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System Shock: A Brief Retrospective

/ Jul 20th, 2016 No Comments

1994 saw a plethora of groundbreaking games released across numerous platforms. Earthworm Jim, Wing Commander III: The Heart of the Tiger and The Need for Speed are prominent examples of games that have left long-lasting effects on the industry. One title particular however, would help redefine the entire role-playing genre: System Shock by Looking Glass Studios.

Published by Electronic Arts through their subsidiary company Origin Systems, System Shock was originally conceived shortly after the successful release of Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds. Developers at Looking Glass Studios, tired after the rushed development of the then latest entry in the Ultima franchise along with no desire to make another fantasy dungeon crawler, stoked their desire.

Instead, Looking Glass Studios was granted permission to create something totally different: a simulation game without any fantasy elements. According to head of of Looking Glass Studios Paul Neurath, work began on creating an “immersive simulation game” that didn’t take place in a fantasy setting.

System Shock was the result of their labors. Even for a game that may look antiquated, it is still not only considered relevant but an amazingly immersive experience.

For those who came in late…

System Shock occurs in the year 2072. Players assume control of a skilled hacker in your standard bleak-but-technologically-advanced cyberpunk society. As the game begins, the hacker is taken into police custody. His crime: hacking into the high security database of the TriOptimum Corporation and accessing classified information regarding Citadel Station.
 

Unlike this poor human, System Shock is a game that hasn't kicked the cybernetic bucket yet.

Unlike this poor human, System Shock is a game that hasn’t kicked the cybernetic bucket yet.

The hacker is given a choice: prison or hacking into SHODAN, the station’s computer, to remove its ethical restraints and hand full control of the station to Diego. It’s not a tough decision, and the hacker agrees to hack SHODAN. The hacker is successful and is offered a great reward: a military grade neural implant.

Forced into a six-month healing sleep, the hacker eventually wakes up to find the station transformed to a cybernetic horror. The perpetrator: the ship’s computer system SHODAN. As players quickly discover, the system has turned the entire station and almost all its inhabitants toward its bidding to wipe out humanity.

The game dumps you into the unlucky hacker’s body as soon as he awakes from sleep.

Logging into a Experience

The game immediately tries to live up to its goal of being a simulation by offering players a fully customizable difficulty menu. There are hundreds of combinations for how to play the game by tweaking combat, puzzles, enemies and even the story itself.

Players might be quick to think the game is a first-person shooter in a real-time 3D environment akin to 1993’s Doom, but they are in fact playing a role-playing game. This is evidenced by the modified version of the complex interface used previously in the Ultima Underground series.
 

Think this enemy is a pushover? Increase the enemy difficulty for a surprise.

If you think this first enemy you encounter is a pushover then increase the enemy difficulty for a surprise.

But this isn’t what truly defines System Shock as a role-playing game. Players are given great freedom in controlling their character. The amount of movements alone is tremendous as players can walk, run, jump, climb, sneak, run, lean, hug walls and crouch during their escapades in Citadel Station.

Nearly everything else is affected by this emphasis on realism. The game’s unique physics engine results in realistic effects. Try walking head first into a solid wall and you’ll bump off it slightly. Toss an object and, depending on how its made, it drops onto the floor with a bounce or a dull thud.

Ultimately, you aren’t just playing as the game’s hacker protagonist, you are the hacker.

Survival Physical and Virtual

This level of realism supplements another major game mechanic: survival. Other than some help provided via communications from allies with the TriOptimum Corporation, you’re on your own. You never get to meet another human being on-board Citadel Station.

You are a meager hacker up against a multitude of mutated monsters and berserk robotic enemies piloted by SHODAN. With such overwhelming odds, along with gloomy, grim visuals and atmospheric effects, System Shock is at times both a psychologically and physically scary game.
 

Get used to such gloomy environments and visuals. That's what happens when a genocidal A.I. takes over after all.

Get used to such gloomy environments and visuals. That’s what happens when a genocidal A.I. takes over after all.

Not content with just dabbling into horror, System Shock also throws virtual reality into the mix. Players will sometimes locate consoles enabling them to enter Capital Station’s system via a cybernetic reality borderline. The game at that point turns into something akin to a combat flight simulator. This part of the game is important in solving puzzles and unlocking some of the game’s backstory.

Virtual reality serves as the game’s final pivotal battleground in the game against SHODAN. Without spoiling too much, it’s a tense battle that if beaten, rewards players with a satisfying conclusion.

Legacy and Rebirth

Even for a game released in 1994, System Shock is not only a stellar mixture of science fiction and horror, but an amazing role-playing experience in general. Unfortunately, like many games, this wasn’t immediately realized by the public. System Shock wasn’t a big financial success despite high praise from critics. It proved to earn enough profit to warrant a sequel in 1999, but more troubles were to follow.

The sequel, like its predecessor, failed to be a financial success. Executive meddling by Electronic Arts led to the final product being much less ambitious than developers had originally planned.

Worse still, the sequel initiated a bitter and long intellectual property battle following the closure of developer Looking Glass Studios in 2000. This resulted in both System Shock titles going out of print and unable to be re-released for many years.

Even so, System Shock continues to reverberate in other games. The 2000 game Deus Ex and 2007’s Bioshock, both considered spiritual successors with similar mechanics, were highly successful, spawning two franchises of their own.

Mercifully, System Shock isn’t fated to be left in stasis with publisher Nightdive Studios claiming official ownership of the franchise in 2012. A newly enhanced version of the original System Shock was released that same year.

Better still, a brand new remake of the game recently reached it minimum funding goal on Kickstarter, ensuring a total remaster of the game will be made. However, its developers are now seeking more money to fully realize the goals they have for the remaster.

System Shock ends with the statement “old habits die hard.” In the case of System Shock, both as its legacy and popularity now show, so do innovative games that leave a lasting impact.

 

Jonathan Anson

Jonathan Anson

Jonathan has been a lover and game player since his father brought home a Windows 95 computer. When he's not doing that he indulges in his other passion: writing. Jonathan holds an AA degree in Journalism from Saddleback College in Southern California.
Jonathan Anson
Jonathan Anson

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