We have a bit of time traveling to do for this one.
Every other game so far is one that I played at least relatively close to its release in the US. Not so for System Shock, which arrived on the scene all the way back in 1994. But for me, System Shock didn’t come into focus until twenty years later in 2013 — at just the time and place when I needed it most.
I don’t write about it often, but this is one of the realities of my life: I have depression. The kind of debilitating depression that at times makes it hard to get out of bed, to leave the house, to eat, to move. The worst of it is how it denies me the joy of the people and things I love most. Even playing games becomes a miserable, empty chore, and so during my deepest phases of depression I tend to stop playing them altogether.
That’s where I was in January of 2013: sleeping thirteen or fourteen hours a day, eating whatever was lying around the house and didn’t require any prep time, suffering through work a couple days a week. I probably hadn’t played any games in weeks, because what was the point?
But this bout of depression was even worse than usual — the lowest I had been, or have been since. Every ounce of emotion was sapped out of my life, the world was a colorless blur, and I was going through the motions like a robot. To be dead, I thought, would have been a relief.
Three or four weeks in, for whatever reason, I happened to pick up System Shock. I couldn’t tell you why. That decision, though, saved me.
Citadel Station, the setting of the game, is a place of horrors. Everyone who lived and worked there is dead, you awake to find you’re alone with mutant creatures and cyborgs, and the station AI is hunting you down to turn you into one of those cyborgs. So how could any of this have helped me escape the worst depression of my life? Well, let me put it another way:
System Shock is the story of a man who fights against the machines that want to turn him into one of them. It’s about asserting your humanity in the face of inhumanity; of rejecting the mechanical, the robotic, the dead. The lowest level of Citadel Station is the engineering deck — pure machine; and throughout the game you ascend the decks, up and away from that machinery. Up and toward escape, toward freedom, toward life.
System Shock found its way into my life at just the right moment to become something more than a videogame. It became a metaphor. It gave my depression a face, a form, a name. It put a weapon in my hand and told me I could make it out alive. It let me fight back.
System Shock… saved my life.