I was going to do Jet Set Radio Future this week, but with All Hallow's Eve looming, an anarchic cel-shaded romp through Tokyo-To doesn't quite fit this spooky time of year. We need something horrifying. We need the chill running down our spine, the fetid breath on the back of our necks, the cyclopean indescribable terror that lurks in the darkest corners of our psyche just beyond our perceived veil of reality. The fear. We need the fear.
Or, erm, a horror game I suppose.
So seeing as I've personally banged on about one horror game above all others over the last four years, it's high time we paid SHODAN her dues and took a lingering look back at System Shock 2. Irrational Games' Sci-Fi horror masterpiece is exactly that: a masterpiece of intricate level design, adaptive gameplay, sensational artwork and atmosphere, but by all rights it shouldn't have been scary at all.
No, really. Dark corridors, murderous cyborg nursemaids and ravening hybrid alien zombies all make for effective jump moments, but on a basic level System Shock 2 was poorly equipped to scare. It's a first-person shooter with a range of guns and psychic abilities, allowing us to effectively fight back against the foes that stalked us through the bowels of the doomed Von Braun starship at the behest of a mysterious survivor. It's an RPG, constantly encouraging us to open cumbersome menus that remind us that we're playing a game and everything's going to be fine. Not to mention the fact that it was graphically primitive even at the time.
And yet, somehow, it was and still is utterly terrifying. Why?
Partly it's the fear of the unknown. Rather than bombarding us with exposition and premise, System Shock 2 drip-fed us plot details slowly and purposefully over the course of the entire campaign. We find ourselves on a starship. Something has gone horribly wrong. The crew are missing or much, much worse. Someone has shoved our bodies full of cybernetic implants against our will. And those worms...
Our imagination starts to run rampant as we piece together each audio log and ghostly imprint, and each ensuing revelation ends up becoming more disturbing and profound than we could have possibly imagined. Once the full enormity of the situation dawns on us, everything starts to horribly unravel. There's nothing scarier than what we don't understand.
Of course, the monsters help. System Shock 2's graphics may be crude, but I personally don't use the Rebirth texture pack because the uncanny inhuman animations and grim, gory art direction allow our imagination to fill in the blanks. There's such a horrible menagerie of terrors to encounter on the Von Braun, from infested ex-crewmates who beg you to murder them even as they stove your face in with a rusty pipe, to midwife androids who call to you from just around the next corner, singing to children they almost certainly murdered in their cribs.
And those Rumblers. Those damned Rumblers. Not only was the sound direction spot on, but their spawning was unpredictable and constant, meaning that new threats could face you around each corner and even in areas you thought were safe.
But never let it be said that System Shock 2 can't set up a perfect jump scare. One seminal moment in the early campaign gets me every time, as you enter a room to suddenly stand face to face with a hanging man, his visage contorted in a rictus grin, glaring at you with desperate accusing dead eyes.
You'll scream. Shocked, appalled, terrified, you'll gradually start to pull yourself together even as a pipe-wielding shambling monster quietly stalks up to you from behind and you turn round and it's there in your face slavering battering clawing screaming begging oh God oh God oh God
The music was a clever little contrivance, too. Unlike most horror games that draw out tension with atonal strings and slow building crescendos, System Shock 2 is underpinned by what I can only refer to as hardcore grinding gym workout music right from the off. This might strike you as an odd choice, but remember that as a shooter/RPG hybrid, it didn't have the luxury of gradually building the tension over time. Instead, the pumping stressful beats instantly and unconsciously raise your heart rate and flood your system with adrenaline, putting you straight into fight or flight mode, a perfect position to be scared shiftless right from the start.
Later levels ratcheted things down, but the opening music is still a fiercely clever gambit that many critics never quite gave the game enough credit for.
And last, but not least, we come to SHODAN. Fear me, hacker. Still one of the greatest videogame villains of all time, she makes GLADOS resemble a graphical calculator, taunting you, scheming, collaborating, with agendas so lofty and impenetrable that you can't help but wonder when she plans to rip the carpet out from under you.
When your only friend is an insane supercomputer, you've got little choice but to jump at every shadow.
So if you're looking for a horror treat this Halloween, I'd recommend that you dim the lights, boot up System Shock 2 and enjoy every nerve-jangling minute of it. Just be sure to rebind the archaic keyboard layout and play it through solo before even attempting a co-op session. Otherwise, things tend to get very silly very quickly...