System Shock 2: SCIENCE GHOSTS!!!

System Shock 2 has psychic ghosts, and for the life of me I can't imagine why.

On the most obvious, superficial level, there's the frustratingly common "I am a faithful member of the Church of Science... but I believe in ghosts or at least want to write ghosts without violating the precepts of my faith, so SCIENCE GHOSTS!!!1!" bit of scifi nonsense. If you want to make ghosts in your scifi setting, just... make ghosts. Don't pretend they're not ghosts by wrapping it up in trappings about psychic emanations from the recently dead or quantum nonsense explanations or whatever. If you care that much about your Science Cred, then don't write ghosts at all. Your Science Cred is being shot to pieces regardless: trying to justify it with nonsensical explanations that happen to use Words Scientists Use just makes the situation worse.

This, though, is a depressingly normal piece of stupidity in softer scifi... and even some ostensibly 'hard' science fiction. If that was the only problem with System Shock 2's handling of its Totally Scientific Ghosts, Honest, I'd sigh and probably not bother to make a post about it because it wouldn't be worth the effort.

The deeper problem is that System Shock 2 doesn't do anything of use with its ghosts. Their presence is all downside, no upside.

Part of this is that they're redundant with audio logs, both of them largely serving the same purpose of covering bits and pieces of the recent past, only the ghosts not only demand extra work, with animations and models and choreography and special effects and testing for bugs to make sure the player can't kill and loot ghosts or anything problematic like that where audio logs are more or less idiot-proof, but the ghosts also create all kinds of narrative problems just by existing. (Shouldn't this have impacted the process of The Many's takeover of the ship? Sure, fine, the player can see them due to their special implants no one else has, but they're psychic ghosts and these ships have multiple OSA Agents aboard them who should by all rights be able to see the ghosts as well, and this would make Mysterious Disappearances less mysterious)

And that's not just an 'in principle' thing. I mean that several of the ghost sequences are specifically redundant with specific audio logs. For example, one ghost sequence involves seeing the execution of the man who hacked the Sim Units for The Many; this is completely worthless, as the only thing it establishes that audio logs didn't is where the man was killed. The audio logs already told us who he expected to find him out and kill him, and the ghost sequence mostly just confirms his prediction was correct. There's no reason to care that he was specifically killed in the mess hall.

Even when the ghosts aren't being made redundant with specific audio logs, they tend to be purposeless and baffling. And not the usual kind of purposeless of ghosts in games where a sequence is trying to be horrifying/scary/similar without any larger narrative purpose. (Though that does happen a couple of times too) There's a lot of ghost sequences that just sort of happen, and I can't imagine what possible purpose could have been behind them.

Others I can tell what the purpose was, but they fail at it. Your very first ghost sequence, for example, is trying to educate you on the idea that you need a keycard to take the locked door out of the starting area, in turn introducing you to the larger idea of keycards letting you through locked doors... but I only noticed that was the intent on my fourth playthrough of the game. The ghost doesn't actually educate a first-time player on keycards and doors, or even get them pointed in the direction of learning about them.

(To the game's credit, the automatic highlighting system telling you what can and can't be interacted with means that you'll naturally figure out keycards and locked doors anyway, so this particular failing isn't a fatal flaw with the early game's design. On the other hand, this highlights how pointless the ghosts are, so...)

There's also the narrative awkwardness of informing us the ghosts are psychic emanations in a game where the player can get psychic powers... and then trying to justify seeing ghosts as being due to their high-grade cybernetics. I've already touched on some of the problems this creates, but at the moment I'm talking more a missed opportunity: in conjunction with how ignorable the ghosts end up being for getting through the game, the game could easily have made it so you can only see ghosts if you actually unlock psychic powers. That would've been pretty amazing, to eg do a plain run as a Marine, and then boot up an OSA run and be shocked when it turns out this unlocks a series of visions because hey you're psychically sensitive enough to catch them now.

Alas, ghosts are just... present. With no obvious purpose or benefit.



What makes this even more puzzling is that more or less the same development team went on to make Bioshock, where they came up with a new Totally Scientific explanation for having ghosts and still did absolutely nothing worth the effort with them, so much so that the primary reason I didn't make a post about how inane they are is that they're so pointless and forgettable I tend to actually forget about its inane DNA Ghosts. I'd normally give System Shock 2 a bit of a pass on the idea that the devs were shooting for something and just failed to hit the mark, or that it hadn't quite clicked how redundant it was with audio logs before they'd already put in enough work they didn't feel like just cutting the existing ghost content, but Bioshock rather indicates they have zero useful purpose in mind behind including ghosts and failed to learn from System Shock 2 that ghosts and audio logs are heavily redundant with each other.

Especially since Bioshock Infinite also has a Science Ghost...

Anyway, next time we move on to talking more directly about the original System Shock. Partially because it's shockingly good and worth talking about in its own right, and partially because some of System Shock 2's failings are hard to talk about without delving fairly extensively into the original System Shock.

See you then.


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