All is not right aboard Citadel Station, a sprawling corporate outpost floating in the void near Saturn. The batshit crazy artificial intelligence SHODAN has taken control and is calculating a genocidal plot against humanity. Already a mindless army of mutants and cyborgs bows to her sadistic whims. In this future gone wrong a hacker stirs from a cryogenic coma, unaware of the horrors he’s about to battle.
More than two decades have gone by since System Shock, a menacing cyberpunk computer game that helped give rise to generations of intellectual shooters. At a time when many similar games were all about frantic action, System Shock favored weighty storytelling and careful exploration. Its tainted corridors were atmospheric and immersive long before those qualities turned into buzzwords. Some of the biggest games out there—from Bioshock to Deus EX—drew inspiration from its legacy. But by modern standards, System Shock is dated, weighed down by archaic graphics and unwieldy controls. Even in its day, when games still lived on DOS operating systems and floppy discs, high system requirements made it inaccessible to many computer owners.
“At that point it kind of missed its window to really capture the audience at large that had not only the computer, but the patience to play the game,” says Stephen Kick, founder of retro game publisher Night Dive Studios. “I see it as an untapped resource. There’s this great game with all these wonderful mechanics, enemies, locations, narrative—all these things that combine to make this exceptional experience, and there really aren’t that many gamers that have had the opportunity to go through it and experience it for themselves.”
Now a younger generation might finally have the chance. Last month Night Dive launched a Kickstarter campaign to rebuild the pioneering title from the ground up. Spearheaded with a plucky demo, the project made its $900,000 goal early in July, with time to spare. A System Shock remake is coming, playable on both PC and consoles. But can it modernize the classic without going too far? A challenge for sure, but Kick says his team can make it happen.
“They all want to do it justice, and preserve, really, the legacy that System Shock has set forth in the gaming industry,” he says.
System Shock’s 2016 demo begins much like the 1994 original did. An unnamed hacker wakes up in Citadel Station’s medical wing after recovering from neural implant surgery, which already sounds like a fun time. His vision clears, giving players a chance to take in System Shock’s new look. Gone are the blocky pixels of yesteryear. Even as a work-in-progress, the demo looks modern. Dynamic lights bathe the room in a moody blue hue. A shower of chilled smoke gushes from a ruptured ceiling and sparks dance off damaged walls.
The hacker steps away from the healing incubator and clicks open the door to an adjoining storage room. Stashed among cybernetic gadgets, a rusty pipe calls to him. He snatches up the blunt object, tossing it playfully between his hands to test its weight and grip.
With the mindset of spacefaring architects, Kick says he hopes to bring the station to life, expanding rooms and adding detail where needed, while still adhering to an authentic aesthetic. Helping guide this direction is System Shock concept artist Robb Waters, who has sketched updated designs that capture, as Kick puts it, the true essence of System Shock.
Surprisingly, the remake System Shock is not in the hands of a multimillion-dollar publisher or blockbuster studio, but an indie team best known for recovering lost treasures. Night Dive has re-released dozens of old school PC games—the kind you wouldn’t be able to play unless you rummaged for an ancient disc on the secondhand market, or drudged up a torrent from the internet’s pirate-infested corners. It all began in 2012 when Kick tracked the long-lost rights to System Shock 2 to an insurance company in the Midwest.
“Basically, as the game was back then, we made it playable,” says Larry Kuperman, head of business development at Night Dive, “and every year we’ve built on our successes.”
Last year, the company visited the legendary series again with System Shock: Enhanced Edition, a tweaked version of the first game with higher resolutions and tighter controls. Knowing they could take the game’s visuals and mechanics even further gave the developers the catalyst to do a full remake, Kick says.
Back on Citadel Station, the hacker picks up a message from Rebecca Lansing, a counter-terrorism consultant for the TriOptimum Corporation. A mining laser onboard is being charged, and only the hacker can stop it from striking Earth. Making matters worse, the security systems, including an unfriendly R2-D2 lookalike in the next room, have gone rogue. Combat is uncomplicated; a few pipe swings short-circuit the wayward robot.
Players won’t be bombarded with the same complexity that befuddled the first System Shock’s controls and interface, Kick says. In the demo, the character moves at a gradual pace, with weightiness to every turn and step, but otherwise it plays like a contemporary game. You no longer need to click a specific icon to switch from looking up, to looking down, to looking straight ahead. Once cluttered with information, the screen has been freed up considerably.
“I would say that we streamlined [the interface], but not in a way that cheapened it or made it less relevant, or less important,” says Kick. “It’s still a very important piece of information that will take even a seasoned player a few minutes to digest and understand.”
Controls that left a bit to be desired didn’t completely hinder the first System Shock. Make no mistake, it and its sequel were ahead of their time, says project director Jason Fader, who sees the remake as an opportunity to carry on that tradition and reintroduce the game. He bursts with enthusiasm when describing what this burden feels like.
“I’m scared. I’m freaking out. It’s just such a huge, daunting responsibility that’s been placed on all of us,” Fader says. “And so, it’s scary, but in an amazingly great way, and it’s exciting and it’s exhilarating, and everybody on the team is conscious of that every single day. Sometimes we’ll just send each other a message saying, ‘We’re actually working on System Shock. Holy Crap. Yes we are.'”
After 15 years in the game industry, shifting between major studio work and indie development, Fader is cautious about going into specifics about a game so early in pre-production. He won’t share too much just yet. The prevailing goal, however, is to make it as spiritually faithful as possible, he says, while modernizing where it makes sense. Many of System Shock’s successors carry fragments of the original game, and Fader says the team won’t ignore that.
“Bioshock did a lot of things great. System Shock 2 did a lot of things great. Some of those things may not necessarily fit in our vision,” Fader says. “But we’re looking at all those games as potential inspiration, and helping to influence what this game will ultimately be, and how we can best represent [it] to the modern gamer.”
HOW CAN YOU CHALLENGE A PERFECT, IMMORTAL MACHINE?
At the end of a hallway, the hacker reaches a locked door. Three numbers are scrawled in blood next to the keypad. Grunting and banging can be heard from the other side. The hacker types in the password and a pale humanoid lunges from the opening. This mutated crewmember is just one of many victims of the insane computer, SHODAN. Artificial intelligences go haywire in science fiction all the time, from HAL 9000 to GlaDOS. But none, before or since, have ever gone quite as horribly wrong as SHODAN. Far from a passionless machine, SHODAN waiss alive with emotions—bad ones. Her delusional rants and oppressive egomania are a big part of why people remember System Shock.
“I find her really interesting from a game design perspective, because she’s actually the environment around you… whether it’s the cameras, or the robots, or the traps,” says Chris Avellone, a prolific gaming scribe recruited for the remake. “The way she speaks—it’s so cruelly elegant. I don’t want to be on her electrified interrogation bench. I’m curious about it, but I don’t want to be on it.”
Stuttering electronic distortions in SHODAN’s voice help sell her inhuman nature. In fact, a large part of System Shock’s identity comes from its sound. It’s also one area where Kick says they’ve received the most feedback from the demo. Instead of the upbeat electronic tunes of 1994, low ambient sounds play in the background, disturbed every now and then by an alluring melody. For their modern sound direction, the team wants to forge their own horror-oriented path, Kick says, but they also hope to please everyone with the soundtrack.
“We’re going to have those foreboding, daunting atmospheric orchestral overtones that are going to really push the story and the themes further in System Shock,” Kick says, “but we’re also going to have some of that original electronic music redone, but melding gracefully with acoustic instruments, and an orchestrated score.”
After dealing with the rampaging mutant, the hacker continues exploring the desecrated station, looting containers and bashing idle security cameras. He picks up a decaying crewmember’s sidearm and zaps prowling mutants with a burning beam. Finally, he reaches an observation deck, ending the demo with a visage of Saturn looming in the distance.
Any remake runs the risk of either angering purists by altering too much, or alienating a newer crowd by not changing enough. If anything, the System Shock demo is a balancing act between faithfulness and modernization, and it looks like that’s how the project will continue moving forward. For instance, Avellone sees room for developing the narrative in ways that go beyond copy editing the original text.
“There’s still a lot more to that world that I think that we could see for players to find, about TriOptimum, more about how SHODAN came to be,” Avellone says. “I think there’s a lot of rich material there that we can expand on, but I wouldn’t want to disrupt the core direction of that story.”
For Night Dive Studios, bringing back System Shock was a wild pipe dream that became a reality. The team’s Kickstarter project was a litmus test to see if fans would support a remake, and fans answered with a confident yes. With work also underway on a System Shock 3 at another studio—with the first game’s producer, Warren Spector, at the helm—there are many reasons to be excited for the franchise’s future, even as gamers continue to celebrate its past.