Glitch in the System: A Look Back at ‘System Shock’s SHODAN

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System Shock

Of all the apocalyptic scenarios man keeps dreaming up, the idea of us losing to the machines we’ve created becomes more and more likely with each passing year. This isn’t a new idea, the Terminator franchise popularized killer robots through the 80s, 2001: A Space Odyssey created the self aware and deadly HAL 9000 in 1968, and 1927’s Metropolis created the idea of a robot subverting human intelligence for their own purposes. Robots, artificial intelligence, and mankind’s understanding of building the better human all continue to advance at alarming rates, and things like assistance robots or self driving cars are predicted to become commonplace within our lifetimes. Its only natural to have a level of fear that a cold, calculated machine may one day figure out the flaws in humanity and decide to wipe us all out.

Video games have often used robots or artificial intelligence to create conflict, a slight nod to the irony of using a machine to play a game about killing other machines perhaps. Since the dawn of gaming players have been destroying robots with the same veracity as aliens or zombies, and games like the Metal Gear Solid series or Ratchet and Clank are entirely based around the idea. Even the more frightening thought of a robot apocalypse has been approached thanks to Five Nights at Freddy’s contained and claustrophobic nightmare. Yet all of these fail to one of the greatest computer minds ever created, the mad insanity that is System Shock‘s SHODAN AI system.

Like any good AI villain, the primary idea of SHODAN was pure. The Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network was created to monitor the systems aboard Citadel Station, a mining and research platform built by TriOptimum Corporation. The idea was a computer system guided by logic that would activate or deactivate station functions to best suit the needs of the inhabitants, as well as a personality complex that would let her override station protocols if “she” deemed it necessary. All of this was controlled by a moral function that ensured she didn’t go crazy and kill everyone, a moral function that the protagonist of the first System Shock inadvertently disabled to cover up corporate misdeeds. She goes crazy and it’s up to her “savior” (you, the player) to stop her from downloading herself into Earth’s computer systems and bringing about the end of mankind.

Cyberspace is her world, and you a worthless intruder.

During the events of System Shock it’s slowly revealed that fighting SHODAN in the physical world won’t be possible. While her madness has infected the rest of the station and turned its denizens into cyborg monsters, she’s not dumb enough to give up her supreme reign in the digital world. Too bad for her your character is a hacker, and the final fight is something out of Philip K. Dick’s nightmares. Entering into cyberspace, you navigate the wireframe maze, avoiding hazards until SHODAN’s core system files can be found and destroyed. All the while the screen slowly distorts into static, revealing the complete form of SHODAN’s grimacing face, frighteningly human and yet noticeably machine. Failure means becoming her slave forever as she infects your mind, while success means saving the entire human race, even if they don’t know it.

Like all great villains, SHODAN can’t be killed that easily, and unbeknownst to the first game’s protagonist she managed to eject part of her programming off into the darkness of space, eventually settling on the planet of Tau Ceti V, where she lay dormant for four decades. This is where the second game picks up, with the hapless crew of the Van Braun research vessel accidently re-activating her, and you standing as the only thing in her way.

“When the history of my glory is written, your species shall only be a footnote to my magnificence.”

System Shock 2 improved a lot over the first game, not only in terms of graphics and user interface, but even more in its ability to inflict horror on the player. SHODAN has grown more powerful in her slumber, as well as more insane having been left alone with the mutated parasites known as The Many, who began to view SHODAN as their mother. While the first game featured the cybernetic horrors of Citadel Station, System Shock 2 hosts the mutated, and somewhat sentient, beasts created by SHODAN, who stalk the halls of the doomed ship preaching their scriptures of assimilation into The Many. Those they can’t assimilate they seek to destroy.

It isn’t till later in the game that SHODAN actually makes an appearance, and she spends much of the time masquerading as her wayward savior Dr. Janice Polito, the scientist that had SHODAN brought on board. Under this guise she commands the player to set up her plans for revenge: using the Faster-then-Light drive of the Van Braun to merge the real world and cyberspace, which would make her a god. Unfortunately for her part of this process means creating a physical manifestation of herself, a manifestation susceptible to hacking and damage from your attacks.

If just being creepy as hell wasn’t enough, she only ever seems to refer to humans as “insects”

The final showdown is a horrifying experience, in the dim light of cyberspace, now fully rendered in 3D, it’s up to you to defeat her cyber defenses, while avoiding her puppets shooting at you, and the floor randomly electrifying. Also throughout the entire fight SHODAN screaming and laughing at your attempts to stop her, which can be a real downer. Even in defeat she remains resistant, insulting humanity and the player while offering to allow you to join her. And despite all your best efforts the finale of the second game ends with a tease for a future re-emergence of the mechanical mistress.

While her actual fights might not be as memorable as other bosses in gaming, SHODAN’s presence and personality leave a lasting impression on the player. She’s downright creepy, the personification of everything wrong with technological advancement. She’s driven by insane logic that only she understands and seeks to be a god while also possessing the knowledge of how to do that. Throughout both games she displays the ability to create and control life, never mind destroy it at will, and shows no compassion for humanity, which she regularly seeks to dominate or destroy. SHODAN is the fault of man, man that created her, man that made her powerful, man that drove her insane, and man that continues to allow her to exist. While the System Shock games remain cult classics for PC gamers, SHODAN is a model of a villain that transcends her own games, and truly stands apart as one of the most terrifying, and most real, bosses ever created.

Andrew Vandersteen has been watching movies and playing games since before he could do basic math, and it shows. But what he lacks in being good at things, he makes up for with opinions on everything nerd culture. A self described and self medicated audiophile and lover of anything and everything really, really terrible, he’s on a constant quest to find the worst things humanity has ever published. He’s seen every episode of The Legend of Zelda, twice, and thinks the Super Mario Movie was a war crime. When he’s not playing games or writing about them, he’s messing around with audio or fixing computers. Perpetually one paycheck short of breaking even, and always angry about something.