System Shock: Behind Enemy Lines

One of the more frustrating problems with the later 'shock games is that they blatantly misunderstood literally the entire point of the original System Shock's revive-for-free mechanic, and how it's deeply intertwined into the core gameplay experience of System Shock.

The thing is, the core of the original System Shock is modeling an experience of advancing into and securing enemy territory. You arrive on a floor filled with hostiles, objects locked down by SHODAN's control, and have to earn access to each new chunk of a floor -primarily by shedding enemy blood. By the end of a floor, it's more or less completely safe: most or all the enemies are dead, you've picked up gear that's made you strong enough that older threats aren't as threatening, you have ready access to recharge stations so that you don't have to ration your energy much, and... you've turned the local Cyborg Conversion Station into a free, automatic revive.

Which is to say you've turned hostile territory non-hostile. This is your turf now, not SHODAN's.

This ties into a lot of things: first and most obvious, most floors with a Cyborg Conversion Station are designed so that you'll generally only be able to access it when you're more or less done securing the floor anyway, particularly as you get deeper into Citadel Station and the game stops softpedaling the difficulty so much. Second and more subtle, the game stops introducing them at all once you're in the heart of SHODAN's territory. You're on her turf, and you're not making it not her turf until you've taken her out; the threat of death is one you keenly feel once you enter the endgame up until the credits roll. A third sub-point to this is that in general not every map section can be made non-hostile: not only are the final floors lacking in Cyborg Conversion Stations, but so are all the Gardens, as well as the Science level. (Which is actually the second floor of the entire game!)

Now, there are some missteps here, such as how at one point you have to head back to an earlier floor to advance the plot, and so it's sort of bemusingly pointless that SHODAN has an ambush lying in wait because realistically you've already gotten that floor's Cyborg Conversion Station switched to being a revive point, but overall the original System Shock has a very clear and specific design purpose behind infinite free automatic revive on death existing as something the player earns.

System Shock 2... completely misses the point. It adds a minor tax on death of 5 Nanites, which is pretty pointless given the game lets you save and load at any time and also individual enemies routinely drop 5 or more Nanites on death so unless you're stupendously bad the cost basically doesn't matter, so... why did it even do this?

More importantly, System Shock 2 designs most floors so that you can find and activate a revive point really quickly, with little or no combat opportunities placed between a floor's entry point and the floor's revive point. It's not until the endgame -which, by the way, is obviously rushed and so not really representative of the team's intent in this regard- that revive points become something you have to earn, and then they go away entirely. This second piece might be a deliberate parallel to the original game, but I'd be quite surprised if it was given how seriously mangled the endgame is by the obvious rushing.

There's a fundamental misunderstanding here. System Shock 2 is treating automatic revival as a player-level convenience, letting the player get right back to playing with no progress lost when they die, and in the process killing the gameplay purpose of death. One can argue that reloading your last save can be abused to make death inconsequential and this is just skipping the part where the player has to manually save and load, but the game is charging you an in-game resource for the privilege -which means in actuality it still makes sense to regularly save and load if you die.

In this sense, Bioshock 1 is less incoherent, as it makes death completely without consequence (You don't lose any money for dying, or have any other consequence aside being booted to the nearest revive point), but that just means it's merely bad instead of doubling down on being bad. The devs of System Shock 2 and Bioshock have completely missed the point of the revive mechanic -and it gets worse when they got to Infinite, where they bring back the pointless monetary penalty and make it so you revive more or less exactly where you died so that dying is basically indistinguishable from not dying. Either way you keep on fighting as if nothing happened, it's just one result ends up with you having slightly less money... in a game where money isn't that important.

It's a massive chain of disappointment considering what it was stolen from used it so well, and was so blatant in the point of it. How does one miss this while being a fan of the original System Shock?


Next time, I delve into detail about the RPG/FPS hybridization of the original System Shock, and how it actually works in it, unlike its successor's cringe-y abomination.


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