My column this week is about why System Shock is an amazing game that you probably won’t enjoy unless you played it two decades ago.
I got stuck on the very first level of System Shock 1. I spent hours wandering around, trying to figure out how to reach level 2. I’d been everywhere and totally filled in the map, so I could see I wasn’t missing any rooms. But for the life of me I had no idea how to proceed. Did I miss a puzzle? A boss I needed to fight somewhere? A hidden door?
Eventually I bought the hint guide. I think it’s the only one I ever bought. The hint guide is the only part of the game I have left. (The floppies died ages ago.) The guide was kind of expensive, but I was really into this game and it was driving mad that I couldn’t proceed. And then it turned out that the guide didn’t help. It didn’t even acknowledge the difficulty of reaching level 2. It was just like, “Make sure you have enough bullets before you proceed to level 2!”
It turned out it wasn’t a secret. The game was built on a grid. In a particular room there was a button on the wall. If you stand directly in front of the button and press it, then the square you were standing on would go down. It was an elevator, and it would take you down to the exit to level 2.
However, I was standing too far back from the button. When I pushed it, I could hear the “elevator moving” sound. But because of the way the interface worked, the bottom half of your field of view was usually covered with menus and crap, so I didn’t see the floor tile move. I looked left and right, expecting the button to have opened a door or wall nearby. Elevators were a new thing to me in games, and this floor tile didn’t exactly jump out at you.
“Ah! Maybe it’s opening a secret door elsewhere!”
So I’d push the button and run into the next room, looking for the change. I’m sure I toggled the elevator up and down several times without ever seeing it. I eventually gave up and moved on, and then forgot all about the “button puzzle”. I’m pretty sure I’d never seen an real moving floor before System Shock 1, so I had no reason to look down. (And looking down was a laborious process, since it could only be done with the keyboard.)
Days later I happened to have another go at the button, only this time I stood in the right place. And that was it. I went down into a little room that granted access to level 2. It wasn’t a puzzle or a mystery at all. It was a new game mechanic mixed with terrible controls and a shitty interface.
And that’s the story about the time I bought a hint guide to get to level 2.
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