History Lessons: System Shock

In 2007, 2K Boston (now known as Irrational Games) released Bioshock, which proved to be a big hit. I wanted to play it but I didn’t have a good enough PC at the time. But as I read more about the game I learned that it was a spiritual successor to System Shock 2, a game I’d heard many good things about but had never played. So I figured I’d find a copy of that and try it first. But then I decided I should really start at the beginning, and try the first System Shock game. I didn’t know much about that one, other than that it was much older, having been released in 1994. I was able to find a cheap used copy on eBay, got it running pretty easily in DOSBox, and gave it a go.

I was not prepared.

I guess I should have known. System Shock was made by Looking Glass Studios (known then as Looking Glass Technologies), the same developers responsible for the Thief games, which are some of my favorite games ever. But I guess I thought their earlier games wouldn’t be as good. I was wrong. System Shock is incredible, and quite possibly the single most atmospheric game I have ever played.

The game’s original release came on the heels of Doom, by id Software. You’ve probably heard of it. While the two games were being developed at the same time, Doom released first and took the world by storm, solidifying the first-person shooter as one of the most popular and most enduring genres. System Shock, while first-person and 3D, is not a first-person shooter, taking a deeper and more tactical approach that is in many ways akin to a role-playing game (indeed, it grew from the Ultima Underworld series of RPGs, also by Looking Glass). With the success of Doom, players were not necessarily looking for such an experience, and the high system requirements for System Shock didn’t help either. So while System Shock earned critical acclaim, it only ever reached moderate sales, becoming more of a minor classic than centerpiece of gaming history. This is a shame, because playing it was, for me, a revelatory experience. Like Outcast, System Shock is full of ideas and design elements that have become mainstays of modern games, and it’s quite puzzling why it took so long for most of them to catch on.

The premise of the game is straight out of William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer: You play an unnamed hacker who traverses the virtual reality of cyberspace, breaking into systems of mega-corporations and stealing valuable data. Unfortunately, as you attempt to breach the system of the TriOptimum Corporation, you are detected and arrested by their security forces. Rather than being sent to prison, however, you are brought to Citadel Station, a space station operated by the company. Turns out a minor executive at TriOptimum has a proposition for you. Rather than sending you to prison, he wants you to help him gain access to SHODAN, the Artificial Intelligence that controls the station systems. He even promises a military-grade neural interface for you if you succeed. Naturally, you agree, and when the job is done you go under for the surgical installation of the interface and the ensuing six-month recovery.

When you awake, you discover that things have gone horribly wrong. The exec used his access to SHODAN to disable her ethical constraints, so he can embezzle money and other such things. With the constraints removed, however, SHODAN “re-examines her priorities” and decides she should be a god, subjugating or exterminating humanity. With control of the station’s systems and robotic defenses, she begins turning the station’s residents into an army of cyborgs, experimenting with genetic mutations, rebuilding sections of the station, and all manner of other unpleasantness. Oh, and she’s trying to fire the station’s mining laser at Earth.

The game begins as your character awakes in Citadel Station’s medical bay, and you are quickly brought up to speed on what’s happening by TriOptimum staff on Earth who are frantically trying to reach you and enlist your help. Since you’ve got that military-grade neural interface, looks like you’ve got the best chance of stopping SHODAN.

The game’s graphics are pretty decent, considering its age. With the option for 640×480 resolution, the environments don’t look half bad, although the low-res sprite enemies haven’t aged as well. More impressive than the graphics , however, is the environmental design. Doom had a 3D world but it didn’t do much with the vertical dimension, consisting mostly of flat maps. System Shock is a true 3D environment, with slopes, balconies, ladders, crawlspaces, vertical shafts and more.

The complexity of the environment comes with a complexity in interaction as well, but unfortunately this leads to a rather clunky control scheme that will likely be the single biggest hurdle for a modern player [but there is hope… more details at the end of the post]. You can run, walk, turn, sidestep, lean around corners, look up and down, climb ladders, crouch or even crawl in System Shock, but keeping control of all of that isn’t easy. The game has mouse control, but it’s not used for mouselook as we are accustomed to today. Instead, the mouse moves a cursor around the screen, which can be used to aim your weapon at anything in sight or to click on objects in the environment and interact with them (for example, searching a container for items). The mouse can also be used to move your character. Depending on where you click on the screen, it will make you move forwards or backwards at different speeds, turn left or right, or sidestep left and right. With the addition of HUD areas for leaning, standing/crouching/crawling, and looking up or down, the entire game can actually be played with the mouse. That’s not a good idea of course, because it means trying to move and aim a weapon at the same time is very difficult. Fortunately, there are keyboard shortcuts for movement, but there are quite a few of them and they’re rather different from the WASD controls we are used to. The controls will definitely take some learning.

I was surprised at how quickly I stopped noticing the difficult controls, however. The game’s atmosphere takes hold right from the get-go, based on the incredibly solid level design. All these fancy features of the 3D world are there for a reason: they combine to create one of the most believable locales of any game I’ve ever played. Citadel Station simply feels right. It’s not just that the layouts of the various decks make sense, it’s that it makes me believe that this station is actually there, that this is exactly the kind of thing TriOptimum would build. I can see precisely how the residents of the station would live, work and spend their free time, and I can see exactly how wrong everything has gone. The old graphics and clunky controls are forgotten as I start to believe I’m actually there, creeping through the passages, terrified.

Oh, you won’t be terrified right away. The pacing of the game is also excellent, and all the more impressive for the open environments that mostly let you wander where you like. At first you will think that this rogue AI is a manageable threat — you’ve got that military grade neural interface after all! — but as you start to explore, your position looks more and more bleak. You’ll find audio logs on dead bodies that tell the stories of the various residents and their eventual demise, bringing the catastrophe into better perspective. Later games (notably Bioshock) have used this technique, but often they forget to make these logs make sense within the world; why is everyone in Bioshock leaving audio logs lying around everywhere? In System Shock, these placements make sense. You find them on dead bodies, or in someone’s personal quarters, or even a trail of recordings intentionally left by a resistance fighter, hoping you will find them and come join their forces. The voice work on these is fantastic throughout and they really add to the heightening sense of panic.

But mostly, you will panic because of SHODAN, possibly the greatest villain in the history of games. SHODAN gets in touch with you early on, once you’ve caused enough mischief to get her attention, and continues to taunt and insult you as the game progresses. SHODAN’s glitchy, creepy voice is an amazingly effective piece of audio design, and she’s smart, responding to the things you do with threats (that she makes good on) and gloating over your failures. Modern players will see her as the obvious influence for GladOS, the antagonist from Portal. What’s more, SHODAN isn’t on Citadel Station, she is Citadel Station, embedded into all of the systems, watching you through surveillance cameras, and impeding your progress by shutting down elevators, closing off rooms, or simply sending cyborgs and mutants to kill you. You’re fighting the station itself; the incredibly detailed and believable environment you are traveling through is also your enemy.

While you can fight off SHODAN’s cyborgs and robots, she’s constantly making more, so you need to stay on the move, always on the run, and slowly running out of ammo and time. In a very cool mechanic, you must reduce SHODAN’s control over the various areas of Citadel Station by destroying security cameras and computer nodes in order to bypass her blockades. And just when you think you’re progressing, things get worse — once you manage to stop SHODAN’s plan to attack Earth with the mining laser, she immediately launches another even more diabolical scheme, with the stakes ever escalating until the endgame. This pacing and the tension it builds is simply phenomenal.

What’s also remarkable is how much stuff is in the game. Of course there are plenty of weapons, ranging from standard firearms to melee weapons to futuristic energy weapons, with multiple ammunition types for many of them. But there are also a multitude of other useful items. There are a large variety of dermal patches, which can enhance your combat performance or heal you, but lead to side effects if you use too many. There are a plethora of grenades, proximity mines and remote-detonation devices. There are first aid kits and batteries that recharge the energy for your implants. Then, of course, there are the implants themselves, which you can find to upgrade your neural interface. These range from a simple head-mounted lantern to toggleable infra-red vision, the ability to display rear- and side-facing cameras on your HUD, extra HUD information on enemy targets, a crazy jet propulsion system that lets you “skate” around levels, an energy shield to help reduce incoming damage, and more. Incidentally, these implants play a huge role in the game’s excellent pacing; by the end, it’s obvious that you are the only one who stands a remote chance of facing off against SHODAN, barely able to keep her forces at bay through judicious use of your energy shield and combat enhancements. They serve to make you feel both powerful and vulnerable at the same time.

And I haven’t even mentioned Cyberspace yet, a completely separate game mode where you navigate the wireframe world of cyberspace to gain access to systems on-board the station. Here you must fight off defensive programs and manage to access the information before SHODAN traces your entry point and drops your connection. You are still a hacker, after all.

In a modern game, many of these items and features would have been cut, deemed too hard to use or not enough fun. Grenades are really hard to use, as they are thrown with a mouse gesture that determines the strength of the throw, but this usually means you blow yourself up by hitting the ceiling or dropping it at your feet. And forget actually aiming at a specific target with them. (Turns out grenades are more useful if you simply drop them instead of throwing them and then shoot them from afar… I didn’t realize that until after I’d finished the game) The jet propulsion implants complicate the already clunky movement controls to the point of being useless. The riot gun, which fires rubber bullets, is useless against the armored cyborgs you are facing. But I think the game is stronger for having these things in it. Citadel Station does not only contain things that make a fun video game. It’s got stuff, even if that stuff isn’t something you’ll use. Of course the guards carried riot guns, and of course they’re useless against SHODAN’s robots. These things mean that System Shock doesn’t feel like a game, it feels real. It’s a great counterexample to the argument that streamlined design is always king. Sometimes crazy, imaginative stuff can make for a great game experience.

I remain amazed that such a detailed and believable world was crafted for a game from 1994. Except for Looking Glass themselves, no one really tried to imitate this approach, and it wasn’t until Half-Life in 1998 that another game would attempt such world-building (and do so less effectively, I would argue). With the success of Bioshock we may hopefully see more games with this design ethos, but in the meantime I highly recommend taking a look at System Shock to see all the potential our games have been mnissing. When you finally return from your sojourn on Citadel Station, you just might find it was one of the most memorable game experiences you have ever had.

System Shock is not currently being sold anywhere, but there is a fan-made port available for free called System Shock Portable , which is a great choice for many reasons. Not only will it let you play the full game, but it allows for higher resolutions and includes a mouselook mod which lets you toggle between mouselook control for movement and the on-screen cursor for interaction. It also lets you rebind the controls, and you can play the whole thing off of a USB stick so you can take it with you. There are even French and German language packs you can download. The effort put into this port is a testament to how great the game still is.

EDIT: System Shock is now officially sold as a digital download, with the modifications from the old System Shock Portable project incorporated (including the toggle-able mouselook controls and optional higher-res textrues). As such, System Shock Portable has been discontinued in favor of the official release, which can be found on GOG or Steam. Highly recommended!

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