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.