System Shock team CEO talks remaking classics, Dishonored, and changing fundamental features
Remakes are, of course, all over shelves and digital storefronts right now, but that doesn't mean they're not approached with care.
They have to be, of course - the risks with a remake are exponentially higher, as well as being forced to cater to an audience who knows what to expect and will unleash hell if those expectations aren't met. Preexisting games returning to life on modern hardware isn't a new concept, but as they make for the biggest releases in any given year these days, it's clear that complaints of their dominance will never outweigh fans' willingness to return to familiar worlds, now more than ever. So, as we remake titles that players merely remember enjoying, it makes sense to use the opportunity as something of a time capsule, and inject some much-needed love into the classics.
This brings us to the doorstep of Nightdive Studios, the team tasked with bringing System Shock, one of the most influencial modern FPS games that gave way to a critical powerhouse of a sequel, to modernity. And while the game is iconic for innumerable reasons, don't expect to know what this new incarnation of System Shock looks like - because much like its AI antagonist, it has an unexpected mind of its own.
System Shock's remake has some lucky timing
Let's be clear about something - System Shock is a big deal. 1994's prime shooter title, coming only a year after DOOM, might not have been met with more critical praise, but it laid the groundwork for something much more intricate. Its gameplay leaned more into Simulator grounds for more detailed immersion, but a great deal of this came down to its limited hardware. Nightdive Studios has made some changes to better reflect the times, but that doesn't mean they weren't wary of poking around at what had clearly worked before.
"There was always a concern that we were meddling with what made it special," Nightdive Studios CEO Stephen Kick tells GGRecon. "but we always, at least on our side, believed that we found a compromise to that." These compromises have manifested in various ways, according to Kick, and the influence on their appearance isn't restricted to the franchise itself.
"We took a look at the legacy of System Shock and all of the games that it inspired, not only System Shock 2 but the Bioshock series, the games from Arkane, Dishonored, Dishonored 2, Arx Fatalis, as well as some of the other projects from the Looking Glass and Origin alumni, like Deus Ex of course."
System Shock has been remade into a world that doesn't need to feature an augmentation to assist players in looking behind them as a result of its admittedly dreadful technical abilities, and so Nightdive has taken various steps to modernise the game. But it's pretty good timing for the game, as while AI seeps into our day-to-day lives and retro-futurism comes back into fashion, it's as though System Shock was always destined to appear to us now in spite of its original 2017 release date.
"It really will contribute to the discussion that everyone's having about AI rights and who has the right to create AI. It's all being laid out now, and it really is the perfect time for System Shock."
System Shock's remake has history to contend with
Truly, it is the differences between the gaming standards of System Shock's era and ours that make the notion of a remade version so compelling. So many elements of the game in its classic state are workarounds for problems in gaming that don't exist anymore, like a rear-view window and a meandering inventory system, but System Shock is willing to make these sacrifices to drag it into the light of 2023.
"For the most part, all the enhancements and upgrades to your character are available still," Kick tells us. "They've been reworked slightly to kind of fall within the balance of our game and our mechanics and everything. But again, if you've played the original, it's gonna seem very familiar at first until you start really diving in."
What's particularly fascinating about this remake, too, is how it approaches its iconic soundtrack - an industrial, Nine Inch Nails-inspired clanging thumper of a soundscape that offers the energy of DOOM without forgetting its cold, sleek setting. But the System Shock of 2023 doesn't adhere to this and has opted for a more contemporary route.
"We opted to go for more of an atmospheric take on the soundtrack," says Kick. "We understand that the original soundtrack, this industrial kind of upbeat, almost dancey vibe was kind of an integral part of the experience. But with the move to sing dynamic lighting and the amount of gore there is and just how solemn the environments tend to be, we did make the decision to make the music a bit moodier to reflect that kind of overall atmosphere." Stephen agrees that it's more Doom 3 than DOOM Eternal with a chuckle, and it's with this that it becomes clear that System Shock clearly loves its source material, but won't allow itself to be tethered by it.
It's refreshing to see the CEO of a team developing a remade game take such ownership of his game. Remakes are expected all too often to cling to their source material and replicate its experience, albeit with upgraded graphics and sound. It's clear that Kick's team have a vision for System Shock, and it doesn't stay magnetised to the mid-90s.
System Shock 2023 has its own path to carve
Kick reflects the attitudes of his devs, and it's with this that hope is distilled into System Shock. Though there's something incredibly appealing about the thought of taking down rogue AI in an archaic idea of the future on reflectively archaic hardware, to be brought into the future with such creativity and willingness to try new ideas makes this a remake that sets the bar for what remakes ultimately should be.
System Shock is, without doubt, a different experience to the one that you remember - but as the arguments for and against remakes in mere concept rage on, it's titles like this one that both prove the worth of remakes, and challenges the idea that we have to see the same thing over and over in succession.
SHODAN might be back, but it's that she's back with a new look and new malice that makes it all so exciting. This ain't your daddy's System Shock - and that's just the way that Nightdive Studios wanted it to be.