When I was about 11 years old, I used to read a Dutch gaming magazine called ‘PC Gameplay’. It introduced me to gaming in general, and it also brought me into the world of trying games out instead of dismissing them at first glance. I made a resolution not to assume anymore that something was not my type of game; after the astonishing experience that was Baldur’s Gate, you tend to start looking for other immersive and amazing gems in gameplay.
That same magazine ran a review of System Shock 2 in October 1999, and I was amazed. Not because I thought it’d be such a great game, but because just the pictures and the review scared the living daylights out of me. It took me almost 4 years to gather all the guts I could muster and try the demo. I never realized I was in for an experience that’d return to me repeatedly in the 5 years to come.
The demo started great. After a short intro sequence that outlines the story set forth in System Shock 1, a much older game, I started a new game and started my training in the UNN forces. System Shock 2 is set in a distant future, where Faster-than-Light travel has just recently been invented and humanity is on the brink of starting its first expedition with the newfound technology. After a few years in training, you’re assigned to the military force of the UNN Rickenbacker, a destroyer ship that’s tethered to the large, Faster-than-Light traveling ship, the Von Braun. You serve to defend the ship from any potential dangers.
Things don’t go so well, however, and you soon find yourself waking up with amnesia, in one of the Medical deck’s cryogenic tubes. A voice message from a female officer, Dr. Janice Polito, commands you to make haste and escape the hazardous situation of the imploding bulkhead you find yourself in. The rest of the gameplay really lends itself well to an uninformed first playthrough, but I can tell you that once I had cleared the bulkhead and started making my way through the hallways of the Cryo sector, where deserted, grim rooms with computer panels and dead bodies set the atmosphere, I was already sitting behind my computer with my heart thumping in my throat.
Having carefully and slowly explored the empty corridors, where strange sounds occasionally interrupted the drone of the cryogenic systems computers, I walked towards the sector door and saw the vision of my character lighting up, a hollow voice booming into my dark computer room, and before I had even watched the entire sequence complete before my eyes, turned off the display. The suspense had built to such a point that I just had to take a break. I had difficulty sleeping that night. In the end, it was a break that lasted 3 years; I just couldn’t make myself play it again.
I’m not a complete wuss when it comes to playing games; I played Clive Barker’s Undying without all too much heart-racing. But System Shock 2 unearthed some primal fears in me with its stark, modern corridors and choking atmosphere. It was so horrifying it appealed to me, continuing to beckon me with its gripping gameplay. I just wanted to be able to play it. I’ve played it through, although not even competely, a few months ago, with a bit more light in my room, mind you. When I get more time, I’ll certainly be back for finishing the job and then a second play-through with a more difficult player class.
I won’t spoil even the encounter with your first enemy, which had me screaming out loud, or the first encounter with a midwife, which is still the most horrifying being I think has ever been conceived, or your first walk through the Hydroponics or Recreation decks, but they’re experiences that are more memorable to me than most games are as a whole. System Shock 2 is a stunning piece of storytelling, atmosphere, and immersion set in a first-person perspective. It’s a pretty lengthy game, to boot. I believe it’s still considered to be the only horror-RPG-shooter. You owe it to yourself to play it; unfortunately, it won’t run (well) on Macs in Crossover or VMWare Fusion, so use a Windows machine or Boot Camp to play it.
But while I was busy playing System Shock 2, something amazing was released by the people who conceived the Shock series. And it wasn’t a science fiction game.
Bioshock stirred up the gaming community at large. It was a massive success on PC and Xbox360 platforms. Although a game’s popularity doesn’t actually represent a game’s quality per se, Bioshock is certainly as unique and fantastically-crafted a game as System Shock 2
was is (with the new community-made high-definition texture and model packs, it’s pretty good, graphically). Bioshock is set in the 1950′s, and is completely played in the underwater city, Rapture. It’s a beautifully designed place, really breathing the feeling of the 1950′s and carefully detailed with just the right items and decorations. Bioshock sucked me right in, and I’ve played it through twice. I even ordered the powerful adversary creature, the Big Daddy, as a figure for in my office. This is its very atmospheric introductory movie, which is well worth a watch.
What’s interesting is that Bioshock isn’t scary, unless you truly are of the faintest of heart. Bioshock is gorgeous, engrossing, and immersive. It has a story you can cut steel with. Like System Shock 2, it feels like watching a movie, and you’re the lead actor. It draws you in very effectively, without unnecessary and obligatory filling content and tutorials. It keeps a consistent atmosphere and has believable characters. Only in role-playing games like Planescape: Torment and Baldur’s Gate 2 have I felt so strongly about the occurrences in the game story. It’s quite a thing to have a good game. It’s another to make the player feel like he’s really stepping into another world, and that’s what these games do.
Check out System Shock 2, a free download at Home of the Underdogs, or Bioshock at your local game retailer. You won’t regret it.