Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Technical Difficulties: A Very Personal Tale of Terror

Obligatory Halloween Post
Also... I made the Pumpkin on the left!
More than a decade later, System Shock 2 still delivers thrills, terrors, and hours of riveting game play that rivals more recent titles in the survival horror sub-genre. However, the most terrifying moments of my play through System Shock 2 were further enhanced when the lines between reality the the virtual world were blurred...

Sarasota, FL, USA
Summer, 2012

It was a dark, rainy morning when the CD arrived, a new copy of System Shock 2 I'd purchased off Amazon earlier in the week. As I opened the packaging I noticed a hand-written note stuck to the disc,"Good Luck. You'll need it. She'll get you," scrawled in barely legible pen . Chuckling at the ominous message, I loaded the CD and installed the game onto my computer, completely unaware of the horrors that awaited me. After a remarkably short installation I started the game, running through a fun tutorial mission. This is where I first noticed that something sinister was afoot. Over the last decade computers had evolved to allow dual core processing and sadly my copy of System Shock 2 couldn't comprehend such an innovation. Within 5 minutes of starting the game my processor would gradually speed up until it would run so fast that my computer would crash in a 1990's style blue screen of death. After scouring the internet for a solution I discovered that it was possible to play the game for 15-25 consecutive minutes by opening dozens of programs to try and slow down your computer. I used this method and Quick-Saved my progress in the game every few seconds but the rapid fire Quick Saving also made things difficult because I rarely remembered to use the main save feature. That means that if I Quick-Saved at the wrong time i'd be forced to relive a death which I could not avoid and was forced to repeat dozens of times in a row. Now the survival part of the game meant a lot more to me because recovering from an untimely death could take upwards of an hour, and I wasn't sure how many hard reboots my computer could handle before possibly dying.

As morning turned to gloomy afternoon my roommates left for the weekend. I watched them brave the storm outside from my gaming chair, positioned in front of a giant window. We live on a few acres of wood, in the middle of nowhere, so I would be getting the ultimate experience by playing a survival horror game alone during a storm. With no other humans within sight or sound I turned up the volume and immersed myself in the game. This was where things got weird...

A picture from one of the new Graphic Update Mods!
Looks pretty...
At one point in the game, the ship's AI, S.H.O.D.A.N. (voiced by the extremely friendly and talented Terri Brosius) reveals itself and taunts you. It/she talks to you regularly after that point in the game, however, it turns out that the frequencies in SHODAN's voice (which also contain various electronic sounds) are also the same frequencies that control the remote-control fan in my room in the real world. The overall effect was that she'd threaten to send minions after me, I'd see movement in the reflection of my computer monitor, panic, and realize later that it was only the reflection of my fan turning on again. It would get frustrating because enemies in that game also have a tendency to sneak up on you in the dark confines of the Von Braun in much the same manner. The few times I didn't notice the fan turn on visually I was hit with a strong blast of chilly air and the feeling that someone was actually in the room with me. The thought froze me to the bone each time until I'd turn around, realize no one was there, get up, turn off the fan via wall-switch (the remote was dead and hadn't ever worked for me), and run back to my computer before the game either crashed or killed me. Of course, once I got used to this strange new phenomenon, a new one had to occur, so pretty soon the only source of light in the room, the light on my remote controlled fan, also succumbed to a strange System Shock. Every so often, seemingly at random, the light would just turn off, enveloping me in total darkness, freaking me out, and again forcing me to run to the wall switch to turn it back on again. This would happen a few times each hour.

As if playing System Shock 2 home alone, in the middle of the woods, during a storm with these weird additions wasn't scary enough, it gets worse. I don't have surround sound but I noticed that I kept hearing bumps and various noises coming from other rooms of the house. In a few instances I thought I heard someone talking too. It was extremely unnerving because I had a view of the long driveway and could clearly see that no one was home, save for myself. On two separate instances, after the game crashed, I went through the house, room by room, with my lucky nail-bat, a prop from a film I'd made, until I was sure that no one was in the house. I re-secured the locks, the windows, grabbed a snack, and returned to my computer to finish the game. It was night by this point, still stormy outside and I was nearing what I suspected was either the end (it wasn't), or else very close to the end of the game. As I got into a particularly spooky derelict hallway filled with creepy cyborg women, running extremely low on ammo, I felt something physically jump on my chair in the real world. I'm not exactly sure how I intended to react but the end result was that the chair flipped. I landed on my back as my cat, Evanrude, fled the room in terror. He'd been so quiet throughout the day (or had he?) that I'd forgotten he was home. I think he thought my reaction was amusing, because he kept jumping onto the back of my chair intermittently for the next couple of hours, despite being fed prior to the first incident.

Finally, as I thought the game had nothing left to scare me with in the real world, I committed to sit through the final stretch, to overcome randomly being thrown into darkness, evil cyborgs, monsters, cats, fans, computer-reboots, quick-save issues, and spooky sounds throughout my home. I'm not sure how many hours passed but I finally reached what I'm certain was the end of the game. It was at that time when it happened, as S.H.O.D.A.N., the most advanced computer AI in the world and myself were about to square off after destroying and avoiding an army of her terrifying creations. It looked like I was finally going to kill her and/or escape and beat the game, and it was at this point that S.H.O.D.A.N. threatened to kill me. Naturally I expected my fan to turn on, and it did, by this point I also expected my cat to do something to distract me, which it tried to do, but what I didn't expect was for lightning to strike nearby, right as S.H.O.D.A.N. finished her sentence, cutting all power to my house and neighborhood off, enveloping me in total darkness for a few hours... Which is precisely what happened. 
A few days later I had the courage to try the final fight again, only to discover that my save file had corrupted. In a way S.H.O.D.A.N. had been true to her word, killed my virtual character, and won... and that was the last time I played System Shock 2.

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