Irrational Fear: System Shock 2, thirteen years on

System Shock 2

By on February 20, 2013 at 4:11 pm

With the news that System Shock 2 was finally available on, we sent veteran James Pinnell back aboard the Von Braun for another dance with death at the hands of one of PC’s gaming’s finest creations.

Irrational fear: a persistent, abnormal, and unreasonable fear of a specific thing or situation that compels one to avoid it, despite the awareness and reassurance that it is not dangerous.

Irrational fear perfectly describes the playing of System Shock 2. There is nothing in the game that can physically hurt, kill or disable you, obviously, but one of the most spectacular features of the game is the manner in which it manages to drop you head first into carnage, anxiety and sheer desperation. System Shock 2 is about disorientation and brutality; surviving the ship means exploiting every ability, weapon and piece of requisitioned tech you can find.

I had never though System Shock 2 would have the ability to mess with me again. It’s been 13 years since I first played the game at the tender age of 17, back when the graphics were cutting edge and the animations were revolutionary. But frankly, the late 90′s style of Half-Life-sque block on block jaggies, mixed with solid textures wrapped around even more blocks hasn’t dated well at all. At one point, a woman was running down a corridor screaming, her legs suffering from a bout of kneelessness, dropping to the ground like a jenga tower after a shotgun to the back. The sound effects were equally ridiculous, with generic cries and shrieks that wouldn’t sound out of place in a D-grade horror movie.

But as I explored the blood splattered corridors of the UNN Von Braun, I still couldn’t shake those feelings of dread. My first encounter with an enemy had me flailing my wrench in pure, unrelenting distress, the result of an ambush. The two shotgun blasts I sustained took a horrible toll, with my health and morale dismally low as I limped across towards the medical bay. Eventually, I acquired my first pistol and began the slow process of upgrading my cybernetics, with a focus on tech and hacking in particular. I was enjoying myself, in that while the game was still ruthless in its difficulty and its lack of guidance, it felt refreshing to not have my hand held.

I was on this ship to fend for myself.

I began to realize that the dated graphics and sound had not only failed to nullify the atmosphere, but had actually managed to extend its ability to shock. Scripted moments that may seem a little pokey next to the glossy shine of newer games still provided a few jump scares. The lack of light and reliance on psychedelic colours to illuminate most areas was not only disorientating but just downright creepy. Like an old asylum or industrial building, this now old ship had taken on an even greater sense of gloom and chaos, the cracks and creaks now born from age, rather than infection.

Every single sound was loud and jolting, simulated surround echoing around my head, as I hugged the walls trying to avoid contact with the infected. Eventually SHODAN began to taunt me, just like I had remembered. I won’t give away the twists and turns, but I adored reliving SS2‘s story — not only is it interesting and unpredictable, but perfectly paced. Not a single part of this title feels like it shouldn’t be there — it was crafted to perfection, and broke many conventions of how NPCs traditionally interact with the player. Not until BioShock did another title feel like it was playing against me from the beginning, begging me to invest everything for the sake of my own survival.

It didn’t get any easier to push through as I crossed the halfway mark. I still couldn’t avoid that cold sweat forming on my back, creeping up to my neck as I hacked my way through yet another door. I don’t like the unknown, nor the unexpected, but I had to know where things were going. I didn’t remember most of the plot, and it felt like I was watching an old movie again, picking up bits and pieces as I went along. The people you meet, from the Captain, to the Scientist, and even SHODAN are all struggling with their pasts and their place in the present. That irrational fear I felt was reverberating across every person I met, including the infected, who occasionally cry for forgiveness as they attack you, the tiny portion of their humanity screaming to be released.

The lead designer on System Shock 2, Ken Levine, wanted players to feel an almost continual sense of displacement, unease and distrust. There are very few points in the game where you are not in immediate danger, nor at ease. Encounters with NPCs are anything but conventional, with conversations that range from the philosophical to downright surreal. You are at times convinced you know what is going on, and how to proceed, when everything flips on its head. This lack of stability, and subsequently, a heightened sense of perception, in my opinion, has yet to be replicated in any title, BioShock or otherwise. You have no idea how things will advance, what you will face, or who you will meet.

System Shock 2, next to Deus Ex and Planescape Torment, is easily not only one of my favourite PC games of all time, but one of the best games ever made, hands down. Even a decade later, many of the gameplay mechanics are still yet to be outclassed by many modern shooters, and the story rivals Half-Life for depth, pacing and exposition. Sure, it looks a little shoddy in place and some of the effects are downright ridiculous, but even they function, as I mentioned earlier, as a sort of historical horror placement.

I not only recommend you play, but encourage you to do so as soon as possible. SHODAN is waiting to show you around her ship.

System Shock 2 is on sale at for $9.99.

22 comments (Leave your own)

Couldn’t agree more – this is an amazing game that everyone should play…


Playing this for the first time, mightily impressed I must say, I can’t fathom why the “spiritual successor” – Bioshock – is so…dumbed down..for lack of better word. I understand now why plenty of people were unimpressed at it’s launch.

It’s quite odd and downright annoying that these “older” generation of games, (including the ones listed in the article which rank among my top favourite also) are simply better then alot of what is shovelled out these days..

Playing with the 7 or so graphic mods listed in the GoG forum sticky thread, looks fine and not really that dated. One thing I am confused about though – all this time, all these years the hype train has been churning about how atmospheric and eery/scary the game is, including this article… I’m clearly missing something because I don’t get that impression at all. Instead I get subjected to Techno dance music numbers at certain points like in medical and Engineering Hallways… whats the deal?

Maybe I’m just desensitized from the Penumbra’s/Slenders/Amnesias/Project Zeros of this modern generation…but I just don’t see the fear factor here..even that iconic “Shodan” moment I’ve heard so much about was rather “meh” (though it did catch me off-guard at least)


Yes, go play. This game is absolutely classic and should be experienced by any serious gamer.


Yeh, I found that title pretty claustrophobic. It’s not just the deliberately disjointed plot, but the gameplay mechanic itself that add to the fear.

It wasn’t just the strong possibility of death, but the strong feeling that some things weren’t in your control. Ammunition was always hard to scrounge, at much of it was pretty ineffective against armoured targets. Every time I pulled the trigger I wasn’t sure whether I should feel relief at slaying my current foe, or dread that I might not have enough for the next encounter,

Weapons often failed. That fact alone, that I could lose due to an external constraint and not my direct input to my character always bothered me. It’s one thing to be an issue in a garish isometric RPG, quite another in first person in a flickering corridor with mutant begging you to flee from him. If you don’t think perspective makes a difference to fear, only play Day Z through first person, desperately alt looking for threats. You connect far more intensely to the situation.

Personally I think it had a much better story than half life, but maybe that’s just me.


I am about two hours into this game and I can really see how its a classic game to many people. It gives me a feeling similiar to what I had playing Deus Ex for the first time. Although not quite as open to player choice in the levels per se. The RPG aspects could result in a totally different gameplay approach.


this game still terrifies me now 13 years later maybe it’s the residual memories of playing the game when I was 13 or 14 years old back in 1999. I also rate as one of my favourite games of all time. It’s simply brilliant

oh and the first ship is the Von Braun not the Rickenbacker (the Rickenbacker comes later)


Without a doubt one of my top 5 games to have ever played. Scared me when it was released, still scared the crap out of me when i played it last year with all the new texture mods and stuff people have released in that time. A classic everyone should play at least once.


Any recommended mods?
Graphic mods etc?


YEAH ! definitely one of my favorite games of all time (SS1 was damn good too).
Hording every single bullet. Shodans taunts.
What a damn fine game.


Might need to try playing it again because this article and a couple of the comments seem overly romantic of the game and don’t represent my experience with the game in the slightest.


well exe3 ive just bought the game and am downloading it. i dont get to have much gaming time lately, but hopefully ill let you know soon how i see it now.

arent our bodies cells replaced roughly every 7 years? well itd be a bunch of new cells and neurones that are going to cop this game, not my old ones. lets see how they respond.


This is the only game as a grown adult which terrified me enough to just find a closet and sit in(in game) and not come out until I got over my fear of monkeys.

James Pinnell

This is the only game as a grown adult which terrified me enough to just find a closet and sit in(in game) and not come out until I got over my fear of monkeys.

Those fucking monkeys.


Have to agree, is still one of my fav all time games…and the first game I played as a 4 player co-op with my mates and my daughter…who I might add was 13 at the time, she would scream like a banshee when the spiders came at her…LOL

Simply a classic


jonlee: Any recommended mods?Graphic mods etc?

I’m using everything listed on the Sticky thread’s OP:

And I still don’t get the fear factor. Monkeys are just something to swing my horribly OP laser rapier at, or shoot at with my nigh infinte ammo (thanks to power recharge nodes) laser pistol(s)/laser rifle, or use up the several hundred ammunition on which i’ve accumulated since the afforementioned weaponry is limitless.

Maybe I’ll replay as a psionic or something.



harden the fuck up and play the impossible mod you casual lol



First of all, way to make yourself sound like an uneducated Neanderthal, try using some etiquette next time. It’s what regular, non-rude folk do, look into it. Where do I download this mod…. oh you meant “Mode”..?

Secondly one would imagine that “hard” is, well, hard. I bumped it up, still 1-2 shotting everything, only thing I noticed was my health decrease.

Can’t imagine why you would presume to label or know anything about some random person on the other side of the internet you know nothing about. Casual? How bizarre.

Way to de-rail the discussion with your arbitrary, weak, baseless attacks….for whatever reason.


Good article.
This game is a real masterpiece. Play it now, if you haven’t already! :)


This is the only game as a grown adult which terrified me enough to just find a closet and sit in(in game) and not come out until I got over my fear of monkeys.

Was waiting for someone to mention the monkeys :) A college friend would literally run out of his room to find anyone nearby, he’d get so scared by them


stoibs: It’s quite odd and downright annoying that these “older” generation of games, (including the ones listed in the article which rank among my top favourite also) are simply better then alot of what is shovelled out these days..

Thats just because noone remembers the piles of mediocre and downright rubbish games that came out at the same time. We do seem to be missing the few standout gems nowdays, but the proportion of poop hasnt changed too much.

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