Tuesday, September 6, 2011

You Shoulda Been a Movie: System Shock 2

I was considering an article about video game movies, and how they're uniformly sucktastic. But I'm tired of covering fantasy-type stuff, and that sort of entry would still involve making 1-2 paragraph reviews for several on-screen train wrecks. I'm in the mood for something far more positive and fun.

So it's not just that I don't want to review Doom, 3 Resident Evil sequels, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Tomb Raider, Silent Hill, Super Mario Bros., or BloodRayne. Forget the low expectations I'd have based on the bad rep of each one! I'd rather cover a solid drama, or a even mediocre indie pic by far... But I'd be happier still writing about a game that should be made into a movie. So...

There's a video game called System Shock 2; it came out in 1999. I had a good pc, so I bought & played it. This computerized horror/sci-fi/fantasy venture has landed on multiple "best games" lists, and I'm going to explain why.

SS2, from the boot-up video on, carries out the terrifying idea that you've somehow slept through a nasty alien force overrunning your vessel in the far reaches of space. Your lone companion is a caustic and acerbic Doctor; she's trying to guide you to her, by radio. The terror grows immeasurably several hours in, as you start to wonder whether there's anyone on-board who's still alive or sane.

The only way I can express the appeal, to those that don't play games, is simple: pick the best horror movie you've ever seen. I mean one that satisfied you with its story and acting, but also (a) creeped you out all the time while (b) scaring you senseless, repeatedly. Now imagine playing that movie as a 15-20 hour experience.

I was actually too spooked to try this with the lights off, some nights. I'd often play for only 40 minutes at a time, over weeks. I'd boot it up whenever I wanted to feel raw adrenaline and fright.

I don't care if you've never played a video game in your life. If you heard of one with a great narrative that has an intense emotional effect on you, shouldn't you play it? If a game could make you feel as strongly as you felt when you saw Harvey, To Catch a Thief, The Usual Suspects, Say Anything..., or Rocky, why wouldn't you want to try that?

Shock's basic premise is: something went wrong on your military ship/luxury cruise liner. So wrong, in fact, that you should expect to see piles of human parts at every corridor. No, worse - so wrong, actually, that the absence of human parts at every corridor means that those parts are may doing something far worse than being a memento of a massacre. HOLY $#%(*@#@$*!

That video above showed you a world that seems similar to Blade Runner and even the awful Event Horizon. Xerxes is the sentient, talking computer that runs your ship; straight out of 2001, but not homicidal, thank god. Another video here features a propaganda segment that reminds me of the war ads in Starship Troopers. It's no surprise that a sci-fi movie would use familiar references and dark humor to help you adjust to your role in this extreme emergency.

Well, several emergencies, really. At the moment, the ship is being pelted by debris and might fall apart at any time. This urgency is immediately conveyed - you've just recovered from an experimental surgery to help you survive, but must now haul tail to the nearest control panel. If not, you'll be blown out into space. This game never lets up from there.

With new IMdb reviews added years after the fact, others clearly agree that System Shock 2 is exactly that sort of ride. It's also so creepy that you both do and don't want to play the game while alone in a dark room. SS2 will inject you with a mentality of fear, to the point that if you get a real life call or visitor, the sound might completely freak you out.

I gave you a disturbing, spooky look ahead with that first video. Yet the entire scary concept is expressed so neatly through the actual opening video.

Long before Lost, PC gamers got a great French voice leaving a (sexy) warning of doom.

See? The messed-up audio and such is designed to make you feel really tense and it works like a magic spell. Surely, you've walked up to someone at their desk at work and they jumped as if they were frightened or surprised. People sit within 8 feet of them all day - what are they worried about?

It makes sense if you think they've been reading or watching anything close to as scary as what I was playing for weeks. Damn, look at those two clips. You would be on-edge to the point of over-reaction, wouldn't you?

Shock's ability to engage is amazing, especially because the storytelling is, technically, inverted: the location and crew and enemies are brought to life so well, but your character is never developed. It gets away with this because people who buy the game develop the role through their own reactions; also, the top-notch sound, graphics, and writing.

SS2 plays out so niftily through a variety of points of interaction. For one thing, your occasionally see "ghosts" of former crewmates. Sometimes, you're nearing an elevator and you'll see glowing blue visions of men or women talking in front of that elevator; it's all images of what's happened before. People could be arguing about their relationship or falling down from an unseen injury. Or they you might witness them shoot themselves to die with dignity.

There's a lot to be said for the psychological impact on a viewer of watching a ghost commit suicide<. If not-living things are offing themselves, how bad must it be out there for you? It's worse when you start to get the feeling that a normal, moral, sane person might eat a bullet in the same situation.

A second point of interaction is the various well-performed audio recordings. Imagine using your phone to make audio diaries of your thoughts, status, and tasks. Now pretend you're walking through a blood-spattered room and worrying about running into more bad guys, all while hearing the desperate words of people who were losing their minds, or knew they might die at any second. System Shock 2 really cranks up the tension to "Hitchcock + 10" levels.

It's a smart trick, at least in part due to its effectiveness in conveying info that the player needs to progress. It's also such a nifty exposition technique, informing you of hidden supplies and dangers. As you go through the game, you're excited to find a new audio log from someone who you hope might still be alive. When a familiar voice leaves its last message, you feel quite sad.

All the 10-40 second audio clips from one level; feel free to skip around.

Thirdly, you interact with your horrifying surroundings through visuals and characters. You enter a room and see, to your surprise, an actual survivor. Will they fill you in on what you've missed during your surgery? Will they have answers?

No. You'll probably see that character get cornered by a living nightmare, then torn apart. While wandering the monstrosity-and-robot patrolled corridors, you might spot a warning on the wall, written in blood. The dried fluid trails downward to a point where you should see a corpse. But why don't you see the corpse?

Very much like the film 28 Days Later, this video game seldom lets up. Semi-mechanical chittering spiders, cyborg/zombies that attack you with a pipe and occasionally call out "Run!" or "I'm... ssssoo-rry!" HOLY #(@#(*#*@-ing @*&# my %^&@$! More disturbing - some woman are, from mid-section down, fleshless robots. She'll fire a gun at you while her mostly-synthesized voice might talk about "protecting her babies," or how children "need a mother's love."

It's all the worse because the environment also responds to the player. In certain areas, you may fall in view of hostile computerized cameras; the gamer's deathly-quiet arena suddenly turns against them. Not only might a turret-gun fire upon you, an alarm can draw the biological beasts straight to your location.

Dark rooms, empty hallways, audio files from people experiencing the first signs of trouble (or making their last stand)... Phobia on top phobia on top of phobia - that's Shock, and it's wonderful.

I will never forget the raw fear I experienced due to the game's two main antagonists. The first is The Many, an organic collection of terrors that first kills people, then does something worse to them. As a group, they're full of different critters, but The Many somehow has psychic powers, and occasionally speaks to you inside your mind. It has a hedonistic mentality, and wants to absorb any living thing.

The second enemy is the feminine artificial intelligence called SHODAN. This game has been on several "Top 20 of All Time" lists, and she is a major factor in all that praise.

Remember those evil "thinking computers" from the Terminator movies? Now imagine that Arnie's T-800 isn't a weirdly-accented, buff cyborg. No, it's a giant ship that you're traveling inside of - a huge vessel that notices your presence & thinks you're a measly pest. Fighting something so calm, massive, and intelligent is very intimidating.

It's not even as simple as "she's out to get you" - her stuttering computerized voice is constantly ordering you to work with her to survive. She talks to you like the puny ant that she perceives you to be. Witness it again yourself:

"What is it like to be afraid?" There is no greater smack-talk

Do you feel that contempt? It clearly says, "don't fight me. I could kill you with a thought, you loser. Just give in. I'll kill you later, when I have no use for you."

A consistent, vivid characterization like this is missing in so many video games, and from many video-game movies. Yet it's sadder to think that such an interesting and clearly-defined role is absent from lots of mainstream Hollywood pictures. If a voice actor can't do very well with their material, that's one thing. But, on-camera, even good, well-known celebrities can come off as stale in motivation or personality.

I could direct you to (spoiler, I guess) Sean Bean's Trevelyan/Janus in GoldenEye. He's a steady-enough player, but Bean gives this awful monologue where he announces his character's motivation:
We're both orphans, James. But while your parents had the luxury of dying in a climbing accident, mine survived the British betrayal and Stalin's execution squads. My father couldn't let himself or my mother live with the shame. MI6 figured I was too young to remember. And in one of life's little ironies, the son went to work for the government whose betrayal caused the father to kill himself and his wife. [emphasis mine]
I nearly howled with laughter. Firstly, that weak motivation doesn't seem nearly sufficient. Secondly, dying while mountain climbing must be horrific, whether you fall, freeze, or starve. All that "the son," "the government," and "the father," material reeks of bad writing. Last - and most important - that whole speech does nothing for Janus but make him seem the whiny son of weak, stupid parents. Who's gonna take this dude as a serious threat?

Or try Joaquin Phoenix's Commodus in Gladiator. I had several issues with that movie, but the most annoying aspect was Phoenix's performance. He goes into wild tantrums way too much to be a good villain. He even does it in public, near fellow Romans who could/would manipulate or overthrow him. Commodus also cries a lot. I tend to get less mileage from bad guys who are "pathetically whiny and conflicted" than I do from those that are "inhuman, sociopathic, and cruel."

Wailing and moaning is not what you get in System Shock 2; well, when you do, it's from the zombie cyborgs, not SHODAN or The Many itself. The bio-mechanical freak show that assaults you is like an undead pandemic where some still remember being normal; it adds an appropriate tone that's unsettling and tragic. Robot sentries attack you without anger or mercy, and meanwhile, the other danger - the second sentient computer - tells you that you're beneath its notice, save the mutual threat you face.

From the few videos here alone, it's clear - you, as a protagonist, are utterly screwed. But at least the dangers aren't bland or flat. You'll go out with a bang - and a wince.

Alien Resurrection tried to mine similar material, largely to bad effect. That pic had Sigourney Weaver and Winona Ryder running around a hostile sentient ship while dealing with a ruthless alien threat. The boring and lame Aliens Versus Predator films tried to create a 3-way fight wherein you bond with your potential killer to take on a worse enemy. Even John Cusack's Identity tried to foster an atmosphere where you had no idea who were the murderers and who were the victims.

None of these cinematic efforts hold a candle to SS2, where you're a gifted, lone person thrust into a crisis with at least 3 massive problems to solve. Your ship is falling apart, there are vicious "animals" and malfunctioning robots all around, and you are also targeted by both an inhuman machine and a biological terror that want to control or kill everything. It says a lot that your best chance to survive is to help the sociopathic, superioristic computer that probably plans to kill you last. Again: HOLY $*(#*@#@!

Consider the cool spookiness of that story the next time you spot some SyFy movie or Netflix rental called (making this up) "Robot Mall Massacre 12," or "Freezageddon," or "Deadly Dino-Squid." Those sorts of pictures rarely have as good an idea as: ship member gets unusual surgery to survive a biological epidemic/monster squad, but also has a living machine manipulating him for its own brutal ends, and must confront all these enemies to save himself and his ship.

Many pictures with ideas that do sound so great often fail to execute these ideas effectively, or in a way that maintains a solid narrative.

This "mere" video game made a huge impression on people with a PC in 1999. It would take me a long time to provide links to the professional accolades it received or the "best of" lists that it belongs to. Here is a wiki link on SS2's legacy, and here's another wiki link about the response it received after its release. 'Nuff said?

The last video I'll show you, below, is a fan-made movie trailer for the game (the actual trailer was lousy). I hope after all these videos and words, you can understand why I'd definitely support a movie adapted from this premise; unless they hired Uwe Boll or Paul WS Anderson to direct...

No comments:

Post a Comment

Chime in!