Why System Shock 3 won't terrify me like System Shock 2 did

Sometimes it's best to leave stuff to the imagination

System Shock 2

What you are about to read has been written by Mr Biffo, the creative force behind the 90s Teletext videogames magazine Digitiser. He now runs the show at digitiser2000.com

Few people expected it, but System Shock 3 is coming. In development by OtherSide Entertainment, its impending arrival got me thinking: few games have gotten under my skin to the point of scaring me.

I often roll my eyes when I read a reviewer describing a game as "terrifying". Was it really terrifying? I mean, really? Terror is hearing a noise downstairs while you're in bed, or discovering an unfamiliar lump, or a tax audit. The less we understand something, the more our mind plays tricks. The brain is an amazing engine for extrapolating fear and anxiety out of the tiniest nugget of unfamiliarity.

Generally, videogames might make you jump, but do they really terrify? I spent most of Alien Isolation hiding under things, but not because I was scared of the Alien; I just couldn't be bothered having to retrace the same section of game again and again. And again.

Alien Isolation

Terror is the ability to generate intense fear. Fear is an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm. When playing a game, I'm never sufficiently dissociated from the real world to think I'm going to die, or get hurt. I'm engaged with a joypad, and I'm rarely playing in the dark. There are magazine articles that have scared me more than most allegedly scary games.

But there are exceptions.

Shock and roll

The first-person RPGs System Shock and System Shock 2 did indeed terrify me. My home office used to be in a Harry Potter-style cubbyhole beneath the stairs, with my back to a door which led into the garden. The only light – if playing late at night – came from a bare 40 watt bulb.

System Shock and its sequel were set on space stations full of cubbyholes and flickering bulbs. Playing in that environment, while sort of in that environment in the real world, was profoundly affecting. I bought into those games more than many since.

System Shock
Credit: PC Gamer

Dead Space, Alien Isolation, Bioshock, Deus Ex – to one extent or another, these are games which are built on all that System Shock pioneered. All good games, but I enjoyed none of them as much as I did System Shock 2. For such a rarely heralded series, it's remarkable how much it has given us.

It has been 16 years since System Shock 2, a superlative sequel which was slicker and more atmospheric than its predecessor. And now it looks as if we're finally getting System Shock 3, if the recently released teaser is anything to go by. You'd think I'd be buying a new 100w bulb in preparation, but I've got reservations… and not just because I can afford new underpants.

Pictures on the radio

There's a famous quote about radio – that the pictures are better. It was something I've always felt about video games, or the video games I played as a kid. The imagination would fill in the gaps.

The bland, untextured corridors of Castle Master on my Atari ST, or the two-dimensional hallways of Citadel on the BBC Model B, aren't how I remember them. When I think back, I can still see every cobweb, every crack in the walls, the drool spilling from the trembling maws of my enemies. I can smell the musty rum barrels, the wet hay on the floor, the smoke from the torches. I was there.

Nowadays, games do all the work for you. There's no filling in the blanks; where once there were empty spaces to be bolstered by your own creative thought, now there are sunsets, realistic water physics, and bears with simulated fur.

System Shock

Graphics have never been better, but somehow, the closer we get to bridging the uncanny valley, the more I notice the flaws. Those sunsets may look stunning, the forests may convince, but the points at which graphical fidelity butts up against expectation brings me out of the experience. Imagine if the Mona Lisa had a big wart on her upper lip; for all her eyebrow-less beauty, that's what your eye would be drawn to. Such as it is with modern games for me.

And this is my worry with System Shock 3. It's going to look great. Let's face it – most games do these days. However, it's unlikely to look like the System Shocks of old. Go back to those games now, and they're crude by comparison with their modern equivalents.

System Shock and System Shock 2 aren't going anywhere. Buffed-up, HD updates are available. I know I can't expect a modern second sequel to adopt a wholly dated graphical style, but I know that System Shock 3 isn't going to be my System Shock. It won't affect me the same way as its predecessors. However good it might end up… it isn't going to terrify me.

Unless there's a section where I have to fill out a tax return, and check my character for potential tumours, that is.

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