System Shock Retrospective

An article on Medium provides a detailed and extensive look at the history and specifics of the game that kicked off its own subgenre of first person shooters, and served as an inspiration for everyone's beloved Deus Ex, among other franchises. The original System Shock. This game doesn't get as much recognition as its highly regarded sequel, but a lot of its ideas were way ahead of its time. Have a look:


In the year 2072, you, The Hacker, find yourself on board the powerful TriOptimum Corporation’s Citadel Station, a private space station orbiting Saturn. You were caught hacking into TriOptimum’s secure network and were brought to Citadel, where a slimy executive named Edward Diego offered to make a deal. If you hacked into the station’s A.I. construct known as SHODAN and disabled its ethical constraints, Diego would drop your charges and even give you a state-of-the-art cybernetic neural implant.

When you awake from the 6-month healing coma after your implant surgery you soon learn that as you slept SHODAN has wreaked havoc upon Citadel Station. The ruthless A.I. has made the maintenance robots murderous and augmented many of the facility’s inhabitants into nightmarish cyborg soldiers, and is hunting down the few remaining humans who are in hiding. Even worse, many of those on board the station have mutated into violent monsters. You explore the space station’s various decks while fighting SHODAN’s minions as you collect keycards, weapons, and character abilities, as well as solving hacking puzzles and occasionally partaking in a Cyberspace mini-game, all in effort to stop the A.I.’s nefarious plans.

The original System Shock is often referred to as an Action RPG despite the game lacking any traditional RPG mechanics (those would come later); instead simply the rich immersion and player freedom drives this sentiment.

The game also can be described as a Survival Horror title as the player is alone in their struggle of cautiously fighting past all sorts of monstrosities with their only respite being a few precious moments of safety when inside an elevator.

And, being an First Person Shooter (though a slow paced one) that includes puzzles and a narrative, System Shock is technically an Action-Adventure title.

Ultimately, like many of Looking Glass Studios’ games, System Shock defied genre norms and is best described as an ‘Immersive Sim’. The philosophy of the immersive sim is to offer player agency and use simulation-like game worlds to induce deep player immersion and foster emergent gameplay.


Beyond that, System Shock offered an incredible amount of control over player movement, especially for a game from 1994: jump, crouch, crawl, walk, sprint, and controlled leaning accompany the ability to look up and down.

This freedom also extends to combat: unlike near every other FPS from the 90’s, picking up new weapons is a choice?—?and there are over a dozen weapons in the game, but the Hacker can hold just seven at a time. Among these are normal firearms, energy-based guns, and a couple of melee weapons. Each of the standard firearms offer two ammo types to use, and the energy guns have a slider to adjust power settings. A few weapons even offer the chance to use a nonlethal approach, with tranquilizer darts and rubber slugs.

Furthermore, the game world is not especially linear; each deck is a maze of hallways and rooms, but they are not arranged in a linear fashion. For the most part you can explore the station freely, with limiting factors being the need to acquire access cards, key codes, and character equipment, and completing objectives. And many of those weapons and items are not only available in a single instance, so there is not necessarily a ‘correct’ path to take as you can usually find what you need in more than one specific spot.

Believable World Design

The simulation-tier level of player control was complemented by the game world itself being akin to a simulation.

The level design of Citadel Station’s various decks was intended to convey the feeling of it being a real space. Granted, sometimes the architecture veers into the nonsensical but the world is largely realistic, with offices, storage closets, transport hangers, and maintenance crawlspaces. Walls are often lined with piping or electronics, to maximize space efficiency.

System Shock complemented the mostly believable level design with advanced engine features for a game of its time, including sloped floors, elevators, ladders, variable gravity and a full-blown physics system.

Weapons and other items are not automatically picked up by simply walking over them; the player has to manually pick them up and place them in their inventory. Similarly, throwing grenade-type items is not bound to a hotkey but rather requires manually selecting them in the inventory before throwing. Naturally, the game does not pause while you sort through your inventory or data reader.

Even more notably, in System Shock weapons actually use magazines, rather than feeding endlessly from a pool of ammo. And, again, reloading weapons is not done via a hotkey, but instead through manually reaching down and clicking an icon in the player’s HUD. Many guns also have substantial recoil due to the aforementioned physics engine. All these factors combine to support more methodical, slower-paced fighting that is the complete antithesis to DOOM.


Conclusion System Shock 2’s fame has grown over the past decade but overall only a minority of the gaming community are aware of it. Worse though, even many of those who know of or have played System Shock 2 still don’t know anything about the original game, and that is quite simply an injustice.

While the mainstream consensus suggests that System Shock aged poorly and is now too “outdated” to be enjoyable or worth playing, this narrative should not deter anyone interested in giving the game a try. Those who have a healthy sense of patience may find the first System Shock (in it’s Enhanced form) holds up as a brilliant, intensely immersive blend of Sci-Fi, survival horror, action, and adventure.