Friday, June 12, 2009

Free Radical

Recently I finished reading Free Radical, a book by Shamus Young that is based on the classic game System Shock, and let me tell you, it was a great read. I'm going to talk about some of the things that really impressed me about the book, obviously there will be plenty of spoilers, both for the game and for the book. I figure that if you haven't played the game yet, chances are you aren't going to, it's seventeen years old, well worth playing, but it may prove difficult for more modern palates.

Here's a five sentence summary of the story. Tri-Optimum is a big powerful corporation with a powerful AI named Shodan. They catch a hacker breaking into their system and hire him to break the ethical constraints off of Shodan. In return, they provide him with a neural interface that allows him to interface directly with computers. When he wakes up from the surgery of having the interface installed Shodan has gone crazy and killed everyone. Fighting past her army of cybernetic ghouls and security robots, the hacker finally defeats Shodan.

Something that Shamus often complains about in games is their two dimensional villains, people who do bad things simply because they are evil. This is about the level of motivation that Shodan had in the original game, she was insane, and evil. So as I read Free Radical, I watched to see how Shamus would flesh out Shodan, and he did a remarkable job.

In addition to giving Shodan understandable motivations for the carnage she enacted, he further made her into a character I could care about and empathize with. Seriously, I felt bad at the end when Shodan died! Very impressive stuff.

Further, he took and logically explained away several of the plot holes. I always thought it was odd that a corporation had to hire an outside hacker to remove the ethical constraints. First, why would you need to remove the ethical constraints? So it can start killing things?! Second, you wrote the thing, why not do it yourself? These were questions I never found answers for in the game (not saying they weren't there, I just didn't see them). Free Radical however, provided brilliant reasons for both of these things, in the form of corporate plausible deniability, and crooked bank ledgers.

Finally I loved what he did with the characters. There was real character growth there. Over the course of the story the hacker took a hard look at how he had been living his life, and the consequences his actions had brought about. His motivations changed as he realized his mistakes and felt a desire to atone. He was a very interesting character, and like Shodan, one that I really felt empathy for.

Overall the book was a joy to read. It was delightful seeing how Shamus
brought to life the flat events and characters from the game. I loved reading about the different locations on Citadel station, and recalling being there myself. I enjoyed the action and reading about the journey, even though I knew how it must inevitably end, I still found myself hanging on every word, wondering how the conclusion would be reached.

Even if you haven't played the game, it's a brilliant read. It's a great example of how to make living characters that grow over time, have interesting motivations, and engender empathy in the reader. It has made me change how I plan to approach writing characters for my own games and stories. It would be a great thing for video game stories if we had people like Shamus writing them.


At June 15, 2009 at 11:15 PM , Blogger Yahzi said...

It is, in fact, very good. Shamus shows some real class in his reprise: the first six words Shodan says to Deck are the last six she says to him at the end.

Plus with the great plot explanation. I didn't play the game, but I couldn't believe they had come up with this kind of depth.

At June 19, 2009 at 9:16 PM , Blogger Scott said...

Great review for a fantastic novel!

I've read Shamus's book twice now. I still sometimes find myself daydreaming (or nightmaring?) about being in Deck's position up there in space.

At June 25, 2009 at 12:11 PM , Blogger Geoff said...

I've read it 2 or 3 times now, and it's one of my favorite books of all time (up there with Neuromancer, that's how good it is).


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