Legends of Gaming: System Shock

By Steve "Grimoire" Wood
eXscape Reviewer
June 7th, 1998


Long, long ago -- before computers could reliably run anything in 640x480 at playable frame-rates -- a company called Looking Glass produced what remains possibly the finest example of the single-character first-person-perspective 3d-adventure game. The game was called System Shock.

System Shock had a game universe so completely realized that it showed up in three other games. The dark, corporation-run setting showed up twice in the isometric shooters of the Crusader Series, and once in the 3rd-person perspective action-adventure BioForge. The game was released by Origin after Looking Glass finished Ultima Underworld and there were many refinements Looking Glass made to the interface and engine after Underworld.

Unlike more recent 3d First-Person games, System Shock wasn't about running around with a gun and splashing alien juices all over the walls. System Shock was about stealth and planning. Your character wasn't some trained commando with superhuman pain tolerance and a constitution worthy of Rambo. You played the Hacker -- a wimp and a weasel who had little trouble selling out to corporate interests just to get a bit of restricted cybernetic hardware to play with.

The focus on stealth and strategy was achieved by providing the player with almost complete control over their character's movements. Not only could characters run, jump and duck, they could crawl, lie down, lean around corners or stand on their toes. Players could throw things in realistic trajectories, or push objects around without picking them up. All this control made rapid action complicated, so it was better for players to tread lightly and plan their attacks to avoid too much running and spinning.

Looking Glass added a wonderful system of puzzles to the game. At the beginning of the game the station had only two intelligent beings on it, the Hacker and SHODAN (As far as you know). Everyone else was either dead, mutated or was inducted into the cyborg population by SHODAN. When the game started, SHODAN knew all about the Hacker but the Hacker knew almost nothing about what was going on around the station. Players had to collect information from personal logs scattered around the station. Piecing together this information eventually outlined a plan to disable SHODAN which only the Hacker was in a position to implement. In addition to tracking down this critical information, the player had to disarm traps, activate doors, platforms, lights and bridges, navigate radioactive corridors and out-think the nefarious minions of SHODAN. Occasionally, progress required a trip into Cyberspace, which utilized an entirely different sort of 3d interface and produced some of the most disorienting visuals ever seen in a computer game.

In some ways, these design elements were a result of the technology of the time. When the game was released, if you had a 486 you were a power user (and even the 486 had some problems running System Shock at it's prettiest settings). Since the three dimensional setting and interface System Shock used was pushing the hardware almost as far as it could go, the designers couldn't base the game on endless, fast-paced action. Gamers just didn't have the horsepower.

Instead, Looking Glass put together a great plot I still expect to see adapted for film. Players awoke trapped onboard a space-station with a monomaniacal machine intelligence named SHODAN. SHODAN was the best thing Looking Glass could have put in the game, because she changed the focus of gameplay. Instead of competing against other, mobile creatures in a static environment, the player had to deal with all those creatures in the hostile, reactive environment SHODAN controlled.

SHODAN was probably the best villain to ever show up in a computer game. Unlike the personality-free "bosses" of modern first person shooters, she had real depth of character. She was intelligent, malicious, arrogant and cunning.

In the game, she knew that the Hacker was her only possible threat. At the same time, she knew that without the Hacker, she never would have become self-aware. The fact that the Hacker is partially SHODAN's creator didn't fill her with awe, it disgusted her. In the game, SHODAN feared the Hacker almost as much as she hated him for reminding her that she was created by weak meat-creatures.

What was really amazing about System Shock was that SHODAN's personality came across to the player. People bought into the illusion that SHODAN was a real and malevolent intelligence pitted against them. There were many moments in the game when SHODAN managed to inspire shivers by declaring that the very plan the player was attempting to set in motion was exactly what she expected, and she'd planned something nasty in response. Having your automated opponent in a single-player computer game seem to read your thoughts is creepy, and it's exactly the sort of thing System Shock did over and over again.

Even though the graphics are dated and bit-map 2d monsters have lost the thrill they once held for players, even though the game is mysteriously unstable under windows 95, and even with the complicated interface cramping your ability to run circles around the mutants, System Shock is still worth booting up and playing in a darkened room with the speakers turned up loud enough to hear the mechanical whirr and scuffle of distant mutant-cyborgs moving in for the kill...

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