The Many Voices of “System Shock 2”

System Shock 2 remains one of the most lauded and influential video games of all time. While its genre is generally characterised as horror and action role-play, I suggest that this is an insufficient description. Rather the game is a tension between horror and ecstacy, agency and helplessness; these paradoxes are exemplified by the audio design of character dialogue. Our entanglement with the game operates in two directions: our “limit-experience” of the game world, as characterised by the multitudinous, medusoid sound of The Many and the cyborg connectivity of SHODAN’s emotionless affect; and our “limit-experience” as the player, our agency in building our character and our ability to give voice to these entities through our interaction with the UI. Yet the protagonist remains silent, and even as we project into the game world we are faced with certain expressive impossibilities. By contrasting the voicefullness of the non-player characters and voicelessness of the player character I identify the true ‘horror’ of the game as lying in a tension between a desire to join the chorus of The Many and the fact that we cannot chose to do so. If The Many is comprised of multiple voices, then is our silence another expression of these voices or their antithesis? If The Many is a distinct, Gestalt voice, then is our external silence is more closely related to SHODAN’s simultaneous cyborg interconnectedness and singular god-like megalomania? Does the audio design include our silence, or is the player outside of the game’s sound?

This paper was presented at the Ludo23 European Conference on Video Game Music and Sound

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