Thirteen Years Later, System Shock 2 Lives Again

Mass Effect, Dead Space, BioShock, Borderlands, Fallout 3 -- if you've played any of these modern shooters, you've felt the influence of System Shock 2. Now, you can actually play it.

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Mass Effect, Dead Space, BioShock, Borderlands, Fallout 3 – if you’ve played any of these modern shooters, you’ve felt the influence of System Shock 2. Now, you can actually play it.

Starting Thursday, GOG.com, a website that specializes in selling old computer games optimized for modern PCs, will sell System Shock 2 for $10. At a time when games are routinely repackaged and re-sold, this might not seem special. But until now, a mess of rights issues have prevented the game from ever coming back after its 1999 debut. Finally, a game that’s widely seen as one of the best will get its chance to stand the test of time.

It’s a topic that’s dear to my heart, as someone who experienced the game’s psychological thrills more than decade ago. Although the original System Shock, released in 1994, paved the way for shooters with role-playing elements, System Shock 2 took it all a step further. It gave you a choice of specializations — guns, hacking or psionics — and let you build upon those skills, which in turn changed the way you played the game. That’s no monumental feat today, but in the age of twitchy shooters like Quake and Unreal, an extra layer of role-playing was practically unheard of.

And it was such a creepy game, set in a desolate space station overrun by monsters, with only scattered audio logs telling the story of what went wrong. (That idea, of discovering little bits of exposition on your own, has also been duplicated countless times.) SHODAN, the cerebral digital entity that taunts the player at every turn, routinely finds her way onto lists of the best video game villains.

A couple years ago, I wrote about the rights issues that prevented System Shock from making any sort of comeback. The short version is that the rights were split up between Electronic Arts, which held the trademark to the series, and developer Looking Glass Studios. When Looking Glass shut down, its rights went into the hands of Star Insurance Company and its affiliate, Meadowbrook Insurance, where they’ve remained to this day. BioShock, billed as a “spiritual successor” to System Shock, is the closest there ever was to another sequel.

According to Rock Paper Shotgun, an independent company called Night Dive Studios did the legwork on securing the rights to distribute System Shock 2, while modifying it to work on today’s PCs. The studio has not announced any other projects, but CEO Stephen Kick said Night Dive is working on something original, while also looking for other old games to bring back.

What does that mean for the future of System Shock? That’s tricky to say. Trevor Longino, a spokesman for GOG.com, told me that the rights “remain tangled,” and he couldn’t say whether a System Shock 3 would be possible.

George Borkowski, a lawyer for Star and Meadowbrook, and a partner at Freeman, Freeman & Smiley LLP, made it seem simpler. In an e-mail, he claimed that Star owns all the rights to System Shock 2, including the trademark, and that EA’s rights reverted back to Looking Glass years ago.

“Star Insurance Company is open to the idea of developing a sequel to System Shock 2,” Borkowski said in an e-mail.

I’ve asked Stephen Kick for clarification on why he still sees the rights issue as a tangled mess, as he described it to Rock Paper Shotgun, and what he thinks the future holds for System Shock, and will update if I hear back.

There’s just one other lingering question, and it may be the toughest one to answer: Would an entirely new System Shock be a big deal anymore for any reason but nostalgia? So many of its ideas — the RPG elements, the haunting atmosphere, the trail of breadcrumb storytelling — have been adopted by newer games. Part of me worries that its trailblazing reputation may be forever mired in the past. But at least now, we can relive it.

8 comments
amarand
amarand

"Would an entirely new System Shock be a big deal anymore for any reason but nostalgia?"

I asked myself the same question before the latest Deus Ex remix (Deus Ex: Human Revolution) was released over ten years after the original game. It's amazing to think that 2000 and 2003 were "forever ago" in terms of gaming, but two things that rarely ever change are good storytelling and human psychology/physiology.

It's funny to think back to - and even now experience with this re-release - how choppy 3D rendering engines and low-fidelity sound effects could still keep people engaged for hours at a time, hating to even take breaks.  The same could be true for the better, classic 2D games.  They have good storytelling that pulls you into the world and, even a few pixels on the screen can relate, in our minds, to something amazing in our imagination.

I think the only difference between what we're playing right now, versus what we played before, is that some of the required imagination is removed from the equation - or shifted to the developer - with hyper-realistic sound effects and visuals, you don't have to guess what someone looks like, what they sound like when they talk, or how interactions with the fantasy world turn out.  My only concern is that, for many game players, individuals' imaginations can sometimes be far more powerful than anything designed by committee in an Electronic Arts boardroom or in demographic focus groups. Sometimes, the original "vision" of a game is lost in a blast of Hollywood pyrotechnic explosions and 7.1 Dolby Digital sound effects.

Having said that, I was pretty happy with the latest in the Deus Ex franchise and would love to see a remake of System Shock.  A Kickstarter project would probably earn hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars.  :)

EliasSideras
EliasSideras

"Would an entirely new System Shock be a big deal anymore for any reason but nostalgia? So many of its ideas — the RPG elements, the haunting atmosphere, the trail of breadcrumb storytelling — have been adopted by newer games."
Yes, but SHODAN hasn't.


AlanVillarreal
AlanVillarreal

"“Star Insurance Company is open to the idea of developing a sequel to System Shock 2,” I smell a Kickstarter! Lets make it happen! It would fund well

chainlinkspiral
chainlinkspiral

The sound design on this game is incredible, which compensates some for the graphics, which are serviceable, but clunky. I've only put a couple hours into the GOG.com version, but on a modern system, it's optimized and includes some of the best community content and updates. The bonus features are, well, a bonus. For ten dollars, this is more gaming masterpiece than I was expecting, and makes the recent release and fiasco of Aliens: Colonial Marines look trite and embarrassing. Ken Levine and team went on to refine the experience with the Bioshocks, but this is the original, well, 2.0. Now I want some of the other LGS games. Terra Nova, and co. are due for a renaissance. 

FrankHolman
FrankHolman

Some of the older games were the best....now games focus so much on the graphics and the atmosphere that they get the story lines.  I am a gamer from way back and I enjoyed the text adventures that let you create your own pictures.....back in the day when computers were nw

PhilipWheat
PhilipWheat

I remember the original and the work done to update the graphics.  An incredible game that really has influenced generations of following releases and still is a great story to go through.  Best played in a darkened room - best horror movie you'll play to date.

ralphlelliot
ralphlelliot

Such a good game, have fond memories of playing this. The System Shock games helped define several game genres.

EliasSideras
EliasSideras

@AlanVillarreal The only way this would be done properly is if Ken Levine and IG make the game and that is assuming Levine is still motivated to do it.