"L-l-look at you, Hacker, a pa-pa-pathetic creature of meat and bone, panting and sweating (panting and sweating) as you ru-run through my corridooooorssss... H-h-ho-how can you challenge a perfect, immortal machine?"
Chances are, you've heard these words before. They would bring a chill to your spine, goosebumps to your skin and the surge of adrenalin comparable to seeing a 747 veering down sharply towards an inevitable crash down on your very location. The Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network (or, more commonly, SHODAN) had swiftly become the world's most famous, most favorite and most hated AI at once way back in 1994 with the release of the original System Shock, developed by Looking Glass Studios and published by Origin Systems (later simply Origin, later gobbled by EA in order to be remembered only as the new name of the EA Download system), although initially, she was just another run-of-the-mill baddie with little personality.
That changed when in 1995 the game was re-released in a high-resolution SVGA-graphics-driven CD version that featured full voiceovers for each and every e-mail, data packet and audio log the protagonist could come across or receive. While far from the first game ever to become fully-voiced, it was one of the first to utilize them in order to make its world believably scary. This was also one of the first, if not THE first cases where there would be Rule 34 fics written about an AI - I've read quite a few of them, and holy hell are they surprisingly accurate to the gameworld.
In any case, let's reel this back in a bit.
2072 is not a nice year to live in, as it is a classic cyberpunk dystopia on Earth. The Tri-Optimum corporation rakes in quite a lot of moolah with its multi-pronged operations and products, although the pinnacle of their technological achievements is Citadel Station - a giant research-and-development facility orbiting Saturn. The price tags on that research are astronomical, the details classified.
A lone hacker accesses data on the station and its research and is quickly apprehended, but is intercepted by a Tri-Optimum official interested in skipping a few rungs of the corporate ladder using said hacker as a tool - he intends to reprogram SHODAN, the AI controlling Citadel, in order to manipulate his position in the company. Unfortunately, unshackling SHODAN allows it to become a her - and she pronounces herself a goddess, and the humans - her subjects. Reprogramming and enslaving the electronics of Citadel, she captures, kills and turns into cyborg slaves the crew of the station, and all seems to be lost... Until six months later, the hacker wakes up from his healing coma after being fitted with a state-of-the-art cybernetic neural interface that essentially turns his head into a supercomputer... Oh, and also comes with a heavy amnesia as a side-effect. That hacker is you. And SHODAN will not make your survival in her domain easy. Not by a long shot.
While technically a survival horror (the game's creators later insisted that this was the best way to define the genre of the game - of course, back when it was created, the genre consisted of approximately four games, one of which was never released outside of Japan, so it was marketed as an action-adventure), it utilized the engine of Ultima Underworld - an action-RPG - to create an action-adventure hybrid that contributed absolutely nothing to the evolution of the FPS genre despite containing EVERYTHING that it aspired to having ten years later - true-3d geometry (as opposed to 2.5D of Doom or portal-based 2.9D of the Build and Marathon engines and comparable to the 3d of LEIA/JEDI), variable crouching/lying down (flat on your belly or up on your elbows? squatting like a duck or half-crouched or standing tall?), variable leaning left-and-right, a WASD-like default control layout, multiple swappable ammunition types for firearms that worked on a clip-by-clip rather than bullet-by-bullet basis (meaning that if you ejected a half-empty clip, it would remain half-empty in your inventory - a bit awkward, but rather realistic), and so on and on and on.
It was also the first FPS or FPS-like game where you absosmurfly HAD to use the mouse. The keyboard only moved you around, to interact with the cybernetic implants and the gameworld, you needed the mouse - walk up to a button, move the cursor over it, click, and poof, it is pressed. Pick up one item out of a pile instead of having to pick them up like you would in a modern-day FPS by simply moving the mouse over it while the camera remained static - wonderful! The combat worked on the same principle - while the melee weapons were simply "walk up and whack", you could aim your guns without moving your character OR the camera in any way - the gun hand would move separately of the "head" and would aim at whatever you would point your cursor at, letting you riddle enemies - the various cyborgs and robots that SHODAN sent after you - with flechettes, or electric charges, or laser blasts, or what-have-you.
Another fun element was the configurable HUD. Wanted the minimap? Inventory readout? Weapon readout? You could rearrange the HUD elements (within certain boundaries) on the screen, either keeping the vision field small and the HUD huge, or making the vision field fit the screen and the HUD an overlay you could turn on and off on a section-by-section basis on your own whim, an element which was very comfortable - and which of all the action games in the world (not even mentioning horror games) only Dead Space repeats.
But that wasn't all you could use. Stim-injectors that would heal you, boost your reflexes, protect you and cleanse you from radiation and poisons, help you see in the dark... all of which would affect your various bodily functions, which the game duly tracked and made modifications to depending on what you were doing and where you were doing it. Those fancy multicoloured EEG-like lines in the background of the UI? Those are your character's ACTUAL EEG readings, heart rate monitor and so on, and they would change depending on how much drugs you boinked up on - you could actually die from an overdose, a drug crash or an ill-timed cold turkey. And that was awesome.
You could also jack into cyberspace here and there, switching to a Descent-like gameplay floating through a zero-g environment intended to signify the internal computer networks of the station which you would have to navigate, eliminating defence programs, firewalls and downloading whatever data you came across, be it internal memos, firmware upgrades for your implants or access codes to that one locked door you could not get through.
To further help you on your journey, here and there you would find audio logs (and sometimes you'd get them e-mailed to you), made by the survivors of the massacre SHODAN perpetrated, detailing their lives before AND after you, Mr. Hacker, turned their peaceful research station (where they made all these wonderful toys of death) into a living hell. That was where the CD version really shone - the fear in the voices of the survivors, simple scientists, not that well-suited for combat, some of which became grizzled killers by the time they met their unsavory end, surviving for a few months of the half-year you were sleeping away peacefully in your well-locked operating room. And, of course, there was also her. The Goddess. SHODAN. An interesting case of when "voiced by professional programmers" really did work - Terri Brosius, the wife and co-conspirator of the company's main sound engineer and composer, lent her voice to the malevolent AI, processed through different filters in order to create the soundscape that was SHODAN, and was immortalized in the gaming hall of fame as one of the ultimate baddies and most scary AIs. And it was well-earned. There's a very valid reason why GlaDOS is always compared to her.
The bottom line was: while the game suffered from glitches, most of them came down to the fact that even the low-quality graphics floppy disk version was too computer-hungry for the average machine of the time, and for what it was worth, it gave as good as it got, delivering unparalleled real-time three-dimensional terror straight into the player's brain, separating them from reality in the most vicious manner imaginable. And we were okay with it.
"Do You Remember That One?" - System Shock - "Look at you, Hacker..."
Blog entry posted by Noelemahc, Jun 13, 2012.
About the Author
A Russian Econ major with a minor in graphomania. Used to write for a Russian gaming magazine a while back, apparently wasn't very good or they wouldn't've cancelled his column to replace it with one devoted to listing erotic fanservice moments in videogames and anime series. Has a penchant for long-winded distracted rants and a bizarre affection for very old videogames.