Examining What Makes System Shock 2 So Frightening
HorrorScope is a recurring feature exploring the horror genre in gaming and drawing attention to its elements, its tropes, and its lesser-known but still scary titles.
Before BioShock Infinite‘s adventures through the floating city of Columbia, or BioShock‘s slowly flooding city of Rapture, there was the Von Braun, humanity’s first spacecraft capable of light-speed travel. It’s the setting of System Shock 2, the spiritual predecessor to BioShock, and a first-person shooter that’s arguably heavier on the horror elements than the Shock titles that would follow it.
Much like Rapture, System Shock 2 takes place in the tight confines of a space previously occupied by humans, but now mostly derelict, with its victims twisted into horrifying revenants of their former selves. But unlike the BioShock iterations of the series, System Shock 2 could be considered a great deal more attuned with elements we’re used to seeing in the horror genre. Its emphasis is much less on shooting enemies or using cool powers, and in fact, much of the game leaves players underpowered, wielding melee weapons or half-broken firearms, trapped in the knowledge that the next creature to round a corner might be the one that brings them down.
With System Shock 2 available on Steam this month and having joined the GoG.com catalog only a few months ago, it seems the time has come to revisit the Von Braun to understand what makes System Shock 2 resonate with so many horror fans.
The Von Braun, a huge ship with a large crew, is one of the big stars of System Shock 2, and all the best elements of Rapture echo it. When the player awakens on board the ship, it’s already in disarray, with most of the crew slaughtered. Portions of the ship are destroyed, other bits are guarded by automated defenses and robots, and there’s the ever-present sense that the ship is becoming something … else.
Rapture was an incredibly well-stylized world, full of 1950s imagery and architecture, but haunted by shadows and wanton destruction. The Von Braun is also a lot like that, even though it skews toward the cyberpunk end of the spectrum — like Rapture, it captures a number of tragic moments in its environmental design, suggesting a terrible disaster, and you only just missed being a part of it. Broken bodies and audio logs scattered throughout the ship remind you of the people who lived here, and what fates have befallen them.
Even spookier is the Von Braun itself. It’s a ship that is maze-like and enormous, and navigating it takes careful study of its map a lot of the time. With the overbearing music turned off, it takes on an eerily quiet tone, and you can often hear its strange creatures slinking around distant corners ahead and behind. Each deck has a different function, and therefore a different theme, but it’s not uncommon to come across huge pools of blood and smeared red handprints, or areas where the lights have been destroyed or rooms are flooded with errant water.
The entire ship is a claustrophobic nightmare, with few places to hide and overflowing with dangers, and winding corridors in which it’s easy to lose your way. Much like Rapture, moving carefully and quietly is key, because even the weakest enemies are extremely dangerous. You are utterly alone, except for what you can hear lurking in nearby corridors.