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Jonathan Chey, one of the original developers on System Shock 2, recently had a chat with PC Gamer, reminiscing about his work on the classic immersive sim. The resulting interview covers System Shock 2’s humble origin as a three-man project and its enduring legacy. It also tells us how the game’s limited budget was the driving force behind its signature RPG mechanics.
Here are a few sample paragraphs:
These systems let you create with a good degree of freedom your own character build as you run through the Von Braun: do you want to be psi-powered adept, or a soldier? A hacker and repair expert? The multiple ways of facing the storyline’s challenges prefigured the similar focus on stats and skills that came in Deus Ex in the following year.
Although they were a big part of System Shock 2’s appeal to players, for Chey its RPG features were simply a product of the budget he had to work with. Having seen Half-Life release during development, he knew that they didn’t have a chance of building a game with anything like the sophistication of its AI or its scripted in-engine narrative sequences. "We had to do things that were relatively cheap to implement," he says. "RPG mechanics are quite cheap to build and they’re very satisfying."
Levine’s story, meanwhile, would have to be told through emails and voice recordings, just as they were in the first System Shock. It’s decidedly functional, but the way it’s delivered within the fiction of the world gives immediacy to a tale in which SHODAN is now on your side—or so it appears—as you both battle a worse threat. As she snipes and chastises you for not performing her tasks fast enough, System Shock 2 sets up a theme about player agency which Levine would go on to play with in the excellent BioShock.