System Shock 2: XERXES

XERXES is one of the most infuriatingly, shooting-yourself-in-the-foot bits of unnecessary stupidity in System Shock 2's plot.

The basic concept behind XERXES is fine, and indeed I was actually initially intrigued by a lot of the bits of the game's handling: in many ways, XERXES is handled as a kind of flipped-around counterpart to SHODAN. Where SHODAN is in control of her situation and is the one performing biological experimentation to create biological minions, XERXES is subordinate to the will of The Many (Though, frustratingly, it's never properly explicated how this happened. It's sort of implied he was hacked, but... that's as far as it goes, and it's inadequate) which is a biologically-rooted force. There's the gender-flipping, of course. Where SHODAN was egocentric and maniacal, XERXES is... not precisely self-effacing, but humble-seeming, certainly. Etc.

Unfortunately, the game went out of its way to make XERXES not make sense.

See, I'd have totally bought it if SHODAN taking over Citadel Station back in System Shock 1 didn't cause the larger world to get concerned about powerful AIs. System Shock 1 is a cyberpunk story, and cyberpunk is heavily centered around weak or nonexistent governments being pushed around/displaced by powerful and highly unethical corporations that do really, really stupid things because they're short-term profitable for the corporations in particular. It's tonally consistent for such a setting to react to an AI going mad with power by having the corporations of the story frown hard and decide that AIs are too convenient and therefore spending money to replace them with less efficient mechanisms, or spending money on further constraining them to avoid a repeat of Citadel Station, is something they can't stand to do and they'd rather placate the masses with Blatant Lies about how they're working hard to ensure such a situation can never repeat. (While in actual fact doing nothing)

XERXES thus should be in-character and in-universe plausible and fine.

But System Shock 2 is a poorly-written mess of a game that seems to hate making sense, so it establishes an explicit plotpoint that SHODAN-like AIs were made illegal after the events of System Shock 1... and then tells us that XERXES was secretly developed anyway... and then makes XERXES presence and influence aboard the Tri-Optimum ship and the UNN ship completely open and explicit.

Why would any writer inflict this eye-gougingly stupid chain of nonsense on themselves? There's no purpose to any of this! It's just one long chain of pointless self-sabotage!

There's tons of little things that add further layers of nonsense to XERXES, but I'm trying to hit the Big Pain Points of the game, not list off every single error. Even if I was, some of the nonsensical elements are things I can come up with reasonable explanations for: for example, there's some evidence the game was not properly finished before release, and I can buy that some specific inconsistencies were intended to be addressed but they ran out of time. Other inconsistencies are probably just gameplay elements that weren't fully scrutinized in their narrative implications: everything to do with security camera mechanics gets credited to XERXES, which makes perfect sense on the Von Braun and only turns weird later in the game when SHODAN takes over the ship's computer network and also there's still security cameras on the Rickenbacker. But hey, it's a gameplay element, whatever.

Though one last bit of bad writing: notice that I've been fully capitalizing the names of each AI. In SHODAN's case, this is because SHODAN is supposed to actually be an acronym standing for 'Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network'. In XERXES' case, System Shock 2... just has the entire name in all-caps because that's what System Shock 1 did with SHODAN. There is no suggestion his name is an acronym (What kind of acronym would even have two different 'x'es in it, anyway?), and in fact it's almost certainly meant to be a reference to one of several individuals by that name from ancient history. So seriously System Shock 2 is just blindly imitating an element of the first game having somehow overlooked why it was handled that way.


Speaking of SHODAN...

... well, we'll be getting into that next time. Among other things.


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