Look along the top shelf of the lab stash on the Med/Sci deck of the Von Braun from System Shock 2, the faster-than-light ship named after the father of space travel, and you’ll find samples of various chemical elements, kept in jars the size of peanut butter jars. Lined up in rough alphabetical order are antimony, barium, californium, fermium, gallium, and iridium. And right at the end, you’ll find me, crouched tightly in the space between the shelf and the ceiling.
There are a few good reasons for this. First, here I have a better chance of dodging the visual and auditory sensors of the hulking security robot patrolling the adjacent hallway. Second, I’m in a good position to read labels and apply the correct item to the psionic monkey specimen I have in my inventory. This way I can figure out how the monkey’s brain works and know exactly where to hit his exposed brain with my wrench.
The thing is, I know I’ll end up here, hours later. I’m bound to find a viral weapon or a piece of annelid flesh that needs to be covered in Cf or Ir if I want to figure it out – and I probably won’t find all the same items on the Command deck, or Hydroponics, or Recreational. But there are too many jars here to put in my bag. So, when the time comes, I will embark on a major throwback exhibition. And in the process, the Von Braun will stop looking like a series of game levels and become a three-dimensional place in my memory.
This is the feature that struck me the most while replaying System Shock 2, both in anticipation of the System Shock Remake (opens in a new tab) coming in March, and the more distant prospect of Bioshock 4 (opens in a new tab). The latter is in development at a new 2K-formed studio called Cloud Chamber, home to former developers from the series, and is focused on building “worlds yet to be discovered”. I hope this team feels empowered to create something truly new to inspire the sense of wonder that comes with descending the bathysphere to Rapture or rocketing to Columbia. But I also hope they return to the roots of BioShock, in the very first game from Irrational.
Ken and barbarism
System Shock 2 was Ken Levine’s debut as lead writer and bears a remarkable resemblance to his later work. As in BioShock, there’s an ideological battle – on this occasion between AI dictator Shodan and a hive mind called The Many, replacements for Fascism and Communism respectively. And that dichotomy is explored through the perspectives of dozens of characters, captured in audio logs scattered around the space station. The narrow, dilapidated corridors are populated by ramshackle turrets, rotating cameras, and the groaning carcasses of ancient humans, which you destroy or trick around, gathering weapons and tools as you go. There is no other option: space, like the bottom of the ocean or an endless sky, offers no escape for the pedestrian.
Still, there’s a pervasive sense of permanence in the Von Braun that Irrational left behind in its later projects. BioShock Infinite has distinct neighborhoods analogous to System Shock 2 decks: downtrodden Finkton, the impossibly idyllic Raffle Square, and Battleship Bay, which evokes Brighton Beach. But together they form a rollercoaster ride, a series of unique sets assembled like pieces of a track. There is no turning back. In contrast, the Von Braun lingers the entire time you play, up and down, accessible via the elevator that acts as your portal between decks.
Going back to previous areas in System Shock 2 isn’t just a fun guess – you have plenty of reasons to retrace your steps over the course of the game. Healing is expensive and can easily build up your medical high stockpile, which is constrained by a tight and punitive resource economy. So you’ll want to regularly use Surgical Units, which refill your hit points, but are few in number and far apart. Their locations quickly become etched in your brain, rare buoys for a survivor adrift at sea.
Then there are the extraterrestrial materials, extracted from deformed skulls and pulled from bags where the larvae of The Many nest. It’s what brings you back to chemical warehouses – part of a research path that Irrational abandoned when it modernized the formula with BioShock. And periodically you will come across codes for the doors of the weapons caches of the previous floors. Since your guns deteriorate without maintenance, an untouched stash of Grenade Launchers and EMP Rifles is worth a look.
Even any coin can become a treasure in retrospect. You could wisely drop a Shiny Assault Rifle as it takes up three slots in your inventory and is unusable until you fully develop your weapon abilities. But once you unlock the required RPG skills, that same gun can gain a new luster. And, since an abandoned object stays forever in the world of System Shock 2, the only limitation to tracking it down is your own memory.
Levine’s story encourages you to wander the floors of the Von Braun as if you own the place. Before you can leave the ship, you must embark on a tour of its various decks, restore power and press buttons in places made familiar from past victories.
Individually, none of these ideas are standout features for an immersive simulation or first-person shooter. They might even annoy you, tricking you into staring at the same old bloodstained walls rather than frolicking through entirely new environments. But together they instill a powerful belief in the Von Braun as a cohesive space – not a living, breathing world perhaps, but one that hums and beeps in all the right places. In fact, the ambient noise changes convincingly as you climb the ship, from the bass beat of Engineering to the polyphonic hum of Recreation.
Cloud Chamber doesn’t need to slavishly relaunch the established Irrational model with its first game. There’s a lot about how System Shock 2 works that would be considered obtuse today – and a new BioShock should be bold rather than nostalgic. But if the developers were to return to the Von Braun for just one thing, they would have to bring back that persistence, which gives the ship such a powerful sense of place. After all: what are the Shock games about, if not the story of a place?