Seeing Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs on their E3 feed made me think of another cyberpunk-like title back in the day. 1994, to be exact.
In the year that saw Wing Commander III redefine the way stories were told in gaming following hard on the heels of the success paved by Ultima Underworld and its sequel, Origin and developer, Looking Glass Studios, would also introduce the world to another game that pushed the first-person genre past the bleeding edge. The game was System Shock.
Produced by Warren Spector and led by Doug Church and members of their team that had cracked their coding knuckles over Ultima Underworld at Looking Glass, System Shock would go on to become one of the best games that anyone had ever played. It was unlike any first-person shooter that was out at the time, such as Doom 2, and like the Ultima Underworlds before it, embraced the perspective to deliver a gripping sci-fi story filled with action, thrills, and even a few scares. This was a “thinking man’s” shooter, a refrain that members of the team such as Spector and Church would go on to repeat with Deus Ex years later at Ion Storm.
System Shock took us to the future in the year 2072. You play a hacker that has gone a little too far in your poking around and TriOptimum, a corporate juggernaut whose toes you had stepped on, has come knocking on your door to politely ask you to stop with a gun to your head. Diego, one of TriOptimum’s execs, decides to cut you a deal. He’ll let you live and even throw in a military grade neural interface in exchange for a favor: removing the ethical constraints on the SHODAN AI at Citadel Station.
Citadel is also in space, a TriOptimum castle of pressurized space age materials and other things that they don’t want Earth to know about. So that’s where you go. Doing what you were asked was easy and Diego fulfilled his end of the bargain by giving you a neural interface that others like you on Earth would drool over. Six months pass as you heal up in stasis and when you awaken…you’re all alone. Or are you?
Something has gone terribly wrong. The nice thing is that the manual’s tutorial eases you into System Shock’s detailed world with a few easy lessons walking you out of where you had been sleeping for six months and into combat. The rest is laid out in e-mails, cyberspace files, and whatever else you can find to help you live a few moments longer. Even before starting things off, you can fine tune your experience by selecting how difficult you want things to be, predating a lot of what a game such as Mass Effect 3 tried to do for its own audience in asking whether you wanted to play it as a shooter or an RPG.
In System Shock, you could completely drop all of the story elements out and just harvest weapons and kill things if you wanted to set that level to zero. Or if you wanted everything that the story should throw at you, max it out. The same with combat. Do you want to enjoy the scenery and the story and not worry about finding a healing pack (this was in the days before regenerating health)? Set combat to cakewalk. Of if you’re feeling particularly beefy, jack it up to turn SHODAN’s minions into walking reapers. Cyberspace and puzzles even had their own settings to play with. I left combat alone at default, but I jacked everything else up to maximum. I wanted my story and puzzles, and cyberspace sounded very cool.
System Shock gave it all to the player. There was even a little Metroid worked into the gameplay. Exploring Citadel station would also lead you to discover new hardware options to attach to your neural interface such as personal shields and even a jump jet attachment allowing you to get to new heights while exploring the station. You also had to monitor your energy as your new upgrades drew from your limited reserves, yet without these additions, surviving Citadel was next to impossible. And your energy didn’t regenerate, either. You had to scavenge for batteries to juice up and keep your toys working.
The good news is that among the mutated cyborgs, mad security robots, and cameras watching your every move (which you also had to wreck), there was a huge arsenal of goodies waiting for you to find. Guns, assault rifles, futuristic energy weapons, and even a handy laser rapier which I almost tried to use all the time because it didn’t consume precious ammo, were all there to improve the odds.
Cyberspace was primitive stuff at the time: a wireframe set of corridors using basic shapes. At the same time, it got the point across and was a neat game to play. The longer you stayed in, the more time that gave SHODAN to find you and cut the connection. In addition to the time limit you had in which to break into whatever was there, you needed to fight internal defenses with an arsenal of software that you also had to gather. It wasn’t quite as slick as the way cyberspace was done in Interplay’s Neuromancer, though it got the point across.
Other mini-games included rewiring locks, echoes of which can be found in Bioshock’s own “pipe puzzles”, though there were logic probes you could pick up to bypass these. Or “dermal patches” that improved your mind for a few moments to crack them even faster.
And leering over everything was SHODAN, the mockingly ruthless AI that held Citadel in the electronic palm of its networked being. SHODAN was a fantastic villain in the sense that, for time, it pretended to be something of a negligent overlord allowing you to scurry around before catching the titan’s notice. And when you did, it treated your efforts as futile and annoying, mocking you until the very end when the final showdown took place in cyberspace. Coldly calculating and without mercy, SHODAN was a fantastic antagonist who nearly wont had it not been for the efforts of one nameless hacker.
In the end, you saved the Earth after a lengthy adventure throughout the bowels of Citadel station because that is what you went through. Laboratories, maintenance hangars, empty living quarters eerily devoid of life and filled with something else…it was part haunted house, part death trap in space with no escape other than through SHODAN and the transformed crew it strung along invisible strings. It wasn’t just about scurrying through vents and hallways to smash cameras and find the next key card. To me, it was as much about finding the truth of what happened while I was asleep for six months while trying to find something that would help me survive the horror waiting on the next floor.
Much of what System Shock has done still holds up as valuable lessons today. It was a world that felt functional filled with the debris of those that had called Citadel their home seen through the cybenetic eyes of the last living person there. A voice from Earth was your only guide, a TriOptimum exec who makes contact with you providing a tenuous link back to sanity. The lack of music as you strolled through the corridors and bravely turned each corner hoping that you wouldn’t be staring into the face of a mashed bowl of flesh and metal added even more to the sense of solitude that the game visited on you. Not that it wasn’t without its own tunes. It had them, but it knew when to use them.
System Shock would go on to win incredible acclaim and become one of those legendary titles that regularly makes the list for the occasional call of “best games of all time”. It was a dungeon in space, like Ultima Underworld, only now it was a sci-fi thriller where technology was the only magic standing between you and the vacuum beyond. It would later go on to have a sequel that was just as acclaimed if not even moreso and help give a designer by the name of Ken Levine a few lasting ideas that would return in a little something called Bioshock.
Today, it’s still not available on Good Old Games, but it is treated as abandonware because of the dissolution of Looking Glass and Origin. Because of that, it’s being distributed out there by fans and has been heavily modified from the original — not to necessarily improve on the design, but to polish more technical aspects such as the graphics or in getting it to fit on a USB stick for playability anywhere you want to go.
Here, I have two different ads for System Shock, both of which do the same thing. The one ad with the hacker standing in a representation of cyberspace and staring at SHODAN’s cone-like body grasping the station went into detail on the setup along with a few screenshots. The next one with the craggy face staring back is what made it onto game boxes. That one was an ad of fewer words yet it also got the point across that this was no ordinary FPS. And for anyone that signed on the dotted line of this contract, it often proved to be an experience worth the price.