The Shock Series, as I am going to refer to it, has a long, sordid, constantly evolving history, but one that’s nevertheless connected by the same themes of exploration, immersive environments, mind as well as gunplay, and that certain five-letter word beginning with ‘s’… so let’s have a look at it eh?
We start right at the very beginning with a company called Looking Glass Studios. You may not have heard of them since they folded in 2000, but their work influenced a vast number of the games you enjoy today. If you name a popular modern game there’s a good chance the games of Looking Glass influenced it in some way. Any title that relies on creating an interesting world, emergent story-based gameplay, or the idea that games can be about more than shooting things… thank Looking Glass for that.
A short list of titles directly influenced by games created by the studio: the Elder Scrolls series, Deus Ex, Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell, Dishonored, Tribes, Halo, Portal, Dead Space, and of course Bioshock. They themselves are best known for Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Thief. You probably just said “Madden 13” earlier with a smirk on your face didn’t you? You’re right, they didn’t influence Madden…
After developing Ultima Underworld and its sequel (and systematically creating Skyrim twenty years too early), key members of Looking Glass (including Warren “Deus Ex” Spector and Doug “just worked on Portal 2” Church) sat down to create their next “immersive simulation game”. After briefly considering an offshoot of the Wing Commander series like they did with Ultima Underworld, they decided on a new science-fiction IP so they would have total control. That game was System Shock.
The beginnings of all the Shock games (barring possibly Bioshock Infinite which we’ll get to) are the same. After a brief intro to the world the player finds themselves alone in a strange, unfamiliar world with no knowledge of what’s going on – but clearly something terrible has happened. They have to piece together the events leading to that place’s downfall (usually through audio logs) and escape with their lives, which won’t be easy as the place’s many weird and terrifying inhabitants are hunting them… not to mention the all-seeing malevolent intelligence watching and commenting on their every move.
System Shock is set in 2072 aboard Citadel Station, a space city above Saturn. After a hacker attempts to break into the station’s security he’s made an offer by a TriOptimum (the huge corporation who runs the station) executive named Edward Diego. He hacks into SHODAN, Citadel’s AI, freeing it from ethics and morals and giving control (he thinks) to Diego.
As part of the deal Diego allows the hacker to be fitted with military-grade cybernetic implants, a process that takes six months. After waking up on Citadel the hacker discovers that SHODAN has gone mad, believing herself to be a god, and converted many of the crew into mutants or cyborgs. He eventually manages to foil SHODAN’s plans to destroy the Earth and defeat her in cyberspace… unless of course you pressed the wrong button and blew up Earth yourself,
Apart from the notoriously obtuse control system the main thing of note when playing System Shock now (
Unlike its more popular sequel there are no RPG elements barring an inventory, resurrection stations are still around, and your main purpose is to explore the environment in first-person while feeling constantly watched and being on your toes. Cameras have to be taken care of, catching your enemy by surprise is often a better option than wading in, audio logs tell the story, a mysterious and possibly untrustworthy voice guides you, hacking is a fun minigame (although at its most expansive here in the form of Cyberspace), and a feeling of dread pervades. The only thing missing is special offensive powers, which are still to come in the Shock series.
The main thing System Shock is remembered fondly for is of course SHODAN, your omnipresent opponent and arguably gaming’s greatest villain thanks to the way she haunts your every move and matter-of-factly discusses your imminent death. The calm and glitchy voice of Terri Brosius appears regularly to taunt or threaten the player and is the very clear precursor to the likes of Portal’s GLaDOS and Andrew Ryan.
Particular highlights for me include when SHODAN warns you several times to
Sales of System Shock were good but not spectacular and Looking Glass moved on to other projects, such as classic stealth title Thief: The Dark Project. During its development a lot of the team, including Ken Levine, Jonathan Frey and Robert Fermier (the last two both worked on System Shock) left to form a new studio called Irrational Games.
Their first title would be a collaboration with their colleagues at Looking Glass, and when asked what that title should be the new team unanimously decreed “System Shock 2”. They almost couldn’t though and started work on a “spiritual successor” to the series (called Junction Point) before EA signed on as publisher, bringing the rights to the series with them. Using Thief’s Dark Engine, the game was begun in 1997 and released in 1999.
System Shock 2 is set 42 years after the first game. Earth’s first faster-than-light ship, the Von Braun, embarks upon its maiden voyage with your anonymous soldier in cryosleep. Upon waking you find the ship in chaos, with most of the crew transformed into monsters. Following the help from apparent survivor Dr Janice Polito you make your way through the ship and the forces of The Many, an organic hive-mind the Von Braun apparently encountered on its journey. I won’t spoil the 15-year-old twist, but of course SHODAN is involved and actually allies with you to defeat The Many.
Gameplay had advanced since the first Shock. Improvements include a proper control scheme reminiscent of Thief (with an extra overlay called up at the press of a button to manage your inventory, logs, map etc), a simpler hacking minigame, prettier graphics and better atmosphere, plus less confusing level design. It’s also deeper, bringing RPG-style player upgrades, weapon upgrades, psychic powers, the ability to do research, and a more interesting story. It also had psychic monkeys, mutants who would apologise before bashing your head in, explosive C-3P0s, terrifying cyborg nursemaids, and those f***ing wasps.
System Shock 2 is still considered one of the greatest games of all time, but despite massive acclaim it sold incredibly poorly – roughly 58,671 copies, half of what its predecessor did. The game was never re-released, Irrational split from EA, and the rights were lost in a legal quagmire. It was minor miracle last month when
Around 2003-2004, after they had shipped the superhero ARPG Freedom Force and Looking Glass had sadly folded mid-Thief 3 (the baton for that series would pass to Warren Spector’s new home at Ion Storm), Irrational began development on their planned next game in the Shock series.
With System Shock lost to them they began work on that “spiritual successor” they’d talked about – but this time they’d make a proper break from space and go with somewhere more earthbound, yet just as unearthly. Ideas came and went daily, like a political-minded “cult deprogrammer” player character, a Nazi bunker filled with monstrous experiments, and gangs of roving gatherer chipmunks accompanied by robot slug-guys (seriously).
Eventually the ideas coalesced. A ‘50s-set art deco and Ayn Rand-inspired dystopian city under the sea came into being, with the various monsters turning decidedly more humanoid, the chipmunks becoming Little Sisters and the slug-robots becoming Big Daddies. The story involved player character Jack surviving a plane crash and finding a strange lighthouse that takes him to Andrew Ryan’s city of Rapture, after reckless experiments and flawed ideals have left it a madhouse of glass. Sizeable twists await, including one that shocked gamers everywhere (and another that was familiar to fans of the previous Shock game).
Irrational gave their all to make Bioshock, included the massive gamble of selling their company to 2K, but when the game shipped in 2007 it was to critical and, for the first time in series, commercial acclaim. Fantastic level design, wondrous environments, and careful simplification of the System Shock 2 gameplay and controls to make Bioshock more of a shooter, and less of a complicated RPG, which helped it appeal to all.
Nevertheless, underneath it was decidedly part of the Shock series. Exploring was still more important than shooting, “Plasmids” replaced the psychic powers, survival was paramount, ghosts and security cameras still watched the halls, the environment felt like a fully-realised world (with cute vending machines), and those blasted wasps were back (although at least you can fire them too). Once more you entered a world after some great calamity had torn it apart, and once more you were watched by an unforgiving mastermind. Oh, and there was another hacking minigame.
After this renewal of faith, the Shock series underwent something of a three-way split. Irrational turned down a straight sequel to develop their own new title, a new team was formed called 2K Marin to tackle a return to Rapture, and EA seemed buoyed by Bioshock’s success to start their internal development team EA Redwood Shores working on System Shock 3.
While EA’s project would disappear, another game with many suspiciously similar themes to System Shock would show up in 2008 by the same team (now called Visceral Games) - Dead Space. While third-person Dead Space shared many traits with System Shock, such as being set on a space station after a great calamity turns the crew into monsters, a reliance on audio logs and emails to tell the backstory, an overwhelming sense of oppressive claustrophobic horror, the Necromorphs being very similar to SS2’s The Many, and an important basketball court.
With System Shock not making a comeback instead 2K Marin’s Bioshock 2 in 2010 would continue the exploits in Rapture ten years after the first game. The team was led by Jordan Thomas, a veteran designer behind great levels such as Thief: Deadly Shadows’ ‘The Cradle’ and Bioshock’s ‘Fort Frolic’. The story involved the player taking the role of one of the first Big Daddies (Subject Delta) in the search for the grown-up Little Sister he was bonded to, Eleanor Lamb. It remains ambiguous whether she is actually his daughter, but her mother Sofia Lamb is now in control of Rapture and has recaptured and retooled the Little Sisters saved in the first Bioshock into the deadly Big Sisters – and they will try and stop you getting Eleanor at any cost.
Bioshock 2 sold well and was generally praised, although was also criticised for being a very “safe” sequel that merely continued the story from the first game rather than massively overturn it. The biggest surprise came in the addition of multiplayer (although not the first in the Shock series to do so since System Shock 2 had patched-in co-op) set during Rapture’s fall, with seven different modes to choose from, however while generally fun the online was largely overlooked when the game released – much like Dead Space 2’s coincidentally.
That wouldn’t be the end of the Rapture story however. After a few multiplayer and challenge-centric DLC packs finally came Minerva’s Den, a proper new single-player chapter for Bioshock 2. It featured the same controls and style as its parent game but with a brand new character, story, and sector of Rapture. It also introduces, in a nod to the series’ past, an advanced AI called The Thinker who oversees Rapture. With a great deal of exploration value and a wonderful story, Minerva’s Den is a fitting and poignant end to the Rapture part of the Shock series – and it certainly shouldn’t be overlooked or not considered a “proper” Shock just because it’s only DLC.
Finally we come to Irrational’s project, after the studio changed names to 2K Boston and then back to Irrational Games again. The game was revealed shortly after the release of Bioshock 2 as Bioshock Infinite, bringing the new setting of the floating city of Columbia to the Shock series. It would do away with two mainstays of the series: the lonely silent protagonist, and his arrival post-disaster. For the first time players would explore the environment during the calamity that rips the place apart, watching and taking part in its downfall. Apart from interacting with citizens of Columbia player character Booker DeWitt actually has a companion, Elizabeth, who drives the narrative.
After a long wait Bioshock Infinite is out March 26th, and we really can’t say more than that since any supposition will probably turn out to be wildly inaccurate – hell, for all we know SHODAN is running Columbia as well as the Vox Populi.
Upon being asked in an interview what defines a Shock game, Ken Levine stated that they were “a concept conjoined by two ideas: the exploration of a fantastical setting, and the use of a large number of tools and abilities in creative manners to survive… combining shooting, character growth, deep environmental storytelling, and a superpower beyond shooting”, not to mention being shocked by the setting and the events that took place in them. Despite having differences to previous games Bioshock Infinite clearly seems to fit into that description just as well as System Shock.
Of course there’s also the proposed Playstation Vita Bioshock title, but as that handheld is struggling badly that game’s almost certainly dead in the water (ho ho). We’ll be back soon to spread the word on Bioshock Infinite, but whether it sells a billion or 58,671 copies I think we can rest assured that while the return of SHODAN, Rapture, or even Columbia isn’t guaranteed, it won’t be the last we hear of the Shock series. Insect.