Missing in Action: System Shock

Posted: June 6, 2011 in Missing In Action, PC, Retro
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Sometimes a game is only as good as its villain. And in the ’90s, we had some great ones. Kane, Kefka, Natla, and LeChuck all spring to mind. And then, of course, there’s SHODAN.

There are times when I still wake up sweating and scared with SHODAN’s voice in my head. That’s not a joke. A few months back I woke up when my clock radio burst on with static and distortion and a rather husky-voiced female disc jockey. It’s one of those oh crap moments that’s completely irrational (no pun intended) to those who didn’t play the games.

To start, the original System Shock was developed by Looking Glass and produced by Warren Spector (of Deus Ex, Ultima Underworld, and recently Epic Mickey fame), who had previously worked on the Ultima games, and System Shock was a spiritual successor to the first-person Ultima Underworld in particular. The original floppy disk version was reasonably well received, but it received a major shot in the arm when the CD version came out, featuring digitized speech that really upped the ante, in no small part thanks to Terri Brosius’ performance as SHODAN. The voice was enhanced with stutters and pitchshifts, making it sound like your SoundBlaster was getting ready to go supernova every time she talked.

The player was cast as a hacker hired by TriOptimum Corporation to hack the resident AI of Citadel Station – SHODAN. From here, all hell breaks loose. SHODAN goes rampant, power hungry, with the desire to rule the world universe.


It also had the cool addition of a cyberspace world. The internet was new to most of us then, and we visualised cyberspace as more of a virtual reality than just a fancy term for the interwebs. More William Gibson than Bill Gates, you see. This was a cool feature where you could move freely in three dimensions, not constrained by physics like ordinary space marines, MIT grads, or men in diving suits.

The game did well enough to warrant a sequel several years later by the upstart Irrational Games. However, the game was released in the wake of Half-Life’s earth-shattering success and went largely unnoticed until BioShock was released in 2007 and billed as a spiritual successor to System Shock. While it certainly took a lot from System Shock (and Irrational won’t let you forget that they made System Shock 2), let’s just say that Atlas/Fontaine didn’t make quite the impression that SHODAN did. In addition, the RPG elements were largely removed to make the game more palatable to a less hardcore audience and allowed infinite respawns (which certainly was not the case in System Shock 2, as a respawn cost precious nanites).  The game featured RPG mechanics in a first-person shooter format and allowed you to pursue different paths – as a marine, you have better attack power, as a naval officer you have better technical skills, and as an OSA agent you get psionic powers. The game’s complexity gave it replay value and freedom that its successors lack. The only down note System Shock 2 hits is a cheesy, terribly conceived ending that reeks of being rushed out the door and meddled with by executives. But I won’t hold that against it. I was so exhausted by the end of the game that I could forgive the fact that the main character’s only dialogue is a flat “Nah”.

The funny thing is, Electronic Arts, who now owns the System Shock trademark, seems to be completely oblivious to the fact that anyone is interested in the property (and consequently seems oblivious to 2K’s critical and commercial success with System Shock Under The Sea easytype). They’ve renewed the trademark, but don’t seem that interested in making a new game. There have been rumors floating around that Dead Space started out as System Shock 3, but the fact that their links are tenuous at best (only linked by the fact that they’re sci-fi/horror-themed games set in space) doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in this rumor.

Until recently, EA seemed intent on ignoring all the properties it got from companies it merged with, such as Wing Commander, Ultima, and Crusader. However, it seems with their recent action of offering their classics on GoG.com…Is it possible that a revival of classic franchises could be ahead? Well, I’d certainly like to think so.

A cult following has sprung up around the two System Shock games. It’s a strange world to live in where these two games, so little known by the mainstream, have influenced so much. Warren Spector used his experience working on the original System Shock to create his own spiritual successor (and masterwork in its own right), Deus Ex. Irrational used a simplified System Shock to rake in awards and acclaim it probably should have received seven years earlier.

And don’t get me started on the people who always want to bring up GLaDOS when you bring up SHODAN as an AI villain. Don’t bring it up. DON’T. Just don’t. You still want me to? Let me put it this way: GLaDOS made one person’s life moderately hellsih for a few hours. SHODAN created her own beings, warped reality, and pretty much achieved godhood. The only other AI in her class is Marathon‘s resident magnificent bastard Durandal.

Seriously, why didn’t anyone have the idea to set up SHODAN and Durandal? They’d make a perfect couple as megalomaniacal artificial intelligences go, and they did both end up in the Tau Ceti system…I just realized that I’m shipping and I’ll stop NOW. You know, before I upset SHODAN and she repurposes me. As a blender or something.

So the final question is simply: where is our perfect, immortal machine, EA? Certainly somewhere in the endless schedule of Maddens and Medal of Honors you guys pump out you have some room for a prestige franchise, am I right? Let’s face it: neither Dead Space nor BioShock are replacements for System Shock, especially as Dead Space is becoming an excellent franchise in its own right and BioShock is…not System Shock. It lacks the cyberpunk feel and themes that give the series its meaty backdrop, and while its production values are through the roof, you can’t replace the future with retrofuturism and call it the same thing (which I have a feeling is going to hit 2K really hard when XCOM comes out).

And one more thing, EA! It better be difficult. None of that easy, linear stuff…we expect something great.

And if you want my opinion…sure, this is coming from a Warren Spector and Ultima Underworld fanboy but…the first game is better. The second is good but…I just like it better.

Well, until the time comes that SHODAN returns…


  1. Gregg B says:

    Fine words Chad and this is probably the first article I’ve read that mentions Shock 2’s woeful ending. I’ve yet to play the first game properly but of what I played (while it worked on XP) I enjoyed. I’m amazed at how claustrophobic it still feels, pixelated sprites, heavy interface and all.

    I didn’t enjoy Bioshock nearly as much as Shock 2 though for the reasons you mention. It felt too simple, safe and inconsequential. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great game, but it lost so much of what made Shock 2 so compelling.

    I think my biggest fear with there being a System Shock 3 is the prospect of Shodan losing her edge. The Xenomorph has become progressively less scary with every AvP game. I wouldn’t want that to happen to our favourite megalomaniacal AI.

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