Why System Shock Matters

An editorial on Glixel tries to answer why System Shock, a game from 1994 that didn't even sell too well still matters to this day. A number of quotes from Warren Spector, Chris Avellone, and Paul Neurath provide an insider's perspective on that. We also get a brief overview of the System Shock series and its lasting impact on game development.

Here are a couple of snippets:

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.


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."


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."