We’re digging into the PC Gamer archives to post items from years gone by. This article was originally published in PC Gamer issue 182, Christmas 2007.
In the summer of 1994, everyone was excited about Doom 2. Everyone was wrong. The only game that mattered was System Shock.
It was a defining game for me and the handful of others who played it. Doom 2 was fun, but System Shock changed our perception of what a game could be. It was a big step up from Ultima Underworld, with its physics system, realistic textured environments, complex AI, and an eerie, terrifying story of isolation and persecution aboard a sinister space station. It was my first encounter with the megalomaniac SHODAN computer and I will never forget it.
Some players were confused and disappointed by the poor opening. The shabby medical bays felt rather bland compared to Doom 2’s gothic techno strongholds, and beating a service bucket to death with a stick didn’t seem as exciting as hitting high notes with a close-range shot. There may not have been a great sense of urgency during opening hours, but it wasn’t about a great adrenaline release. System Shock was a slow creation, a growing awareness of the scale of the catastrophe and horror. You really were in the middle of something terrible.
Even though System Shock has never been able to provide a live chat NPC, you almost always expected to meet one. Indeed, everything else about the game was so spectacularly ahead of the curve that it seemed inevitable that someone would be around the corner – 2004’s Alyx Vance or something. Indeed, you even started receiving messages from just such a character. And while you’ve never met – never could have met – her story was convincing enough and moving enough to make you curse the malign power of SHODAN and her robots. Worse was to come.
While you never see another living person, they are brought to life by their journals and diary entries. This is what inspired BioShock to create its own series of voice recordings, and for those people lucky enough to buy a CD rather than a System Shock floppy, they were revealing. Competent acting with CD-quality playback: This was a huge leap forward for its time and brought game audio into the present day.
Even with its graphically primitive presentation, System Shock delivered the most believable, detailed environments we’ve ever seen. Every one of them was perfectly prepared—the grand airlocks of the spaceport section, the clumsy jungles of biospheres, and the startling elegance of the executive suites. More than BioShock’s Rapture, System Shock’s space station gave a strong impression of a working thing – a device for life in space.
The structure of the game underlined this: you frantically flitted back and forth between different zones, desperately trying to break SHODAN’s control and ultimately save both yourself and the planet full of people towards which the deadly station was headed.
It was an escalation story. You start by knocking over zombies and rummaging through the trash of a ruined space station; soon you will be exploring the insides of a supercomputer with destructive intent. You run the gamut of feelings, from amazement to horror and revenge. And finally, a dizzying run through the collapsing station to the beast’s brainstem – SHODAN. After years of playing FPS games that end on a low end, you might be forgiven for thinking there weren’t great FPS endings out there. System Shock tells us otherwise.
Most importantly, the SS made you feel vulnerable. This is not the story of the superhuman warrior from the Doom games, this is the story of a man. Sure, you can plug into computers to play cyberspace subgames, but you’re still a person who can walk, bend, crawl, climb, fall, and die all too easily.
System Shock may lack graphic brilliance by today’s standards, but its realism and humanity has reached a level as high as any game in the last few decades.
The interface now feels primitive, mainly because it is mouseless. The visuals are also difficult for modern eyes. But the beast’s mighty musculature remains: the story, with its excellent pace and wild crescendo, still beats anything we can play today. If BioShock had repeated the System Shock story, bit by bit, it probably would have scored even higher.
The man we have to thank for all this was Doug Church. Truly, Church is one of the fathers of games. His vision of what was needed to create intelligent FPS games inspired Warren Spector to create Deus Ex and Ken Levine to create BioShock. Without Church’s stubborn vision and deep understanding of the possibilities of games, we wouldn’t be living in the same gaming world today. Thanks Doug, I think you saved us all.