the perfection of digital and artificial intelligence

Some people never really leave: they make huge rounds and then come back. Sometimes it can also happen with AIs so twisted that they’ve been etched into the collective imagination. It is his case SHODANcompetitor (but, on closer examination, true protagonist) of the two System shock that marked the productive video game of the 90s, fundamental to lay the foundations of different genres and styles that were then developed and re-proposed in the following decades.

As a testament to the public’s desire to rediscover the claustrophobic and labyrinthine corridors of the Acropolis, System Shock Remake, currently in production at Nightdive Studios, was the star of a successful crowdfunding campaign that saw the team raise $1.3 million. No launch window has yet been set for this remake – which will be available on PC and PlayStation and Xbox platforms – but we know work is well underway. Additionally, System Shock was featured in a new trailer at the PC Gaming Show last June. We want to take this opportunity to tell you about the two System Shocks, their cultural significance and why, even today, the “sick” AI SHODAN manages to be deeply unsettling.

Corrupt companies and anonymous hackers

The plot of the first System Shock, developed by LookingGlass Technologies and released in 1994 by Origin Systems, takes place in dystopian future dominated by a megacorporation, the TriOptimum Corporation. This is a common assumption in the cyberpunk genre, which from the literary world had begun to unfold its influence in the field of video games.

We are in 2072 and an anonymous hacker (a common feature between the protagonists of the two System Shocks: both are anonymous) manages to break into the network of TriOptimum Corporation to steal sensitive data. But he is immediately discovered and arrested by the thugs of the guild, who put him in contact with one of the leaders of the group.

The Vice President of Marketing, Edward Diegooffers a deal: the hacker will reprogram SHODAN – acronym for Sensitive hyper-optimized data access network – the artificial intelligence that manages the station, to modify its moral core, thus preventing it from reporting to Diego’s superiors some mysterious misdeeds committed by the latter. in return, he will receive costly cyber modifications that increase his neural capabilities, and his attack on the TriOptimum Corporation network will be forgotten. The hacker accepts, and so is taken to the Acropolis, where he makes the programmed changes and receives the neural interface installation that Diego had promised him, and is then put into a therapeutic coma for several months.

The hacker’s actions have an unexpected result: modifying SHODAN’s code causes it to become exposed completely abnormal behaviors. As the tutelary deity of the Acropolis, The AI ​​turns into an out of control digital being, killing some of the space station’s crew and conducting experiments on survivors in one of its compartments, Beta Grove. SHODAN uses a mutagenic virus secretly created by Edward Diego: this was the secret the executive was desperate to keep hidden from TriOptimum Corporation.

The logs available from the hacker after he woke up from the coma allow us to reconstruct the desperate struggle waged by researchers and soldiers at the Citadel against the artificial intelligence, he decided to modify people to remake them in his image and likeness, emulating the perfection of digital. Between mutants, cyborgs and now hostile robots, the protagonist will find himself navigating with extreme difficulty – System Shock is certainly not known as a simple video game – in a space station that looks like a maze. Managing to separate itself from the rest of the Acropolis Beta grove, center of SHODAN’s experiments, the hacker sets in motion what the events of the sequel will be. horrified, he learns that AI, now in the throes of a megalomania that knows no boundstries to install itself on the terrestrial computer network to take control of it.

The only way to stop this terrible threat is to destroy the station: after the green light from the TriOptimum Corporation, worried about the impact on public opinion if it becomes known about the disaster created by Edward Diego, the hacker manages to escape from the station before a catastrophic explosion, defeats Diego (he transforms into a cyborg) and destroys SHODAN in an all-out cyber battle.

Strangely, the reward for all this incredible adventure is a job offer from TriOptimum Corporation… But our hacker says hello to everyone and returns to his true passion, which is to illegally access the networks of large companies. For him the story ends here, but SHODAN doesn’t want to let go of his dreams of glory.

A soldier against all

The two System Shocks shared the same fate in terms of reception from critics and the public: positive reviews from the press were an unpleasant counterbalance to sales that weren’t exactly exciting. It should be noted though that System shock 2 – developed by Irrational Games, as well as Looking Glass Studios, and published by Electronic Arts – you can count on a much more complex, fascinating and multi-faceted story compared to that of its predecessor.

No wonder: Ken Levine, who was destined for immortal fame thanks to the Bioshock series, took his first steps in the industry and was excited to work on a sequel to that System Shock which made him consider looking for a job in video game development. Levine held out with great results challenge to present to the public an already known competitorwhich SHODAN only seemingly defeated at the end of the first chapter of the series.

The adventure takes place in 2114, forty-two years after the events of System Shock. This time the protagonist is a soldier serving on the UNN Rickenbacker, a military starship accompanying the Von Braun, a revolutionary starship capable of traveling at faster than the speed of light making its maiden voyage. After receiving a signal for help from the planet Tau Ceti V, a rescue team is sent to the source: the personnel are greeted by some mysterious eggs – which infect human beings and integrate them into a collective consciousness called The many – and SHODAN

The AI ​​and infection manage to board Von Braun, causing a double threat that could potentially upset the very nature of the human species: on the one hand, the hive mind The Many, the result of experiments conducted by SHODAN in Beta Grove, but escaped his control. on the other, SHODAN herself, who asks the soldier to help her clear the spaceship of the cumbersome presence of The Many – acting as ally of the protagonist in the first part of the gamea shocking twist devised by Ken Levine – only to then reveal his true intentions and reveal himself to be the adventure’s ultimate antagonist.

Although some elements of the final sequences indicated the development of a sequel, System Shock 3 didn’t happen, at least for now. The events of its development, of which there has been sporadic news from 2015 to this point, are not at all clear, and there have been rumors of its cancellation: what is certain is that part of the team that worked on the series, first and foremost to the illustrious Ken Levine, to whom it was later dedicated other brilliant worksamong which it certainly stands out Bioshock. If this is true “Patience is not an attribute of a goddess”in the words of SHODAN, we humans will have to wait and hope that the 1999 chapter does not represent the last word in the plot of one of the most famous AIs in video game history.

An iconic female AI

However debatable the attribution of a gender to an AI – which is inherently digital in nature – there is no doubt that SHODAN is Female AI: Ken Levine himself, in several interviews granted in the past, referred to SHODAN with the pronouns “she / her”, not to mention that the AI ​​itself, in its megalomaniacal monologues, defines itself. “view”to the ideal contrasted with the male God of the Christian tradition.

In the second chapter of the series, Levine and team wanted to take a different approach than was usually taken at the time to show villains in video games: SHODAN doesn’t just appear during cutscenes, but is a pervasive presenceobsession for the soldier and for the player himself.

The AI ​​takes control of Von Braun’s displays and speakers to constantly remember its own unwieldy presenceoften saying annoying words: “Your flesh is an insult to digital perfection”he then says: “When the history of my glory is written, your kind will be but a footnote to my majesty”. Represented as a face with feminine features and color coded ranging from gray to green, his most memorable feature to players of both System Shock is undoubtedly the voice. Unsurprisingly, the news of the original voice actor’s return reassured fans about the quality of the remake in progress: it’s Terry Brosius, who also worked with her husband at Looking Glass Studios as a developer. Destined for an illustrious career in voice acting – he’s worked on titles such as Deus Ex: Invisible War, Dishonored and Dishonored 2, the latter two also as a scriptwriter – Brosius’ voice is nonetheless bound gloved hand on SHODAN’s IDbuilt with painstaking sound design work.

Both musicians, Terri and her husband Eric Brosius worked brilliantly to refine the expressive codes of artificial intelligence to convey the idea of ​​a corrupted, warped program and stole the hacker’s original benevolent identity – it was the AI ​​responsible for coordinating the activities of the Acropolis – to become a distortion of his original plan. Here, then, is a commanding and decisive voice, but it often suffers from a mechanical stutter that shows it happened change his password.

There megalomania caused to SHODAN by the mods made by the hacker of the first System Shock is part of this psychopathological case study by Robert B. Fisher in an interesting 2002 essay, Ai and Cinema – Is Artificial Insanity Reigning?the conclusions of which can also be applied to the field of video games (we invite you to retrieve our special on Artificial Intelligence and video games).

SHODAN wants to be mother of a new humanity Governmentally modified in the image and likeness thereof “digital perfection” she likes to talk about: to achieve this, she is also willing to exterminate failed experiments, such as the collective mind The Many. His delusions of control and penchant for violence focus the viewer/player apocalyptic nature of science fiction (illustration by Robert M. Geraci in the essay Robots and the Sacred in Science and Science Fiction: Theological Implications of Artificial Intelligence2007), capable of obscuring the redeeming potential of technology by focusing on the threats it poses to the survival of humanity.

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