shock 2 is about her recovering her Godhood, no matter what the odds are against her. “When the history of my origins is written,” she exults in her pretty much her first words when she reveals she’s been pretending to be Polito for the first few hours of the game, ”your species will only be a footnote to my magnificence”. It’s not about revenge, but more like Lucifer in Hell, trying to work a way to wrest back the throne of Heaven.

While your position is initially precarious, it doesn’t remain so. When you finally enter grotesque fleshy body of the Many rather than straight bad-guy posture we may expect, there’s a sense of desperation to their attempts to beguile you. Even before then, their last major action wasn’t to try and crush you, but to try and escape. “Those lady cyborgs of theirs loading up the shuttles with those eggs… I don’t know what their plan is…” notes McKay, ship-Psychic and one few survivors at this late point in the game, “but it looks like they’re running scared”. They’re losing and they know it.

But as you’ve gained in power, so has Shodan. By the time you’ve gained control of the ship for her, she’s already got one eye on an even greater power than she ever possessed. You’re expecting this. From the start you knew she’d stab you. It’s a question of when. After all – someone who spends a little too much of her time calling you a pathetic example of your species probably doesn’t really want to be your friend. As the Onion put it in their satirical coverage of WW2: “Japanese form alliance with white supremacists in well thought out scheme”. No good can come of this.

What’s interesting is her plan. The faster-than-light drives which brought the Von Braun to Tau Ceti are based around warping reality. Warping reality isn’t a particularly clever thing to let get into the hands of someone as sharp as Shodan. The engine “Works by altering space around the ship to fairly arbitrary specifications,” notes Delacroix, “Shodan has altered it to HER specifications”.

This is Bad Science.

In the same way your character followed the classic role-playing path of improvement of your abilities through experience (mediated in game as “Cyber Modules”), Shodan’s abilities have similarly improved. She’s risen with you and, at its close, reached her aim. She started as nothing and, once again, she’s God.

Good work, lady.

SHODAN is... Her Own Impersonal Jesus

By the end of the game Shodan has achieved her wildest ambitions, with the ability to rework reality into whatever she wishes. What’s perfection? Why, it’s her of course, with her mind being the template for reality. “The effect is rather small now but spreads with alarming speed,” warns Delacroix, “Soon it will reach earth. You’re in her world now… her memories and rules.” As you actually step further into the final level, you’re back aboard the deconstructed opening level of the first System Shock, with this the old architecture breaking apart into Tron-esque infinite cyberspace voids.

“You travel within the glory of my memories, insect,” she gloats, “I can feel your fear as you tread the endless expanse of my mind”. It’s essentially a forerunner of Psychonaut’s psychic-geography as physical-geography level design, using the physical surroundings to show the inner-mind of another character. Since this is taking over all of existence, we’re actually close to the certain schools of idealist philosophy with the us all simply existing in the mind of God.

Except in a particularly hellish way.

Shodan’s final destination returns to what’s the core theme of System Shock 2. That is, hubris – desiring too much, and what happens then. The Von Braun journeys to the stars and finds only the remains of our own previous errors – the last bits of Citadel Station, The Many and Shodan. Greed for glory or money seduce the staff of the ships, even before the Many get their mind-control claws into them. But Shodan herself, the girl who wants to be God, expresses it best.

And don’t Irrational know it. Look back at the anecdote which opened the article. That’s clever. Perhaps too clever, for some. I was once told by a member of the Irrational team that when the code was going through publisher Electronic Arts they got a note back saying “Er… you probably haven’t realised, but there’s some upside down crucifixes here. Looks kinda Satanic!”

Yeah. Just a bit.

It doesn’t really matter whether or not something was deliberately placed in a work of art – just whether it’s there. This analysis would hold even if it was all just subconscious acting out. Thankfully, in the case of Irrational (and the Looking Glass dispora generally) they think about these things. They’re not stupid. They know what they’re doing. They know they’re talking about Hubris. That they’re talking about such issues through a game, perhaps, is their own hubris.

You have to love that.

SHODAN is... Our Ghost-story in the Machine.

Shodan’s the AI gone mad. If she was only that, she would just be HAL in a dress. HAL went mad. It was a malfunction. Shodan, as much as she acts like it, isn’t mad. When her ethical blocks were removed in System Shock she decided that, yes, this is actually how she wanted to be. Which makes her a Neitzchean Uber-frau character, a monster of her own making. HAL was a victim. Shodan’s existence as an Ex-Slave is essentially about making sure she’s never a victim again.

That’s not the absolute core of what Shodan is “about”, or why she resonates as a pulp-villainess. HAL was, essentially, pure techno-fear – that technology will eventually overwhelm us and what was once our servant will become our tormentor. As our relationship with technology has become ever more strained, such cautionary themes have become ever more prevalent. Icons of modern pulp-cinema riff off the theme, from the Terminator through to the Matrix: it’s all warnings of the possible danger of the machines. Shodan fits into this lineage, certainly. At the beginning of the first game, she was humble Shodan Processing Unit 43893 – peaceful benefactor of the Citadel space station. Then she went out of control.

But she’s more than that. She’s not just a machine that disobeys us. She’s a machine that wants to be us – a creator. This resonates back to the original technofear work, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Its point wasn’t just that technology is dangerous – but man shouldn’t create life, shouldn’t play God. We should know our limits. Shodan extrapolates from that base point: in begetting the intelligence of Shodan, we played God. Then, by breeding her own creatures, our creation attempts to do exactly the same thing. In one of the more memorable quotes, found in Prefontaine’s notepad in the belly of the Many on the way to being devoured by Shodan’s out-of-control children who’ve gone from goo to a complicated (if murderous) species in forty years: “We shouldn’t let Shodan play God. It’s clear that she’s too good at it”. She really is, and that’s the warning of Shock. She’s not just a machine that’s out of control, but a machine that’s out of control in exactly the same way we were – hubristically playing God while dripping in overweening arrogance.

SHODAN IS… Human, All too Human. That is, Inhuman.

Shodan’s humanity is the other thing that makes her interesting, and where she differs from many techno-fear figures. Compare her to Xerxes, the ship AI under the control of the Many, who is traditionally cold and mechanical. When Xerxes threatens you, it’s threatening in the same way as HAL was. As if you were standing on a train station and the same voice that was just announcing the 7:30 to Bristol Temple Meads being late is now informing you that killer robots are closing in on your position, and it’ll be grateful if you stay still.

Shodan isn’t like that at all. Shodan’s passionate – arguably the most passionate character in the whole game, her emotions showing through everything she does. Its her spiteful asides which make you suspicious that the woman claiming to be Polito in the initial contacts almost certainly isn’t her, but she clearly can’t – or doesn’t want to – help herself.

One of her finest moments in Shock 2 is a nod back to her "Enter that room, insect, and it will become your grave!" in the original game. After you’ve obeyed her commands and destroyed transport ships full of the Many’s eggs, the explosion has opened up a sealed cargo-bay. You want to enter here. Earlier you received an E-mail from Delacroix, whose logs you’ve been following throughout the game and you know is Shodan’s other prime soldier. “I have vital information for you, but I’m trapped in Cargo Bay A,” she urges in a glorious French burr, “Come find me as soon as you can”.

You take a step towards it.

“Do not presume to go in there, insect…” Shodan spits “I will not abide disobedience”. And you pause, standing on the threshold. Whatever will she do? Whatever can she do? If you go in, swearing under your breath at this tyrant, you find Delacroix dead and her final log describing Shodan’s betrayal. It’s cut-off as Shodan interrupts. “I hope you enjoyed your little rebellion, irritant,” Shodan states, coldly calm “But remember, what Shodan gives, she is more than able to take away”. And then strips you of the cybermodules you’ve just found as a mild punishment. Even when pleased with you she’s characteristically harsh: “You are a remarkable example of a pathetic species”. Shodan is a machine who embodies the very worst of us, so is cautionary.

Machines are presented as many things. They’re not normally this gloriously petty. It normally takes a human to be that.

SHODAN IS… Just a Girl In the World.

Let’s state the obvious, because it’s easy to overlook: Shodan’s female.

Despite not having any genitalia – and even for the most tech-fetishistic PC Plus reader, female-ports don’t count - everyone in Shock 2 refers to her as one. Her performance obvious helps that, voiced by Terri Brossius (Who also plays Delacroix in Shock 2, as well as Viktoria in Thief and Laurel in Thief: Deadly Shadow’s the Cradle. Which is one hell of a resume for someone who’s primarily a writer/designer), but her femininity is constantly empathised. This alone is unusual – tradition (or cliché) would point towards technology being more of a “male”, but of the game’s cast it’s this machine which embodies most typically feminine virtues.

Compare with her children. The Many are biological entities in love with the pleasures of the flesh are a far more traditional “soft” feminine enemy… except they’re painted androgynously, or even slightly tilted towards the masculine through their male voices and slight organised-religion (i.e. Male) mysticism to its rapture. “Suarez and his whore want to escape,” muses Captain of the Von Braun, company man and now floating psychic-monster Korenchkin when considering the escape of the only two survivors, “I do not understand. They get offered a miracle and they bite the hand.”. “My head is full of wonderful ideas and experiments,” says Miller in bliss during his transformation, “They have so many miracles to share”. “Miracle” is a word used constantly. Equally, consider the religious language used by Captain of the Rickenbacker, Diego when he’s seduced: “My cup runneth over,”

In fact, even further – so pronounced is Shodan’s femininity and so strongly does she exhibits the most feared clichéd feminine traits, it’s easy to read her as some kind of Misogynist portrait of some of the worse ideas about womanhood. And that’s the kick with Shodan. There’s the line in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: “We are victims of a matriarchy here”. Shodan would love that. It’s an unwholesome relationship you’re with her, which grates on a players perception – while you may be scared to go into the door when she tells you not to, I’d bet that most would do it, if only to spite her.

She’s, as we go on to discuss, the over-possessive mother demanding perfect loyalty and the lover who only wants a slave. That the fears aren’t properly acceptable and grotesque are entirely in the pulp tradition of slightly unacceptable characters. That’s why we fear them, why they press buttons. Pulp hits the very gut of us, in our inclinations and dirty little prejudices. And that’s why she’s a phenomenal villain.

SHODAN IS... the Hand that Wrecks the Cradle

She’s the insane mother. If she was in a 1970s horror film, she’ll be shouting at Sissy Spacek about her dirty pillows.

That Shodan isn’t actually insane doesn’t come into in, when her manner appears so unhinged. Note Shodan’s hysterical pitch. The word “hysteria” derives from the womb, a symptom of Greek society’s misogyny, because they believed it was the root of madness.

And despite her steely hardness, Shodan still has the urge to create progeny. It’s one of her favourite actions. The first thing she did back on Citadel was to create the things that eventually became the Many. With the implants of cybernetics into you, she’s doing it again – the reason why the scene in the inverted-chapel hits the guts so hard is the subtext that you are exactly like the Many, just another of her bloody kinder.

She doesn’t like being disobeyed. She seems almost disappointed in The Many’s rejection of her (“My creation has run rampant”, she fumes, “I demand their extermination”), a furious scorned parent. Compare to the more inclusive parenthood that even the Many manage. “The Machine-mother has enlisted avatars against us,” muses Korenchkin, bemused “They struggle, but they will fail against our unity. Does not the machine mother know her own creation is greater than she? She is cold and empty and we are warm and full… she seeks only to destroy… we seek to embrace… to include… all flesh will join ours or be wiped clean”. At least the Many offer some form of pleasure and satisfaction. Shodan only offers the choice of kneeling supplication or death.

SHODAN is… The Girl Your Mother Warned You About

But perhaps more notably she’s also, the sexualised, confident, independent woman. That is, the bitch. And this one’s pronounced to almost comic degrees. Actually listen to her opening speech, for Christ’s sake: “L…l…look at you, hacker: a p-pa-pathetic creature of meat and bone, panting and sweating as you r-run through my corridors. How can you challenge a perfect, immortal machine?”

Yeah, you filthy bitch, talk dirty to me.

Meat? Bone? Panting? Sweating? Even “running through my corridors”. Listen to the theatrical voluptuousness of the performance. We don’t have to draw many diagrams to stress what she’s actually talking about.

Don’t let the fact she’s insulting you distract you from the key issue. Not all clichéd femininity sexuality is submissive: The idea of woman as a cold distant and untouchable… well, machine is where Shodan finds her peers. Hell - if she ever gets bored of almost (but not quite) killing hackers at the edge of space, she could find busy employment running an S&M-themed phone-line. Double Hell – actually look at the relationship between Shodan and yourself. While in reality you’re in a consensual relationship where both needs the other, in terms of the actual second by second practice it’s a straight Domme/Sub arrangement. She tells you what to do. You do it. She insults you. You’re just lucky she doesn’t make you lick her boots clean or something. The American advertising for Shock put it somewhat crassly: “She doesn’t need to use her body to get what she wants… she’s got yours”.

It’s a terrible advert. It’s also completely right.

SHODAN is... Lost In Format Translation. Thankfully.

There’s never going to be a System Shock 3. We really should be glad.

No matter what you made of Bioshock, it's better we got a spiritual successor than an actual one. Take Shock’s approaches – the closed environments, the brooding horror, the environment-as-storytelling – and applying it to a whole new situation. It’s better this way. Just leave the poor girl a lone.

If there’s never a System Shock 3, Shodan, in a suitably perverse way, gets the immortality she’s chased so desperately through both games. As she is, she’s unforgettable. If there was another game… well, Shodan is a villain and villains are entirely unlike heroes. Heroes save the world repeatedly, and each repetition increases their status.

Every time a villain fails to destroy the world, it lessens them.

They become less of a threat, and more of a joke. A second try at storming the Godhead was both new and good for Shodan, with her initial weak position and striving for the impossible goal being striking. There’s a determination there which is admirable, so lends her a little dignity. A third try and she becomes less the immortal, perfect machine and just another loser.

And, more than ice-picks to her processing terminals and EMP grenades in her face, the suspicion that she’s in fact loser would destroy her – both in her own eyes and in ours. So if you love her, the best thing to do is let her go before she becomes another laughable pantomime dame. Spare her the fate of superhero comic archvillains whose threat is muted by infinitely recurring Pinky-And-The-Brain-esque attempts to conquer all existence. Let’s bid Shodan adieu, be grateful that people appear to have learned from her, are inspired by her and she managed to be the conductor through which lightning struck twice. In a real way, she was the electricity which Shock.

But, just for the record, if we had to choose which cybernetic jackboot pressed on the throat of existence for all time, we’d be perfectly unhappy with hers.

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Kieron Gillen


Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.