Beginnings can be difficult to trace, but you can find one haunting the claustrophobic gangways, crew billets, and engine rooms of the Von Braun. “Look at you, hacker,” it says. “Apathetic creature of meat and bone. Panting and sweating as you run through my corridors.”
SHODAN had, of course, taunted and goaded players before. This malevolent AI was birthed on the space station Citadel in the first System Shock. But in that game, she was the clear antagonist. In System Shock 2 SHODAN becomes something else. She’s more than just the final boss. She exists in the liminal space between design and story, game, and player, setting up a tense central relationship that the immersive sim would go on to explore for years to come.
Of course, not even System Shock, which was released five years before its sequel, could claim to be the first immersive sim. The ur-text was 1992’s Ultima Underworld, which blended dungeon delving with first-person immediacy, plus a dose of physics and magic systems to play with. Months before Doom was released, Underworld presented a world to explore which felt real, and realtime action that you could think your way around. System Shock, which was made by many of the same principal developers, translated Underworld’s fantasy setting to a science-fiction one and exchanged magic for technology, castles for spaceships. Your quest was to escape Citadel, where SHODAN had gone rogue, converting its crew to murderous cyborgs and hellbent on shooting the station’s mining laser at Earth. What System Shock introduced was a storyline and missions set by email and audio logs, detailing the locations you needed to go to and the keycodes that would get you there. But System Shock was an essentially lonely experience: everyone was dead or transformed and no one truly accompanied you on your journey. In the sequel, though, you have a constant flow of emails telling you what to do.
First, Janice Polito guides you through the MedSci, Engineering, and Hydroponics decks of the Von Braun, a science ship that has been equipped with the first faster-than-light drive. Polito is the creator of XERXES 8933A/A, an AI designed to manage the vessel. But with the Von Braun having made its jump and arrived at Tau Ceti, XERXES seems distinctly unwell, and almost everyone’s been turned into zombies again. Fortunately, Polito isn’t among the brainless shamblers, and her first directives are authoritative, as befitting a genius scientist. Her orders allow you to fight back against XERXES, and she rewards your successful efforts with cyber modules, which you can use to augment your powers.
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