Why 'System Shock' Matters

Why 'System Shock' Matters


Having broken ground on 'System Shock 3', Creator Warren Spector reflects on what made the original so influential

Having broken ground on 'System Shock 3', Creator Warren Spector reflects on what made the original so influential

Warren Spector was getting slaughtered by his own creation, and he’d had enough. He and the rest of Otherside Entertainment had just announced their intention to make System Shock 3, the long-awaited follow-up to Looking Glass Technology's (later known as Looking Glass Studios) boundary-shattering FPS/RPG series. He figured it was time to revisit the game that started it all in 1994 – System Shock.

"And I start it up, and I just keep dying, and dying, and dying. I’m exasperated," recalls Spector. "So I email Doug Church, the creative director behind the game, and I just say ‘why did we make this so hard? Why did we think that this interface was a good idea? Why did we feel the need to use every key on the keyboard?’ And every time I would send him a new one, he’d just send me the same reply every time. ‘1994.’ ‘1994.’ ‘1994.’ And he was right, every time. We did the best we could. We were making it up as we went along."

Visiting Shock’s off-world Citadel Station for the first time today, it’s staggering just how many of the game’s basic ideas permeate the very fabric of modern gamedom. System Shock belongs to an elite pantheon of games – Half-Life, Metal Gear Solid, Ocarina of Time – names pressed into legend on playgrounds all across the globe, that can truly be called pivotal. Popular video games of the past twenty-three years haven’t just imitated nearly every facet of Shock – from its lo-fi grey-and-blue environments to its rich vein of audio-logs, its swaths of twitching mutants to its William Gibson-grade cyberspace – they have mined it so thoroughly of its marrow that, to a newcomer, it feels more like a studied amalgam of clichés than a pioneering work. That is, of course, until you remember that System Shock itself canonized all these tropes, and it was the subsequent machinery of an industry that ground all the originality out of them.

Despite this lingering influence, there remain two chief differences between System Shock and what pretentious types might call the Mt. Olympus of gaming. The first is financial – in its day, Shock barely moved enough units to justify its sequel, which came six years later, far from the millions that made Valve and Half-Life something resembling household names. The second is cultural – unlike the straight-forward mutant-blasting exploits of Gordon Freeman or the Doomguy, System Shock’s ambitions were largely systemic, not experiential. Looking Glass didn’t just want to move the needle, they wanted to break the scale. People had played shooters before, but never one that relied so heavily on intricate role-playing elements, like inventory management and dynamic skill investment. For Spector and the team, that meant demanding unforeseen depth in every aspect of the game – especially compared to the two Ultima: Underworld games, which Spector describes as the immediate predecessor to Shock.

"I remember talking to Doug at the time about how sick I was of making fantasy games," says Spector. "I felt like if I had to work on one more game where the hero wore chainmail or swung a big sword, I was going to kill myself. At the time, I was trying to use the Strike Commander (1993) tech to try to make a sci-fi version of Ultima Underworld. I still have the drawings! And then I discovered that Doug Church and Looking Glass founder Paul Neurath were developing something similar. So we decided to have Looking Glass do it, rather than have me try to build a team."

In all the haze of recollection, it’s easy to forget that Spector himself wasn’t even a Looking Glass employee at the time of the original Shock’s production; instead, he worked at Origin Systems, their publisher, best known for birthing the Ultima series. But this didn’t stop him from contributing significant creative input on the game, despite his nebulous "producer" credit. He would fly up to the Looking Glass office in Cambridge, Massachusetts from his native Austin, TX whenever he could. By his own reckoning, he spoke to the core creative team behind the game nearly every day, including Neurath and Church.

For the team, System Shock might have looked like a bold new series distinct from all its previous efforts, but its main thrust embodied the company’s ever-evolving mission. To hear Spector and Neurath tell it, the trajectory of Looking Glass as a studio was defined by its commitment to advancing the then-novel concept of player immersion. The two Underworld games – harrowing crawls through towering Advanced Dungeons and Dragons-esque nether-dungeons patrolled by leaping lizards and other such abominations – represented the blueprint for System Shock, but rendered in a setting that owed more to Ridley Scott than it did Gary Gygax. "It was supposed to be you, in an unfamiliar place, with all barriers to belief removed," says Spector. “Because of the tech and because of our design methods, System Shock was the first game to take that concept to the extreme." Neurath echoes this: "In the ‘80s, we always abstracted. Everything was 2D or fake 3D. In your mind, you had to go through that extra step, to pretend like you’re in that world. When 3D happened, that allowed us to take it to the next level."

That next level, of course, did not include living humans. As Spector has often said, he, Church, and Neurath’s collective distaste for the "dialogue trees" of the day caused them to leave no survivors on Citadel Station for the player to interact with. While it seemed like a minor point at the time, this decision has inspired countless imitators, from Dark Souls to Bioshock – perhaps even presaging the now-popular walking simulator genre. To Spector, it was just a solution to a problem. "Honestly, we just couldn’t think of anything better to do. We had no idea how to make a better conversation system. So, somebody eventually said ‘let’s just kill them all.’ It was a practical decision that ended up working out really well creatively. But, working on Shock 3 now, I’m wrestling with that. I’m not sure if we should have more living NPCs or not."

As Neurath and Spector themselves admit, these early efforts to maximize suspension of disbelief seem rather primitive today, but they irrevocably altered player’s perceptions of what was possible in these emerging artificial worlds. To Chris Avellone – famed writer behind such titles as Fallout: New Vegas and contributor to Arkane Studio’s recent System Shock-like Prey – at the time, to an outsider, the scope of Shock’s achievement was unfathomable, if a bit muddled. "They did a truly amazing number of things," he says. "Even the game’s ‘help’ function was totally unheard of. The game told you what everything did, and what everything was. Not to mention SHODAN. Antagonists weren’t that aggressive back then – or as direct."

For many of us, SHODAN – the rogue A.I. that goads and torments the player during both Shock games – constitutes the entirety of System Shock, much like Portal conjures the wry observations of GLaDOS before, well, actual portals. But this strong association isn’t just a marketing ploy, nor is it simply misplaced nostalgia; SHODAN lends a face and a name to the radical "reactivity" that made System Shock such a landmark. She watches you through the security system, listens to your calls; bust enough security cameras with your lead pipe, and SHODAN can’t see what you’re doing anymore, and she’ll scream in frustration. Hack the wrong computer, and her hacker-green visage stares back at you, mocking your petty human efforts. The game’s physics engine – whack a mutant with a lead pipe, and it goes flying – further contributed to the fidelity of the experience.

"In Dungeons & Dragons, when you swing a sword, you roll a die," says Neurath. "That works, because it’s a board game, so you expect such abstractions. In an ‘immersive simulation,’ however, we want to simulate everything we can. So we replaced the dice rolls with actual physics. It was primitive, but it worked. At the time, it was bleeding-edge. We went as far and as fast as we could with that project, on a week-to-week basis. It was kind of insane."

This unparalleled depth came with a cost, however. As Spector himself rudely discovered upon returning to the original two decades later, between its unwieldy controls and bloated interface, Looking Glass’s creation is far from accessible to those of us who weren’t exactly rocking a Pentium in 1994. "It’s just really hard to go back to now," says Avellone. "A lot of the thrill comes from the dungeon design, combined with SHODAN’s reactivity. It did an amazing amount of things, but people remember the way it made them feel, and not so much the actual game itself."

We’re taking the original storyline and expanding it to reflect the new ways you can play

In late 2015, developer Night Dive Studios – best-known for reclaiming and republishing "abandoned" games, like the Wizardry series and 7th Guest – announced their intention to pursue a "reimagining" of the original System Shock, aiming to wipe off some of the layers of dust that the game has accumulated over the years. And, as you might expect, industry luminary Avellone was one of their first hires. "Honestly, I’m thrilled to be a part of it," he says. "I love sci-fi, but I so rarely get a chance to do it." Don’t call it a “remaster," though – Avellone says that it’s more a reboot than anything else. "We’re taking the original storyline and expanding it to reflect the new ways you can play – the combat path, the hacking path, the stealth path. Part of the thrill of the first System Shock is that SHODAN doesn’t know you’re there at first. We’re aiming to surprise the player by taking that a little further."

Though Spector and Neurath aren’t explicitly involved, they’re both enthused about it. "It’s nice to see that now, twenty-three years later, with the reboot, and even Prey, that people are still influenced by what we did back then," says Neurath. Spector takes a bolder tack: "My heart tells me that if you take the original Shock and modernize it, it’ll be just as good as any immersive sim that’s come since. Well, I guess now we’ll find out, won’t we?" He lets out a hearty laugh. The duo are more focused on their own efforts, and for good reason – the game called System Shock 3 is just beginning to take form, at least conceptually. When pressed for information, Spector just laughs again. "We’ll talk in a year," he says.

Ultimately, for Spector, the retroactive acclaim is heartening – as well as the buckets and buckets of copies that the two Shock games have moved on services like GOG – but ultimately, he’s puts the medium first. "Recognition is nice, but it’s not the be-all-end-all. The important thing is not that the great unwashed masses think of System Shock and say, ‘wow, that really changed things!’ The important thing is that other developers saw that game when it came out and it changed the way they thought about the games they were making. People who care about games know how important System Shock was to video games. That’s all that matters to me."