Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Notes on System Shock 2

"Your weapons fail. Your ammunition runs low."

This is the voice of the Many as you crawl inside them, and it could well be the motto of System Shock 2: unlike Halo and Doom, this is very much an FPS about conserving resources. You start with nothing, and will probably find yourself using melee weapons to conserve your precious ammo. And you save-crawl, doing segments over and over until you get them perfect, because that ammo and health is too valuable to squander. The result is a game that encourages mastery, but I'm guessing it's not for everyone. In fact, the first time I tried to play it, I wasted my resources two hours in, and gave up. This is what Rob Fermier, one of the developers, calls a "Shelf Level Event": it goes back on the shelf, never to be played again.

But one day I ran out of games and did play it again.

In the family tree of video games, System Shock 2 is the mutant love-child of Quake and System Shock. System Shock, in turn, is a descendent of Ultima Underworld. Ultima Underworld sprang fully-formed from the head of Zeus. No it didn't. UW is, I believe, the first first-person realtime RPG, and therefore a child of the Ultimas and...I don't know...Wolfenstein 3d?

Excuse me if I ramble. Too much coffee tonight.

Computer role-playing games bring with them, almost by definition, some fundamentally sound game design principles. I mentioned some of them in my Notes on Zelda. These include:

Continous, expanding world: System Shock 2 all takes place on the connected bulkheads of the starship Von Braun and the connected sister ship, The Rickenbacker. Up until the final two levels of the game, you can always backtrack.

"Parallel challenges with mutual assistance": (thank you Noah Falstein) almost all RPGs have side gameplay that allow you to develop your character so that the mainline challenges become easier. System Shock 2 has an exploration element like this: you don't have to thoroughly search the Von Braun, but if you do, you'll be rewarded with powerups that you can use to improve your character. Another side quest is "research": you find certain items that you can bring to chemical storerooms and study. Studying them gives you various advantages.

Token Based Economy: Although you're alone on an effectively deserted space ship, there are vending machines that take the currency of System Shock 2: the nanite. This currency can be used to buy goodies, hack computers, and repair or improve your weapons, and is used by the developers as a small reward. System Shock 2 actually has two economies: the open-ended and ever inflating nanite currency, and the zero-sum (am I using that term right?) Cyber Modules currency, which allow you to improve your character. You can only improve your character so much in System Shock 2, because there's only so many Cyber Modules available. Which leads to:

Meaningful choices with perceivable consequences: there are many axes on which you can improve your character, but once you've chosen which axes to improve on, you're stuck. Also, a very interesting element in System Shock 2 which I don't think I've seen anywhere else is the Surgical Key. Throughout the world there are incomplete surgical beds. You can attach a surgical key to these to become active, at which point they give you close to free healing for the rest of the game. The surgical keys are very rare. I used one on an out-of-the-way surgical bed and regretted it for the rest of the game. The next surgical key I got, I was very careful about where I finally placed it: I made sure to put it near an elevator, so I'd always be able to get to it quickly from wherever I was.

One thing that isn't necessarily an RPG staple, but that System Shock 2 benefits from, is systemic design. They mention this in their post-mortem. ("Use of simple, reusable game-play elements.") The elements include gun turrets, videocameras, a handful of different kinds of enemies, security computers, hackable crates, e-mail logs, ghosts, and not a whole lot more. They are able to get a surprising amount of gameplay and story out of these few elements. System Shock indeed.

I mentioned that I was playing System Shock 2 to a friend at work and he said he thought there weren't enough open spaces in the levels. I think this was by design: the narrow corridors of the Von Braun are purposely claustrophobic, which sets it apart from the wide corridors and spaces of Quake and Halo.

System Shock and Myst pioneered, at roughly the same time, a new kind of interactive storytelling: the kind where you're dropped in a world and you have to piece together the backstory from information in the environment. The reason for doing it this way in System Shock was simple: they were so unhappy with the state of NPC interaction in videogames that they decided to not have any living ones. ( But it creates an interesting side-game; you're exploring a story. You're piecing together a mystery. In essence, with System Shock 2, there are two stories: the backstory of how things got the way they are, and the current story of trying to cope. This technique was later borrowed for Metroid Prime.

System Shock 2 is well balanced. You're struggling for resources in the beginning, you get to cut loose in the middle, and you struggle again at the end. This is partly due to the tireless efforts of Dorian Hart, but they also have some techniques that make the game self-balance to an extent: during the middle game you discover both healing stations and energy recharging stations. Returning to these stations allow you to fill up your ammo and health. In the second-to-last level, there is no healing and recharging, and you feel it. Another technique is when looting the bodies of dead monsters, they are more likely to have good stuff if you are low on ammo and health. Clever, eh? Finally, parallel challenges with mutual assistance smooths out rough areas: if you're not good enough to take on a challenge, you can research / explore in other directions until you're powerful enough.

Should I dis on the game at all? I can't help it: for me, the game was just too damn long. My save game alone recorded 16 hours of gameplay; that probably represents around 30 hours of actual play. You can play different types of character, so in theory I could go back and try one with Psi powers, something I wanted to do after ten hours of play but couldn't possibly take after twenty.

Also, System Shock 2 feels like a game without a focus. Like Deus Ex, they empower you to play the game the way you want to play, but that was the focus of Deus Ex, and with System Shock 2 it seems like yet another of the many features the game provides. (System Shock 2 even has mini-games: you can find a PDA that plays games like Minesweeper and simple RPG's.) So System Shock 2 is a jack of all trades and master of none. There's better shooting in Quake. Better AI in Half-Life. Better player empowerment in Deus Ex. Better character development in most RPG's. Better hacking in Uplink.

Lately I've come to realize that lacking focus isn't just dangerous from a design perspective; it's also bad marketing. When people ask me, "What's System Shock 2?" I don't know what to tell them. You should be able to say what's special about a game in a short, sticky sentence. "It's *The Sims* for children." "It's John Woo style gunplay." "It's gravity-defying snowboarding." "It's being Spider-Man."

I dunno. Maybe it's this:

"Your weapons fail. Your ammunition runs low."