This was originally a pitch to write a book about System Shock. It is now a slightly fragmented note about how a video game changed who I was and what I would become. Enjoy.
I am not joking, not one little bit, when I state that System Shock is the reason I have my career.
The PC (MS-DOS) game System Shock was the first real stab at realistic physics in first-person shooting games. It raised the stakes on immersive audio design. It showcased the possibilities of emergent game design. And gamers should praise this modestly selling game as the true ancestor of BioShock.
But none of that is why System Shock mattered so much to a 16-year-old kid in upstate New York. Let’s begin where so many gaming stories begin: a suburban basement.
System Shock would not run on the Gateway 486DX/33 desktop my father brought home from his seafood processing business. Well, the game would run, but it would randomly hit a complete halt. A frightful error stream would spew down the left side of a giant monitor, painting green or sometimes yellow-on-black DOS text over the game’s 3-D graphics. The last line was always “DIVIDE OVERFLOW.” It was sometimes accompanied by a terrible whine or skipping from plastic speakers.
This real-world problem, this unknowable enemy, mirrored the battle I was engaged in whenever the game wasn’t crashing. I was battling SHODAN, an errant artificial intelligence, seeking to stop you, the hacker in over his1 head, from effectively fixing her and regaining control of a wayward space station.
I was, at the time, a C student with no particular interest in research, in exploring systems, in understanding how things worked so that I could explain them to other people. I wore a lot of flannel and told anyone who would listen that I didn’t care about most things.
Fighting that beige Gateway box (so: fighting SHODAN) led me through the many levels of my computer (Citadel Station), where I learned the habits and weaknesses of CONFIG.SYS (mutants), AUTOEXEC.BAT (cyborgs), surveillance cameras (PCI cards), and giant, blocky robots built only to intimidate and halt intruders (BIOS settings). When I was done, when DIVIDE OVERFLOW was conquered2, I could replace hardware, optimize memory, resolve IRQ conflicts, search troubleshooting guides on AOL communities, and even write short batch scripts.
I had augmented myself. I knew how to dig into things, figure out their options and settings. I could ask questions and find answers. I had hacked into an escape pod from my bored, lonely teenage life. I was ready for the next strange environment.
Luckily, right around this time, I went to college, that college had very fast internet, and you know how the rest of that goes.
The real hackers
Whenever I think back on System Shock—when I put my skinny kneecaps back onto that thin green carpet that barely softened the concrete foundation, when I feel my neck strain from a half-hour spent peering into SATA bays or trying to guide a screw into some deep corner of a dust-infested case—I try to give thanks to Looking Glass.
The unlikely, inexperienced, but wildly ambitious team at Looking Glass Technologies succeeded against great odds to make System Shock. They created a quiet, secret success that would endure, influence, and inspire.
Playing System Shock is not shooting people. Well, it is, but it’s not just that, and they’re not just people.
Playing System Shock is hearing ghostly audio diaries, full of both vital mission knowledge and workplace minutiae. It is feeling kinship with a far-away person who is still alive, who knows that you are still alive, and she wants to help. It is being reminded that you are perpetually one step behind SHODAN, the entity you unleashed on the universe through your attempt to skirt the law. It is being unable to escape the crazy-pants dialogue SHODAN stutter-squawks into your headphones, telling you that she is a God, and you are merely playing at halting her destiny, and now she is going to open some doors and release a battalion of cyborgs to kill you, cyborgs who were once clerks and programmers and lab assistants, and whom you are now shooting with anti-personnel flechette rounds.
People create things because they’re fun to make, and then they change people’s lives. It’s amazing, this stuff.
The gender of the player character is shown to be male in the intro cutscene, but it’s essentially non-assigned during the game. Luckily, it would seem, there are no full-length or head-height mirrors on Citadel Station. ↩
It was a BIOS setting for the hard drive: “Turbo Mode: Enabled/Disabled.” Why would anyone ever want their hard drive to not run in “Turbo Mode,” I ask you? ↩