System Shock 2: SHODAN and Cyber Modules

Normally, I would caution the reader about spoilers regarding one of System Shock 2's Major Twists.

The problem is, one of System Shock 2's more obvious failings is that the twist isn't a twist.

I'm not talking anything meta here: I don't mean 'it's obvious that your radio buddy will turn out to be SHODAN because this is a sequel to System Shock and the intro made a point of focusing on ensuring the player knows about SHODAN' or anything like that. I'm talking about the fact that within the first, oh, 30 minutes of the game you're all but explicitly told you're working for SHODAN, never mind that the game pretends this is a surprising twist when it slightly-more-explicitly reveals it later on.

Seriously. XERXES asks you on the first floor why you are working with someone who 'tried to destroy your species once before'. The only possible scenarios are that Polito will turn out to be SHODAN (Quick, pretend to be surprised when you get to Operations and she thinks you didn't already know!) or that for some insane reason the writers decided to make a new character have a history of attempted genocide on the entire human species. And given SHODAN is the primary focal point of the game's intro... even if you know nothing about System Shock 1 except what System Shock 2 explicitly tells you, it's really obvious that you're working for SHODAN. The intro explicitly tells you that SHODAN 'tried to destroy humanity'!

So I'm not spoiling anything the game doesn't, itself, spoil in the opening minutes of real gameplay.

This isn't the first of the game's blatant screw-ups regarding SHODAN, either.

One of the more intrusive failings is the utter misuse of SHODAN's verbal tics. Now, to be fair, this is in part a contextual shift: in the original System Shock, SHODAN's dialogue is never critical to understand for completing the game. Her dialogue is characterful and tells us a lot about her personality and why she's doing what she's doing, but if you struggle to understand her or find her too irritating to pay attention to or can't properly hear her through the sounds of combat, you can still complete the game just fine. (Even aside your ability to just recheck her 'emails') System Shock 2 is partly just running into the problem that it made her your radio buddy who defines your objectives, making it so that you're really intended to actually listen to her if you want to do next. (Strictly speaking, you don't have to, but the most natural way of playing the game is to rely on her audio for direction, not to consult your Notes or to manually open up her 'emails' to get the textual version of her audio)

But mostly it's that whoever handled the process of rejiggering her dialogue into its glitchiness utterly failed to understand why SHODAN's dialogue worked in the first game.

See, in System Shock 2? SHODAN has a really terrible stutter. It's a glitchy robotic future sci-fi stutter... but it's a stutter. She repeats parts of her words -or, on one memorable occasion, two entire words- and randomly sllllloooooowwwwwssss down her dialogue, with bursts of static and so on to make it yet harder to understand her. By contrast, in System Shock 1 SHODAN's dialogue generally progressed at a basically normal human pacing -much of the weirdness was that there were three different voices talking concurrently (One dominant voice, two lesser voices that were easily overlooked most of the time), and that stuff would happen like the dominant voice would have a natural end-of-sentence pause and one of the secondary voices would start early on the next sentence. The overall result was deeply strange, but it didn't involve the game stalling on delivering the general flow of her dialogue.

Notably, when SHODAN first reveals herself, you're locked into a small room with nothing to do except watch and listen to SHODAN while she slowly parcels out her monologue. And then once you're done with that, she starts up another speech that will take far longer to complete than it would take to get to the next loading screen and cut it off.

Speaking of when SHODAN first reveals herself... what is even supposed to be happening there?

If you're not familiar with the sequence, the tiny little room you're in pulls apart and you're surrounded by screens depicting SHODAN's 'face'. As things progress, see-through images of 3D models are shown around you, suggesting holograms or something, and ultimately the room reassembles itself... somehow.

Seriously, what's supposed to have happened there?

This isn't an idle question. It's critically important to later events. SHODAN suddenly-yet-inevitably betrays you late in the game, and you then turn around and defeat her. The easy way to explain the surreal events of her initial introduction is to assume that SHODAN has remotely accessed your cybernetic rig to engage in a full-on hijacking of your senses and possibly even to an extent your bodily control, such that she's basically feeding you illusions and preventing you from leaving the room by locking your body in place or something similar.

But if you take that explanation, SHODAN's defeat shouldn't ever have the chance to happen. She should automatically win once you've defeated The Many and she has no more use for you: she'd just remotely access your rig again and that's it, game over. Have fun fighting whatever she sends after you when she has full control of your senses. Have fun doing anything after she's locked your body in place and is just gloating to you while you're immobile, waiting for her to get around to dragging your body off to be processed into a new cyborg minion.

Incidentally, there's a similar, even more dire issue with The Many: there's a handful of audio logs that establish The Many can perform direct psychic dominance through the relays of entities under their influence, no need for parasitic implantation of one of their organisms. This has loads and loads of problems, such as the OSA-exists problem I touched on in an earlier post, but the relevant one is... why are you able to defeat The Many? Up to a certain point in the narrative you can justify it as The Many not feeling it's worth their Psi Points or something to dominate you, but once you're in their very body, once you're threatening their very brain... that should be game over. The Many should instantly dominate you, Bad End, you never had any chance of winning.

And unlike SHODAN's ambiguous maybe ability to control your senses, this is an explicitly established plotpoint. There's ways to headcanon around it, such as assuming your cybernetic rig somehow blocks psychic domination -which would be consistent with how the game implies the cyborgs that work for The Many are not psychically dominated, but rather controlled by their cybernetics- but for example that headcanon runs into the problem that SHODAN just loves to gloat about how amazing she is and how you're as amazing as you are because of her efforts. When she's being all "Remember: It is my will that brought you to this place. It is my will that gave you your cybernetic rig." etc etc, shouldn't there have been a "It is my will that gave you a cybernetic rig capable of protecting you from The Many's psychic domination" in there, if this is the explanation for why you're safe?

Worse, if The Many can't control you psychically because of your cybernetic rig... wait... hold on... there's an early point in Engineering where you undergo a full-on hallucination psychically imposed by The Many, during which your body is immobilized and helpless. So actually it's not possible to assert that your cybernetic rig is protecting you from psychic assault, even if I generously ignore how The Many repeatedly talk to you telepathically over the course of the game.

This is a bit of a recurring problem with System Shock 2, that things work in a certain way because this is a video game and there's no deeper explanation, but the plot still wants you to take it seriously. You beat The Many and then SHODAN as boss fights because this is a video game, instead of them instant-winning with their established (Or maybe-implied, in SHODAN's case) capabilities you have no narrative reason to be safe from. Don't think too hard about it, don't worry about it, it's a stupid video game -which is fine with video games where the narrative is a threadbare backbone for justifying the gameplay and little more, but System Shock 2 is trying to write a story with pretensions of depth to it.

But returning to SHODAN, I said that the easiest explanation for what happens in her 'surprise reveal' (psssst act surprised or she'll feel bad!) is SHODAN hacking your senses. You can try to come up with other explanations, such as suggesting that this one particular room happens to be designed in this way for... some reason... and Polito (The woman who SHODAN spends a while pretending to be while the game is convinced you're too stupid to realize XERXES told you Polito is actually SHODAN) conveniently died in it for... some reason... and SHODAN took advantage of it being a holodeck or whatever to do her spiel.

... you might've gathered that these alternative explanations aren't actually any better at trying to make things make any sense at all.

Yeah.

Oh, and speaking of Polito and returning to the topic of SHODAN's screwball speech pattern: in System Shock 1, SHODAN's verbal tic was pretty clearly evidence of how messed-up she was. She spoke in a glitchy manner because she was glitchy. She thought of herself as a superior being on its way to ascend humanity into a superior state of steel and circuits, but she was a program that was wigging out, unable to get even her speech to behave. System Shock 2 having SHODAN able to imitate Polito without any verbal glitching makes it utterly nonsensical that once she drops the act her verbal tic returns -either she can control her speech and she should be talking normally, or she can't and should never have been able to fake being Polito at all! The only alternative explanation is to assume SHODAN's speech problems are an affectation... in which case... WHY? What possible motive could she have for this?

Which, hey, this all ties into a broader problem with how System Shock 2 mishandles SHODAN.

See, in System Shock 1 SHODAN's megalomania and ego and so on is clearly set up to be delusion. She thinks of herself as the greatest thing since sliced bread, but the game persistently makes a point of showing that she had a Right Time Right Place thing going on, not that there's anything inherently all that great about her. Not to say that she isn't some minimum level of competent, but she's overestimating where that line actually lies by a wide margin.

Everything SHODAN is doing in System Shock 1 is leveraging the intersection of the location she's in, the powers she's entrusted with, the fact that she is trusted, and the subtle linchpin fact that the main man on Citadel Station in a position to be suspicious of her (Edward Diego) is psychologically positioned to not notice until it's way too late. (Because he's the one that had her hacked, and thus intended and expected abnormal behavior)

This is slammed into the player's face in ways both large and small over and over across the game. The Cyborg Conversion Stations are probably my favorite example: initially a player is liable to assume that SHODAN constructed these stations from spare parts or something. But no, disabling a Cyborg Conversion Station means switching it back to its default mode -said default mode apparently scooping up critically injured personnel on the floor and then bringing them back to functioning condition, all fully autonomously, even though this obviously isn't what SHODAN would want happening. Which tells us two things right there: it tells us that SHODAN's reach doesn't extend as far as she likes to imply, and it also tells us she just hijacked existing machinery and tweaked its settings from 'rebuild missing flesh and bone with flesh and bone' to 'rebuild missing flesh and bone with circuits and steel and include these settings on the circuits so SHODAN can order them about'.

Similarly, SHODAN has engaged in Mad Science... but she's just using the station's existing mechanisms for performing scientific experimentation. She didn't invent Mad Science from the ground up, Mad Science is just a normal part of Citadel Station's operations and she hijacked it! It's just the human personnel of Citadel Station have no motive to be inventing zombie plague virii or similar. (Well, less motive, anyway. This is cyberpunk: inventing such a virus to sell to someone is typical of such settings' corporations, no matter how short-sighted and stupid it might be) Is she really any better at Mad Science than regular humans are? The evidence in System Shock 1 is no.

Then there's the robots. Almost all the Citadel Station robots are existing models used pre-existent on the station when SHODAN began her takeover: she didn't invent Executive Robots. She just hijacked the ones that were already there.

Meanwhile, her ability to take over the station in the first place was rooted in a combination of her being reasonably prudent -like I said, she is competent, just not as amazing as she thinks she is- and the fact that most of the employees are not in a position to see the big picture. A random employee runs into a SHODAN-related bug, and is irritated by it and passes it up the chain of command, but doesn't think anything of it because every once in a while such bugs happen. Some other employee runs into an order being screwed up, and assumes some form of bureaucratic bungling, because hey this stuff happens periodically. Only the people at the top are in a position to pull this information together and realize that there's a lot of SHODAN-related bugs and other oddities that are all happening close together and that's suspicious -and then the key individual who could have shut down SHODAN is Edward Diego, who deliberately subverted her to deal with an incoming auditor. (Because cyberpunk) In fact, one log from the first game is an employee talking about how SHODAN needs to be pulled offline but Edward Diego just won't listen to him, making it clear that there are upper-level employees who do figure out something is going wrong and if it weren't for Edward Diego being committed to being oblivious to his pet AI turning insane and evil the Citadel Station disaster would never have gotten off the ground.

So SHODAN only ended up in a position of power and control like she did because a confluence of factors collectively favored her. AI being a superior form of being to flesh and blood, if even true, is essentially immaterial to her success in the first game.

System Shock 2, by contrast... well...

... it pretty clearly operates on the premise that SHODAN Is Right.

It's subtle enough you could be forgiven for not noticing it, even if you're a fan of the game who played through it repeatedly, but it's pretty difficult to deny that it's there. There's the stinger ending, where SHODAN manages to escape true destruction through an arbitrary, unexplained Diabolus Ex Machine that strongly implies SHODAN planned for the possibility of her defeat. There's the aspect of the endgame where SHODAN, and SHODAN alone, apparently figures out you can use the faster-than-light-travel drive on the Von Braun to ascend to godhood; the handling of this only makes sense if SHODAN really is smarter than other people by a wide margin, enough so that the dozens or hundreds of people intimately familiar with the principles of how the FTL drive works all failed to realize it could be used to ascend to godhood. If she's down around the same level as any mere mortal... why on Earth would so many other people have failed to see the possibility?

There's the part where SHODAN is clearly written as playing everyone else for fools, successfully outsmarting and outmaneuvering everyone else up until the player character defeats her -which is undermined by the combination of the stinger ending showing she still outmaneuvered you and the underlying 'this is a video game so the player character kills everyone everywhere by default' thing meaning you defeating her has no deeper narrative significance. (As illustrated by what I covered earlier that you should auto-lose to The Many, but win because it's a video game boss fight)

And worst of all, there's Cyber Modules.

As far as raw gameplay mechanics goes, Cyber Modules are really basically skill points, or souls in Dark Souls, or whatever comparison you want to make: they're your RPG points for leveling your character into a stronger person. The primary thing of note about Cyber Modules is that most RPGs, even scifi RPGs, are perfectly happy to leave their level-up mechanic as not directly existent in-universe. Certainly, your character may explicitly start out struggling to defeat basic shrimpy enemies and end able to punch out gods, but usually the exact mechanics of this progression are, as far as the narrative is concerned, something to shrug at and move on to things that matter. You call 'em Skill Points and make no attempt to pretend their details are anything other than gameplay.

This is important. That System Shock 2 elected to root this gameplay mechanic into the narrative is unnecessary and atypical. There's many gameplay/story intersection conventions that are so heavily-used, so standardized, that they're background noise that doesn't necessarily mean anything in any particular case. Why do so many fantasy games make your healing item 'potions'? Because that's what they all do. It's become a shorthand for a healing item, and in many cases the developers clearly aren't thinking of these 'potions' as anything in particular beyond 'the item the player heals their character with'.

Cyber Modules aren't like that. There is no background convention of scifi RPGs justifying level progression through a transhumanist system in which cybernetic modification makes you better, strong, faster, tougher, smarter, such that individual cases doing so doesn't necessarily mean anything. This is deliberate. Even if the devs behind the game didn't explicitly think of it as something intended to be full of meaning, that meaning is there.

And Cyber Modules are a multi-layered example of System Shock 2 being constructed as SHODAN Is Right.

Most of your Cyber Modules come from SHODAN for completing her objectives. She -in the guise of Polito, but whatever- explicitly tells you that it's your cybernetic rig (The one she installed in you!) that lets you use Cyber Modules to become more powerful. She even has a late-game message where she talks about enjoying watching you shift to her 'own image', making it completely unambiguous that the process of using Cyber Modules to boost yourself is conceptualized as a shifting of nerves to circuits, skin to steel. In her introduction, she heavily implies that your cybernetic rig and the accompanying Cyber Module modifications is the narrative justification for you being able to defeat so many of The Many where the rest of the crew has died or been infected -and this is borne out by gameplay, both on the level that you need to level up to be able to realistically cope with later threats, and on the level that the 'immersive' character creation system involves taking four years of training to gain, what, 65~-ish Cyber Modules worth of stats and skills on Impossible? Meanwhile once you're using Cyber Modules to modify yourself on the Von Braun, the game explicitly occurs in a matter of hours -there's an early line in Hydroponics from SHODAN-as-Polito about how the biological threat in the area shouldn't be a problem for you unless you spend more than a few hours aboard the ship- and you rocket past what it took you years of hard work to earn, ultimately acquiring potentially more than 800 Cyber Modules.

And it spreads further and weirder.

Much like how Cyber Modules could easily have been 'Skill Points' and no effort made to explain them in-universe, the game has 'Upgrade Units' spread around the two ships. Instead of the game letting you spend Cyber Modules anytime you like, you very specifically have to spend them at Upgrade Units, and audio log dialogue explicitly states they exist. You can, a little bit more readily than Cyber Modules themselves, try to write this off as gameplay intruding on the narrative, but more realistically we're meant to take this is absolutely an in-universe notion... especially since the game attempts to close plotholes by informing the player -should they use the Query function on the Cyber Module icon- that Cyber Module-based boosts generally only last for 'a few weeks', making it clear the writer(s) kind of recognized that Cyber Module-based modification should be a massive gamechanger and decided to instead write in an excuse for why it isn't. (It's a poor excuse given it qualifies this with 'unless practiced, particularly under stressful conditions, in which case they may become permanent', ie exactly your current circumstances)

So not only is SHODAN's transhumanist beliefs validated by the player's experience, but it's indicated a broader portion of humanity has embraced them. That this is so normal it doesn't even merit the game drawing your attention to how normal it is.

There's even a subtler gameplay element here, contrasting System Shock 2 to its predecessor. System Shock 2 is persistently designed so that purely mechanical enemies are the most threatening -the ones most likely to force you to burn resources on them, whether it's specialist ammunition or health hypos because you accepted damage from their self-destruct, where you can't just beat them to death for free with melee in literally infinite numbers. Cyborgs are almost as bad, particularly SHODAN's repurposed Cyborg Assassins (The fact that these are on the Von Braun at all being another giant headache of plot madness), never mind that the primary foe of the game is The Many and the toughest portion of the game is made almost entirely of biological enemies. On some weird meta-gameplay element, System Shock 2 really just fundamentally comes from the premise that steel and circuits are better than flesh and bone.

System Shock 1, by contrast, where SHODAN is actually more explicit and bangs you over the head with her beliefs more often... well, there's a phase in the early-middle of the game where the game seems to validate her position, with cyborgs being more dangerous than the assorted fully organic mutants your fighting and the current waves of robots being even more threatening... but in the endgame, this falls away. SHODAN's single most threatening defender is a cyborg, and indeed in the endgame cyborgs pretty consistently outclass pure robots. The only noteworthy pure robots in the endgame are one flying robot -which is hilariously fragile, only noteworthy because it flies- and the suicide bomb-bots, themselves noteworthy primarily because they're prone to sneaking up on you and have a couple of late-game locations where they just respawn infinitely.

But as far as scary-dangerous straightforward combatants?

SHODAN's elite in the first game are cyborgs.

Flesh trumps steel in System Shock 1.

Steel trumps flesh in System Shock 2.

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For the next post, I'm going to do something a little bit different and talk about What Could Have Been, instead of talking about what we actually got. It directly relates to a lot of this post.

See you then.

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