Why Ocarina of Time Isn’t the Best Game Ever

Ah, Ocarina of Time. The first 3D Zelda, and probably the most respected. Ocarina pioneered target-locking, context-sensitive controls, and other modern features, lifting the core gameplay into wider spaces with no loss of playability. It hit shelves in 1998, earning perfect scores from IGN, GameSpot, Edge, Famitsu, and numerous other sources. In that day, it probably deserved them. Countless developers cite it as an influence. At the time of writing, it continues to hold the highest Metacritic rank of any video game.

I first played Ocarina of Time in second grade. My parents ordered a GameCube from eBay, which shipped with a copy of Zelda: Collector’s Edition. It also shipped with a PlayStation 2 AV cable, which proved mostly incompatible. The screen rendered in sickly gray tones with lines of wavering static, as if struck by some digital pathogen. After placing yet another order for the proper AV cable, I popped the disc in around a week later. I tried all four games, but Ocarina was the first I made any progress in. The NES titles killed me too fast, and Majora’s Mask was too complicated. I got stuck at Death Mountain for several months, but a guide helped me enter (and beat) Dodongo’s Cavern, and I woke up early the next morning, trying to make up for lost time. When we moved the system to my room, I often played late at night with the speakers muted, sneaking paranoid glances down the hallway. I often turned in homework late, as well, but you don’t get that focused without making sacrifices.

Despite that, when Edge, IGN, or other sources called Ocarina the best game ever made, I never agreed. I considered it very good, and I still do, but “best ever” didn’t make sense to me. The characters were too simple, the combat was too easy, and the Water Temple sucked too bad, among other reasons.

Ocarina of Time deserves great respect, both as a influential title and an . But to be crowned above all others, mere influence is not sufficient, at least in my eyes. It must excel in every area, even patches of relative weakness. And even if we ignore the outdated textures, there’s one realm of glaring weakness: character development.

The plot is a simple tale of good versus evil, with little deviation. The most interesting event occurs when Ganondorf conquers Hyrule. After gathering the eponymous Ocarina and the three Spiritual Stones, you open the Door of Time and draw the Master Sword, expecting it to grant you the power to stop him. Instead, he follows you into the Sacred Realm, and you’re sealed away for seven years, emerging as an adult in the blackened rubble of Castle Town. Darkness swirls through the sky, and the NPCs have been transformed into walking corpses with a taste for your flesh. It’s a heavy blow.

When you return to your home forest, monstrous, man-eating plants grow alongside houses, and Octorocks float through the pond, firing rocks at your skull. It’s another rude awakening, although I’d prefer if they attacked the other forest dwellers. In the next area, Ganondorf imprisons the Gorons in the Fire Temple, planning to feed them to an ancient dragon. He isn’t a complex villain, but he serves well in his role as destroyer.

Unfortunately, he’s probably fleshed-out better than everyone else. Zelda develops your strategy throughout the game, switching forms in a way that keeps her somewhat dynamic. The rest of the cast is largely hollow, including the Sages. They have a handful of amusing lines, but they change little, rarely interact with each other, and suffer less than you might expect. Most of Ganondorf’s actions are also reversed by the end, even in the adult timeline.

It’s pretty good compared to, say, Mario 64, but even in Ocarina’s era, deeper writing existed. Fallout 2 came out the same year, FreeSpace 2 was released in 1999, and Final Fantasy VI reached shelves in 1994, to name three I’m personally familiar with. Hell, Majora’s Mask came out in 2000, and it does a better job.

Combat is also simpler than later Zeldas. There are only a handful of sword techniques, and few enemies require tactics more complex than “raise your shield until you see an opening”, if that. It handles well, but there’s no Flurry Rush, Mortal Draw, or Parry Attack. One moderately challenging combo allows you to quickly perform enhanced spin attacks, and you can stab rapidly by kneeling behind your shield. That’s the extent of things. It’s not a bad system, by any means, but it’s been surpassed many times since.

The overworld of Ocarina is a mixed bag. On the one hand, dungeons are revealed quickly, without the protracted fetch quests of Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, or (dear God) Skyward Sword. On the other hand, there aren’t nearly as many side areas. Hyrule Field is a vast, open expanse with relatively little to do. There are Big Poes as an adult, Peahats and Stalchildren to fight for money as a child, and two evil golden spiders that can be found by bombing your way into simple caverns. It’s (other than the day-night cycle) largely painless to navigate, but the most interesting part of the area is how it connects to other places. Termina Field is larger, richer in side quests, and simply easier on the eyes, and Twilight Princess‘s version of Hyrule Field is superior in similar ways. Even the Great Sea, as tedious as it can be, packs a lot more content, with numerous caverns, platforms, and submarines, many entirely optional.

Compare the areas in Ocarina of Time to their counterparts in Majora’s Mask. Romani Ranch reuses character models from Lon Lon Ranch, but it adds dog racing, replaces Ingo with a pair of corrupt rival ranchers, and attaches an early-morning attack by aliens (or possibly ghosts) who want to steal your cattle. Castle Town has quite a few side quests, but Clock Town has even more, and it changes as the three days pass. Zora’s Domain is smaller than Great Bay, the Gerudo’s Fortress is simpler than the Pirate’s Fortress, and so on. I say this not to brag about Majora, but to show how limited Ocarina’s world really is.

Perhaps the greatest contrast occurs in the phase of the quest involving large numbers of undead. Ocarina of Time gets the Kakariko Well, the Shadow Temple, the Kakariko Graveyard, and adult Castle Town. Majora’s Mask gets Ikana, a unified area much larger in scope. The spectres also exhibit greater humanity. ReDeads dance, Gibdos speak, and Flat teaches you the Song of Storms.

Ocarina is known for excellent dungeon design. The Forest Temple is among the finest levels I’ve encountered, no matter the genre. The Fire Temple, Spirit Temple, and Shadow Temple are almost as good, and they play quite differently. Ganon’s Castle is easier and less unified, but it makes for a nice change of pace before the final battle. Even the Deku Tree is a good tutorial area, and the Master’s Quest version is lethal.

And then the Water Temple appears. It, too, is lethal, like waiting in line at the Social Security office, or debugging a program in machine language. Dark Link and Morpha are interesting, but the dungeon revolves around raising and lowering the water level, which can only be accomplished by playing Zelda’s Lullaby in front of certain crests. By itself, this might be tolerable, but the Iron Boots transform the area into a horrible slog with countless visits to the pause menu. Every switch between water and air is punished by an interruption, and if you change the water incorrectly a few times (you will), you’re interrupted even more. Add in the usual sluggish block puzzles, and it begins to feel more like homework than gaming. The 3DS remake fixes it, but every other version still suffers.

In a game with nine primary dungeons, a single misstep is easily forgiven. Unless it’s the best game ever, in which case the Water Temple doesn’t belong here. Or the ancient textures. Or Hyrule Field. Or the clumsy arrow controls.

Ocarina of Time wrote the book for action adventure titles. Even today, the 3DS remake earned several perfect scores. I’d give it a 9 myself. But it’s not without fault. In the end, nothing is.

Image Attribution

Link vs. Ganondorf
April 14, 2011.

Second image:
Nintendo Press. April 15, 2011.

Majora’s Mask: The Clockworks
Author: Janice Scott, Upload: 2013.
Found: https://danlev.deviantart.com/art/Majora-s-Mask-The-Clockworks-346565290

Link vs Amoeba
Author: Anthony Vargas, Upload: 2011.
Found: https://tv-tonyvargas.deviantart.com/art/Link-vs-Amoeba-196662799?q=gallery:tv-outcastart/74034&qo=28


Review: Observer

Genre: First-person adventure, survival horror
Developer: Bloober Team
Platform: Windows, PS4, Xbox One, Mac, Linux
Release: August 15, 2017

Observer is an unusual beast. It belongs to the class of horror games that don’t let you defend yourself, but there are relatively few moments of danger, unlike, say, Amnesia. It also eschews true supernatural elements in favor of an oppressive dystopia, delivering the most horrifying visuals through the Dream Eater, a device that lets you invade human memories.

The game takes place in future 2084, a world of overgrown technology. Poland is run by the Chiron Corporation, a company that gained control in the aftermath of a great war between East and West. Mechanical augmentations are common, and not always benign. The population lives in fear of the Nanophage, a plague that causes your implants to attack your organs. Beyond that, your character occasionally has to inject Synchrozine to stop his mechanical parts from shattering his psyche.

You play as Daniel Lazarski, a specialist employed by their police force. Unlike Adam Jensen or Soldier G65434-2, you spend the game unarmed, and your implants weren’t built for combat. Instead, they let you project night vision, scan organic matter and technology, and view a virtual case log, in addition to the aforementioned memory invasions.

Lazarski spends the game hunting a serial killer in a class C apartment complex, home to the lowest of the three social castes segregated by Chiron. The complex is brilliantly realized, a den of drug users, hologram addicts, and blue electronic ad screens. When the main power cuts out, they fear your Dream Eater as much as they do loss of stimulation. You don’t harm them, but few trust you, and the backstory makes it hard to blame them.

You find many of the killer’s victims too injured to speak, and the Dream Eater allows you to gather evidence, recreating their darkest memories as a parade of hallucinations. You witness disintegrating corridors, silhouettes who cover ground in angular jerks, and appliances that cry, vomit, or fly through the air. The sequences are fairly linear, with a handful of puzzles and the occasional stealth section, but they bring the darkness of cyberpunk to grim, bloated exuberance. Lazarski emerges from each trip gasping for Synchrozine, vision covered with blotchy digital squares. Horror is most effective when it spawns depression, and the initial half of Observer delivers in spades.

You also scan objects near the victims, ranging from credit chips to globs of blood and tissue. Your findings establish them as disenfranchised and sometimes questionable bunch. One victim used drugs, and another performed illegal cybernetic operations. One particularly tenacious managed to wound their attacker with a sword cane, leaving a trail of blood for you to follow. It’s an effective way to convey information, although I had to switch between different vision types too often for my taste.

You’ll make some of your most interesting discoveries by reading computers. There are numerous character logs and emails throughout the different suites, ranging from critical plot information to male enhancement requests. The Chiron Corporation’s logo rests watchfully at the home screen of every system, and their footprint echoes throughout the low-caste apartment complex, whose residents receive fewer votes per person than higher citizens. One computer throws in a piece of wartime propaganda, establishing their sheer level of control. Some computers also contain a minigame where you navigate a maze full of spiders, collecting flaming swords as weaponry. The graphics are intentionally lo-fi, and each area reveals a new level or two. It’s a brief but welcome respite from the darkness.

Unfortunately, Observer loses steam in the later portions. The first chunks of memory are unsettling, but it uses similar tricks and scream effects too many times, and tolerance builds quickly. Lazarski’s scanning implants are disabled in the neural realm, and aside from the stealth sections, you’re free to avert your eyes. You aren’t forced to confront your fears like in other horror games.

Several times, you’re required to hack into the brain of a deceased person. Your onboard A.I. warns against it, and the first scenario leads to the game’s most nightmarish sequence, where Lazarski faces true danger. But the setup repeats numerous times, and it loses punch. His brain suffers from the experience, leading to hallucinations in real life. Voices accost you, and wires turn to intestinal tissue, a twisted figurehead for the fusion of metal and flesh. But even then, I rarely felt threatened. Even the few enemy sequences were too simple; I snuck past one without ever seeing it. For reference, I’m the guy who couldn’t bring himself to get past the first enemy in SOMA, so I don’t think my spine is enormously thick.

More damningly, Lazarski and the other main characters never quite live up to the depth of the setting. It’s hard to tell if his voice actor is trying to sound grave or bored, and the body count becomes increasingly cheap, as if you were watching a low-budget slasher flick. The decline is slow initially, but it dives headfirst into a very predictable sort of horror at the end, reducing the higher themes to mere window dressing. Both suffer as a result. It’s refreshing to see a game where the protagonist isn’t trying to save the world, but once you adapt to the jump scares, there has to be substance underneath.

In particular, large amounts of time are spent building one very promising character… only to jettison his development for a cheap horror persona. Many game elements remain strong, but the damage to the climax is irreparable.

When horror is fused with other genres, it tends to consume them. Technology, shadowy researchers, and government programs become rationalizations for monstrous forces, and everyday men and women are reduced to mere props for their rampage. At the beginning, Observer straddles the line well, but horror dominates by the end, wearing cyberpunk as mask instead of partner. Visions repeat too often, deaths are too easy to predict, and characters become cheap victims or aggressors. In a less story-driven game, these faults could be overlooked, but Observer reaches for higher territory, and it could have been brilliant if it stayed on task. As it stands, I’m glad I played it, but it left me wanting more.

Rating: 7/10 (Good)

Run-of-the-mill “good” game. Mostly convincing, with a few notable flaws that hold it back from greatness.

Web Review: Frantic 2

Genre: Shooter
Developer: polymerrabbit
Platform: Internet
Release: September 1, 2009

In addition to games you download or install to your PC, I’ve decided to review Internet releases as well, provided they reach a certain level of depth. The reasons for this are twofold: some deserve recognition, and you can’t go on IGN or GameSpot for each one and read about the same shit. My first review involves a game by web creator polymerrabbit, one I’ve been playing on-and-off on Kongregate for many years:

Frantic 2 is a bullet hell shooter notable for how easy it can be. In it, you pilot one of five ships through patterns of enemies that launch circles, triangles, line segments, and other geometric shapes at you from across the screen. The game contains fifteen levels, which are split into three episodes that can be played in any order, and there are four additional game modes, two of which must be unlocked.

The sheer number of enemy projectiles can be daunting, especially when joined by opponents who carry lasers or homing missiles. Each level throws a mini-boss at you around halfway through, and a boss at the end, which spew enough geometry to fill the entire screen. They often carry missile or laser turrets, sometimes both at once, and survival requires careful maneuvering that limits your chances to aim clearly.

However, unlike many shooters, Frantic 2 allows your ship to survive multiple hits, and you can fly over enemy vessels without harm. Even if you die, you begin each episode with multiple lives, though the highest difficulty offers only two. By killing enemies, you slowly fill an adrenaline meter, which allows you to slow time, shield yourself, or unleash massive attacks that destroy enemy bullets. It makes for a refreshingly approachable experience. You increase your score multiplier by flying next to bullets and killing enemies at close range, but it gets sliced in half when you take a hit, so you’re still rewarded for mastering dangerous actions. By selecting the right card, these actions can also provide extra adrenaline or bonuses to weapon power.

Frantic 2‘s greatest strength is variety, often coming in fives. Five ships, five difficulty levels, and five cards for each of three categories. There are five primary weapons to choose from, ranging from shuriken to laser beams, and you can select between five types of wingmen, which fire rockets, particle showers, or other weapons in formation with you. Most of the options are satisfying, although enemies explode with a generic effect that irritated me after repeated playthroughs. It clashes with the rest of the visuals, which aren’t too pretty to begin with.

On that note, the game doesn’t show much variety in presentation. Each level shares the same soundtrack and boss theme, which would lose impact after five stages, to say nothing of fifteen. Sprites and in-game text are pixelated in a chunky way, not an endearing one, and most of the bullet effects are made from similar shapes and colors.

The game’s sole background is a white (or black, if you choose) space with a few particle effects to simulate motion. It makes the bullets easy to see, but that’s about all you can say for it. Even a simple grid would have looked more interesting.

The sheer number of enemy projectiles can be daunting, especially when joined by opponents who carry lasers or homing missiles. Each level throws a mini-boss at you around halfway through, and a boss at the end, which spew enough geometry to fill the entire screen. They often carry missile or laser turrets, sometimes both at once, and survival requires careful maneuvering that limits your chances to aim clearly.

However, unlike many shooters, Frantic 2 allows your ship to survive multiple hits, and you can fly over enemy vessels without harm. Even if you die, you begin each episode with multiple lives, though the highest difficulty offers only two. By killing enemies, you slowly fill an adrenaline meter, which allows you to slow time, shield yourself, or unleash massive attacks that destroy enemy bullets. It makes for a refreshingly approachable experience. You increase your score multiplier by flying next to bullets and killing enemies at close range, but it gets sliced in half when you take a hit, so you’re still rewarded for mastering dangerous actions. By selecting the right card, these actions can also provide extra adrenaline or bonuses to weapon power.

The typos get old, however

Between levels, you can upgrade your ship with coins dropped by fallen enemies, swapping weapons, upgrading their power, or purchasing cards that confer special benefits. These cards provide much of Frantic 2‘s tactical depth, allowing your ship to regenerate health, move faster, disable enemy missiles, suck in faraway coins, or perform other feats. Initially, only two can be carried, but beating any episode unlocks a third slot. There are also several unlockable cards, enhancing replay value.

For fans of more brutal shooters, the Kamikaze card makes your ship go down in one hit, with a small boost in weapon power for compensation. It can be unlocked by completing two levels without taking any hits.

As mentioned, there are four additional games modes. Arcade removes the shop, providing upgrades based on your ship choice. Another mode offers a prolonged fight against all thirty bosses and mini-bosses. Endurance requires you to complete all 15 levels in one sitting. Survival is the game’s greatest challenge, offering an endless battle where one hit is fatal.

For those interested, Frantic 2 also offers leaderboards. It’s a considerable slice of content, and progression is fast and clean, with no hint of grinding or other tedious padding. I unlocked everything several years ago, but I still return on occasion.

I’ve docked 0.5 points because of my issues with artwork and sound, but otherwise it’s solid.

Rating: 7.5/10 (Good)

Here’s a link, if you want to play it yourself:
Kongregate: http://www.kongregate.com/games/polymerrabbit/frantic-2?acomplete=frantic2

First Impressions: Observer

Genre: First-person adventure, survival horror
Developer: Bloober Team
Platform: Windows, PS4, Xbox One, Mac, Linux
Release: August 15, 2017

I bought this game off Steam last Friday after reading a handful of reviews. The PC version fell short of an 80 on Metacritic, but that isn’t a failure condition like when I was younger. I’ve played nine hours so far, and it seems decent, although I haven’t reached the ending yet. I’ll post a full review after I finish.

An epilepsy warning. Global war between East and West. Cybernetic implants, and a plague that makes them consume your organs. A corporation so powerful it governs a nation, dividing humans into social castes with different voting rights. Your character introduces himself before the title screen, delivering a monologue on the game’s backstory. It’s an effective introduction, although I could imagine some players accidently skipping it.

You arrive in the first gameplay scene slumped back in a car, injecting Synchrozine to stabilize your mechanical parts. Your vision blurs when you go too long without it, and after memory sequences. My supply of the drug has never run low, but it makes your powers a little more threatening. It’s a classic cyberpunk setup, but it’s refreshing to find a game where you aren’t a super soldier.

Instead, you’re a augmented police officer working for the corporate structure. Nine hours in, I haven’t found any firearms, blades, or other weaponry, except as unusable props. There’s no hand-to-hand combat, or even a jump button. Instead, you follow a trail of murders, scanning electronics and body parts in an effort to find the killer. You spend the game in a class C apartment complex, filled with hologram addicts, controlled sedatives, and the occasional organ dealer. The residents fear you, partly for your invasive evidence gathering, and partly for your association with corporate power. It’s been an intriguing journey so far, although the lead’s voice acting is too sluggish for my tastes.

Your implants allow you to scan for electronic parts and organic matter, produce night vision, or hack into the brains of others, experiencing their memories in tortured, hallucinatory binges. These binges are your primary means of gathering information. You’re thrown between rooms that grow, pulsate, scream demonically, sprout intestinal tissue in your face, and pour electronic feedback into your ears, while you try to discern plot details from the translucent, jerky human figures around you. Most of the visions can’t kill you, but you never know what to expect. I once saw a pipe vomit bloody laundry, complete with shaking and very human gurgles.

That said, it quit scaring me after the first few hours. It threw too many screams and furniture at me in too short a period of time, and because I’ve rarely been in danger, I’ve rarely been forced to confront them like in other horror games. Movies let you look away until a particular scene finishes, and Observer mostly does as well.

When enemies do appear, Observer follows the Amnesia school of not allowing you to fight back. In some ways, it goes further. When detected, you’re immediately dragged out and killed. But the monsters I’ve run into have a narrow visual range, and I was able to avoid them by hiding under desks, even when they trudged right beside me.

All in all, it seems like a strong title. It has an extreme ratio of story-over-action, which might drive some players away, but I’ve enjoyed it so far. I’ve noticed some of the dark backstory elements haven’t made a strong appearance in gameplay, and I’m hoping they’ll be integrated more by the time I finish. One reviewer thought the ending was very weak, but I haven’t spoiled it for myself, and I’ve only used guides to solve a small number of puzzles I didn’t have time to figure out manually. I’d like to write a review later this week, but I have an essay to write for school, and I want to study technique a little first. I’ve been reading old issues of Game Informer in my spare time.

Name Origin: Amphetamine Dawn

Amphetamine. Created in 1887, identified as a stimulant in 1933. Elevates stamina, muscular force, and sex drive. Raises working memory, focus, and impulse control at low doses, ruins them when abused. Used first to treat congestion, and then low blood pressure, narcolepsy, obesity, and depressive disorders. Also used in World War II to help Allied soldiers stay awake, numb their fear, and kill each other more efficiently (the Germans preferred meth).
In modern times, it is used by college students, truck drivers, competitive gamers, and children with attentional issues. Chemically, it resembles methamphetamine, producing similar harm—fever, tremor, excessive weight loss, psychosis, abnormal heart rhythm—at extreme doses. Unlike meth, low doses probably aren’t neurotoxic, but it’s potent all the same. In contrast to liquor, the withdrawals won’t kill you, but they leave addicts dazed, lethargic, and miserable for days on end.
You may wonder why it appears in this site’s title. Aside from shock value. The answer involves my history.

Like many people, I have ADHD. In my natural state, I pace around, blurt out answers, lose papers in various rooms, and generally make a mess of things. I also suffer constant, severe fatigue, despite my outward behavior. There were days in grade 10 when I could barely keep my head off my desk, even after nine hours of sleep. And the more I force myself to concentrate, the more shit I forget about.

When I was younger, I was excluded from diagnosis, and my parents feared Adderall and Ritalin. For many years, I self-medicated with caffeine instead. Mountain Dew, Vivarin tablets, cans of Monster Energy. It didn’t really work, but I’m also autistic, so I managed to bullshit my way through school anyway. I earned perfect scores from reading textbook chapters a single time, even though I barely understood them, even though I woke every morning wanting to fall flat on my face. As a child, I hid under tables to escape background noise, and cried the first time I felt the sensation of grass. One man wanted to put me in a group home. As an adolescent, I started making friends around the same age my peers started dating, and I refused to start driving, because I thought I would crash.

Finally, at age 16, I convinced my parents to let me get an ADHD evaluation. They withheld consent for nearly a full school year. When I first walked into my psychiatrist’s office, I expected my mother to reject any stimulants, and I was certain my father would.
But where Vivarin, notebook paper, and self-hatred failed, Vyvanse succeeded beyond my greatest hopes. I went from a disorganized, forget student who usually managed to get Bs to someone who earned 90 percent or higher in every class. I became someone who could take care of shit, even if his facial expressions were a little weird, even if he’d still never had a girlfriend at age 17. It slightly disrupted my sleep, but the sacrifice was well worth it.

Today, I take 20 mg of Adderall in the morning, often with a small dose of tea or nicotine gum. My manner is distant, twitchy, and alien, but I’m studying programming at college, I’ve earned a scholarship that pays full tuition, and my old college fund has become a large, general-purpose savings account. In addition, I’ve become a student senator, and I’ve joined three different clubs. I completed a 9-week internship this spring at my local library, and I volunteered there for over a hundred hours to earn my scholarship. I’m currently unemployed, but I intend to change that.
My reliance on the drug is uncomfortable, because it makes me reliant on my psychiatrist, my pharmacy, and the laws that permit them to supply it. But I’ve never abused it. It would endanger my prescription, and high doses injure focus. I’ve had some experiences in other areas, but not many, and none in recent times.
I began listing reasons we fear stimulants, and they have the potential to cause great harm. Yet, without them, I could not live in your world, at least without great discomfort. Like many autistic people, I have a strong memory for certain narrow areas—drugs, psychology, games—but the social issues get in the way, and the executive dysfunction—fatigue, difficulty multi-tasking, poor schedules—nearly seals my fate.
But add a little speed, and my efforts surpass many of you. Like some joke of nature.
Thus, the name is a show of reverence.

Glory to the Mass

(Warning: heavy spoilers for System Shock 2)

“Mistrust is the tyranny of the individual. Your own kind sees you as a threat. Why do you murder our unity? No matter – the line is drawn. You will cease to be. It is just a question of who will bring your end: us, or you?” — The Many

“Your flesh, too, is weak, but you have… potential. Every implant exalts you. Every line of code in your subsystems elevates you from your disgusting flesh.” — SHODAN

System Shock 2 is a rare title that delves into the horror realm without losing humanity. The creatures in many games are faceless, driven only by hunger or sadism, but the Annelid Hybrids are different. When they pursue the Soldier, they beg him to run away, even as they wave lead pipes or fire shells from shotguns grafted into their tumorous arms. According to Dr. Watts, they suffer clinical death, but their human personalities remain, forced to watch as their bodies are twisted by worms growing from their chest. It would be simplistic to call them undead, for all life is built on the corpses of those who came before.

If the hybrids survive this stage of infection, they grow into hulking, clawed rumblers, patrolling the corridors with inhuman roars. They are most readily defeated with anti-personnel ammunition, or grenades that burn them alive. They leave heavy, fibrous organs, which the Soldier analyzes with a bit of molybdenum. He learns their brains have been totally isolated from their muscles, which are shaped and controlled by cells human only in genetics. A face of human agony protrudes limply from their shoulder, displaced by a heart-shaped mouth of fangs.

The other enemies are equally pitiful. Psionic monkeys with exposed brain tissue, brainwashed and ravenous, stewing with the memories of their captivity and vivisection. Human nurses that were tied down and encased in machine parts, revealing flesh only in their bare, bloody shoulders and gaunt, skinless gaze. They watch over the Many’s poisonous eggs, following the guide of brain implants that make them love their slavery.

Yet, some of the Von Braun’s crew are subverted before mutation. Anatoly Korenchkin begins the journey as the CEO of TriOptimum, a corporation with logos on nearly every product in the System Shock world, military and consumer. But he joins the annelids the moment they’re discovered, converting the Hydroponics deck into a morbid incubation ground. Captain Diego joins him soon after, leaving his regimented military life for the Many’s promise of communion. They begin the voyage to Tau Ceti as rivals, corrupt businessman against UNN officer; they emerge with a shared purpose, mutated and reborn.

The Soldier serves SHODAN instead. His body and mind are not assimilated, but he follows her for survival, mechanizing himself to even the odds. Their need is mutual, but she despises his human tissue, and their goals never truly align. She opposes the Many because they betrayed her, but she created them to begin with, and she turns on the Soldier after their demise. Together, they represent grim, technological individualism, and their battle with the collectivistic annelids forms the game’s primary thematic conflict.

Many articles have been written about the world of System Shock 2, most focusing on SHODAN. But the Many takes an equal role, promising salvation from the technology. Like most cyberpunk, the mechanical advances in System Shock have not eased human strife. TriOptimum itself built SHODAN to manage Citadel Station, and a corrupt executive hired a hacker to remove her ethical constraints, kicking off the events of the first game. She proceeded to butcher most of the station’s crew and mutate the rest, both through biology and cybernetics. The Hacker stopped her from invading earth, but the backlash knocked TriOptimum from power, and the UNN was created to monitor corporate technology giants.

Yet, by the second game, TriOptimum has become the UNN’s primary resource supplier, and many UNN officials own stocks in TriOptimum. There were regulations on what they could produce, but Korenchkin was able to sidestep many of them, calling on UNN contacts from his past as an arms dealer.

It’s a classic oppressive technoscape, but as a game series, it’s drawn more violently than a novel by William Gibson. Dehumanization is literal, whether as a cyborg drone or a victim of SHODAN’s mutagenic virus.

And then the Many offers an antidote. Deliverance from the isolation and strife of being an individual in this world. The annelids evolved from SHODAN’s mutagenic sculptures, but they chose to carve their own path, offering warm flesh in place of cold robotics. If you believe their speech on the Engineering Deck, the Soldier’s mutated comrades survived, reborn with shared purpose and tissue. But their gift parasitizes the human form, twists it to an unrecognizable pitch, and dissolves individuals into mere units of a hive.

The journey of Soldier G65434-2 is marked by isolation. It’s possible that he fought the annelids before the game’s introduction, but he emerges from cryosleep with no memory of them. After fleeing explosive decompression, he peers through a window as a woman passes it, heading fruitlessly for a door. Moments later, a hybrid unloads a shotgun into her back. The pattern will repeat with Dr. Watts and Yang, who perish seconds after he reaches them. Delacroix contacts him on the Command deck, arranging a meeting, but the Many kill her, and SHODAN punishes him for exploring her death site.

The early phases of the game are a struggle for survival. The Soldier enters the MedSci Deck stalked by mutants, simians, and Xerxes’ malevolent digital eyes. He searches for keycards in infested corridors, led by a scientist he barely knows. A handful of blows will end him, and his firearms degrade with every shot. He likely cannot maintain or repair them. He finds messages written in bloody letters, and he meets the afterimages of the dead, less spirit than recording. He gathers bullets from corpses, slipping through halls filled with their killers.

The most brutal phase occurs on the Engineering Deck, where the Soldier traverses a maze of radioactive corridors and infested cargo bays. He is invariably contaminated in the first section, straining his healing resources, and the next area is a minefield of hybrids, laser turrets, and exploding protocol droids, connected by a cramped four-way intersection with no room to hide. The faster he runs, the more noise he produces, but his foes are too deadly to linger. He likely can’t maintain his firearms very well, and his pipe wrench fares poorly against droids and turrets.

He discovers two audio logs from Captain Diego, who helped let the monsters through the door. The UNN operative is more ambivalent then Korenchkin, but he still falls, comparing the union of the Many to his own faction. Earlier in the level, the Many offers the Soldier a chance to join, sending him visions of a cerebral core inside their fleshy body. Later in the game, he learns this body has wrapped itself around the Von Braun and the Rickenbacker, too large to sever. The Many questions his choice to remain alone, struggling against a mass that now includes his former comrades. He would be mutated if he accepted, but that fate almost seems kinder.

But as the Soldier lines himself with cyber modules, he slowly changes from prey to predator. The transformation begins on the Hydroponics Deck, but it solidifies in Operations, when SHODAN drops her human façade. She reveals herself as the Many’s creator, and the being who provided his R-grade cyber implants, which were outlawed after her rampage on Citadel Station.

By following her, he sells himself to a technological monster to combat an organic one, using her gifts to brutalize the worms and arachnids that overran so many others. When he reaches the Command Deck, he finds the Many loading their worms into shuttles, fleeing SHODAN’s wrath. He destroys the first shuttle himself. When a midwife smashes the control interface for the second, SHODAN provides the code for a resonator that overloads the vessel’s shield generator, causing an explosion.

The blast destroys a gate behind the shuttle, revealing a room that SHODAN warns him not to enter. If he disobeys, he discovers the body of Marie Delacroix, discarded by SHODAN when her usefulness expired. Delacroix messaged the Soldier earlier in the deck, attempting to meet with him, but there were several midwives in the room, and her body was not remade for combat like the Soldier’s. He finds ten cybernetic modules on her corpse, but SHODAN removes them as punishment for disobeying her. Her words are oddly mild, even though the Soldier uncovered proof of her betrayal. SHODAN needs him, but she knows he needs her in return, even if he might trust her even less than before.

She’s also the Soldier’s only reliable companion. Delacroix dies before he finds her, and Cortez runs from a military bot only seconds after meeting him, appearing later as a bloody corpse in the Deck 5 Crew Quarters. Dr. Watts perishes on an autodoc before his eyes, wounded during an operation on a mutated patient. SHODAN pretends to meet the Soldier as Janice Polito, but when he arrives at her office, the doctor’s corpse lies slumped in her chair, arm extended toward the pistol she used to commit suicide. Captain Diego also contacts the soldier for a meeting, after freeing himself from the Many’s control, but he used an autodoc to rip the parasites from his body, and he would probably have died even if the Soldier didn’t kill him by reversing gravity. The Soldier doesn’t kill Diego intentionally, but SHODAN may well anticipate it when she delivers his objectives, although she makes no mention of the Rickenbacker’s ailing captain.

SHODAN is no friend of the Soldier, but she’s the only being cunning enough to fight the Many on remotely even terms. In a way, the Soldier is her creation as well; she gave him his implants, and she enhances him further and further as the story progresses, remaking him in her image. The Soldier’s mutations are not as grotesque as the hybrids, but he too discards his natural shape, reborn through cybernetics.

In many ways, he’s stronger than the creatures. After Korenchkin transforms into a psi reaver, he declares the Many superior to SHODAN, but the Soldier quickly butchers him when he gets in his way. As the protagonist nears the end of the Rickenbacker, SHODAN contemplates true partnership, impressed at his new form.

SHODAN may be brutal, but a trapped creature will cling to the smallest bits of warmth, and it’s hard not to imagine the Soldier forming some sort of bond.

In the game’s penultimate level, he launches himself into the Many’s body through an escape pod. SHODAN loses contact with him, and he walks alone through the corrupted biomass, gathering logs from those who were consumed. Rumblers haunt his trail, and the Many’s commanding voices taunt him psychically, telling him death is preferable to his “pointless, solitary struggle”.

But the Soldier destroys the Many’s central brain, dealing the infection a blow it cannot survive. He slides down a tube of biomass and emerges on the deck of the Rickenbacker, victorious over their cancer. SHODAN betrays him immediately after, using the Von Braun’s FTL drive to reshape reality into cyberspace, but he strikes her down with the very same cybernetics she gave him. The A.I. offers him a chance to join her, but in his only spoken line, he refuses, shooting her in the face.

He contacts Tommy and Rebecca, the only humans who managed to escape the ship without being mutated. They plot a return course to the Von Braun. After killing his master, the Soldier has finally found an alliance free of domination.

But all is not well. As the credits roll, Rebecca floats across the screen, speaking in SHODAN’s voice and wearing a hairstyle similar to her digital one. For a horror story, this sort of twist is as predictable as happy endings in other genres, and it made me lose some respect for the game’s narrative. But it also raises an interesting question: was the Soldier right to destroy the Many, or was his struggle pointless, granting power to an even worse monster? In the battle between corrupt technology and warm submission, which brings more suffering to the humans of the System Shock world?

We’ll have to wait for the sequel.

New Year, New Blog

Hello, reader. Welcome to Amphetamine Dawn.

My screen name is Adenosine. I’m a programming student from a small city. I’ll have a degree in four or five years, if I don’t fuck up too severely. When I finish, my goal is to develop computer games and other software. This website will contain reviews, gameplay opinions, and narrative analyses for video games, many of them older or less-known. I’ll also write about technology, fiction, autism, stimulants, college, sexuality (without explicit images), and other topics of personal importance.

I’ve wanted to be a game designer for as long as I have solid memory. From ages six to thirteen, I went to a small charter school made from repurposed mobile homes, and I spent five of those years being shuffled to childcare facilities every afternoon. First my sister’s preschool, then my own former education site, then a YMCA in another city. I had difficulty matching eye contact or facial expressions, and other children were not fond of me. I drew my only excitement from the games in our living room. Descent 3, Wind Waker, Majora’s Mask, and FreeSpace 2, when we finally bought it. They were compulsive, but they brought my life color.

This is my second attempt at creating a blog. I wrote both fiction and nonfiction in high school, but I quit in my final year, because it became a source of isolation. When I walked past my eighteen year-old classmates in the hall, I heard tales of truancy, birthdays spent in spring water, cannabis-fueled oral sex, and long car rides warped by LSD. I was friends with these people, but I wasn’t invited, and I grew tired of the nights I spent typing alone in my room. Their activities were unhealthy, in some ways, but they also had freedom. Warmth for each other. Connections I’d never felt. Even sharing dinner was foreign to me, like my brain tissue to theirs.

When my friends graduated ahead of me and left, I tried to become a different creature, one fit to enter that world. I quit writing, shut up about psychology, and spent many afternoons in houses with people who vaguely resembled them. But I mostly failed, and when I didn’t, I sometimes wished I had.

I also grew embarrassed by how many Internet arguments I’d joined. Before I wrote this post, I considered scrapping Adenosine for some other handle. But it’s a part of me, good or bad.

In any case, I’m back now. Because of my classes, I’ve been forced to write numerous essays in academic style—Times New Roman font, MLA format, citations in every paragraph. Compared to that, blogging is almost easy. Much of my work is shaped by college, and I want an environment I have control over, where I can share what I’ve found. Dungeon Crawl. System Shock 2. Both FreeSpace games. Two-dimensional flash RPGs from Kongregate.

I also want to share some of my darker experiences. Many blogs about autism—or culture, or homosexuality, or other human variations—strike me as quite bitter. When others fear you, some venom is inevitable. And likely valid. But humans are more likely to listen if you don’t push them away.

I hope I can bridge the gap, in a small way.