header is screenshot from System Shock (2023)
One Space Station’s Trash, Another Man's Treasure
Khee Hoon Chan

The derelict space station in 2023’s System Shock feels like it has enough junk to rival a small country. Which, to be fair, is not that surprising, given that the station serves as a research facility, outfitted by a suite of modern amenities: restaurants, gardens, casinos, shopping districts, and other recreational facilities. All of this space translates to a whole lot of paraphernalia, and almost every single object—from mugs with the logo of the station’s parent corporation, TriOptimum, to game controllers—can be vaporised into scrap, or recycled and exchanged for credits. And within the winding corridors of the Citadel station labyrinth, there are enough nooks and crannies to poke your head into and discover more junk, from medical cabinets that house an assortment of supplies, to the corpses of murdered TriOptimum employees.

System Shock is drowning in junk. More specifically, it’s drowning in junk of a dizzying variety, and I don’t mean in terms of the types of items, but the value of every thingamajig you’ll set your sights on. Ideally, you should recycle everything to maximise your rewards, but there are a few particularities to consider. Here’s the short of it: every item takes up a specific amount of inventory space; take a VR headset, which measures two by two squares, yields 30 scrap when vaporised, and offers six credits when recycled. As every 100 pieces of scrap can be converted into 10 credits, this makes the VR headset more valuable when brought to the recycling station rather than being melted into scrap first. Compare this to the cigar box, which also measures two by two squares, but yields just five scrap and a single, miserable credit. If you’re already overwhelmed or fatigued by these details, that’s because such is the reality of being a recycling champion in System Shock: you’ll be performing plenty of mental gymnastics everytime you shove junk into your limited inventory. Every piece you pick up follows a meticulous, calibrated act of management. What’s the value of the item in terms of credit versus inventory space? Do I have space for this bulky artifact? How often do I need to sprint back to the recycling station, pants jiggling with discarded blood bags and medicine containers, before this entire charade becomes decidedly tedious?

As it turns out, my tolerance for such tedium is nearly boundless. The rush to collect trash items and recycle them has become a compulsion I can’t snap out of, gripping me with its cybernetic tendrils as the plot of System Shock—stopping the corrupt AI SHODAN, fighting for the resistance, saving humanity, and all that jazz—largely disperses into the ether. I rush into rooms in anticipation of finding trash, even if it's just tube racks or soldering irons. Crazed mutants and bloodthirsty cyborgs are reduced to accessories for feeding my hoarding fixation. Combat encounters, while still enjoyable, are defined by the possibilities of procuring more loot. I’m gleefully smashing cyborgs to find leftover bullets or scrap, looking around corners for discarded items, and gauging the cost of heaving them back to the recycling station. On the Citadel Station’s Executive level, I scavenged bottles of champagne, gin, scotch, and vodka among the rubble of broken furniture and mangled bodies, like an unscrupulous supplier for a local bar.

Of course, the repetition of these banal, self-imposed tasks is far from the crux of System Shock; the very point of recycling is the credits you earn from doing so. Credits lets you purchase healing patches, food, ammunition, and weapon upgrades—tools for facilitating the often brutal rush of combat in System Shock. But as nifty as the weapons are at disposing of enemies (such as the super cool lasier rapier, which hums with irrepressible energy), the bulk of System Shock is devoted to unravelling its maze-like hallways and collecting junk. After a while, this becomes an uninterrupted, pleasing routine, with the occasional combat encounters peppered in for a welcome change of pace. Even deliberating over the value of recycling my countless junk items versus vaporising them becomes second nature, with this shaping System Shock into a smooth playing experience. I can go at the game for hours without the muscle fatigue of more intense shooters. It’s like the indulgent loops of Diablo, an infamously addictive videogame series, with its endless, gratifying cycle of clicking, looting, and hoarding. Experiencing Diablo—and of course, System Shock—is akin to the warm, snug feeling of hiding under the blanket with a book (or Netflix) as a storm rages outside your house.

But even the grind of Diablo wears some players down, and sometimes all the hoarding in System Shock degrades into meaningless busywork. Sometimes I make one too many return trips to the recycling station. I shuttle between levels, once every ten minutes, to recycle more shit and earn more credits. I get decision paralysis when I can’t choose which trash to wedge into my limited inventory space. Yet the draw of crawling through System Shock’s twisting dungeons and its potential rewards bring me back, as I haphazardly discard all the rubbish I accumulated into some forgotten corner, swearing to return after I’ve foiled one of SHODAN’s dastardly plans.

At times, this compulsion feels like it’s in line with System Shock’s ostensibly bleak, anti-capitalist framework, even if the game doesn’t really deviate much from its cyberpunk blueprint. Corporate hegemony is prevalent, workers are routinely exploited (in more ways than just being murdered by the station’s AI), and robots that serve TriOptimum executives are plated in ostentatious gold. In spite of System Shock’s lack of narrative depth, it’s clear that it rebukes corporate, capitalist futures because it was, in 1994—and is, with the game’s remake this year—a staple of the genre. But System Shock offers an accidental critique with its recycling system, which is far more effective than all the dramaturgic world-building the game boasts. Through recycling you’re encouraged to hoard trash and credits, even if this becomes a tedious grind. You exchange these credits to buy and accumulate more stuff, even stuff you may not need, like weapon upgrades you’ll never use (too bad you can’t just wrench one of these upgrades out with a spanner). You are constantly looking to maximise your earnings, even to the detriment of your own enjoyment. When I’m not playing System Shock, I’m astounded at how much time I spent in it being pointlessly productive, hoarding and deliberating over the value of its junk. Unfortunately, there isn’t a more overt parallel being drawn between this compulsive hoarding and the megacorp’s avarice.

On the other hand, I can’t say I don’t enjoy this. I oscillate between being worn out by jamming junk into my pants, and being thrilled about the prospect of getting more good loot. Even towards the game’s final chapter, with SHODAN sending her most homicidal cyborgs and combat encounters taking place at shorter intervals, I am still, very fervently, looking for recycling stations—a senseless decision when I already have enough guns to outfit a modest mercenary group. But there are no such stations in the final level. My inventory is just flush with a deluge of scraps and junk, which I no longer have any use for. 


Khee Hoon Chan is a freelance writer who lives on the internet. They can also be seen at PolygonThe Washington Post, and PC Gamer, and aren't that well-versed in hand-to-hand combat. They also have a Substack called Changelog.