Tuesday, July 27, 2010

System Shock 2, the FatMan, and me

Recently, an Internet reviewer that I love, admire, and mostly agree with, antisocialfatman, started a great commentated playthrough of System Shock 2. I made some comments on the vids about how certain aspects of System Shock 2 rub me the wrong way (or just plain suck), and he responded. Somewhat angrily.

Now, fair enough, I should have kept in mind that System Shock 2 is clearly one of his favorite games of all time. I know that if I was doing a playthrough tribute to one of my favorites of all time, like Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, and some douche started in about how atrocious the combat is and how the level design in the sewers is mind numbingly bad, I would probably be pretty pissy too.

But that wouldn't make the criticism any less valid. The combat in VMB really is spectacularly bad, and the sewer level is a true test of the player's patience.

The fact is that I actually like System Shock 2. It isn't in my top ten list, but I consider it a damn good game. Yet it is definitely flawed in a number of areas. A lot of the flaws are a bit anachronistic to point out, to be sure. For instance, the melee combat is really dreadful, but then it still is in most first person shooters to this very day. I suppose that isn't a true anachronism, but whatevs. How about this: The graphics look like ass. Anachronistic enough for ya?

My issue of choice when I commented: The PDA/Audiolog storytelling dynamic, which I believe System Shock 2 may have pioneered, is terribad game design. It sucks in System Shock 2, it sucks in Doom 3, it sucks in Bioshock, and it is downright cringe-worthy as a storytelling device in Valve's otherwise excellent new freeware game Alien Swarm. My biggest problem with the device is how it grinds all gameplay to a halt while you listen to some non-character give his schpeel, and then probably throw in the combination to his weapon locker for good measure at the end. It is hard enough to believe that everyone in the future starts keeping a space-diary for fun, let alone that high tech security protocols allow for keeping the access info to your space-shotgun in there for anyone to get at (provided they listen to your boring dribble first).

Games, like in good film, should adhere to the old script writing rule that the audience should be shown, not told. Portal did this fantastically well. The entire story of Portal is told by the levels themselves, in the way they look, clues left behind by earlier test subjects, and little hints dropped by GLaDOS herself. This sort of charm is missing from System Shock 2 because it is too busy telling you the meat of the story through the diaries of characters that you neither know nor care anything about. 'Tis garbage, my lord!

FatMan argues that an audiolog beats a cutscene. First, I reject the premise that the storytelling accomplished from listening to a PDA can't be done in any other way than a cutscene. I mentioned Portal earlier as an example. Hell, any game that has ever had a character physically talking to your character in game has accomplished the same thing as those PDAs, and they did it without having to be nearly as contrived as finding a space diary. But even if I agree to the premise, is it even true that listening to a PDA beats watching a cutscene? At least cutscenes involve acting and actions beyond just purely spitting out dialogue.

And game designers need to realize this flaw in System Shock 2. Sure, recognize that it is a great game, but when you cannibalize ideas from it DO NOT take the PDA storytelling technique along with you. It deserves to die and rest in peace as an interesting but failed alternative storytelling technique.

The FatMan also took issue with how I called the writing sci-fi garble. To be sure, I only added that bit out of spite. Not that the writing isn't sci-fi garble, it totally is. Still, being a fan of sci-fi things, I know better than most that any book/film/show/game set on a future space station is going to be chalk full of "we need to put the neutronian flux constrictor into the sharpleton bolt tube", and System Shock 2 doesn't do it particularly badly (most of the time).

At any rate, I heard that the FatMan may be putting together a website along with HotLesbianAssassin, so I want to kiss a little ass so that maybe I can get a writing gig there.



  1. The PDF system works in System Shock because it's a survival horror, a type of game which is all about atmosphere. The logs were intended to build up SHODAN as a looming cold-hearted god. Doom 3 on the other hand, is an impatient shoot-em-up which constantly stops the one thing it's good for and forces you to listen to monotone coma-inducing logs. There is a difference.

    Also Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is the best game of all time. If anyone tells you otherwise, shank them.

  2. Who said you actually had to stop to listen to the audio logs? As far as I remember, you can still play while listening to them? And that goes for Doom 3 and both System Shock titles. as Drake above me said, in a survival horror environment, it's actually an excellent storytelling vehicle and really helps to build tension.

    That also applies to Bioshock, which is, like System Shock 2, System Shock Lite. And that's your legitimate argument - System Shock 2's gameplay is watered down from the original System Shock.

    Cyberspace hacking is gone and the puzzles are nowhere to be found. Both of those were pretty awesome elements; degrading weapons, upgradable skills, better graphics and greater tension do not make the game better.