I first played System Shock right when it was released: a friend of mine who worked at Looking Glass gave me a copy. And it’s apparently lodged itself in my brain—over the summer, I wandered across some footage of the game, and it all came back, almost two decades later. So I figured I should replay the game, with the tentative plan to move on to its sequel and then the BioShock games.

And I did indeed replay it; I’m glad, and I’m still planning to move on to its sequel once I’ve interposed a game or two. There’s lots to think about: about the game itself, about the game in its original context, about the game as compared to BioShock and modern first-person shooters. Sadly, I’m not really the right person to do any of that justice—its original context was almost two decades ago, I didn’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of comparisons even back then, and I’m even more out-of-touch with the first-person shooter tradition since then! But I haven’t let ignorance stop me in the past, so no point in being bothered by it now, I suppose.


Actually, the genre question is one that I’m particularly curious about. The primary genre label that I apply to System Shock is “first-person shooter”, and of course there’s good reason for that: you have a first person point of view, and you shoot things a lot. But it also feels to me completely unsurprising that this game was produced by a studio that had made two Ultima Underworld games before this one: I haven’t played those games, but I’ve played earlier Ultima games, and to me the lineage seems to come through.

Just the fact that you can click on everything in the environment (not just things that we conventionally think of as items, but even wall paneling and lighting) foregrounds the environment in a way that I think of as more part of the adventure / role-playing game tradition than as part of the first-person shooter tradition. And the maps themselves are unlike those in any other FPS that came to mind: I spent a lot of time in my early Apple 2 gaming days drawing maps on graph paper for adventure / role-playing games (the Ultima series, Wizardry; Etrian Odyssey is the recent series that best holds up that tradition), and System Shock‘s maps fit on graph paper as well as any of those games’ do. (Well, apart from the occasional corridors that pass over/under each other.)

This is very unusual in the corridor-based modern FPS (at least that’s how I think of modern FPSes, I don’t play them that much), but it was unusual back then, too: I thought that, perhaps, it was natural that a game set in a space station would have dense maps, but the same argument would hold for Marathon, and if you look at that game’s maps, you’ll see a decent amount of blank space. So I’ll stick by my claim that System Shock comes out of a tradition of designing levels on graph paper and populating rooms with objects in a way that’s foreign to not only the modern FPS but the FPS of the time. And there are other nods to an adventure game context: the amount of status / item information that surrounds your view in the default view, the mild leveling up and non-ammo item management that the game gives you.


Of course, “FPS of the time” is a strange phrase indeed: System Shock was released in 1994, while Doom had only come out a year earlier, in 1993. Pulling some other early FPSes out of my experience, Marathon also came out in 1994, and Dark Forces came out in 1995. So certainly the idea of the first-person shooter was in the air, and in the air well enough that excellent games were appearing, but the genre conventions were still being formed. (If I’m recalling correctly, I largely played through those games with keyboard controls; I used the mouse some on this playthrough of System Shock, but the keyboard side of the controls had not yet standardized to its default arrangement, as I was reminded every month during our VGHVI Minecraft sessions.)

And I suspect that System Shock mixed genres to an abnormal extent even given the context: there’s the whole cyberspace mode with its 3-D navigation, after all. Or, for that matter, the horror aspects of the game; admittedly, I’m a very risk-adverse game player in general, so whenever I play an FPS, I’m always scared of what’s going to be around the next corner. But, even recognizing that: I’m wandering around a space station where all other humans are getting killed off, never knowing if I’m going to run into a mutant (perhaps even an invisible one) or a robot controlled by a psychotic AI. So certainly there’s more than a tinge of horror there, it’s not purely my reaction.

Actually, this game dealt with my reaction to risk and scarcity in an interesting way. I’d completely forgotten one of the things that System Shock and BioShock had in common, namely their revival chambers. But the two games handle those chambers differently: in BioShock, they’re always active, whereas each level of System Shock has one that you have to flip a switch to activate. (Or, technically, flip a switch to turn its brainwashing function off: the minions are smart enough to bring you to the chamber whenever you die but too stupid to make sure that a switch on the wall is in the correct position after they do that, it seems.) So that meant that each level came in two halves for me: for the first part of the level, I was creeping around every corner, reloading whenever I’d gotten too hurt or used ammo too inefficiently, trying to preserve my resources. (Which weren’t actually particularly scarce, at least on the difficulty level that I was playing at: that’s just my brain behaving oddly. Or at least they weren’t particularly scare aside from the third level: if you’re thinking of playing the game yourself, on the third level go left and then take the first door on the left and go up the ladder to find the laser rapier, it’ll make you much happier if you’re anything like me.) But then, once I’d found the cyborg conversion chamber, I could relax a bit: there’s nothing particularly wrong with wandering into battles with a hand-to-hand weapon, maybe dying, and getting revived. So, while I won’t say I really enjoyed wondering what was around every corner before I flipped that switch, the difference in texture was interesting, and all things being equal it’s probably just as well that there were consequences for mistakes some of the time in each level?


I dunno; I’m kind of babbling, talking around this game because I’m having a hard time coming to grips with it. And I haven’t even talked about the story at all: either the plot itself or the way so much of it is conveyed through audio logs. (Which is old hat these days, of course, but the most prominent recent example of that technique, BioShock, can trace that use directly back to System Shock.) Or, for that matter, there’s probably something interesting to be said about the audio logs in System Shock versus the terminals in Marathon: I guess that’s the way you tell a story involving spaceships and crazy AI’s given the technology available in 1994?

Or rather, you apparently tell a story by combining that with a lot of shooting. Still, though, I do think way System Shock takes care to put together its environments and to tell a story through the audio logs is something special. (And I suppose I’ll insert an obligatory Shenmue reference here, given how wonderfully that game constructed its environments.) But this weekend I also played Gone Home, which has a direct lineage back to System Shock via BioShock: that game also constructs its environments with care, indeed with obvious love (but with less graph paper!), and it also moves along the story with audio logs.

And not once when playing Gone Home did I wish that I were shooting at somebody, or even beating up somebody with a lead pipe. I should probably save more of that discussion for a post on that game instead of this one, and I certainly should acknowledge that System Shock is telling a story in which violence does fit. (Though both games also have their horror nods.) Looking back to the mixture of genres that are present in System Shock, though: I’d like to see experiments with different weightings of those genres / themes / techniques.

A great game, at any rate, and one I’m glad to have replayed.

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