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What Made System Shock So Special

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The BioShock Collection is on the way, promising to return us to Rapture and Columbia. But what about System Shock? It’s been over twenty years since we first met SHODAN and battled through Citadel Station. Night Dive Studios has taken up the cause of remastering the PC classic, but do they remember what made it so classic to begin with?

In this video, we’ll take a close look at the new System Shock demo. Comparing it side by side with the original game and later “Shock” games, we’ll try to find out exactly what made System Shock such an enduring title.



I’m not convinced that any of the “Shock” games have been all too brilliant. Each time I return to them, I find them more and more ridiculous. The early titles buckle under the weight of over ambitious systems and the later titles, particularly BioShock Infinite, can’t deliver any coherent narrative or thematic statements. But every time I play them, I am enthralled. The System Shock and BioShock series contain some of the most impressive and lovingly created worlds I’ve ever encountered. Remakes and Remasters are very much in vogue right now; games are operating on peak nostalgia. When Nightdive launched their Kickstarter for a System Shock remake, I wasn’t surprised.

What did surprise me was how quickly they produced a demo for their project. It provided a great opportunity to answer some questions. Was the original worth revisiting? Would this project capture what it meant to be a “Shock” game? I wanted to find out but first, I needed to answer a question: what the hell was System Shock? What was the thing that made it so singular? I don’t think we have a good collective memory of that. To explain what I mean and to get some answers to those question, I’m going to examine a specific moment in three games and the demo: killing your first human enemy. Mutant, Splicer, City Guard. It doesn’t matter what. I’m going to break it down.

This is the original System Shock. I wake up and grab some things. I get a quick exposition dump for context and then I’m off. I fight a few robots. I dig around to get my first door code. I do a hacking minigame. Finally, I make my way through this maze and...bam! There’s a mutant. No warning, no fanfare. Just turning the corner and finding myself face to face with a scary monster dude. Hold tight to this moment and remember that this is how System Shock worked: directly, bluntly, and without affectation.

Let’s skip to BioShock. I swim to the lighthouse and get in the bathysphere. I am then treated to a speech from Andrew Ryan as I descend into the water. I get my first look at Rapture. I arrive in Rapture and watch as a splicer kills some dude very dramatically. I’ve gone minutes without moving. Altas calls me and I finally can proceed into the city. We see the splicer and it’s a huge deal. Big enough a deal that Altas chases it away with a drone. I’m being tutorialized the entire time. Finally, after getting all my political rhetoric, grand vistas, and tutorial hints, I fight the splicer. Combat itself is fast. A few whacks with the wrench and I’ve killed me first splicer. BioShock is definitely more interested in itself and its fiction but when I get to the actual gameplay, it is just as sudden as System Shock.

Here’s BioShock Infinite. I do all the lighthouse stuff. I fly into the sky and get my big vista moment when I break through the clouds and see Columbia. The game shoves the idea of theocracy rammed down by throat. I get American Exceptionalism and Founding Father deification rammed down by throat. I get quantum physics rammed down my throat. I get racism rammed down my throat. And then, I kill my first enemy. In a cutscene. Which then launches into a big fight sequence with waves of enemies. It is busy, trying way too hard to impress me with 101 level takes on complex ideas that it cannot properly discuss. And it is so afraid that I’ll ruin the moment that it acts out the moment for me.

Keeping all that in mind, here’s the demo. I wake up and grab my things. I get that same exposition dump. I smash some robots. I reach the door and see some crazy blood graffiti with the door code. I open the door and...OH MY GOD, MONSTER! They lurch towards me and I bash their head in. It’s a bit more composed but it’s very simple. Because that’s what System Shock was; it was unceremonious. It was sudden and confident enough in what it was doing that it didn’t try to guide me too much.

BioShock and especially BioShock Infinite were games that explicitly want to say something. They are games about ideas first and places second. BioShock wants to talk about Objectivism and makes sure that you endure Andrew Ryan’s rantings. Infinite wants to talk about Populism and Theocracy and Video Games As Art. It gives us Zachary Comstock and the Vox and all sorts of things.

But what is System Shock about? It’s about a place first. It’s about Citadel Station. It’s about a strange future that’s hit a breaking point. Robots and AI and mutants. SHODAN is one of the most famous villains in game history but the game doesn’t use her as a gateway to talk ideology; she’s a rogue AI, technology gone rampant. A manifestation of the primal fear of creations outpacing creators. System Shock is not a rhetorical game; it doesn’t say much. It just does things.

The demo understands this. It takes the initial game and tries to add additional weight. It adds a bigger wind up to your pipe’s melee swing, obsessively shows your character examining new items, and stresses the danger and power of energy recharge stations. Because a “Shock” game, as expressed by the original, is about putting you in a space. Nightdive seems to remember this, although I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the demo is an alpha build of a game that might not even get funded.

The care is clear, however. The alterations in the demo stress the game space. They add enemies to make it feel more hostile, they add a vista to show scale but never force you to look at it. I’m always in control and the space is always at my disposal. It’s not quite the same, simple elegance that the original had but we’re heading in a good direction. With luck, this remaster won’t modernize too much. Modern “Shock” games seem so full of themselves. The best possible result is for this project is to keep things humble, to avoid trying to impress me too much and instead just let me inhabit the world.