Through The Looking Glass: Paul Neurath Interviewed

By Cara Ellison on March 11th, 2013 at 4:00 pm.

System Shock 2 AAAAH my CDs

“When the history of my glory is written, your species shall only be a footnote to my magnificence,” said a terrifying lady, yesterday, to me. Or SHODAN did or whatever. But her legacy lives on thanks to the kind of innovation Looking Glass studios was interested in. Paul Neurath, the co-founder and creative director of Looking Glass from ‘the day it opened to the day it closed’ has been interviewed on this super fascinating podcast looking back on his time with the studio. The company was responsible for some of our dearest memories, such as Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Thief, before it closed its doors (sob!) in 2000.

Neurath starts the two hour chat by going over his history starting with Origin, then talks about his involvement with ‘the most successful game [he] worked on': Madden. His relationship with EA also seems particularly interesting – Neurath talks about the business decisions made and how they set the tone for things. Ultima also set the tone, he says, for the later games Looking Glass worked on, and he states that he has spent years trying to get EA to make another Ultima (and hasn’t been successful  because from their perspective it isn’t a big enough franchise).  Neurath explains that he feels that Looking Glass were ‘never well capitalised’, and made a lot of business mistakes, which is a shame because the studio has always been looking to innovate and be original with their games. He also goes on to talk about the huge risks they were taking on creatively, and how he “always thought the games industry could benefit from more innovation” – that he wanted to “create for ourselves the opportunity to do something people haven’t tried before… this publisher cycle of ‘lets do a rehash’…doesn’t move the industry forward”. This warms my cold bionic heart, my puny insect friends.

The podcast is the tenth and last part of a series dedicated to Looking Glass by the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, which focuses on building collaborations between Singapore institutions of higher learning and several MIT departments for research and development. It’s sort of comforting to know that the ivory towers care about this stuff just as much as us peons eh?

With System Shock 2 released on GoG recently, and and Thief 4 screenies leaked, this would make it a nice time to BASK in those memories of the good old days when you were so tense playing games your mum bringing you a cup of tea scared you half bald. Or in my case, so startled me all my Rage Against The Machine CDs fell off the shelf and smashed and then I cried for the rest of the day like a TEENAGE REBEL.

You can see the many questions Adam asked about the new System Shock 2 re-release here and read Alec’s MASSIVELY overexcited yelps over leaked Thief 4 screenshots here. Meanwhile, I am busy trying to digitize my hair so that I can look more SHODANesque. How dare you interrupt my ascendance? You are nothing. A wretched bag of flesh… Pass that Motherboard Green dye please?

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44 Comments »

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  1. Ravenholme says:

    “Or in my case, so startled me all my Rage Against The Machine CDs fell off the shelf and smashed and then I cried for the rest of the day like a TEENAGE REBEL.”

    I remember that phase…

    Great podcast, too

    • SuperNashwanPower says:

      I played a game called Corporation on the Amiga once. I had to stop, because the spiders that latched onto your face were so utterly traumatic I could not proceed. Maybe I had just seen Alien or something. Or, I was an utter wuss.

      To this day I cannot understand why that bothered me so much (3:30 in this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7z-XHHb95QU ).

      • Kefren says:

        Corporation, for all its faults, could be incredibly immersive. Long stretches of quiet and sneaking, knowing death was round the corner. No wonder those things made us jump.

    • Ashley_Hoskin says:

      like Samuel said I didnt know that some people able to get paid $4820 in 1 month on the internet. did you look at this webpage… http://zapit.nu/30J

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    cpt_freakout says:

    I laughed a lot (lal?) while reading what could otherwise be just another story, thanks.

  3. -SD- says:

    I still weep for the loss of Looking Glass Studios. Their vision of what games should be was spot on with mine. There’s been depressingly few studios that have matched that vision since. I felt as if LGS made games directly for me and my tastes.

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      slerbal says:

      And me! You are not alone, though I do feel that we are not representative of the kind of players a lot of games companies want now :(

      I am sad Looking Glass went, but the industry is a harsh mistress. I choose to remember their successes!

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      VelvetFistIronGlove says:

      “…Looking Glass took creative risks. We introduced new kinds of game play… We intentionally charted new game design territory.

      Unfortunately, being a pioneer does have its risks. Ultimately these risks contributed to Looking Glass’ inability to continue forward. For the sake of our fans, and for the future of the game industry at large, we hope that the demise of groups like ours will not dissuade other game developers and publishers from the path of innovation. While doing better looking versions of last year’s hit titles may be a short term path to success, to thrive and grow the game industry must take some creative risks and continue to innovate.

      Although Looking Glass has fallen, we pass on the flag to those who are up to the challenge.”

      From the LG website, , the day they closed.

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        Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

        … Meanwhile, another two Call of Duty developers died in tragic circumstances when their money piles collapsed during their weekly hookers-and-cocaine party. They were buried in cash and, although they called their butlers for help on their gold-plated mobile phones, eventually the pangs of hunger forced them to subsist on hundred dollar bills, consuming $1.4m between them. Sadly this failed to provide adequate nutrition and they starved to death while rescue workers desperately tried to reach them using wheelbarrows and pitchforks to clear a path through the enormous drifts of money that obstructed their access.

      • Damien Stark says:

        To be fair, I would even be happy with developers “doing better looking versions of” Looking Glass titles!

        For example, I LOVED Dishonored, and I’m not sure how much it was “pioneering”, compared to the games that have come before it. Rather, I like that it selected some GOOD games that came before it, and added nice touches and excellent execution to their concepts.

        I would happily play a System Shock 3 that was gameplay-identical to System Shock 1, just with a new station designed and updated graphics and UI. I look forward to the new Thief, Shadowrun Returns, Banner Saga, Torment, Wasteland 2, etc. I loved the new XCOM.

        It’s not that we need more developers to create totally new concepts. It’s that some of the best concepts were abandoned and some of the dullest ones have been re-used to the point of exhaustion. I want a good, new Dungeon Keeper! or Sacrifice!

    • Bart Stewart says:

      No other studio has ever equalled Looking Glass at making games that give me what I like.

      Arkane and Ion Storm and Bethesda and Irrational… they’ve come as close as anyone. But Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Thief — those games never condescended, never dumbed anything down, never told me that my way of solving challenges was wrong and I should just hurry up and get to the next developer-controlled setpiece.

      I suppose it’s possible that some other group of clever people could get together and make an intelligent, immersive FPSRPG for the PC on the scale of a classic Looking Glass game. Until then, I’ll continue to wish for a remake of the original System Shock so that gamers of today and tomorrow get the chance to enjoy it, too.

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        welverin says:

        FPSRPG, what’s the ‘S’ for, because the ‘S’ in FPS is for shooter and that doesn’t go with RPG at all.

        • Chris D says:

          Borderlands says hi.

        • Bart Stewart says:

          I’d actually suggest that the great majority of RPGs are pretty shooty.

          Other than cyberspace and puzzles, System Shock could be said to be mostly about shooting. From the dart gun you get in the second room of the game to the Mark III loaded with Penetrator rounds (very satisfying against Security robots), shooting is a core part of the fun of System Shock.

          That’s definitely not all there is, unlike a CoD-style shooter. The puzzles, both abstract and environmental, shift the main pleasure of SS’s gameplay more toward cerebral satisfaction than the adrenaline-pumping excitement of one of today’s conventional FPS games. But System Shock actually has fewer RPG elements than its psionics-and-cybermodules sequel — it’s pretty shooterrific.

          FPSRPG feels like a fair, if limited, description of the general nature of System Shock. It’s certainly a lot more than just that, though.

        • mutopia says:

          You are totally right; shooting fireballs or swinging a sword and having their accuracy determined by a stat is completely unlike shooting an plasma gun or swinging a wrench or baton and having their accuracy determined by a stat.

          The thing is though, what immersive sims like System Shock, Thief and DX did runs almost completely counter to what every other RPG designer has been doing for the past 20 years, so essentially Bart Stewart is wrong and welverin is wrong and I’m wrong even for using sarcasm in the opening sentence.

          I’d say FPSRPG is a horrible description for these immersive sims (which is incidentally also a not so great description) not because they don’t share some design mechanics with cRPGs, but because the general meaning of cRPG has morphed into something completely different over the years, going in a different direction altogether, influenced by MMORPGs of course, as well as a host of increasingly derivative fantasy cRPGs (though there are some exceptions, none of which have managed to shake their blind focus on gear/loot, xp/grind and stats, though).

          Though I can’t offer up a better description of Looking Glass games (which is sort of why we still call them that). However, the simple fact that you can play one of these games without compulsively slaughtering a billion gazillion enemies, and doing so by making pretty much your own way through the game (and having agency in the game world and by extension the story instead of just dialog trees) should illustrate the enormous difference between what Looking Glass did and what modern cRPG designers are doing.

  4. int says:

    I love System Shock. Not the best mouse look though, well it didn’t exist back then did it?

    • laggerific says:

      You should definitely check out System Shock Portable…it contains a mouselook mod that brings that great feature from System Shock 2 to this game…basically you can switch back and forth from mouse look and mouse cursor. And you get that functionality in the greatly superior Original game…so good.

  5. Bhazor says:

    1) See article about Looking Glass
    2) Open article about Looking Glass
    3) Press Ctrl+F
    4) “kickstarter”
    5) Phrase not found
    6) Frown

    • sbs says:

      Happyface. I don’t trust this “Kickstarter” thing. It is HIGHLY SUSPECT

  6. Ironclad says:

    Meanwhile, I am busy trying to digitize my hair so that I can look more SHODANesque. How dare you interrupt my ascendance? You are nothing. A wretched bag of flesh… Pass that Motherboard Green dye please?”I wanted to laugh, but then I remember the final cutscene in System shock 2, and now I’m merely annoyed.

    System shock 2: 96% is awesome, final 15 minutes is crap.

    • AimHere says:

      Well with SS2, the designers ought to have gone the Half Life route and had no cutscenes whatsoever – there was really no need to jerk the player out of the first person just to tell him or her that he was playing a nondescript male with a low polygon count and a single word of pointless dialogue. If you want to break immersion in order to show the player character, then at least make the player character worth showing.

      The opening cutscene was decently atmospheric, mind you; the rest were dire.

      • Ironclad says:

        pretty much, though judging from the last few levels (basically starting when going on the Rickenbacker, the levels get far more linear and “corridor-shooter-y”) Looking Glass ran out of time and or money and shipped what they had.

        Though I will say that I was kind of shocked when seeing the texture quality again 13 years later. The textures are low-res but very clear. I honestly braced myself for an ugly game and it’s anything but that. (The enemy models are somewhat ugly and very low-poly, but that kind of adds to their creepyness).

        • Bhazor says:

          One thing I was surprised by was how clean and brightly lit the enviroments are. It’s like every graphical generation gets progressively danker as a step towards realism.

          • Mirqy says:

            Been playing the gog version. Every two minutes I bumped up the gamma a bit more because it was still so goddam dark and scary. Then I finally realised the gamma slider wasn’t working.

          • Damien Stark says:

            Modern advanced “dynamic lighting” essentially makes everything dark until it’s lit, which requires your designers to understand and implement good lighting.

            Old Skool 3D basically meant “draw everything the way you want it to look, then we’ll see all that stuff the way you drew it.” Sort of like the way Depth Of Field introduces more “realistic” technology, but in a way that mostly irritates players and obscures useful detail.

        • Trithne says:

          The enemy models are horribly low-poly because LG dramatically lowballed their estimate of how many polys they could have on an enemy within the engine. The texture work was marvellous though, and I really miss that era of going for simple, clean texture work rather than trying to bump-map everything.

    • Low Life says:

      I’ve been playing the game during the past week or so, and just today came across another crappy 15 (or in my case, 30) minutes: hunting that damn distress signal code from the art terminals. I don’t think I’ve ever found all parts of it, today I ended up trying all possible combinations after I was missing one number.. Then again, there aren’t many games today that would allow me doing that before finding the entire code, so I guess it’s all good. But I thought it really messed up the pacing.

      Nonetheless, after all these years it’s still an incredible game.

    • Tyrone Slothrop. says:

      The final 15 minutes were fucking incredible! Shodan using the ship’s FTL drives to reconfigure reality in an exponentially expanding field that would eventually reach earth was one of the best villainous schemes ever devised, a revisit to Citadel using the actual textures from the original title replete with killer geometry and android ninjas, listening to Delacroix’s desperate audiologs in the midst of this mindfuck as the environment becomes more and more abstract was a perfect climax to the game.

      The real issue is the utterly stupid, ahem; {as obnoxiously as possible} Naaaah, the presentation of the final cutscene generally and the unfortunately linear nature of the Rickenbacker levels, though the mis-en-scene of the upside down chapel was a masterstroke. The Many biomass was appropriately disgusting and physically horrifying and I just don’t see what people have against it.

      • Ed123 says:

        I think most people dislike the level design rather than the visuals/environments of The Many. I personally found it far less of a chore than the extremely tedious Rickenbacher sections, though the obviously rushed, linear sections of SS2 are in general its weakest points.

      • Skabooga says:

        That upside-down chapel, it was truly shown in the game’s plot and development at just the perfect time. My first glance of it will forever be an image I remember.

  7. ResonanceCascade says:

    Yeah, the Gambit podcast series is great. Really shines a light on how Looking Glass/Blue Sky operated. I hope they can get Doug Church someday, he’s a big missing piece of the story.

    • Venkman says:

      I’ve been listening to the whole series in my car. I haven’t played a single one of the Looking Glass games, but the podcast is fascinating nevertheless.

      Unfortunately I don’t know when I’ll get to the Ultima Underworlds, as I really feel I need to play the other Ultimas first chronologically. I know it’s not “necessary”, but it’s not going to feel right if I don’t and there do seem to be some references to the main series. I’ve been on the final castle of Ultima 2 for 6 years now, and finished U1 seven years before that, so at this rate I’ll get to Underworld in 35 years or so.

      • ResonanceCascade says:

        Ultima Underworld 1 is only kinda related to the other Ultimas, so there isn’t much to miss. The second game is pretty wrapped up in the series, though.

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  9. Tyrone Slothrop. says:

    As much as I love Looking Glass, I am far more heartened than I am disappointed that in its place are not one but at least three studios that carry on their legacy and even in cases, their stupendously talented personnel; Arkane, Eidos-Montreal and Irrational, each having produced a game that I consider to be in the highest echelon of titles I’ve played. In the poignant words of the Gorilla Munch mascot; shhh… no more tears, only dreams now.

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    The Sombrero Kid says:

    Always had hope Paul Neurath would have another crack at the immersive sim genre.

  11. MentatYP says:

    Fired up Ultima Underworld just the other day. A game ahead of its time.

    • GepardenK says:

      Im pretty sure the universe will be a massive black hole before time can catch up with Underworld

      • Kamos says:

        Indeed. No other game has quite nailed the feeling of exploration and discovery in that game. I loved how it was a really old school RPG, in the sense that it was a dungeon crawl that kept track of your equipment. Being abandoned at the entrance of a dungeon with meager amounts of food and a candle was terrifying, and it is the kind of thing that pausterized modern games are uncapable to achieve. Not to mention it had absolutely superb level design.

        Sigh. :-(

  12. Muzman says:

    This is nearly a year old. Dunno how or why someone didn’t send this along sooner (I was…uh…busy).
    Anyway, he gives a really good explanation of how LGS ended up closing, with its weird ownership situation.
    At the same time it is still JOHN ROMERO’S FAULT!!