After I graduated from college, I lost all sense of purpose and decided to make System Shock 3.
I was in a career-focused program at a school full of ambitious people, and I’d aligned my life along a very specific academic track. Following the track was simple, but not easy, and slipping up seemed like a constant, fatal threat. When I finally made it out, I realized that all I’d really done was reach the end of the line. Like many recent graduates, I was unprepared for a life without quantified goals. But for the first time in years, I had time — lots of time. So I set out to do something that, as a cyberpunk fan, I’d been meaning to for years: play the System Shock series.
I needed it. I’d left school in 2010, the tail end of the financial crisis, when there was overwhelming pressure to be grateful for any kind of job at all. I could read endless horror stories of people laid off at 50, unable to find work because they’d been replaced by 20-somethings willing to do the same thing for almost nothing. But I was also supposed to be doing something I loved and building a career — anything else was betraying both the people who had given me a leg up and the entire American work ethic. I knew how incredibly lucky I was to have as much opportunity as I did, but that only made me feel guiltier about not finding something I could feel proud of.
Most single-player shooters are the closest thing life offers to guaranteed success — the entire game is hurtling toward a single ending, usually either saving the world or something close to it. They’re tuned to make you like a brilliant sharpshooter and clever tactician, while still offering enough of a challenge that you feel like you’ve earned it. And success was something I worried about constantly.
Even if I wasn’t a particularly good player, System Shock and System Shock 2 offered the sense of agency that obsessively reading articles about millennial underemployment eroded. By World of Warcraft or Skyrim addict standards, I was restrained. But I threw all the enthusiasm I couldn’t muster for job applications into exploring the games’ complicated maps and facing off against the megalomanic artificial intelligence SHODAN. I lurked the mostly defunct Looking Glass Games forums, developed a twitch reaction to anything that sounded remotely like a hostile NPC, and pored over every single text and audio log to piece together the series’ story.
The initial premise of System Shock is straightforward. At the behest of a corrupt executive, a hacker liberates the AI running the powerful TriOptimum Corporation’s space-based headquarters, Citadel Station. As AIs are wont to do, she immediately goes power-mad and tries to wipe out humanity. The hacker takes increasingly drastic measures to destroy her, he wins, and everything ends happily. Then comes the sequel.
At some point after the end of System Shock, humanity discovered that a mega-corporation’s sophisticated technology had managed to exceed human control and almost destroyed the species. Society spiraled into political and economic crisis, and government regulators ended up at war with the companies they were supposed to regulate. By the time System Shock 2 picks things up around 40 years later, a technological Gilded Age has ended, and everyone involved is just trying to recover what their parents destroyed.
This crisis is summed up with a few lines in the System Shock 2 manual, and it almost never comes up again. But that didn’t matter. I connected with the idea of a generation that had been told exactly what it was supposed to do, then found doing it impossible. With people who didn’t want to own the world, but needed to feel like they could justify existing in it.
System Shock and its sequel are both about the tragic fusion of human and machine. Whenever you die in the first game, a cutscene shows your conversion into a cyborg slave. One of the eeriest sounds in System Shock 2 is the voice of a woman who’s been fused with a metal skeleton and tasked with nurturing the game’s malignant hive mind, endlessly repeating murmured platitudes about her "little ones." But what, I wondered, if the alternative was worse? What if being a purposeful machine was preferable to being human and aimless?
As my hours in the game added up, I began imagining another installment of System Shock, set on the ruins of Citadel Station. Like the first two games, it would be about a confused survivor fighting a host of cyborg and mutant abominations. System Shock 2 had (spoilers!) SHODAN return from the jettisoned debris of Citadel Station, and my System Shock would have another fragment of her remain on the station, ostensibly as an antagonist for the player character.
This was a red herring. The survivor would realize that these were spacesteaders who had returned to Citadel after failing out of the Earthbound economy. They had tried to turn it back into the corporate paradise they’d been promised, cobbling pieces together incorrectly. And they’d slowly decided that it wasn’t Citadel that needed to change, but them. So they warped their bodies and minds into a parody of capitalist efficiency, erasing anything that threatened their new order.
There were several reasons that my idea made no sense. The biggest one is that Citadel Station is very clearly blown up at the end of System Shock, which would have taken quite a bit of working around. Even if I managed that, it’d be too far from Earth for spacesteading — it’s apparently in orbit around Saturn, which is an insane location even in the original context.
And I was never clear on how to work around the fact that unlike the real games, there were no central villains. I wanted SHODAN to have survived as a wry, bemused observer long past caring about the human race — Kieron Gillen’s excellent essay "The Girl Who Wanted to be God" had convinced me that asking players to defeat her a third time would turn her into a perennial loser. The entire premise of my System Shock 3 was that humans would happily self-organize into something that looked every bit as terrible as a mindless cyborg army, if it was the only way to avoid feeling worthless.
More immediately, I didn’t understand modeling, level construction, interactive fiction, or basically any other aspect of game design. I managed to create a passable reconstruction of one Citadel Station shuttle bay, which I think I then filled with Half-Life 2 headcrab zombies, because the only game-building tool I had any familiarity with at the time was the Source SDK. The hard drive I stored my map on crashed years ago.
But at a time when I felt like I’d been dropped off a cliff, System Shock 3 was something I could at least pretend to be making progress on. It funneled my most bitter and nonsensical ideas safely into a fictional setting, even if the results were less mad genius than post-undergraduate angst. The whole thing feels overwrought now, but when I read 23-year-olds defining their lives in terms of "creating value" 24 hours a day, it doesn’t seem totally off the mark.
I never stopped thinking about the story, but I eventually did find a meaningful job — at The Verge, actually — making the plight of Citadel’s citizens less pressing. I had officially moved on when I looked back and thought: those Citadel people are jerks. What room do they have to complain about purpose, when they worked with AIs who they treated as literal slaves? And then I started to rewrite the whole thing as a metaphor for casual misogyny, starring SHODAN, and the cycle began anew.
Now that an actual System Shock 3 is coming out, it’s finally time to put my dream to rest. Porpentine already covered System Shock-based social commentary with her game Cyberqueen, and I have plenty of other ridiculous ideas for games I’ll never make. But there’s still something mysteriously evocative about the series. It’s the thing that made BioShock so good, and that kept a constant stream of spiritual sequels coming while people couldn’t even buy the original games. With a killer AI and a few hundred haunted cyborgs, Looking Glass made a universal template for my hopes and fears. And while I’ll probably never add a word to that template, it will always be waiting if I need it again.