System Shock Dev Credits This Game For Saving Horror

By | 10/09/2022

Organization Daze 2: How an underfunded and inexperienced team birthed a PC classic

(Image credit: Irrational Games)

For me, Organisation Daze 2 is one of the all-time greats. Tying together sharp storytelling, taut gunplay and RPG character evolution, all assault a claustrophobic spaceship that drips with horror-inflected tension, it was the gateway to the immersive sim classics to come, such as BioShock, Dishonored, and Casualty. For its makers, though, Organisation Shock ii was a test.

Folio turner

(Prototype credit: Future)

This article was originally published in PC Gamer magazine. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, yous can subscribe now in the U.k.
(opens in new tab)
 and the United states
(opens in new tab)

Information technology was the showtime project by a new studio called Irrational Games, a risk to prove it could deliver a game that matched the calibre of Looking Glass, the programmer of the original System Shock, Thief, and other PC classics. “Information technology was probably the well-nigh pressure I’ve felt in my life,” says Jonathan Chey, ane of its three atomic number 82 developers. “My strongest motivation was non wanting to look like a fool, because we’d never done anything like this before in our lives.”

Now, over 20 years later on, Chey can say the take chances worked. System Shock 2’south sci-fi horror adventure made Irrational Games’ proper name, laying the foundation for a future in which information technology would make the likes of SWAT 4, Liberty Strength and, of course, BioShock, and lately, Chey has establish himself returning to it for inspiration. At the time, though, information technology didn’t quite light up the charts. Sure, it was critically lauded, but for Chey and his beau founders, Ken Levine and Rob Fermier, it was just enough.

(Paradigm credit: Irrational Games)

These three developers, two programmers and a writer, met after joining Looking Glass, where Fermier had worked on the first System Shock. Ken Levine had contributed to Thief: The Dark Project’s initial story and design, while Chey programmed for Thief and Flying Unlimited 2. They were immature and not terribly experienced, and they wanted to found their own company. But they had already learned something of import from Looking Glass.

“They weren’t a company that did small, highly polished products,” says Chey. “They were a visitor that did vast, sprawling, ambitious things that always overreached. That’southward one of the things nosotros really loved about their games, and we inherited that kind of ambition and mode of working, which was to do things that were probably—well, definitely—well beyond what was realistically achievable with the budget and fourth dimension and personnel that were available. That’s how we were taught to make games, and the only style we knew to make games.”

They decided on a name (rejecting Chocolate Milk Productions and Underwater Equus caballus) and scored a bargain with French publisher Cyro to create a singleplayer entrada for an isometric activity game called FireTeam. Merely they were left hanging when Cyro decided to make the game multiplayer-only. Fortunately, they’d stayed friends with their former employers, who rescued them with a huge opportunity: a sequel to System Stupor, the already celebrated showtime-person sci-fi RPG which Looking Glass had released in 1994. “We were given an enormous corporeality of responsibility, and for non very good reasons,” says Chey.

(Image credit: Irrational Games)

The team took a couple of rooms in Looking Glass’ function, some staff, the Dark engine, which was still under evolution for Thief, and a meagre budget of $700,000. “The whole development process was u.s. pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, non a very big budget, and trying to put together a team and run a project and practice things we’d never done before,” says Chey. “So most of the fourth dimension we were only trying to stay afloat, and to come up up with good ideas. Nosotros certainly didn’t have expectations about producing something that people would really enjoy, though of class yous’re ever hoping for the best.”

Graphic symbol-building

Only the squad worked well together, dividing up responsibilities so that Chey managed the project, Levine was in charge of design and story, and Fermier was in charge of engineering. And they all agreed on a very clear vision for what they wanted to make: a worthy follow-upwardly to the original System Shock but with a stronger story and a greater focus on character building and mechanical progression. “System Shock was possibly trying to be a flake cleverer than we were,” says Chey. “It was trying to innovate on nigh every front, whereas we kept a lot of the core principles, and and then layered more conventional RPG systems on top.”

System Shock, after all, had transposed Ultima Underworld’southward pioneering fully 3D outset-person roleplaying to a sci-fi setting but a year after Doom’s release. Trapped on a space station which had been taken over past SHODAN, its now-homicidal AI, your task was to explore its tightly wound decks, fight cyborgs, solve puzzles, and envelop yourself in net, in order to stop information technology firing a mining laser on World. There was a lot going on in System Shock. You could even play lilliputian games of Pong and Missile Control in its UI windows if you lot wanted.

But though it had evolved from an RPG, Arrangement Shock focused on action and gave little opportunity to develop your grapheme. A door was left wide open for Irrational to build on it. “I guess we figured out a little earlier than some other people that it was very easy to add RPG mechanics to all kinds of existing game types, and that in doing and then you made the game much richer,” says Chey. And so in System Shock 2 y’all level up your diverse skills—hacking, energy weapons, psionic powers—and attributes with the Cybernetic Modules you’re rewarded with and find scattered around the decks of its setting, the science ship Von Braun. Yous observe nanites, which are a currency for buying items from Replicators and paying for hacking into terminals and locked crates. Y’all tin can also choose between some powerful O/S Upgrades.

(Image credit: Irrational Games)

These systems let you create with a adept degree of liberty your own character build every bit you run through the Von Braun: do you want to be psi-powered adept, or a soldier? A hacker and repair expert? The multiple ways of facing the storyline’s challenges prefigured the similar focus on stats and skills that came in Deus Ex in the following yr.

Although they were a big part of Organization Shock 2’s entreatment to players, for Chey its RPG features were simply a product of the budget he had to work with. Having seen One-half-Life release during development, he knew that they didn’t have a chance of building a game with annihilation like the sophistication of its AI or its scripted in-engine narrative sequences. “We had to do things that were relatively inexpensive to implement,” he says. “RPG mechanics are quite cheap to build and they’re very satisfying.”

Levine’s story, meanwhile, would have to exist told through emails and vocalization recordings, just as they were in the first System Shock. It’southward incomparably functional, but the way it’south delivered within the fiction of the world gives immediacy to a tale in which SHODAN is at present on your side—or so it appears—equally you both battle a worse threat. As she snipes and chastises you for not performing her tasks fast enough, System Shock two sets upward a theme about player agency which Levine would become on to play with in the excellent BioShock.

(Paradigm credit: Irrational Games)

Just for all Arrangement Shock 2’south achievements and legacy, information technology was a stepping stone. Chey feels its sales potential was hampered past its budget, and the studio’s fortunes were hampered past a deal they’d struck with Looking Drinking glass which meant that fifty-fifty if it was a striking, Irrational wouldn’t have made much money out of it. “God knows what our royalty percentage was,” says Chey. “I’yard sure it was tiny. Nosotros had no expectations of becoming rich. Our strategy was, let’s brand a really great game to set united states of america upward every bit a developer that people would want to piece of work with in the future and so we could cut a better deal for our next product.”

I don’t regard BioShock equally dumbed-downwardly. I regard it as a much more accessible version and, in fact, much smarter nearly a lot of things.

Jonathan Chey

Sure enough, the studio’s side by side game—Freedom Forcefulness, which Chey directed—got a much bigger budget. “We were able to spend a bit more than time and we weren’t quite so much against the wall.” And eventually, after Tribes: Vengeance and SWAT four, they commanded enough coin to make BioShock, which added big-budget presentation and sanded downwardly some of System Shock ii’s rougher edges (inventory system, interface, weapon degradation).

“Some people, I’chiliad sure, would think it was dumbing downwards the product, but I don’t regard BioShock as dumbed-downward. I regard it as a much more than accessible version and, in fact, much smarter about a lot of things. There was a lot to larn from System Daze 2. We’d thrown a lot of things together very rapidly and some of them worked actually well, and some of them didn’t.” BioShock was the studio’due south first true hit.

(Image credit: Blue Manchu)

Chey left Irrational in 2009 and founded a new company called Blue Manchu. Its first game was something completely different, the excellent collectible card-cum-plow- based strategy game Card Hunter. But as he began to plan its second, Chey replayed System Daze. He establish himself enjoying its gainsay and the mode monsters roam the ship, but didn’t like the way that there’s trivial betoken in revisiting cleared areas of the ship. And then at the core of Void Bastards, the rogue-like first-person shooter his studio released in 2019, Chey was exploring System Shock 2’due south combat more deeply, translating many of its simulation-based features, such as the manner monsters respond to audio, lockable doors, and a wide toolset of weapons and traps, into endless procedurally built levels.

“A lot of it felt very similar to make,” he says. “I concluded upwards writing some of the same code I wrote most 20 years before.” And he’s been revisiting System Shock 2 in some other manner, too. I of his favourite games of the past decade is The Fable of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, in which he tin see echoes of the System Shock series in the way its systems interact, such as rolling physics assurance down hills and using the Rune abilities. “I felt that the designers must have played some of the games nosotros worked on, or the games that influenced us, and considering I loved that game so much, that was a wonderful feeling. I of the [almost] satisfying things well-nigh existence a creative developer is feeling you lot’re role of the ever-growing land of the fine art.”