System Shock: Hybrid Vigor

One of the more striking aspects of the original System Shock is how it hybridizes the principles of RPG design with an FPS engine/framework without emulating the trappings of RPG design. This contrasts starkly with its sequel wrapping itself in the trappings of RPG design and almost completely failing to implement their actual principles.

The core of what most people recognize as RPG-in-the-video-game-sense design is not, as the name might suggest, the act of playing a role, but rather is about starting out weak and growing strong. The widespread form of gaining experience to become personally stronger is one way of doing it, and it's the form System Shock 2 emulates (Albeit replacing 'grind for experience by killing enemies' with 'gain experience by completing objectives and secondarily by exploring your environment'), but there's other ways to do so.

In the original System Shock's case, power comes from loot. You start out with inadequate weapons, limited ammunition stores, and almost no programs installed, and are terrified of even mobs of weak melee enemies or lone enemies that happen to be able to attack at range. As you advance, you replace your pathetic dartgun with weapons actually designed to kill enemies, ammo becomes increasingly plentiful such that in the late game there's rarely any reason to bother using melee weaponry, and you install various programs that in ways both subtle and blatant make various things easier on you in various ways.

From a different angle, while ye olde reviewers apparently interpreted System Shock as a Doom Clone, it's quite blatantly a scifi version of the assorted first-person RPGs of its time. Stuff like Lands of Lore; modern gamers who are more into Japanese/console RPGs might see a resemblance to eg Etrian Odyssey. For whatever exact reason, this kind of dungeon crawling game largely died out in the West, but the basic model carried on in various forms in Japan, and in fact the Wizardry series  started out as a Western RPG series and then went on to be primarily a Japanese series; this isn't a convergent evolution thing of Japan independently inventing the first-person dungeon crawler. It's the same basic genre, so such similarities are relevant. System Shock has the same sort of inventory management and puzzle-solving gameplay common to these kinds of games, where eg Doom is primarily about fighting things, secondarily about solving puzzles, while the closest it comes to inventory management is the question of when to spend your rarer, stronger ammo types.

A more subtle example of where System Shock is divergent from the Doom model, and for that matter divergent from System Shock 2, is how it handles the progression in weaponry. Typically in shooter games, stronger weapons are, essentially, making things easier and faster. If your basic pistol does five damage, and you replace it later in the game with a better pistol that does 10 damage, that just means it takes half as many shots to kill a given enemy; simple, straightforward, and with no 'matchup' component. If you can kill an enemy with your skills using the better pistol, you can do it with the weaker pistol, it'll just take twice as long.

System Shock instead has an actual armor mechanic on enemies, where your weaker weapons are disproportionately weaker against later enemies than your later weapons. A weak weapon may do literally no damage at all to endgame enemies. That right there enforces a more typical RPG dynamic where your character has to have a minimum level of competence, where typically in shooter games the design assumption is that a sufficiently skilled player can kill any enemy with any weapon.

Furthermore, System Shock embraces what is often a flaw in shooters; hitscan attacks taking away any possibility of completely avoiding damage through careful maneuvering. In System Shock's case, this is part and parcel of the game demanding the player character be sufficiently well-equipped to take on more dangerous enemies; not only is a junk weapon literally incapable of penetrating endgame armor, but even when you can chip enemies to death with junk weapons the fact that it's not killing them nearly instantly means they're probably going to turn around and paste you with their own weaponry before you ever manage to kill them.

A particularly blunt example of this RPG-esque enforcement of character quality is the player's final confrontation with a recurring boss enemy; said confrontation has the player ambushed by the boss plus endgame minions, where if you don't have the final tier shield on your person and active when you trigger the flag that drops them right behind you, they're going to paste you and there's not really anything you can do about it if you don't have the shield. They're all so lethal, and they all have hitscan attacks, that as far as I'm aware it's not physically possible to survive anywhere near long enough to start killing them without having a shield on.

By contrast, System Shock 2 embraces Doom logic; the player's weapons are mostly hitscan attacks, but the vast majority of enemies are restricted to melee or have projectile attacks that move slowly enough for the player to see them coming and dodge. Also like Doom, one of the only exceptions is a basic shotgun-wielding enemy that is painfully fragile and very rare to encounter past the early game. While System Shock 2 is unusually reticent with ammo for a shooter game in the Doom mold, it still achieves the same sort of 'player skill trumps everything' model by making it so that all the staple enemies can be beaten to death in melee without taking a hit if you know what you're doing. In fact, even System Shock 2's melee enemies are easy to melee to death just on skill, where Doom's melee enemies are fairly difficult to melee safely unless you've got the Chainsaw or are Berserking.

One effect of all this is that System Shock 2's RPG-isms have little effect on the core gameplay design. I've pointed out how they screw up weapon balance such that options that should be viable are junk, but as far as core shooter logic goes? Having a smart, efficient build vs having a junk build really just affects how fast you get through the game, and secondarily has a perverse influence on how skilled you need to be at the core gameplay; a player who makes very bad build decisions needs to be better at the actual fighting to make up for the loss in damage and whatnot, where a player who makes good builds can have this make up for a lack of skill with the combat.

Whereas in the original System Shock, the RPG mechanics change the core experience, encouraging the player to do things like make judgment calls about whether it's even worth trying to explore a given area just yet; the Reactor level, for example, doesn't have to be explored right away, and is populated with enemies that are disproportionately dangerous when you first gain access to the floor. In conjunction with how weapons work and how enemies are all hitscan, the gameplay is pushing the player to come back when they're better-equipped. In a typical shooter, this would just be an artifact of bad design, a difficulty spike that shouldn't have occurred so soon; among other points, in a more typical shooter you wouldn't be able to turn around and try a different area.

It's worth pointing out while we're on the topic that System Shock 2 is much more linear of a game than its predecessor. This is fairly typical of pure shooters; the gameplay is centered around player skill first and foremost, which means the difficulty curve needs to closely parallel the player's own rising skill level, which in turn means the developers have to maintain very careful control over how the player progresses through the game so they can ensure the difficulty curve does parallel the player's rising skill. So it's not surprising System Shock 2 only really has one portion of the game where the player gets anything resembling a real choice; whether to start on Deck 4 or Deck 5 once they're done with Deck 3. And of course Deck 4 and Deck 5 are by far the most alike levels in System Shock 2; Deck 5 is probably meant to be the tougher of the two, but the game can't really do anything clearcut in that regard since the player might go to Deck 5 before Deck 4.

System Shock 1 is still fairly linear, but its design actually makes it legitimate for it to give the player access to multiple areas without ensuring they're of an equivalent difficulty. After all, it's a part of the design to have the player make a judgment call as to whether they're really ready to take on a given area.

And whaddya know, it takes advantage, creating an experience not normally found in shooters.

Or anywhere else, for that matter.

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While I'm on the topic, it's worth explicitly pointing out that Bioshock, like System Shock 2 before it, is basically a bog-standard shooter that has some vaguely RPG trappings that don't really add anything to the core experience. The primary difference here isn't along the lines of 'Bioshock recognizes what System Shock 1 had that System Shock 2 did not, and successfully recaptures it'. Rather, Bioshock merely looks at the utter mess that is System Shock 2 and makes a lot of its really bad, awful decisions less intrusive in being bad. It still has a kind of leveling system, and it's still a pointless, badly-designed leveling system. It's just that it's boring-ignorable-bad, such that I didn't even bother to make a post about it, where System Shock 2's leveling system is impossible to ignore how it undermines the game.

And while I haven't gotten around to talking about it yet, Bioshock Infinite extends the exact same trend: it still has a kind of leveling mechanic, it's still badly-designed, it's just even less intrusive than Bioshock's one. The developers of the later 'shock games clearly recognize on some level that the original System Shock was a hybridization of RPG and FPS, but they equally clearly don't understand what aspects were being blended, let alone why those aspects synthesized to create something new and interesting, with their later entries increasingly just... giving up on the synthesis, and delivering a boring by-the-numbers shooter-with-plot that has vague pretensions of being something else but really, really isn't.

Next time I come back to this general topic, I'll be covering Bioshock Infinite.

That'll be... a thing.

See you then.

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