System Shock 2 Roundtable Interview

After publishing a tease a couple of days ago, IncGamers has finally put online their full roundtable interview with System Shock 2's Jon Chey and Dorian Hart, respectively project manager and level designer. Here's a snippet to get you started:
Peter: In preparation for this we've all dived back into the game again. So I guess we'll begin by finding out how long its actually been since you guys have played it, and what stuck out for you? What did you think, playing it again?

Jon: I haven't played the game since we shipped it, which is typical for me. Playing the games I've worked on, I usually get that cringy kind of feeling from looking at a thing you've created. It's an overly familiar thing that you don't particularly want to look at again. But actually I think it's now far enough back that I don't feel that about System Shock 2. I do still feel that about Freedom Force, which I looked at sometime in the last year, but that's another story.

I think System Shock 2 does feel pretty clunky in many ways. There's a lot of interface development that's gone on since then, both in the wider industry and within my own design ideas. It's very hard for me to look at things I've worked on and not be critical.

At the same time I was also surprised by how well the game stands up once you get past the interface and the fairly ropey mo-cap that we did, and the low polygon character models which I would think are the weakest aspects of the game. Once you get past those things, I think the game is still really, really interesting and very atmospheric. It has a lot of other features that carry it and make it still a very compelling world to be in, so I was very pleased with that.

And I think it's still a very challenging game, which is part of its appeal. We were talking just before [the recording] about Dark Souls and I was thinking about that game when I was playing System Shock 2, because I think they have a lot of things in common. They don't apologise to the player for being difficult. They're in the vein of presenting challenges and unpleasant difficulties for the player being the mood of the game. What did you think Dorian?

Dorian: I certainly noticed a bunch of the same stuff, like the interface. I remember back when we were making it and playing it right after, as we were shipping it, it never occurred to me to remap any [of the controls] because it all just felt natural. But when I played it a few days ago, the very first thing I realised was that all my keys were mapped strangely. [Laughter] I had to remap about eight different things to match my evolved sensibilities.

I benefitted from the fact that my long-term memory isn't very good so I got to rediscover all sorts of things. I had forgotten just how claustrophobic it was. I knew it was very atmospheric, but compared to things I've played more recently it felt very constrained and all the more scary for that. I knew that if anything was going to jump out at me, it was going to do it from quite close by.

Jon: Possibly behind you.

Dorian: Quite often behind me!

Jon: Things don't often do that in modern games, because they want to make sure the player sees something and understands what's going on. Sometimes in System Shock 2 things happen to you that you don't understand and it takes you a while to figure out what's going on.

Dorian: I was also reminded of how resource-stingy we were. You were talking about difficulty. Really, the difficulty came from our over-the-top stinginess with resources.

Jon: OUR over-the-top stinginess? I think it might have been YOUR over-the-top stinginess, since you did all the spreadsheets. [Laughter]

Dorian: Well, hey, it was a team effort. There aren't many modern shooters where individual bullets matter so much and you regret every one you have to shoot. Every time I wasted a bullet on a security camera I felt like I was going to want that bullet again five minutes later. And often did.

The biggest balance challenge from the time was avoiding the (death spiral.) I don't know how well I succeeded at that. I guess I succeeded well enough not to make the game terrible, but I could already feel the death spiral tugging at me in my replay. We let you resurrect, but when you resurrect it costs you. In theory you could run out of resources, run out of money and just have to start afresh.

We're talking about six pages worth of interview that have been "edited for brevity", but in case that doesn't scare you, you might want to listen to original podcast conversation over here.