System Shock

By Shamus
on Feb 18, 2006
Filed under:
Game Reviews

I have played a lot of computer games over the years, but none have affected me so strongly as the 1994 classic System Shock. The game had such a lasting effect on me that I wrote an entire novel based on the game. This means that I will, from time to time, blather on about this game and you will just have to cope with it.

In 1999 the sequel System Shock 2 came out and captured the essence of the original, but since then there hasn’t been a game that really appealed to me the way these two have. More recently, Deus Ex and Deus Ex 2 have come along and been called a spiritual successor to the System Shock series, although I’ve never thought of them as such. They are fine games, but the System Shock series stands alone as the perfect game at the perfect time. The game took advantage of what computers could do welll in 1994, and left out things they couldn’t. It took the key elements of immersive gameplay and distilled them into a unique and (at the time) frightening experience. It had numerous elements that have been often duplicated, but never with the same sublime results.

Here are what I believe to be the key features that made System Shock so special. Yes, this is highly subjective. Feel free to set me straight in the comments if you think I’ve messed this all up.

Solitude

Games have always been terrible at letting you interact through conversation. Branching conversation trees are no substitute for actual talking, and it imposes certain choices onto the player’s character. Conversations are structured so that you can never ask the right questions, or at least never ask anything that might give away key plot details.

“Beware! You go into the greatest of peril!” Yeah, I’d love if the game gave me the chance to ask about some of the specifics of this peril, but I guess the character I’m playing just loves surprises.

Characters you meet never seem to have anything going on when you’re not around, which only reinforces the fact that they aren’t real. They always have to make excuses for why they will stay exactly where they are while you are off fighting evil. “I’d come with you, but I have to watch after the village.” Right. Which is why you stand in the same place day and night and don’t interact with the rest of the town. Because you are ‘taking care of the village’. Well, good luck with that, then.

Eventually their demands become a predictable burden. Their praise is empty and wearisome. “You saved us! Truly you ARE the chosen one!” Yeah, yeah, I saved your village and all your people. NOW will you open the north gate? ‘Cause I’m sure there is another village just around the corner with bunch more helpless idiots waiting for a hero to show up and solve all of their problems.

Placing the player in isolation skates around this limitation. Communication comes in the form of scrawled notes and emails, and the player never has to endure a conversation with a brainless and frustrating NPC. The effect is that the characters seem more real, even though you don’t have any direct contact with them.

Games that have since done this: Survival horror games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill are usually games of solitude. Likewise for the DOOM and Quake series.

Ideal Setting

Computer games have always been better at indoor settings, particularly dungeon or installation-style places. The man-made nature of the place allows for lots of boxy rooms and corridors.

Caves, cities, and outdoor areas all demand a certain level of complexity. Caves need to be irregular and lumpy. Cities allow you to see a long distance, and that large visible area is just packed with detail. (or should be) Indoor man-made places don’t have these problems. This makes everything easier to render. All of this was even more true in 1994 than it is now. Computers couldn’t do curved surfaces at the time, and the games that tried look silly by today’s standards.

System Shock was set on a space station. There were no curved surfaces, no need for poorly realized urban landscapes or fake looking outdoor settings with thick fog. The setting was perfect for the rendering capabilities of the day. As a result, the game doesn’t look nearly as dated as its contemporaries.

The setting was also ideal because of the “stranded” nature of the setting. The game never had to come with with some contrived excuse for why you couldn’t simply give up and walk out if the going got tough.

Games that have since done this: Most games have plenty of “installation” areas in them. Designers are constantly struggling to break free of this, and it has only been in the last few years that we’ve seen decent-looking urban settings (Grand Theft Auto) and vast landscapes (Far Cry) that look convincing. Having games indoors isn’t really an advantage per se, it’s that System Shock focused on a setting that could be done well, as opposed to trying to do something more interesting but doomed to poor execution by the limits of technology.

Empty Character

As a matter of personal taste, I’ve always preferred playing generic main characters to vibrant ones. I can identify with a generic everyman much more than I can identify with “Jake Danger, invincible super-soldier who doesn’t play by the rules”. This is why the Deus Ex series never really captured my attention the way System Shock did. J. C. Denton was cool, but he’s not someone I can really connect with. In System Shock, the main character was a nameless vessel for the player to fill with their own ideas and motivations. The game never put words into your mouth or imposed any sort of ethical code. You simply fought to survive, and your feelings towards your various enemies and allies were for you to decide.

Games that have since done this:While Grand Theft Auto III established that your character is a criminal, your character was otherwise nameless, expresionless, and mute. His motivations are for you to decide. Doom III and Half-Life had people that spoke to you, but the game never put any words in your mouth.

Zombies

Gotta love zombies, or other mindless foes. When playing a typical action game, I get to a point near the end where I start to wonder, Geeze, don’t these soldiers know I’ve just carved my way through about a hundred other guys just like them? Don’t they have any sense of self-preservation? Wouldn’t they run away, or try to talk me into letting them go? Or maybe hide in some of these huge vents they have all over their base?

This is never the case with Zombies or robots. There is something frightening about foes who are willing to die to destroy you. Who have no concept of self. Their tenacity is daunting. Their expressionless pursuit of your demise adds to the fear of the game.

Additionally, computer A.I. is such that enemies tend to fight mindlessly, so it’s far better to have foes that are actually mindless.

Games that have since done this: Lots of games have you fight mindless, souless, fearless enemies. There are many where you fight robots or creatures under mind-control. Halo had The Flood. Resident Evil has zombies. Silent Hill has strange creatures that defy categorization.

Persistant, Non-linear World

At the time, this was an incredible innovation. I go to another level, and then come back to this one! What a novel idea!

Lots of first-person games simply have the player follow a single predetermined path through the world. Most level transitions are one-way trips. The bad guys are sitting in fixed locations. The level consists of a march from one end of the level to the other, with occasional detours to obtain keys or press buttons or other items needed to open up the next area.

On the other hand, System Shock had large open levels with branching paths. There were only 10 levels (depending on how you count them) but they were quite big and there were many paths through them. Enemies would respawn at certain intervals, so you could never count on any particular area to be “safe”. This made the game world much more interesting and varied.

If you throw an item on the ground, you can come back hours later and get it. If you destroy something, it stays destroyed. This led many players to look for areas where they could stash items for use later, which is only possible in a setting where you aren’t going to be cut off from your stash when you go to the next area.

Games that have since done this: There aen’t really many first-person games that have tried to do this sort of freeform gameplay. Grand Theft Auto is freeform, but not persistant. If I knock over a telephone pole and drive away, it will be mysteriously restored when I return. Other games are more persistant (like Thief or Deus Ex) but not freeform: You’re usually stuck in one area until you do something, and then you move to the next location.

Player Advantage

Why did the player survive when everyone else died? What makes the main character so special? It’s much better to have some explanation or advantage other than “they are a badass”. Lots of games just depict the main character as a musclebound guy who is just 100 times tougher than the ordinary soldier. Solid Snake. Doom Marine. Duke Nukem. Sam Fisher. Jack Carver. Max Payne. At some point you have to say, you know what? I know this guy already. It’s been done.

My own preference is that it’s much better to have some other justification for why the player is so much stronger that the opposition. In System Shock, the main character was the only one with a cybernetic implant, which let him hack computers, open doors, and communicate covertly with the outside.

Games that have since done this: Lots of games have some of super-power or unique item that imbue your otherwise normal character with the ability to take on an army. In Half-Life it was the HEV suit. In Deus Ex is was various cybernetic enhancements. Other games have you play as a mutant, or a vampire, or some other super-human.

Looking at this list, it’s clear that the strength of the game isn’t what it did, but what it didn’t try to do that set it apart. System Shock didn’t have anything that hasn’t been done since, and yet nobody has combined all of these elements to do something similar.

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12There are a dozen comments.

From the Archives:

  1. Ben Finkel says:

    Except for zombies, the many of the Myst games evoke this perfectly. Primarily Myst itself, but Riven’s character interaction (what little there was of it) was flawless. Exile and Revelations, less so, but still.

    Isolation, setting, the blank character of “the Stranger” and a high degree of non-linear play (that is almost exclusively persistent) are hallmarks of the Myst series. There isn’t much player advantage to worry about, either.

    Ben

  2. Katy says:

    A game you might like, if you haven’t heard of it, is called Siren (leave it to the Japanese, right). The dubbed version of this is of course available in the States.

    The game features several characters, all pretty normal: a college kid, a college professor, a doctor, an old man, a has-been TV actress. They’re all headed to a small, out-of-the-way Japanese village for one reason or another, but this village has a really mind-bending curse on it, the history of which pretty much stumps the player for most of the game. The end result, though, is that the villagers are all what an English speaker would call “zombies.” They’re a little smarter in that they’ll patrol, investigate sounds, and can fire weapons, but they’re otherwise not thinking much.

    Each playable character, which you play in turn according to different parts of an interweaving timeline, can do a fun new idea called “sightjack.” The point of Siren isn’t actually to bash the zombies or shoot them all; it’s to sneak past and get to your destination without alerting them to your presence. Sightjack allows the player to squat somewhere relatively safe (you’re vulnerable during sightjack) and tune into the zombies’ POV like a radio antenna. You can lock onto four POVs or less (usually four is the max you need or that are around, anyway). By watching where these zombies patrol and what they’re looking at, you can decide the best way to weave through their positions or distract them based on items you find. On top of this, certain things that one player can do in their section of the timeline can affect what another player can do in their section, such as one player turning on a freezer in the kitchen of an abandoned house for another player to use later. It can make things…so complicated. :/

    The gameplay is somewhat linear in that sense, but once you reach a certain point, you can go back and replay certain parts.

    One of my favorite moves was that I needed to cross a river using one of two bridges. One bridge was carefully guarded by a zombie with a rifle while a second one behind him was watching the riverside factory. Sneaking past both to run down the steps and under the bridge to perform a task was proving impossible. Why? Because my doctor character’s only weapon was a wrench. Rifle vs. Wrench. Oh Lord.

    However, my side of the bridge had a telephone booth. I found a telephone card in the forest on my side, so I ran up to the telephone booth, slipped the card in, and when it popped back out, it made a loud beeping noise. Of course, the zombie on the bridge came to investigate. I hid nearby until he was standing at the phone booth and staring dumbly at the noise. Running up behind him, I blugeoned him with my wrench until he was down for the count. Same thing for the second zombie since he was facing the wrong direction and couldn’t turn around in time to shoot me.

    It was a proud moment.

    Though the characters are not empty vessels, they are alone and the game does a great job of spooking the hell out of you. Despite playing this game for many hours, I was still whimpering whenever a zombie had spotted me and was eagerly running towards me with her bloody knife.

    My favorite character has to be the old man, though. To make up for his slow run and low stamina (he wheezes after ten seconds), they gave him a rifle. It’s really satisfying to play his parts because he can take down a handful of zombies in ten seconds.

    Just a recommendation.

  3. Minou says:

    Well, I’ve just stumbled into your archives and reading this post brought up so many happy (and frightening) memories…

    What I want to tell you is that I loved System Shock I&II and that you are definitely not the only person that spent hours in front of their PC (in my case: their parent’s PC, I was 14 at the time the first part was published)…

    Let’s hope that Bioshock turns out great.

  4. Simon says:

    You forgot to mention the super awesome villain. Other games hardly put you ino contact with the villain, but in system shock she was the most prominent person in the game. And what a person.
    This guy has put it best:
    http://gillen.cream.org/wordpress_html/?page_id=1103
    I can’t think of any other videogame villain that gives me the same sense of fear and awe.

  5. Ring of Gyges says:

    Abstraction is a way to get around conversation problems.
    Ultima 5 still has the best conversation engine I’ve ever seen in a game. You don’t choose from a dialog tree, you type in topics of conversation and the NPC’s are keyed to respond to certain ones. One of the advantages is that you can talk to people out of the order the game had in mind, you can fish for information (i.e. you can ask *everyone* about X without following the game’s clues), and you never hear yourself speak or get railroaded into an out of character phrase.

  6. Lo'oris says:

    “Games that have since done this: There aen’t really many first-person games that have tried to do this sort of freeform gameplay.”

    Alone in the Dark ;)

    if you move something, it will stay there, you can put down object and find them where you put them, etc.

    At the end of the game there were a location that did not allow you to come back, but until then it was totally freeform.

  7. Colm Smyth says:

    System Shock also blew me away; I remember finding it incredibly immersive, surprising and (yes) shocking. In particular I’ll never forget:
    – the sense of loss when I/the protagonist failed to reach a group of people before a reaver killed them all
    – the joy of rollerskating down a slope to get across a precipice
    – the tension trying to reach and solve a door puzzle before being shot down by cyborgs

    I rated Deus Ex higher as a game (in a post at http://colmsmyth.blogspot.com/2005/12/greatest-computer-game-ever-made.html) only because it’s user interface has a much lower barrier of entry and because there are multiple story strands, but Shock was *the* most enthralling game I’ve ever encountered. I would *love* to see a remake of the story using current technology.

  8. Hipparchus says:

    I have created a counter list to exemplify the advantages of having the opposite in the game from the features in System Shock. Mind you, I enjoyed System Shock and it’s features, I just wanted to see if the contrasting features and the features presented would create a dynamic that could find a happy middle.

    Companionship(Counters Solitude)
    In games of days gone by, there is always a sense of loneliness in them. Such as in the dungeon crawl, the minimal interaction creates monontonty and gave very little of a role to fill, or at least mimimized the ways we can fill it. Then when technology got better and many innovations occured you could interact, expirement, and do many other things to “….incredibly detailed, fascinating, and important characters who’s lives eventually revolve around our actions….”. With other characters we could play a role deeper, and explore are very selves, and let’s face it, it’s always nice to have people sing your praises, help you with challenges, and give direction.

    Realistic Setting(Counters Ideal Setting)
    Most players were use to navigating boxy, inorganic dungeons and other indoor places which like solitude gives monotonoty because of the lack of detail you could have in these types of areas. It can sometimes feel like you are exploring the same confined, unnatural passage over and over and over again. However as wide open fields and sprawling, detailed cities became relisied in games like the Elder Scrolls you could have the freedom to explore the open-ended world and have “have no boundaries to […]exploration” and with the new detail possible have “every nook and cranny stuffed with exciting things […] to discover.”

    Vibrant Character (Counters Empty Character)
    Again, in early role-playing games, all of the characters were mute, faceless, and emotionless and it felt like we were playing the same character over and over again. For example in the early cRPG Final Fantasy you played a group of people who had no motivation, no background, no reactions to anything that goes on. But as role-playing games evolved we got varied characters with reason to do their quest, and felt things when things happened to them. I would rather play the interesting and motivated Tidus, Yuna, and co. of Final Fantasy X then the bland and unmotivated Light Warriors of Final Fantasy I.

    Meaningful Enemies (Counters Zombies)
    When hackin’ and slashin’ your way through dungeons, one can’t help but wonder what compells the enemies to attack you. What are ther motives, goals? What is their everyday life like? Is there an alternative to combat? This is why when enemies are realised as characters a lot of new gameplay options open up. You can find out about the enemies, and why they are attacking you. You could even attempt diplomacy and maybe even become friends to a would-be foe.

    Random, Linear World(Counters Persistant, Non-linear World)
    If everything in the world is constant and static it gives very little reason to come back and reduces replay value. This is why randomization can be interesting way to give a reason for players to come back to a room. They can fight new enemies, get new treasure, but still be in the same old room!
    While a non-linear world may provide freedom, it will lack the focus of a linear world. In a linear world you have more clear-cut goals, focus and there is less meandering on part of the player.

    Player Disadvantage(Player Advantage)
    In many games it is the heritage or an item that makes a player do what he is able to do. But this an easy way out of creating motive and growth. It should be that they are special because they train and have motivation to do what they do. They may start weak, poor, or with other disadvantages but as they progress with their goals in sight they will rise above the opposition, and the players will feel like they will rise with their character too.

    And that’s it. I don’t endorse these features, just showing the contrasts that can be wrought by the features presented. The weird thing is that I would like a game with the feature of System Shock and the counter-features of System Shock. Weird, huh? :P

  9. Steve says:

    Great work as always Shammus. Funny thing about Half-Life HEV suit other guys died with the helmet. Oh and the military has the same exact version of the HEV suit except in green and NV goggles.

  10. Jokerman says:

    “Geeze, don’t these soldiers know I’ve just carved my way through about a hundred other guys just like them?”

    This came to me while playing Dragon Age not long ago, in a side quest for the head guard in Denerim after surviving an ambush with him at your side he says to you “And people voluntarily fight you??” I was like YES what are they thinking? Everyone seems to know im this big bad Grey Warden who has been beating hords of darkspawn, orges, Gangs, Assassin and a Dragon…get they think there gang about 12 can beat my 4 plus the guard and his 5-6 men.

  11. Sydney says:

    I can think of no better place to make this remark, so:

    It’s 2011, and I’ve just now played System Shock. One particular quote struck me:

    “Thank you. You have saved us all some effort… by destroying the greater part of Earth’s civilization: yourself. Please wait where you are, and a cortex reaver will arrive shortly to escort you to the celebration.”

    Now, compare:

    “We are pleased that you made it through the final challenge where we pretended we were going to murder you. We are very very happy for your success. We are throwing a party in honor of your tremendous success. Place the device on the ground, then lie on your stomach with your arms at your sides. A party associate will arrive shortly to collect you for your party.”

    I never noticed until today just how hard GLaDOS was trying to be SHODAN.

  12. noahpocalypse says:

    Duke Nukem was a badass. That game wasn’t designed to have a truly compelling narrative. It was humor and simple gunplay that it hoped to draw people in with.

    Just saying: as an example, it works. But he ws designed like that.

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