System Shock 2: Audio Logs

There's a lot of problems with System Shock 2's audio logs. One of the more common, straightforward problems is how many of them don't make any sense for a real person to have made. Logs in System Shock 1 were often emails and similar going from one character to another, with any information the player gleaned from them being organic and natural. Audio logs in System Shock 2 generally only really make sense if you accept that this is a video game and the logs are for your benefit, rather than something that has any reason to exist in-universe. So basically: completely write off a sizable fraction of the plot.

A more subtle issue is a gameplay(-focused) one, though; in System Shock 1, logs were a means for the game to impart information about your objectives.

See, in System Shock 1, you didn't have a radio buddy constantly telling you exactly what to do next. You were cut loose into the game world and left to fend for yourself, trying to figure out what's what from the clues scattered among emails and whatnot you find around the station. Many of your objectives are fairly literally 'I found a note where a now-dead group of people trying to resist SHODAN's takeover were laying out their intended plan, so I guess I'll go execute that plan myself'. This was a natural and organic way of handling the intersection of 'largely silent, undefined protagonist' and 'no direct interaction with friendly NPCs' and 'the objectives for the game are nonetheless more varied than just killing everything or getting to end-of-level locations'.

System Shock 2 bringing in a radio buddy telling you what to do is ripping out one of the primary functions of such logs. In System Shock 1, you pay attention to every note or email you get, just in case it contains critical information on what to do next. In System Shock 2, you do what the voices in your head tell you to do and ignore audio logs entirely; the only mechanical incentive to pay attention to audio logs in System Shock 2 is that they occasionally contain a code for a keypad, and the game undermines even that utility by making it so that just picking up an audio log will shove the relevant code into your Notes tab. (Exception: the devs actually missed the Med-Sci sub-armory's audio log code in this regard, so that you'll have to actually listen to the audio log... or look it up in a guide online)

Oh, System Shock 2 tries to occasionally have audio logs tell you something of relevance worth paying attention to, but it invariably botches it. If they're not redundant (Example: one audio log indirectly informs you that items you need are on red Cyborg Assassins... but you'll have encountered at least one by the time you find the audio log in question, you'd chase them down, kill them, and loot them anyway, and it's too vague to be helpful to boot) then they're useless because you have to already know what they're talking about to get what they mean. (Example: one audio log forewarns you that one of your objectives is trapped... which even if you find it before you spring the trap in question, it utterly fails to forewarn you on the nature of the trap, and in fact it wasn't until my third playthrough that I understood the trap in question was what the audio log was supposed to be referring to) In practice, you can get through System Shock 2 without opening a single audio log past the very beginning of the game. (The very first keypad door has an audio log telling you its code, but the code doesn't get put into your Notes tab)

The net result is that audio logs in System Shock 2 are relegated to backstory stuff -and I've already touched on how this backstory is often dumb, problematic nonsense, such as randomly revealing The Many can do direct psychic domination, never mind that this means The Many should automatically defeat you.

But that's not all!

I specifically noted that logs in System Shock 1 often give you your next objective in the form of laying out a plan other resistance forces made that you then execute. In addition to the raw gameplay utility, this has two narrative benefits: first of all, it clearly signals that you're not the only person on the station doing anything of use. Other people are fighting back against SHODAN, it's just you're the only one lucky enough to survive the experience. This neatly dodges one common problem with video games, where the player ends up feeling like they're surrounded by incompetent, apathetic morons who survive purely due to the player's herculean efforts to save them from themselves and I guess also save them from the villain.

Secondly, though, it also has the benefit of meaning they're not just trying to fight SHODAN, it's that they actually contributed!

Yes, they died before they could execute their plans, but in many cases in System Shock 1 they got some essential piece done. They collected some explosives you then took advantage of, or they launched one Garden so you ultimately only need to launch three of the things, etc. Even just establishing the idea's existence is a kind of contribution, but the concrete action does a lot to make it feel like the collective human resistance of Citadel Station fought SHODAN successfully, rather than it being the player character doing everything single-handedly.

This does a lot to make the NPCs of System Shock 1 sympathetic.

System Shock 2 not only loses this quality, but in fact it goes pretty much full-bore in the opposite direction. It's not just that your radio buddy gives you directions and frequently takes explicit credit for things you benefit from ("I've laid out some supplies in..."), nor is it that what few things should be credited to an Actual NPC aren't (eg Toxin A had to have been made by someone... but inexplicably no audio log covers who made it, nor why), it's that the entire tone of the audio logs of System Shock 2 is wrong wrong wrong.

Let's start with a couple of the most egregious examples.

One of your earliest audio logs is a perfect example of the tone and how it's deeply wrong. At the start of the game, you wake up from a cryochamber with a chunk of your memory missing and get told you have 'R-grade cybernetic hardware'; not too far beyond that, you can find an audio log where somebody remarks sarcastically on the fact that such gear is highly illegal and you probably didn't actually volunteer for it, closing his audio log with 'but hey, I just work here, right?"

And... that's it. A man was assigned to a highly illegal and unethical operation that was likely inflicted on an unwilling subject, and instead of reporting the problem to one of his superiors to fix it, he passive-aggressively makes a sarcastic diary entry he has no intention of having anyone listen to. He's aware he's involved in something wrong, but is apparently too apathetic to do anything about it other than whine into his diary.

Even more egregious is an audio log in Hydroponics, which is clearly going for horror and shoots right on past to derp instead, where a woman finds a coworker's highly illegal and horrifying plans to convert women into cybernetic killing machines, remarks that she was planning on confronting him, but then ends the log on the fact that she noticed that the DNA in the plans is hers. Let's just leave aside how odd it is that cyborg surgery apparently cares about DNA more than any other physical factors, and also the utterly nonsensical point that someone recognizes their DNA instead of, say, X-rays scans of themselves or something else actually plausible. No, the key issue here is that this woman expresses zero interest in reporting to higher-ups or Human Resources that her coworker is clearly a psych job and needs to be investigated. Just... be horrified into her diary, do nothing, end up a killer cyborg.

This is particularly inane since the plot has made a point of having the highest-up people start the game long since corrupted by The Many. It would be trivial to have her take her concerns up the chain, and then give us an audio log where she's reassured everything is fine by Korenchkin himself, leaving her confused and disturbed over the situation. But no, we have to have an audio log that's so focused on this horrifying tweest that she utterly fails to react to the situation like a real person would.

These two logs are probably the worst of the bunch, but they're representative of the general trend of audio logs in System Shock 2: for the most part, the crew of the Von Braun and the Rickenbacker are too apathetic and/or stupid to put up meaningful resistance. It's not that The Many outmaneuvers them, or is lucky enough to fly under the radar in a plausible way because why would you assume your crewmates were being mind controlled by worms? It's that they just stand around going 'gosh, this is horrifying, or illegal, or unethical, or otherwise a bad idea, but doing something about it sounds like effort and I can't be bothered.'

I wouldn't say these people deserve what happens to them, but I would say that I can't find it in me to feel sorry for them, just as I wouldn't feel sorry for someone run over by a train if they spent thirty minutes standing on the train tracks, staring at it through binoculars and narrating to themselves how it's coming right for them and man it's going to be bad if it squishes them.


The degree to which System Shock 2 misuses audio logs makes it pretty cringe-y that they became something of a calling card for Irrational Games' 'shock series entries. It's not like their later games undergo a massive improvement in this regard; Bioshock has a handful of audio logs that are actually pretty good, but the majority of them are still 'no human being would actually do this, period' and trend toward 'this game's world is made of apathetic idiots who saw the problems coming and did nothing about them for no plausible reason'. The extent to which the quality bumps up is that it moves from eyegougingly awful to merely 'cringe and then forget about it because it wasn't memorable in any way, shape, or form'.


Next time, we talk about psychic ghosts in System Shock 2.

This is a thing it has.

I have no idea why it does, but it does.


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