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System Shock: The oral history of a forward-thinking PC classic

Origin point

Artwork of SHODAN from System Shock, for our oral history
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun / Plaion

For a certain sort of PC gaming fan, System Shock is where it all began. 30 years of immersive sim development started here, as Looking Glass escaped the restraints of the RPG genre and embraced thoughtful first-person action. SHODAN broke free, and the world was never the same. Without System Shock, there would be no Thief or Gloomwood, no Prey or Dead Space. Bioshock was conceived as its sequel. The creative figureheads behind Deus Ex and Dishonored were wrapped up in its creation, and forever changed by contact with Looking Glass and its unique philosophy.

Countless studios have used Citadel Station as a star to steer by, measuring their own work against System Shock’s commitment to simulation, dense atmosphere, and method-ish refusal to break character. This was not so much a game as an alternate reality. As one of our interviewees tells us: “We were trying to build the holodeck.”

Here’s the story of how it was made, as told by the people who made it.

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Through the Looking Glass

Long before gaining legendary status, Looking Glass was experimenting with early 3D worlds.

Rob Fermier, programmer: I joined Looking Glass in 1993, maybe even late ‘92, pretty much at the start of the project. They were working out what they were going to do with the science fiction version of [RPG spin-off series] Ultima Underworld. Looking Glass was chock-full of talented, brilliant people who would set aside their egos. Eventually it got bigger and had more problems, but in its early stages it was just a really raw creative place to work.

Warren Spector, executive producer: That place was like a graduate school for game developers. There was a thoughtfulness about what games could and should be that I haven’t encountered much since. And were those folks smart? Holy cow. I remember walking into team meetings thinking, ‘I’m the stupidest person in this room,’ and loving the hell out of that. Working with those folks was one of the high points of my life, let alone my career.

Austin Grossman, designer: I remember someone writing about Looking Glass and calling it ‘the studio too good for regular fun.’

Greg Travis, programmer: Every few days we would go to the mall, buy any new game that was there, take it back and stand there and critique it. The whole company was full of people who cared about this.

Robb Waters, artist: Looking Glass was my first professional job. Even in art school they were saying, ‘You gotta cut the hair, you gotta put on a tie.’ And I walked into Looking Glass, and people were walking around with shorts and shirts that were way too tight, with hair popping out of the holes. That was the culture shock. The work ethic was so strong that everything else just fell to the side.

The player approaches a mutant with a lead pipe in System Shock
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun
The first reference I heard to the System Shock project was somebody saying, ‘Oh yeah, we’re gonna do Sonic The Hedgehog, but it’s in space.’

Grossman: It was super exciting. It was a bunch of people out of MIT, and then a bunch of other extra people like me, who were picked up along the way. The first reference I heard to the System Shock project was somebody saying, ‘Oh yeah, we’re gonna do Sonic The Hedgehog, but it’s in space.’

Spector: Really? I have no memory of that at all. Even looking back, I don’t see it. Weird.

Grossman: That was the original concept. I don’t know whose concept that was, or why that sounded like a super good idea to them. That went away at some point, and somebody said, ‘OK, now we’re doing cyberpunk.’

Spector: My first D&D dungeon master was cyberpunk guru Bruce Sterling, so I was pretty steeped in the whole vibe.

Grossman: Everybody had seen the Ridley Scott films, and I was a huge fan of William Gibson. After all of the pretension and forced whimsy of the Ultima franchise, we just wanted things to be dirty and messy and futuristic for a while, which is what drove the aesthetic.

Marc LeBlanc, programmer: Origin wanted another Underworld, in space, and that is what we were pitching. How do you make a dungeon in space? Well, it’s going to be a space station. We imagined you were a hacker. We had physical augmentation and cyberspace. In the original pitch there was going to be terminal hacking, where you would sit down and start typing. That got cut, because it was too real at the time. That was like most people’s experience of a computer before Windows was really a thing - sitting down and typing in a text prompt.

Fermier: Before we named it System Shock, one of the names going around was BIOSfear, which is like computer BIOS, and sort of like ‘biosphere’ also. Thank goodness we did not go with that.

LeBlanc: Citadel was the project codename.

Travis: I remember the codename of the project was ‘T-E.P’. [Director and lead programmer] Doug Church would not say what that meant for years. It stood for ‘techno electric paganism’. If you had to boil the initial spark of the idea of System Shock down to one phrase, that was apparently it.

Fermier: I was really happy when we came up with System Shock. I pretty vividly remember a drive back from one of the local malls, where we were talking about D&D, and you had that constitution stat that gave you your chance of system shock. And we were like, ‘That’s a cool term, we should use that as the name.’

The player encounters a cyborg enforcer in System Shock
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

Death to NPCs

After two Ultima games, Looking Glass was ready to leave RPG conventions behind - even if that meant killing everyone.

LeBlanc: We were done with CRPGs - the idea that you were going to have a character sheet with a bunch of stats, and you were going to level up and have all these numbers deriving what your capabilities were. We had all that in Underworld and you could barely tell. If you’re running around in a 3D world, how does that number matter?

Grossman: The real-time 3D world was the thing we were doing that shined - that’s fascinating, that you never want to look away from.

Spector: We were all frustrated with state-of-the-art branching tree conversation systems. I mean, as much as I loved the Ultima games, the whole Name/Job/Bye thing didn’t exactly capture the richness of the RPGs that inspired them. And once you got to the end of a branch, the response ‘I don’t know about that’ drove me nuts.

Grossman: It’s not a terribly fun minigame and doesn’t even encapsulate what’s interesting about conversations - that punchy back-and-forth. Instead, you’re sort of doing your taxes, but it’s trying to get somebody to tell you where the sacred rabbit is. We couldn’t figure out how to do it a better way, but we did figure out how to get around it.

‘Why don’t we just kill everyone so there are no conversations?’ That seemed like a great answer.

Spector: Doug [Church] and I were talking one day and one of us - probably Doug - said, ‘Why don’t we just kill everyone so there are no conversations?’ That seemed like a great answer.

Grossman: Everybody’s dead, and you have the audio logs. Which weren’t audio logs at the time. The first round of System Shock was on floppy disks, and there was no digitised audio. We were just straddling the line of CD-ROM games. It shipped with text logs, and then audio logs.

Fermier: I remember at the time being very excited about Austin [Grossman] coming up with that. There was a desire to have the mechanics be a little more diegetic in their nature.

Grossman: I pitched the audio log idea. It came from a couple of different sources. I remember playing one of the Gold Box D&D games, Pool of Radiance, and there was this whole sequence where you're trailing somebody and you found their diaries and blood traces. It was classic environmental storytelling, except we didn’t have the word at the time. That stuck in my mind as evocative, and it didn’t have the cringy awkwardness of menu conversations.

Spector: Once you kill off everyone in a game, there isn’t much left in the way of storytelling tools other than artifacts left behind by the former denizens of the place. That and stuff painted in blood on the walls. There hadn’t been much in the way of environmental storytelling before Shock.

Grossman: One inspiration for that style of storytelling was in The Fellowship of the Ring, when they’re in Moria and Gandalf is reading out the record the dwarves have kept of their downfall. We knew we wanted exactly that: reading the words of this person who was trapped. The other place it comes from was a book of poetry called the Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. It’s a series of monologues from people in a small town, and as you read all the monologues, you start to get a sense of the relationships and the history. That was what I cited when I originally pitched the system, because I had this naive idea that everyone would have read a book of poetry by a relatively obscure early 20th century American poet. I can’t believe that was taken seriously at the time.

A screenshot from System Shock where Rebecca Lansing is sending you a message
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

Dark art

Looking Glass turned its back on the eight virtues of Ultima to create a murkier, more cynical world better befitting the ‘90s.

Travis: The plot starts off dismally - you’re a criminal, and the only way you can get out of jail is to commit another crime. And then when you get out of your coma, you realise the deal with the devil is literal - you actually have to interact with this malevolent creature, SHODAN. A terrible pact has been made and it has destroyed everyone except you, practically.

Grossman: I don’t remember exactly how we signed off on something that dark. I remember pitching a whole bunch of versions of that plot, including one where there was a teenage girl in an asteroid mining colony, and she runs away from home and finds herself on this abandoned generation ship. I pitched a bunch of ideas around a female protagonist, which literally they didn’t even laugh at. They looked at me with pity in their eyes, that I was this sad, deluded man. Of course, this was three or so years before Tomb Raider.

Travis: I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that System Shock was like Alien - looks like science fiction, it’s actually horror. It’s claustrophobic and paranoid.

Waters: At one point early on, all our textures were pristine - brand new station, Star Trek. And then at one point Warren gave the directive that we should distress it. So we went back and put in all these dings and scratches and whatnot, and that did give it a little more atmosphere.

The player approaches a docking station with lots of winged monsters near it in System Shock
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

Travis: If you remember music videos from the time, Nine Inch Nails and Tool, there was a lot of candlelight and unpleasant, scary, dark moods.

Grossman: It was quite a while before we settled on having it all happen in the same place. We thought, ‘OK, we’ll have a sense of place that we can deepen over time, rather than just dropping people in a bunch of different levels.’

LeBlanc: Revisiting any place you’ve been is an important idea in the game. Maybe new enemies have spawned. Even though it’s this tiny dungeon, it’s an open world. You never finish a level and are done with it. It’s always a space that you inhabit.

Travis: If we could have, we would have made the entire station a space you could move around in freely, without having to go into an elevator. But we didn’t have the technology to do it.

Waters: It was a blessing if a designer had any sort of understanding of art at all, but usually they didn’t. A lot of System Shock, I always call it crazy quilt, because the textures were stamped around so haphazardly that it’s just not pleasing to look at.

Travis: You get to the corporate level which is super low-key, just a bunch of boring offices with cheesy furniture in them. Then you go into cyberspace and come back out. It’s dreamlike - it doesn’t proceed from boring to interesting, it goes back and forth.

Waters: There were only so many takes on a sci-fi wall panel that we could come up with. So some of them got pretty abstract, in ways that the engine just couldn’t sell in terms of real depth and dimension.

Grossman: The feature that stayed the same was the relationship between the protagonist and [Citadel Station VP] Edward Diego. Doug Church was obsessed with someone being hired and then betrayed by their employer. Don’t ask me why.

Travis: System Shock has its own moral stance, but it’s extremely negative. There are no good guys and no hero in that game. It's a story about corporate greed, isolation and betrayal. I think those were themes that Doug in particular was interested in, and Dorian Hart and Austin [Grossman] took that up. We couldn’t do those things in the Underworld games, because the story was more optimistic.

Grossman: I left the project partway through to go to grad school. Dorian Hart did a lot of the actual writing and deserves a lot of the credit for the personalities in the game.

Two mutants approach the player in a cyberpunk-looking control room in System Shock
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

The Church of Doug

A singular figure drove development of System Shock, and helped to invent the immersive sim in the process.

Fermier: Any talk about System Shock has to orbit around Doug [Church], he was definitely the heart and soul of that project.

Spector: Doug was, as they say, 'The Man' on System Shock. His influence on game design and on me was huge. The world has no idea, which frustrates the hell out of me. I’ve tried to make that guy famous for decades and he just won’t let me.

Grossman: He’s brilliant. He would always be almost horizontal in his office chair and reach up and type. He has a charisma. Doug and Warren were this great combination.

Spector: Eccentric? I don’t know. I guess so. The most important thing about Doug, to me, is that he’s a natural born teacher. He has great conceptual strengths and has the ability to communicate those concepts to others. Whatever combination of things he has, people were certainly willing to follow him anywhere. Hell, I was willing to follow him. He’s a one-of-a-kind unsung hero and deserves greater recognition than he gets, whatever words you use to describe him.

Grossman: Doug was the project leader, and he projected the vision, but we also shared the vision so well that he didn’t have to be a dictator. Everybody would jump in with their ideas. It was very much not a siloed project.

Fermier: He had a vision of what he wanted, but he led by example. He wrote a ton of code, he was involved in a lot of design discussions. The process was way less formalised than you envision today. But he had a very egalitarian approach to the actual programming, he was not a super micro-manager.

Grossman: We’ve always waited for Doug’s next thing. We have yet to see it. System Shock remains the last game that Doug Church shipped as project leader. No company ever seemed to want to take on his visions and ideas the way Looking Glass did, and that’s a shame.

Spector: He was as important as anyone - OK, probably more important than most anyone else - in defining the immersive sim genre and promoting games as having the potential to be more than just a way to pass some time. A true visionary.

A monster approaches the player in a corridor in System Shock
A dismembered body lies in a corridor in System Shock
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

Sim-ple pleasures

System Shock wasn’t an RPG; nor was it a shooter either. It occupied a new space that nobody yet had a name for.

Fermier: The term ‘immersive sim’ wasn’t around at the time, but the term ‘immersive’ was. We were talking about these concepts.

Spector: Underworld was kind of a nascent immersive sim, empowering players to tell their own stories in some simple ways. System Shock took that a step further.

Grossman: We didn’t have the nice vocabulary for game design and game behaviour that we have now. We were struggling to grasp and formulate it. That sense that we were on the verge of a bunch of exciting ideas really charged System Shock.

Grossman: It was a very exciting moment, because real-time 3D tech was still not very old. At the time that we were designing System Shock, we had Wolfenstein, we knew that Doom was in development. But the hardened idea of what a first-person shooter was didn’t exist - which you can see in Shock, by the way that the mouse cursor moves independently of the camera, for instance. People hadn’t really gotten the conventions down of how it would work.

There was a lot of debate about whether to show the protagonist. [...] People were fairly adamant that this would be an invisible, faceless protagonist.

Fermier: Doug knew some people at id Software, I don’t know whether it was [John] Carmack or [John] Romero, [but] they talked about technology and the games. So it wasn’t a shock to us that id was working on Doom. It didn’t really feel like competition, it felt like it was a different kind of game. We were pretty pleased to see the idea of 3D games becoming more popular and less of a weird novelty.

Travis: System Shock was not meant to be a shooter. It was not essential that you could swing your point-of-view around at an incredibly high framerate. It was more of a stealth and planning game, watching your ammunition and sneaking around. And so that meant it could support more detailed graphics, unlike Doom.

LeBlanc: We were really interested in immersion, and having nothing in your face reminding you that this is a video game. It’s why you don’t have a cutscene where you hear your own voice. We wanted your first-person experience of what you were doing to match what your character was doing and what was in the story.

Grossman: There was a lot of debate about whether to show the protagonist. I think I was on the other side of that, but people were fairly adamant that this would be an invisible, faceless protagonist. We weren’t going to impose ourselves on the player as to what they thought they looked like.

LeBlanc: Some of it was where ‘90s culture was pointing. Virtual reality was not a thing yet, and we were very much of the mindset that VR isn’t just hardware, it’s software - you can’t just strap goggles on and have something. Somebody’s got to make the world. And the world has to be believable. We were trying to build the holodeck.

Grossman: The studio took the simulation aspect of the game quite seriously. The kind of emergent complexity and creative problem solving that you could do in the real world was what we wanted to support in the game. Which is why we worked so hard on a generalised physics system, because we knew that the physics in the Underworld games was a place where players got to improvise.

LeBlanc: Harvey Smith tells a story of a mutant finding its way onto a repulsor lift and coming up to his level to start fighting him. But right next door there’s a switch which reverses the direction on the repulsor lift, so he just pushes the down button. Problem solved. It’s a simple moment, but those are the moments that we were looking for.

The player approaches a control panel of sorts in System Shock
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

Grossman: The guy who did the physics is Seamus Blackley, who went on to mostly be known for working on the early Xbox stuff.

Spector: If I remember correctly, the team even implemented a physics-based recoil on guns and physics-driven knockback when you took damage. That’s pretty radical.

LeBlanc: It was all super hacky, but everything in the mantling and jumping and leaning was all physics-driven. People on some forum would collect soda cans in System Shock for grenade practice, to practice their trajectory.

Travis: In the more shooter-like games, you’re running at an unnaturally high speed and your motion is pretty simple. In System Shock, the motion was realistic, and the natural speed really made it very immersive. When you’re crouching and hiding, you have as much time as you have in the real world, so you know that feeling. It reminds you of playing when you’re a kid, hiding from other kids.

Grossman: The whole simulationist bent of it was great. Also, if you played it on the original hardware of the time, you were constantly running into situations that degraded the framerate. But that was kind of like a feature of the time that everyone just accepted.

The first time I tried a game with mouse control, what was it? The Terminator 2029 or something. Anyway, I remember saying, ‘This will never catch on.’

LeBlanc: The reason we didn’t have mouselook is that System Shock ran at 20 frames-per-second on most people’s computers. People forget what the world before 3D hardware was like. 30 frames-per-second was considered flying fast. The mice at the time were not great either - you had to clean the gunk out of the balls every week.

Fermier: In fairness, mice weren’t super common yet. But later, when Quake would come out with mouselook, we were all like, ‘Oh, that’s so obvious.’

Spector: The first time I tried a game with mouse control, what was it? The Terminator 2029 or something. Anyway, I remember saying, ‘This will never catch on.’

LeBlanc: The System Shock user interface is not known as a work of brilliance, but it also came from its time.

Spector: I went to GenCon one year and Origin had a booth there. We were showing System Shock and another game that was superficially similar - first-person, science fiction-y and so on. I’d rather not name it. They were opposite each other in the booth and I watched grown-ups - gamer grown-ups - play Shock and within 30 seconds getting themselves crouched and leaning and stuck in a corner. Turn around and, I swear, I saw a kid reach out, grab the joystick and run around joyously in that other game. Should have been a wake-up call.

SHODAN speaks to the player in System Shock
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

Tribe ascends

In an unlikely turn of events, the System Shock team absorbed a beloved local rock band, and found its SHODAN.

Grossman: Terri Brosius and the whole audio team were an interesting presence. They were literally a Boston-area rock band that, I don’t even know how, suddenly had jumped into Looking Glass in this weird cultural mashup. I have to appreciate how open they were to all that dorkiness.

LeBlanc: We were all huge Tribe fans. And so at first it was just, ‘Let’s get Greg LoPiccolo from Tribe to come in and do our music.’ We wanted to make a dynamic score, System Shock was one of the first few games to do that. Then he started bringing in the rest of Tribe, and we were thrilled to have Eric and Terri Brosius join the project.

Travis: Sound is so important for that kind of immersive game, and you take that for granted now.

We wanted SHODAN to feel like this presence. We wanted a sense that she was all around, literally the ghost in the machine, running the whole station.

LeBlanc: I remember the first time I met Greg, he mispronounced Ultima and it was the funniest thing.

Grossman: All the voice acting was done by people from around the office. I was Edward Diego.

LeBlanc: Terri has this amazing voice. And she’s this diva - not in personality, just in her presence.

Fermier: There was some work to try to write it so that SHODAN’s gender was very ambiguous. There was no ‘she’ or ‘he’. But then when we did the audio, that completely changed.

Travis: I’m the only one who seems to remember a conversation I was listening in on - where it was decided that SHODAN is male, but uses a female voice to be creepy or sexist or something. Like the trope of the nagging, evil computer lady was actually a put-on. I always thought that was an important point that was completely forgotten.

Grossman: In a sense, SHODAN would represent us. We would have all these triggers in the world, and we would be seeing through the triggers what the player was doing, and we’d be commenting on it. It turned out to work very well.

Fermier: We wanted SHODAN to feel like this presence. We wanted a sense that she was all around, literally the ghost in the machine, running the whole station. I remember the designers saying they wanted you to hate SHODAN not just because you were told to, but because you experienced her messing with you directly. We talked about a bunch of crazy things that never went in. At one point SHODAN was going to drain your XP from you.

LeBlanc: We had desires to do more of the dungeon master AI. There’s so much more we could have done. We did a lot of set pieces, like that moment on the Maintenance level where you walk in and the lights go off, and SHODAN taunts you, and you’re fighting a bunch of guys as the doors open.

Fermier: That notion of this evil AI - it wasn’t a horror game, but we wanted you to be immersed and a little scared.

Grossman: When you’re in game development, the player kind of is the enemy. You’re always picturing them trying to break your game or sneak past something. Sometimes it does feel like a siege situation, so the dynamic with SHODAN worked on a bunch of different levels.

Fermier: The original ending of the game was gonna be that when you defeated SHODAN, we would make it look like you had crashed to desktop. Your commands wouldn’t work, and you would start to think that SHODAN had come into your actual PC.

The player walks through an industrial area of System Shock
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

A brush with deletion

Warren Spector shielded the System Shock team from a publisher which was, at best, indifferent to the ugly duckling in its release schedule.

Grossman: Warren was responsible for pushing our sense of ambition to try new things and supporting it with the publisher. There absolutely would be no System Shock without Warren. It’s so rare to have management that embraces the new things you want to try and the originality of a vision. And he’s a very rare guy in the industry who has never rested on existing techniques.

Spector: Let’s just say I was hugely invested in System Shock - maybe, actually, to the detriment of other things going on at Origin.

Fermier: Obviously we had a publisher and we had to keep them happy. My sense is that there was a lot of politics on the Origin side, and there were people who wanted to kill the game for whatever reason. Warren was always very supportive. He brought a good, kindly uncle energy to all the meetings we would have with him.

LeBlanc: Warren saved us from getting cancelled. There was a moment relatively early on, where we gave Origin a demo of what we were making. And you’ve got to understand that we worked in a very different way from Origin. When they were making an Ultima or a Wing Commander, the first thing they did was make the intro cutscene. And that was there as a pillar of inspiration. You had this one very pretty thing that you could look at. It was a point of communication between development and the execs: ‘This is what we’re making.’

Spector: I took the game to what we called ‘product review’ and the other executive producers were showing off their titles, which were earlier in development than Shock, but looked fantastic. I mean, fantastic. Those guys made their games pretty even before they had nailed the gameplay. Clearly the powers that be valued that approach. I always thought it was backwards. And Shock, I admit, didn’t look great at that time.

LeBlanc: The textures were repeating, we didn’t make it pretty, we didn’t put a bad guy in there. And the execs came out of that meeting and said, ‘We’re going to cancel this game, it looks like shit.’ Warren talked them back from the edge.

Spector: There was a fight there! Luckily, the fight went my way and we were allowed to continue.

The player does battle with a mutant in System Shock
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

Screen burn

The System Shock team’s work ethic exceeded healthy limits, a results-driven approach that mirrored MIT student life.

Waters: We had programmers come in at nine o’clock in the morning. And then from behind the cubicle comes a programmer stumbling up from sleeping on some mattress on the floor. I would attribute the game getting done in that two-year timespan largely to the fact that everyone was living, breathing and eating this game.

LeBlanc: It was very much an MIT nerd culture. It was very intense. I don’t know that it was the most healthy or positive culture. Whoever did the work got to decide how the work was done, and so it was a race to do the work. If you wanted [programmer] James [Fleming] to do something, you just told him it was impossible, and then he would go do it.

Grossman: No one knew that crunch was bad. No one knew about work-life balance. The games industry has gotten so much better at project management and knowing how to give people lives. The dominant culture at Looking Glass was from MIT, and MIT was all about staying up late and pulling all-nighters.

Fermier: I have fond memories, in that esprit de corps sort of way, of driving back with everybody from the offices at like 7am, dawn breaking, and going to a diner that was a haunt for overnight truckers. We knew exactly when the nearby McDonald’s opened up, because that’s when we would drive over there and get Egg McMuffins en masse. The game has this error that’s like, ‘Don’t forget to salt the fries.’

I think MIT brought a culture of crunch and no work-life balance, but it also brought a culture of enjoying thinking together and a lack of pretension.

Grossman: I felt super privileged to be working on this forward-thinking and ambitious video game. All of my cohort at college had moved on to jobs in publishing or internships. I was the only person I knew who was working in games, and I felt like it was awesome.

Fermier: I didn’t know any better at the time, and sort of enjoyed it in a masochistic way. People worked crazy hours. I met my wife during System Shock and I’m amazed that she stuck with me. She would hang out and sleep at the office, and make sandwiches for people. That told me she was a keeper.

Grossman: I think MIT brought a culture of crunch and no work-life balance, but it also brought a culture of enjoying thinking together and a lack of pretension. There was a sense that we had a good flow of ideas, and a group ability to pick up the good ideas and discard the bad. It was an alchemy. There was a shared spirit of investigation and ambition that functioned well.

LeBlanc: There was Paul Neurath and the other grown-ups. Paul was not part of the culture, totally - he had kids and had a life and worked roughly nine to five. He owned property. We were practically living at Looking Glass, we had futons we took turns crashing in.

Fermier: Some of my memories of the end of it are pretty messed up, because I was trying to do this thing where I would stay up and be awake for 12 hours, then sleep for two hours, just to get more time in the office. That worked, but man, it devastated my long term memory. There’s a huge gap of a month or two.

LeBlanc: It was very much a ‘suffer for the art’ kind of culture. We were super into it, and we all really believed in what we were making. We didn’t have all the answers. None of us had particularly good communication skills. It wasn’t Lord of the Flies, but there was a backwards aesthetic to it. We were just living our spartan lives, pouring everything into this thing. And if you weren’t on board, then you didn’t have a right to have an opinion.

The player receives a message from Anna Parovski in System Shock
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun


System Shock’s launch brought disappointing sales and a dawning realisation that the future looked like Doom.

Spector: I went down to QA to talk to Harvey Smith, a tester at the time - he’s gone on to bigger and better things, I’d say! He showed me the latest build of System Shock and the security cameras were moving and there was a moving starfield outside the windows of Citadel Station. The team had put in features, like, the day before we went into maybe the most critical phase of the project’s development. I was furious.

Fermier: I remember the stars going in extremely late. Up until a week before ship we had a flat starfield that was not parallax, basically a painting of stars.

Even two months before the end, it felt like System Shock was a pile of pieces on the floor of the garage.

Spector: Then I went to my office, closed the door and - one of many times this happened on the project - did my happy dance. The team was that committed to making the game as great as they could make it. I loved that. I wish more teams felt that way about their games and gave me ulcers like the Shock team did.

Fermier: Even two months before the end, it felt like System Shock was a pile of pieces on the floor of the garage. It really clicked at the last minute. I remember playing it after it shipped and being pleased with how well things came together.

Spector: It was what you might call a late bloomer. That was one of the things that resulted in Origin’s and EA’s concerns about the game late in development. As a note, no one ever believes me when I say immersive sims come together late. But it’s the truth.

Grossman: System Shock came out, and Doom came out, and one of them was hugely successful and one was a small critical hit. And it was a huge lesson to me. I’m proud of what System Shock was, but I wanted to learn what Doom did that made it such a phenomenon.

The player encounters two mutants in System Shock
The player encounters a mutant with glowing red eyes in System Shock
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

Waters: I was just more of a Doom person, and I was jealous of the game they had made, in contrast to the game we had made. People say, ‘Well, System Shock is the thinking man’s Doom.’ And I’m not a caveman. It’s just not as accessible to me.

Fermier: From a business perspective, Doom was obviously way more accessible and made a lot of much smarter decisions about how to pull people in.

Waters: For the people that got it and could stick with it, I think System Shock was great, and it became a cult game. But it never gained that status where it was this widely accepted thing. It was just for people that were into that niche of micromanage-y stealth game.

Fermier: I remember being disappointed that it didn’t sell as well as we’d hoped. It’s still really hard to factor out sales from piracy. Piracy was extremely rampant in that era. But there’s no two ways about it, we made a pretty inaccessible game. We made a game that you had to be a little committed to learning to get out of the first few levels.

Spector: Honestly, I wish I had pushed back harder on the Origin/EA folks and had never released the floppy version at all. It was clearly a mistake - once you make a first impression with an audience, that’s it. No do-overs. But there was a deadline to hit and quarterly projects to be made.

Fermier: A lot of people don’t remember that SHODAN didn’t have a voice in the original System Shock. After we launched it, me and a handful of people did the Enhanced Edition. That was when it first got the voices.

Spector: The floppy version was like a silent film compared with the CD version.

Fermier: We felt like we were really proud of the game we made, and we didn’t quite understand why it didn’t take off a little better. I have no sense of whether the marketing was good or bad on it. I don’t recall there being a whole lot of marketing for it.

Spector: Sales were good enough to warrant a sequel that took the ideas behind System Shock and went a step further. I honestly don’t remember anyone at Origin giving a damn. They had bigger fish to fry with Wing and Ultima.

The player walks down a dark corridor in System Shock
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun

Remember Citadel

Despite commercial failure, System Shock’s influence spread to every corner of the games industry.

Fermier: It was not an easy sell when we made System Shock 2. There was a little bit of a sense that, ‘Well, System Shock was an interesting experiment but a failure’, that we had to overcome when pitching. But I’m very proud of those games. They were the games we wanted to make. Ultimately, that’s the part we can control. We can’t directly control sales.

Waters: I appreciate the game more now than I ever have. At different points in my career I looked back at System Shock and was just embarrassed by it. But rediscovering it, I’ve done the math, thinking about how influential that game was, and the fact that it was way ahead of its time.

Grossman: System Shock had a certain amount in common with Deus Ex. It was a lot of the same people and it was somewhat the same kitchen sink approach.

Deus Ex wouldn’t have happened - couldn’t have happened - without games like Shock.

Spector: Deus Ex wouldn’t have happened - couldn’t have happened - without games like Shock. There’s a clear evolutionary line from one of those games to another.

Grossman: Warren has made a life’s project of working on the problems we were working on in System Shock. He has what I refer to as the Warren Spector Finishing School, where he’s constantly taking on new younger teams and indoctrinating them with the ambition to tackle these questions, and then releasing them into the game industry.

Travis: Maybe ten years ago, a friend of mine was like, ‘Oh, you gotta check out Metroid Prime.’ And it looks like System Shock, moves like System Shock, and even uses Austin’s trick of recordings to tell the story rather than awkward dialogue. That was such an amazing breakthrough and imitated by so many games.

Grossman: Flash forward to working on Dishonored, they still used menu conversation systems. No one’s ever really killed that beast.

Grossman: The door code, 0451, still pops up. It was the door code we used to get into the office. It’s very fun to see that reference continue.

Waters: The reason it’s called Bioshock is because the System Shock IP was so locked up in limbo in terms of who owned it. And so frankly, if it wasn’t Bioshock, it could have been System Shock 3.

Grossman: Maybe we will someday get to do System Shock 3. It would be so fascinating to go back and, for instance, set it in a city that has been taken over by SHODAN. It’d be fun to do all the things that we couldn’t do at the time. Maybe on the back of the relaunch, we’ll be able to do something.

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