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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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