Resurrection | System Shock
Format: PC | Genre: FPS/RPG | Publisher: Origin/EA | Developer: Looking Glass | Released: 1994
Why now? Just l-l-l-look at it…
By L-L-L-Lewis Denby
SHODAN’s pretty much immortal, when you think about it. No matter how close she comes to being destroyed, she’ll only ever revert to a spec of data stored on a hard drive somewhere. SHODAN exists because we made her, and taking her life away would mean reverting to the inferiority of yesterday’s technology.
So it’s an odd experience to be playing a game about technophobia and the future of computers, now we’re that much further down the road of digital progress. System Shock’s a game that sat between Doom and its sequel on the early-shooter release schedule, born of an era when the technology to power something deep and involving simply wasn’t available.
Or was it? System Shock may look crude on the outside, but revisiting it 15 years later leads to a surprising discovery. For all the low resolutions, blocky, primary-colour textures and sprite-based enemies, Looking Glass’ seminal FPS/RPG still works beautifully. Its heavy stylisation transcends digital horsepower. Its presentation still takes over each and every sense in turn. System Shock in no way feels 15 years old. It’s as modern, polished and captivating as anything you like. There’s a lesson there somewhere.
//Feel the fear
Far easier to coerce into functionality than its Dark Engine-based sequel (see ‘Staying Alive’, below), System Shock is an essential play for those who never experienced its wonders the first time around. This includes me. Barely rid of my baby teeth on Shock’s release, it would still be a couple of years before my first forray into any game not involving Disney characters or a plump Italian with a moustache. Observing this monument from the past is a startling eye-opener, and it’s a bafflement as to why no one caught on. While id Software slaved away on the hyper-speed blaster, Looking Glass were creating something completely unprecidented. More narrative-driven than the adventure games, more tactile than the shooters, more skillful than the platformers, System Shock was – and still is – an astonishingly complex and intelligent game. That nothing similar appeared for years afterwards makes no sense at all.
We think of videogame storytelling as being in its relative infancy. We consider 1998’s Half-Life a defining moment in that respect. In reality, though its effects were considerable, it contained virtually nothing to match the first outing of psychotic, self-delusional SHODAN, an artificial intelligence ripped free from her pre-programmed ethical constraints. It’s a tale bigger in its scope, complexity and intelligence than anything we’d see from the medium for years and years to come. From a slow, straightforward start, it grows into something unimaginably fierce, something haunting and foreboding at every turn.
For something so visually primitive to be so staggeringly effective is truly astounding. System Shock absolutely nails atmosphere. It’s all in the details: the incredible sound design, with an ear for ambience that puts most modern attempts to shame; the deft pacing of the game’s events, twists and turns; the credibility and mechanism of the Citadel Space Station, where every room, every corridor, makes sense in its location and function. It’s a real place, a tangible one, one that works. Like Black Mesa, City 17 and Rapture to follow, you simply cannot get your head around the fact that game designers invented this world. You cannot fathom that it doesn’t exist, in all its glory, somewhere in the black void above us.
So, while Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake will – or have already – fade into mere relics of the past, System Shock has the ability to live on. With the release of System Shock Portable, a freely available download allowing the full game to be played on modern computers even directly from a USB drive, it’s impressively straightforward to dive into today. And, though some of its interface foibles do take some getting used to (mouse-look isn’t present, and there’s an awful lot of clicking, dragging and dropping to do around the periphery of the screen), it’s no big obstacle. Quickly, it becomes second nature, and in an instant you’re there, trapped inside a gargantuan metal box in deepest space, one that’s collapsing and decaying all around you.
And as you get caught up in this fight against the twisted, palpabale malevolance of SHODAN, as you listen to the recorded pleas of comrades, acted with a terrifying pain and urgency, you realise. SHODAN’s immortal; we all knew that. But so is her game. Its existence would not benefit from a shiny new engine or a gameplay revision. It’s still as terrifying, absorbing and gloriously complete as ever. A remarkable achievement, one that will keep on living as a spec of data on a hard drive somewhere. Make that hard drive yours.