Make a Better Me of Me

System Shock 2 and the Military Fantasy

Brian Crimmins is a freelance video game critic. Much of his work is critical readings of video games, and he focuses most of his efforts on older Japanese titles.

As cliché as it may sound, the first moments of a video game tend to be among the most important. They’re when the game foreshadows the journey to come, or when they give you a small taste of the ideas that later parts of the story are going to develop. System Shock 2 stands apart from this: while its early moments achieve their goal of setting up the themes the game is going to explore, they also fully develop their own ideas within that brief span of time. More specifically, the opening to System Shock 2 engages with and deflates the sort of fantasies we expect from first person shooters. Where its peers use military themes to make the player feel powerful and reinforce ideas of self-betterment, System Shock 2 denies both by remaining true to the mundane realities of military life.

In doing so, the game reacts to the long historical relationship that the video game industry has had with the military. The two have been tied together ever since the former’s inception: several contenders for the title “first video game” (Tennis for Two, Spacewar) began as minor diversions of military hardware to show what the technology was capable of. Later forays into the industry would serve a specific value, such as commissioning Atari (through a third party) to modify Battlezone into a training program. However, this relationship became much more entrenched in the 1990s and 2000s as first person shooters became more popular. The military modified games like Doom II for military use and eventually used the Unreal Engine to develop their own line of games: America’s Army, which has served as both a valuable training program and recruitment tool. As Simon Parkin grimly notes, it’s gotten to the point where the video game industry and the military cooperate of their own volition, without any need for military funding.

Why have shooters proven so conducive to the American military’s needs? The immediate explanation would be the militarism and violent brand of individualism these games already espouse. I’m in no position to deny this claim. After all, many of the most popular shooters (popular both with players and the US military) center on a one-man army using raw military power to exert power over the Other. However, I’m also reluctant ascribing their popularity purely to violence. The United States military has always presented itself as an institution for self-betterment, whether that’s through advertisements or video games (the ranking system in America’s Army sees you levelling up your Honor). What makes shooters such a natural avenue for military interests is that the two ultimately offer the same promise: that by trusting yourself to their care and following their orders, you’ll become part of something much larger and realize a power that you couldn’t have realized any other way.

Those who have already played System Shock 2 will immediately recognize that message in the game. (Granted, it would be difficult for a game released in 1999 to predict games like America’s Army and Modern Warfare, but the ideals those games operate on were well-entrenched by the time System Shock 2 was released.) Its overarching plot follows an unnamed soldier as he investigates an incident aboard the UNN Rickenbacker. This eventually culminates in a fight against an otherworldly alien hive mind and a rogue AI goddess. At the outset, though, you’ve just disembarked a train and are headed off to a military recruitment center to begin basic training.

What’s notable about this introduction is just how much it contrasts from contemporary shooters by admitting that it’s a video game. Although genre mainstays like Doom, Quake, Half-Life etc. portray similar science fiction scenarios, the genre as a whole became the driving force for improving technology in games, leading to an association with realism. The games themselves at least partially supported this by presenting the action as part of a coherent world instead of as a series of pure ludic challenges. System Shock 2, on the other hand, does everything in its power to blur that distinction. Training takes place in a TRON-like virtual reality simulation the army’s created for new recruits. Any pretense of reality is thrown right out the window as your instructors reference your mouse and keyboard as if they were physical objects in the game world (“Press the TAB key to bring up the Items menu”).

This sets System Shock 2 up to elaborate on the relationship between video games and the military, and the nature of self-betterment that both institutions promise. For one, both contain at the core of their promises the idea that this self-betterment can only come about by transcending whatever reality you’re currently experiencing. We know this because the simulations form a strong contrast against the real world you must first navigate to reach the recruitment center. The real world is dirty, impersonal, lonely, full of ambiguity. The digital world strips away any such qualities in the hope that you’ll be better able to exercise your freedom within these spaces. Granted, areas prior to the Rickenbacker are uniformly restrictive, offering only the bare minimum amount of space they need to train you, but it’s for that reason that action within these spaces come across so clear. What’s more, these are places where you can realize any number of fantastical powers the real world would have difficulty offering, from wielding the typical set of shooter weapons (pistol, energy) to hacking digital displays and even using psychokinesis.

There is a catch: that promise remains incomplete, at least where video games are concerned. All of the powers you wield only hold value within the digital world. Step outside the simulation, and your ability to perform these actions disappears. The military’s role in this is obvious: with enough training, you’ll eventually be able carry your skills outside the digital realm and into the real world. To that end, each branch of the military advertises not a set of skills you can learn, but unique lifestyles for you to adopt. Following basic training, you can also go through three additional training simulations (one for each branch of the military): OSA, Navy, Marines. While each one emphasizes a different skill set, the more obvious difference between them is the different narrators guiding you through each one. Their personalities are each representative of the branch they train you in: there’s the Marines’ hawkish military commander, the stiff Navy technician, and his female equivalent in the OSA. Because you can’t enlist in all three branches at once, you’re encouraged to pick whichever branch you identified with the most during training. One might also note how much the military emphasizes your own choices, and how natural that feels in light of the recurring video game motifs.

However, if the military does deliver on its promise, then it does so in a way that’s difficult for most players to enjoy. This is because rather than emphasizing the glamorous aspects of military life (the same aspects the recruitment center focuses on), System Shock 2 instead accentuates the realities of life in the military. This isn’t to say you were misled, taken advantage of, or actively lied to. Rather, the game demystifies military life by portraying it as an ordinary job instead of the idealistic affair that both the in-game military and the game’s own contemporaries portray it as. Unlike other first person shooters, System Shock 2 doesn’t emphasize the violent encounters that its peers celebrate (at least not in this introduction). Most of the action here centers around quotidian tasks undeserving of praise. To cite a few examples from this System Shock 2 walkthrough:

  • Year 3, Marines: System Consultant
  • Year 2, Navy: Navigator’s Mate
  • Year 2, OSA: Research Lab

Even within this framework, the game actively denies you any potential opportunities to celebrate your accomplishments. Your life in the military follows a very simple and reliable pattern (at least before the main plot disrupts it): choose one of three tasks to perform for the year, board the ship that takes you to that task, read a summary of how well you performed the task. And then you’re asked to do it again, as though your choices didn’t matter.

If you compare this sequence of events to what you were implicitly promised back in the training facility, then the military has technically met its goal. Not only do you have text telling you how much you’ve improved (albeit very blandly), but hard numbers, too. Each task raises a certain statistic for your character, like +1 Modify or +1 Strength or +1 Research. Still, it’s easy to feel like you’ve been cheated, somehow. Instead of meaningful opportunities to exert your influence on the world around you, you’re given bland text that only hints at past developments you’d wanted to experience first-hand. And instead of feeling like somebody who’s been empowered, you find yourself reduced to a set of impersonal, interchangeable numbers. System Shock 2 doesn’t want you to feel empowered. It wants you to feel like you’re performing work, the very thing you signed up for in the first place.

Upon noticing these subtle discrepancies between expectation and reality, it’s natural to wonder if you ever had a choice in this at all. True, you’re confronted with the ability to choose all the time: you’re told you have to choose one of three options, and sure enough, you frequently see those three options right before you. Yet the surrounding architecture does very little to reinforce the idea that it’s a free choice. Rather than the somewhat open worlds that defined games like Doom and Duke Nukem 3D, System Shock 2 employs a litany of linear hallways, each one tight to the point of claustrophobia. The walls close in on you and lock your sight forward, onto the future. They don’t want you walking back, thinking about alternatives, questioning the situation you find yourself in. So not only do these early areas forcibly lock you into the decision you’ve made, but they lock you into the very framework by which choices are made. In that regard, System Shock 2 not only plays off its contemporaries, but foreshadows later shooters like BioShock and Call of Duty, which either directly discuss these ideas or link them more strongly to a military setting.

Mentioning these later games, it’s easy to remember just how much the genre has evolved since System Shock 2’s release. The military connections have become even stronger, and as games like The Division and Homefront can testify, science fiction theming has largely been traded out in favor of a more grounded modern nationalism. What’s remained the same (and what allows System Shock 2 to remain relevant) is the genre’s insistence on aesthetic realism even as it presents itself as little more than leisure. System Shock 2, then, is able to open up alternate possibilities by calling our attention to a different kind of realism: one that’s less glamorous, more mundane, but perhaps truer to the military life it claims to represent.

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