(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
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.