System Shock 2: What Could Have Been

So. I've talked about how SHODAN being your boss in System Shock 2, while so obviously intended as a twist, utterly fails because the story tells you in the opening minutes of real gameplay. I've been over the philosophical problems with how System Shock 2 validates SHODAN's beliefs in her inherent superiority, rather than sticking to how the prior game presented her as lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I've been over how Cyber Modules are problematic and unambiguously making a clear statement. And... well, I'll be getting into some of these points more later, but there's still other oddities and issues.

Imagine if... instead of the bizarre, nonsensical story we got...

... the game didn't try to pretend SHODAN being your boss was a surprise twist.

Imagine that instead of being a random nameless UNN soldier who's been mindwiped, tricked, manipulated, you were... a cyborg.

A loyal minion of SHODAN's, one she secretly managed to convert aboard the Von Braun sometime during The Many's invasion.

There's a lot of benefits here, a lot of interesting potential. One of the game's problems is that it seems to want the player character to be just as ignorant as the player about events, and so it kludges together an excuse where apparently being put into stasis somehow takes away your memories and the awakening process involves re-uploading them, and oops there's a glitch (Probably SHODAN-induced) so you conveniently are just missing your memories of your time aboard the Von Braun and/or Rickenbacker.

Even aside how contrived this is, it's not an answer that works. Sure, this sort of justifies you being in-character as ignorant as a first-time player would be, but if the player character spent time aboard the ship... there should be people that know him. There should be audio logs where people talk about having a drink with you, an NPC who recognizes you and gets frustrated when you don't recognize them back, a bunk with your stuff in it. For that matter, there should be audio logs made by you! You shouldn't be a blank slate of a cipher, unknowing and unknown to all but SHODAN.

Whereas if you're a cyborg of SHODAN's... well then. Nothing that came before really matters, does it? Who's liable to recognize you under all that steel and plastic obscuring your features, rather than being horrified at spotting an obvious cyborg in a context no such thing should be found in?

Shifting attention to gameplay, suddenly Cyber Modules are natural. Of course a cyborg of SHODAN's would make itself better by amping up the technology of its body. Of course SHODAN would scrounge together resources to help make it happen. Just dump Upgrade Units, either letting the player modify on the fly or, if for some reason you feel it's vitally necessary to the experience to force the player to upgrade at specific locations, just make these locations computer terminals SHODAN has hacked or make the surgical units of the game double as your upgrade locations. (Since cybernetically augmenting yourself should call for a certain amount of surgery) Bam, everything is philosophically coherent, the issue of whether SHODAN is 'right' is shunted to the side, there's no issue with SHODAN's verbal tic making no sense because there's no need for the plot to have her successfully pretend to be someone without such a verbal tic successfully, and the general premise of the game is immediately intriguing.

This also gives the game a lot more freedom to mess around with your capabilities. The base game is a bit limp-wristed in your capabilities because it wants to stay within the realm of 'plausibly human', aside the exception of psychic powers getting to be wizard magic. Cybernetically augmenting yourself gives the game a lot more room to justify fairly interesting capabilities without having to go straight to psychic-powers-as-wizard-magic. Maybe you'd pick up the ability to launch a remote-controlled drone for getting access to locations via small holes, or gain super-jumping ability through pneumatically enhanced legs, or any number of other quirky abilities a baseline human would be harder to justify acquiring.

Yet another benefit is that the game would be basically implicitly explaining why you are immune to The Many's psychic control. After all, the game is already constructed so that all the local machines serving The Many is by virtue of XERXES having been hacked or something and he has control over the machines, so there's a clear implication that machines can't be psychically compelled. Since SHODAN's cyborgs are pretty clearly handled as the machinery being in control, the question is implicitly answered without any need for it to be explicitly asked. Furthermore, this strengthens the substance of one of The Many's recurring questions, where they ask why you 'reject' flesh in favor of the 'cold embrace' of steel/the machine mother/whatever phrase they feel like using. That's a lot more meaningful of a question when you're a proper cyborg that's furthering your cybernetic nature, especially when you're a slave of a cyborg and it can come across like The Many attempting to elicit rebellion. In the base game, it mostly comes across as The Many being a bit clueless or outright stupid, strangely so given the general picture painted of their mechanics. (Shouldn't they get why humans would be horrified, given how many they've absorbed who were horrified by the process?)

There's other elements of the narrative that could benefit in turn. One of the wonky elements of the base game is that the UNN/Tri-Optimum joint venture and the game world aspect of having two ships to traverse comes across like this awkward thing where maybe at one point the intent was to be properly cyberpunk and have the Tri-Optimum corporate folks screw things up by being greedy ethic-less jerks at which point having the player present on the ship while using that military-branch-as-class thing kinda requires a join venture to justify their presence. Only in turn it demands things like additional art assets to make the Rickenbacker seem like legit a different ship, and it creates all kinds of further awkwardness with eg the narrative having to justify the Rickenbacker not just backing off and vaporizing the infected Von Braun by virtue of conveniently the top folks of both ships happened to decide to investigate Tau Ceti and thus all ended up mindslaves of The Many.

Whereas having the player character be a SHODAN cyborg converted from some poor sap lets the plot dump all this stuff with the UNN and considerably simplify and straighten out the story into something sensible.

Then there's the point that getting SHODAN talking to a minion instead of a human she's antagonizing constantly with her superiority complex is a new angle on characterizing her, breathing fresh air into her character, not to mention papering over any (Well, almost any) problems with the new writer(s) not quite getting SHODAN's character. (Because of course she'll come across differently to one of her minions than to a human who was trying to destroy her) It also neatly answers the question of why the player character is listening to SHODAN; one of the problems in the base game is that running around doing as SHODAN-as-Polito says is a video game-y 'you're listening to your radio buddy because this is a video game and that's just what you do when someone gives you orders over a radio in a video game' thing with inadequate in-character reason to be listening, and the problem gets much worse once SHODAN reveals herself and the game provides zero justification for why you'd cooperatively do as she says.

Sure, some of her directives are things you'd want to do anyway in the course of defeating The Many, but for stuff like handing over control of the ship to her... why, exactly, would my character shrug and obligingly hand the keys to the Von Braun over to the megalomaniac genocide-AI? The only reason you do this in-game is because it's a video game and the game won't let you advance without doing as SHODAN says. Realistically, though, no I would not do this that's insane nonsense and why would you think I would do that.

Whereas if I'm a cyborg drone-slave... well, there you go. My character doesn't have a choice. It's in their code. Fair enough, I'll get right on that without complaint or question.

This also dodges another problem: SHODAN-as-Polito and openly-SHODAN both persistently always know where you are and what you're doing. Never mind that the game has explicit security cameras you're almost certainly destroying constantly, denying the ability to headcanon up 'oh, there's cameras everywhere that the game didn't bother to render' or similar for justifying this. You can justify this as SHODAN hacking your rig, but in the base game that runs right back into the problems I laid out in relation to her Room Of Revealing: the endgame where you beat her makes no sense if she has this kind of ability to trivially hack into your system.

Whereas if the game is premised under the idea that you're a drone of SHODAN's and the endgame state is she wins, all those issues go away. And that's a natural setup for a sequel, unlike the current game relying on a diabolus ex machina that makes no sense. (How the heck did SHODAN upload herself into a human mind at all? When did she do so to this particular girl? Why did she do a girl, conveniently and coincidentally, beyond genre convention stuff involving gender identity consistency happening to be held to? If she can do this, why didn't she do it to the player character?)

It's a scenario that could've easily been all-around amazing, above and beyond all the advantages it has in terms of solving or bypassing problems with the current narrative.

And it's just depressing we got Actual System Shock 2 instead.

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Speaking of problems with the current narrative... next time we come back to those, specifically how System Shock 2 (mis)handles audio logs.

See you then.

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