Why is System Shock a Big Deal?

Why is System Shock a Big Deal?

Let's talk about why System Shock is a daring game that deserves its celebrated place in gaming history - while also being a frustrating mess that doesn't hold up.

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At the risk of a low content post warning...

NICE JUMP, HUMAN

It's true -the interface- is the big important thing that makes an old game age well or bad. Primitive graphics are tolerable and can even be charming (as indie-devs prove time and again). Same thing with music and sound effects. But a game with a bad interface that is tedious to play melts the fun away rather quickly. It was tolerated in the old days because you had no choice and didn't know any better. But after all the innovations and common sense in UI design, some games have gotten simply too painful to bear, unless you can bring bucketloads of nostalgia for the trip.

One classic example is the original WarCraft. I used to play that game and move single units around the map individually, because there was no real alternative. You could select a maximum of 4 at a time, but the movement was then so imprecise and awkward it was usually not worth the hassle. Hard to imagine ever going through that ordeal again.

Oh for sure the interface problems are what get me the most in old games. But also all the little changes we've had in design add up. The little things that change a game from being annoying to being something good. Or where I'm aggravated by not being able to do something simple that I can do in a future game.

I haven't played the first System shock, but did get through the second. Good game. Even nowadays, I enjoyed it.

I guess it was bound to happen now that games have been around for a few decades... Baldur's Gate, System Shock, EQ Classic servers... nostalgia revivals are in full swing in the games industry. But they should take a look at how it's done in music and movies: you don't just re-release the same old with minimal tweaks. You do new covers and new versions using all the improvements to tech and game play made available by 20+ years of innovation. And even then, there are no guarantees that it'll be better.

Better yet, you knock our socks off with something totally new we weren't expecting. Too much to ask for?

Whenever I come across these articles, I do wonder how many people actually read them. If the amount of comments are any indication (which there is a very good chance isn't), then it's not many people. I think that's a shame, even if I don't care much for the articles myself, and probably would never have a positive experience with the author if I ever met him (which of course is never going to happen).

I'm not even sure the timeless classics you've mentioned are so timeless. Super mario works because its 2D, but Doom is horrid as its also been done better and prettier. Also weak is Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64. Both were epic in their time but better remembered for what they brought to gaming rather than to be played again. Oh, and same goes for FFVII.

In fact, most games are like that. And that's fine. And this is why each game should only be truly compared to its contemporaries. Video games were growing up along with a lot of us and each great game such as System Shock took one step further to make the games of today possible. As you said, System Shock and System Shock 2's creators went on to create Thief, Deus Ex and Bioshock. If that isn't important to gaming, what is?

FoolKiller:
I'm not even sure the timeless classics you've mentioned are so timeless. Super mario works because its 2D, but Doom is horrid as its also been done better and prettier. Also weak is Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64. Both were epic in their time but better remembered for what they brought to gaming rather than to be played again. Oh, and same goes for FFVII.

You just walked into a biker bar and declared that Harleys are for pussies. I hope you're ready for arguments and comments about your mother's sexual habits.

FoolKiller:
I'm not even sure the timeless classics you've mentioned are so timeless. Super mario works because its 2D, but Doom is horrid as its also been done better and prettier. Also weak is Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64. Both were epic in their time but better remembered for what they brought to gaming rather than to be played again. Oh, and same goes for FFVII.

I can't speak for Ocarina of Time because I haven't played it, but both Doom and Mario 64 are still very playable today. There's a reason all FPS games today use the exact same control scheme as Doom. You could argue that later games improved on them, (and I'd be inclined to agree with you) but that's not the point Shamus was trying to make. The point is that those games are still playable today because they have an intuitive and functional control scheme, which System Shock just lacks.

FoolKiller:
And this is why each game should only be truly compared to its contemporaries.

Also, just... no. There are many older games that are often considered far better than later installments in the franchise. Sure, older games can serve as a great teaching tool for how to better design new games, but that doesn't mean the creators of the new game always learn those lessons.

Halla Burrica:
Whenever I come across these articles, I do wonder how many people actually read them. If the amount of comments are any indication (which there is a very good chance isn't), then it's not many people. I think that's a shame, even if I don't care much for the articles myself, and probably would never have a positive experience with the author if I ever met him (which of course is never going to happen).

I'm betting it's not a good indication, especially for Shamus's articles. I'll eagerly go to the escapist each week to see his article, and even check out his blog, but I usually don't post a comment. Not because the article was badly written, or had an uninteresting topic, but because I have nothing to say. The majority of his comments tend towards "I agree!" which quickly runs into low content problems.

As much as I love the System Shock series I agree entirely with the article save perhaps for one tiny detail: Why do you think System Shock 2 is inferior story-wise? SHODAN's rise to power, the conflict between her, The Many, and Xerces, plus the collection of various smaller personal stories told throughout your time on the Von Braun and Rickenbaker made SS2 pretty damned impressive story-wise. Meanwhile as fun as it is the original's story basically boils down to 'SHODAN dun gone nut, end her before she destroys the world'.

I'd actually rate SS2 as the better of the System Shock games in terms of storytelling. It took the characters and premise of the first game and threw them into a new environment with changed stakes, and I like that.

Personal preferences aside though it's a good article about one of gamings classics. My compliments.

I definitely plan to pick this one up if only for its historical value. As a person who considers Daggerfall to be his favorite Elderscrolls game, I don't think that getting to know a clunky interface will be too much of an obstacle for me. I'm in the middle of a few games though, so I'm gonna bide my time and see if a Steam version surfaces.

Shamus Young:

Let's talk about why System Shock is a daring game that deserves its celebrated place in gaming history - while also being a frustrating mess that doesn't hold up.

Ooh, now them's fighting words, Mr. Young.

Don't get me wrong, I agree with most of your article - I don't even disagree about the "frustrating mess" bit.

However, I played System Shock for the first time in 2008. It was about as big a hurdle getting the damn thing to run under Windows XP as it was learning to actually play it... and it still earned its place among my all-time favorites list once I managed to climb over that sheer cliff of a learning curve.

Again, I agree with most of what you say, but "doesn't hold up" I most decidedly can't get behind.

I don't quite understand why difficulty in games (scavenging for survival, aiming bullets at heads, complex puzzles) is highly praised and rewarded, and yet a difficult interface isn't. If you've just awaken on board a space station with newly acquired biotech surgery, of course you're going to have a hell of a time getting around. Using half the keyboard to navigate and use your capabilities was part of the experience, and was incredibly cool to learn and master at the time.

Sure, you might not be skilled at it but I'm not skilled at targeting things with the mouse in real-time. That doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to call all shooters crap (although I can try).

So why doesn't the old argument that interfaces should be as easy and simple to use as possible, apply to Dark Souls which during my 20 minutes of playing gave rise to endlessly frustrating and unenjoyable dead ends, deaths and needlessly difficult combat?

I'm about three hours in and I'm absolutely loving it. The fact that the controls and interface are as antiquated as they are somehow adds to the game's appeal. I really love the atmosphere and visual design of it. The breadth of everything you can do and everything you're presented with is staggering. No difficulties thus far, but I have the feeling I'll reach a dead end at some point. Something tells me the included strategy guide will come in handy. The only thing I really dislike about this game are those ham-handed cyberspace sequences. Overall, it's fantastic and holds up perfectly fine in my book.

Blood Brain Barrier:
I don't quite understand why difficulty in games (scavenging for survival, aiming bullets at heads, complex puzzles) is highly praised and rewarded, and yet a difficult interface isn't. If you've just awaken on board a space station with newly acquired biotech surgery, of course you're going to have a hell of a time getting around. Using half the keyboard to navigate and use your capabilities was part of the experience, and was incredibly cool to learn and master at the time.

Sure, you might not be skilled at it but I'm not skilled at targeting things with the mouse in real-time. That doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to call all shooters crap (although I can try).

So why doesn't the old argument that interfaces should be as easy and simple to use as possible, apply to Dark Souls which during my 20 minutes of playing gave rise to endlessly frustrating and unenjoyable dead ends, deaths and needlessly difficult combat?

Because those difficulty in games you mention are just features of the game, like things that you can/will do in a game. On the other hand, the interface is the in-between link that connects the player with the game. The player relies on the interface as one of tools to gather information on what's happening in the game, in order to make moment to moment judgment on what's the next best course of action. A clunky and bad interface can only serve to confuse the player and possibly even mislead them to make a wrong move.

Think of the interface as like the dashboard gauges on your car. It should be easy to read and instantaneously recognizable so that the driver can make snap decisions, moment to moment, so that he/she can stay on the road, move toward right direction, avoid accidents, keep within the bounds of the law, and etc. But if the dashboard was a clunky, cluster-mess of stuff all over the place, then the driver needs to pay more attention to it than the road. Guess what is going to happen then? Yes, an accident... maybe even death. That's not good, right?

Please, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that such antiquated interface is absolutely bad. I'm sure it has its own brand of charm and I believe there're some people (like yourself) who enjoy such stuff. But you can't say that more most people. Think carefully for a moment: there is a reason why the interfaces of video games have gotten overall simpler and slicker over the years.

And I'd say that Dark Souls is a poor example for a comparison. First of all, Dark Souls is inherently a console game played primarily on a controller. And a typical controller doesn't have a lot of buttons. I'm even willing to bet that Dark Souls may use less number of buttons than the old Doom on PC... let alone the entire half of the keyboard (plus a mouse) for System Shock. So ask yourself which is more easier to learn & master for most people. Furthermore, the interface for Dark Souls is nothing like System Shock; unlike System Shock that has a cluttered & messy interface that takes too much space on the screen, Dark Souls only has (1) Health/Stamina/Mana/whatever bars on top left corner, (2) Weapons, Items, and Spells icons on bottom left corner, and (3) a simple Soul counter at bottom right. And none of those are too big to obstruct the main view of the screen and allows the player to focus entirely on the action if needed. It's really a no comparison.

I've always wanted to play System Shock/System Shock 2 as they are the progenitors of Bioshock and I love Bioshock ( Yes, even the 2nd one). It's always amazed me at how I never played them when they first came out. I don't know if I ever will play them; Shamus addresses the concerns I have for myself regarding it.

Spot on article mate, I mostly enjoy the articles you write. Keep it up!

So...its important because better games came after it? So...like Pong is important because eventually Halo Reach happened? Or even shitting on your hand and smearing it on a cave wall is important because eventually the Mona Lisa happened?

Just seems...lame...

I only played System Shock 2 (not 1), but found it a very interesting kind of game. I remember it took me forever to start playing it, as I had already played much faster and swifter controlling games in the meantime (Like Shogo M.A.D., Blood 2), and the controls in this game were the most painful thing about it. But I was amazed at the amount of atmosphere and story it managed to get across with the limited technology. Very well done game, but as you say, definitely not one I'd care to revisit. It would be really hard to do a decent remake as well, to get the whole tone down properly.

Silentpony:
So...its important because better games came after it? So...like Pong is important because eventually Halo Reach happened? Or even shitting on your hand and smearing it on a cave wall is important because eventually the Mona Lisa happened?

Just seems...lame...

Well, kinda, yeah.

You think all those people scrambling to try and find, study, and preserve ancient works of art regardless of actual artistic merit are doing it for giggles? Studying and knowing where things come from is important. Maybe not stuff you or I make, we're not important ourselves, but in regards to say... a game series and entire style of gameplay, then yeah, there's a lot of merit to be had in knowing their origins. It might not be the origins of anything particularly important in the grand scheme of things but there's enough of an interest to make it a worthwhile thing to look into.

Plus some people still like playing older games and aren't as bothered by dated graphics or a few quirky oddities.

Or were you just being snarky?

venn2011:

Blood Brain Barrier:
I don't quite understand why difficulty in games (scavenging for survival, aiming bullets at heads, complex puzzles) is highly praised and rewarded, and yet a difficult interface isn't. If you've just awaken on board a space station with newly acquired biotech surgery, of course you're going to have a hell of a time getting around. Using half the keyboard to navigate and use your capabilities was part of the experience, and was incredibly cool to learn and master at the time.

Sure, you might not be skilled at it but I'm not skilled at targeting things with the mouse in real-time. That doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to call all shooters crap (although I can try).

So why doesn't the old argument that interfaces should be as easy and simple to use as possible, apply to Dark Souls which during my 20 minutes of playing gave rise to endlessly frustrating and unenjoyable dead ends, deaths and needlessly difficult combat?

Because those difficulty in games you mention are just features of the game, like things that you can/will do in a game. On the other hand, the interface is the in-between link that connects the player with the game. The player relies on the interface as one of tools to gather information on what's happening in the game, in order to make moment to moment judgment on what's the next best course of action. A clunky and bad interface can only serve to confuse the player and possibly even mislead them to make a wrong move.

Think of the interface as like the dashboard gauges on your car. It should be easy to read and instantaneously recognizable so that the driver can make snap decisions, moment to moment, so that he/she can stay on the road, move toward right direction, avoid accidents, keep within the bounds of the law, and etc. But if the dashboard was a clunky, cluster-mess of stuff all over the place, then the driver needs to pay more attention to it than the road. Guess what is going to happen then? Yes, an accident... maybe even death. That's not good, right?

Please, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that such antiquated interface is absolutely bad. I'm sure it has its own brand of charm and I believe there're some people (like yourself) who enjoy such stuff. But you can't say that more most people. Think carefully for a moment: there is a reason why the interfaces of video games have gotten overall simpler and slicker over the years.

And I'd say that Dark Souls is a poor example for a comparison. First of all, Dark Souls is inherently a console game played primarily on a controller. And a typical controller doesn't have a lot of buttons. I'm even willing to bet that Dark Souls may use less number of buttons than the old Doom on PC... let alone the entire half of the keyboard (plus a mouse) for System Shock. So ask yourself which is more easier to learn & master for most people. Furthermore, the interface for Dark Souls is nothing like System Shock; unlike System Shock that has a cluttered & messy interface that takes too much space on the screen, Dark Souls only has (1) Health/Stamina/Mana/whatever bars on top left corner, (2) Weapons, Items, and Spells icons on bottom left corner, and (3) a simple Soul counter at bottom right. And none of those are too big to obstruct the main view of the screen and allows the player to focus entirely on the action if needed. It's really a no comparison.

I was using Dark Souls as an example of difficulty within games, not the interface. I still don't see why we should criticize one and not another. In System Shock the interface wasn't merely a car dashboard, it was part of the game. You were a new cyber-man, you weren't supposed to be gliding around effortlessly using all your functions with ease. The slow-paced nature of the game factored that into consideration with the difficulty.

To give a new example, imagine your favorite shooter (assuming you like them) had a real (fake) gun instead of a controller/mouse. Instead of pressing a button you had to manually load ammo, cock the gun, aim physically at the screen and pull the trigger. Would such an interface be praised or condemned? It's sure as hell more immersive than pressing a button.

Nice article. As usual Shamus' articles ALSO get me reading a lot of the comments on them ;)
So; a classic none the less. Because LOTS of games from the early days have just TOUGH controls (sometimes related to the actual, physical controller!). It makes them what they are; hard to master, impossible to hate once you've been through them! :D

Halla Burrica:
Whenever I come across these articles, I do wonder how many people actually read them. If the amount of comments are any indication (which there is a very good chance isn't), then it's not many people. I think that's a shame, even if I don't care much for the articles myself, and probably would never have a positive experience with the author if I ever met him (which of course is never going to happen).

Well, I do read them every week, and I find them very interesting.
But unfortunatly, most of the time I don't have very much to add, so I don't comment.

Theminimanx:

FoolKiller:
I'm not even sure the timeless classics you've mentioned are so timeless. Super mario works because its 2D, but Doom is horrid as its also been done better and prettier. Also weak is Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64. Both were epic in their time but better remembered for what they brought to gaming rather than to be played again. Oh, and same goes for FFVII.

I can't speak for Ocarina of Time because I haven't played it, but both Doom and Mario 64 are still very playable today. There's a reason all FPS games today use the exact same control scheme as Doom. You could argue that later games improved on them, (and I'd be inclined to agree with you) but that's not the point Shamus was trying to make. The point is that those games are still playable today because they have an intuitive and functional control scheme, which System Shock just lacks.

Well...
I just played Ocarine of Time on 3DS, which was a pretty nice experience, I liked it a lot.
Then I had the bright idea to fire up my N64 and try it there.
Bad call, it's age is pretty damn apparent.

Thing is, Dune II and System Shock were and still are far better than any Super Mario, Zelda and Doom. I'm inclined to believe those are only "better" classics because they appeared at the right time and were marketed differently.

So are we going to see a Spoiler Warning series on System Shock? I'd love to see someone give it the proper Let's Play treatment so I can understand what was up with it without having to suffer through playing it.

Although... the control scheme you're describing doesn't sound so bad. It sounds like you use Doom-style tank controls to get around and then you have free aiming like in a rail shooter? It could certainly be worse... like tank controls and no free aiming like in Doom itself. I might have to see it in action to understand what's so awkward about it.

Steve the Pocket:
So are we going to see a Spoiler Warning series on System Shock? I'd love to see someone give it the proper Let's Play treatment so I can understand what was up with it without having to suffer through playing it.

Although... the control scheme you're describing doesn't sound so bad. It sounds like you use Doom-style tank controls to get around and then you have free aiming like in a rail shooter? It could certainly be worse... like tank controls and no free aiming like in Doom itself. I might have to see it in action to understand what's so awkward about it.

The controls are really only awkward at first. After taking the time to fully acclimatize myself with the interface and controls, I'm no longer finding any of it all that cumbersome. The movement physics are still a bit strange (particularly jumping, and how you'll glide a tiny bit when you stop moving), but the only noteworthy complaint I have are the lackluster cyberspace sequences. This game is really spectacular and blows most modern tripe clean out of the water.

President Bagel:

The controls are really only awkward at first. After taking the time to fully acclimatize myself with the interface and controls, I'm no longer finding any of it all that cumbersome. The movement physics are still a bit strange (particularly jumping, and how you'll glide a tiny bit when you stop moving), but the only noteworthy complaint I have are the lackluster cyberspace sequences. This game is really spectacular and blows most modern tripe clean out of the water.

Heh, I must seriously be the only person on Earth who liked the whole cyberspace wire-frame deal; at this point I'm thinking it probably has more to do with me being a sucker for classic cyberpunk (Neuromancer, Hardwired, Schismatrix, A Song Called Youth, the works) than with how well they actually played, honestly.

Seriously though, those, along with the more free-roaming structure (and SHODAN rambling semi-coherently at me every two minutes), were what I missed the most on System Shock 2.

stormtrooper9091:
Thing is, Dune II and System Shock were and still are far better than any Super Mario, Zelda and Doom. I'm inclined to believe those are only "better" classics because they appeared at the right time and were marketed differently.

I'm inclined to disagree.
Most classic games came at the right time, so that is nothing special really.

Also, I've played Dune II, and it is not in any way better than Ocarina of Time or Super Mario 64, certainly not far better.
Matter of fact, I remember Dune II as sort of shit.
Can't say I've played System Shock, but labeling it as 1 of only 2 worthwile classics seems a bit odd.

A lot of you seem to be missing the point of System Shock's importance (as well as Dune 2 etc.) - their importance is based on the fact that, usually, before they came around there was precious little that did what they did. They were genesis in many ways for game concepts and techniques that are still around today. Dune 2 is fucking terrible to play these days because it didn't have the one thing that makes an RTS like it easy to play: click-dragging a box to select multiple units. If you wanted to move your army across the map, you had to do so one at a time. As a kid, I got quite efficient at it, but I don't pine for the days where click-dragging didn't exist. Doesn't change the fact that it created much of what is still around even today in the likes of Starcraft 2. Same goes for System Shock and it's mix of FPS and RPG. Or it's villain. Or it's design. The interface was terrible, which is why it's the greatest game you don't ever need to play again, but 50% of it's DNA is found in copious AAA games on the market even today. Not just Deus Ex, Thief and Bioshock.

Look at it this way - nobody wants to drive a Model T Ford these days as your everyday car, but we can still appreciate it for what it did to cars as a whole.

 

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