System Shock 2: Embracing the Enigma - A Brief Retrospective

Published: August 11, 2019 12:00 PM /


system shock 2 anniversary story - screen capture of von braun

There are some games that remain in my top 10 list no matter the time of day or my current mood. System Shock 2 steadfastly remains in my top three, fluctuating in and out of each of those spots but never going lower.

Why this unquestionable love? Because System Shock 2, or Shock 2 as I will call it from here on out, inspired me to look to the stars. It not only intrigued me with fun gameplay, invigorating difficulty, an immersive world, and a heavenly soundtrack, but also taught me to embrace challenge for the sake of adventure.

Shock 2 is difficult for first-timers. Its RPG gameplay traits and real-time inventory screen perplexed me, but the promising world of the Von Braun, adrift in space, enticed me. Since first buying it, it would be several years before I actually played it all the way through. It became an enigma. However, it was also the start of a lesson: Embrace something that attracts you though it appears intimidating, and you'll find reward and joy.


sshock 2 anniversary story box art
The alluring System Shock 2 box watches from above.


Shock 2 first pulled me in with its box art. The glossy cover captures so much of the atmosphere of the game: the isolation of the Von Braun and the presence of some great evil – Shodan – hanging over it. It also helped that the Looking Glass Studios’ logo on it was familiar to me, Thief player that I was.

I was pulled in ever deeper. The video introduction created suspense with an informational overview of the spaceship Von Braun and its grand voyage to the reaches of space. Next came a broken-up distress call from the same ship. All this is delicious sci-fi horror, and it continues in cutscenes after the game’s initial training sequence. There’s one scene, footage from a security camera, that shows a woman backing into a corner as a great beast leaps towards her. This horrified me and continued crafting an atmosphere of dread.


system shock 2 anniversary story early cutscene screenshot
An early cutscene shows chilling security-camera footage that helps set the tone.


My eagerness to dive in was met with an obstacle. After the chilling, exceptionally suspenseful intro, you are met with the first requirements of Shock 2's gameplay: using an inventory menu in real time. The first time you grapple with this, you insert a dead energy cell into a charger and then place it back into your inventory. Easy enough, but soon there are monsters around. When you’re learning how to balance this inventory screen and playing in-game while hybrids are running at you, it all becomes more hectic.

Keep in mind that I was a much more inexperienced gamer when first playing Shock 2. It was also my first CRPG. It’s not even a full-CRPG, but a hybrid of that and a first-person shooter. Be that as it may, its interface and RPG elements were a learning experience for me.


system shock 2 anniversary story inventory screen
On my first time playing, managing this inventory screen in real time was part of an early learning curve.


My first time through Shock 2 was beset with challenge. Beyond learning to use the gameplay menus in real time, I continued to struggle keeping enough ammo and med hypos. I felt short on resources at every moment. The game’s level-up currency—cybernetic modules—was also hard to come by, and I used them with the greatest of care, to the point of not wanting to spend even a few of them. Looking back, it was a riveting experience. I wish I could play the game with fresh eyes again. Now I can play through the game several times on Impossible mode. That shows just how much I’ve developed since first playing it on Normal mode and struggling.

On that first playthrough, inspiration drove me. Exploring the Von Braun enraptured me. I felt I really was adrift in this vessel far out in the reaches of space. Looking out the windows as the hypnotic tunes played in the background was second only to Thief in engaging me in a game world through atmosphere and audio.

See, I knew I wanted to play Shock 2; I wanted to learn its nuances. It taught me to overcome obstacles and learn something new. In the process, I became a better gamer. It opened the doorway for enthusiastically grappling with the mechanics of several other more complicated games since. This list of games includes Shock 2's predecessor, which I played the CD release of within Dosbox using all the original controls.


system shock 2 anniversary story screen medsci hallway
As soon as I entered the greater part of MedSci, the first level of the Von Braun you explore, I couldn't wait to explore every inch of this game world.


So engaged in Shock 2’s world, I was willing to learn its more complicated mechanics. I wanted to continue to understand and explore this game world, so I did not give up when it became complicated to play. Through that process, I learned that perseverance through the complex has its rewards. 

And now here I am 20 years later, thinking of giving it another spin on Impossible or checking out some of the mods for the game that make it harder. Up until a couple years ago, I’d play it through at least once each year. If you haven’t played it yet, I highly encourage you to do so. And if you think it’s too difficult, don’t cop out. Giving games like Shock 2 the time it deserves will give you the reward of experiencing one of the best, and could inspire you to embrace other challenging games. Look to the stars—and with Shock 2, you can enjoy being lost among them, far out in the reaches of space, in one of the best game worlds of all time.

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Photo of Trevor Whalen
| Writer

I am a lifelong, enthusiastic gamer, freelance writer and editor, blogger, and Thief FM aficionado. I think that exploration-heavy, open-ended first-person… More about Trevor