clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
SHODAN, the evil AI in the System Shock remake, displayed as a series of digital pathways across an entire image Image: Nightdive Studios/Prime Matter

Filed under:

The System Shock remake does something remarkable

Nightdive’s version of the 1994 classic emphasizes the passage of time

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: You wake up in a futuristic medical bay on an orbital space station with some new cyber implants, only to realize that everyone else is dead. I could be talking about BioShock or Dead Space or even, if you squint, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. But in this case, I’m talking about System Shock, which has been remade by Nightdive Studios. This new version reveals how much video games as a whole owe to the 1994 classic.

Before I was deeply entrenched in the world of video games as a critic and a journalist, I knew about System Shock, but it wasn’t possible for me to play it. Originally developed by Looking Glass Studios, it was a moderate hit at the time, but not explosively popular like its contemporary Doom. Over time its legacy has grown, explicitly influencing games like the aforementioned BioShock and Dead Space, but also Dishonored, Prey, and Deathloop. It also popularized some narrative techniques that now feel tired, like the general practice of telling your story through audio logs.

I had always wanted to play System Shock, to trace the lines of video game history, but as an older, PC-only game, it was hard to get my hands on. Too long had passed between the game’s release and the present day for System Shock to be accessible, not just in the sense that I was accustomed to more modern games with better UI and more intuitive controls, but also in the sense that it was not available to purchase anywhere. For a large part of my youth, System Shock, a game so old it was originally released on floppy disc, was distributed by fans via downloads of dubious legality. When I first looked up the game, having heard it was a huge influence on pretty much every game that came in its wake, I instead found people on forums telling other readers to just go straight to System Shock 2.

The player wields a large wrench as they approach a robot in the System Shock remake Image: Nightdive Studios/Prime Matter

You can now play the original System Shock, also thanks to Nightdive. The studio acquired the rights to the game in 2012 and re-released it as the Enhanced Edition in 2015. And you could go and play this remastered edition right now and enjoy it for its many pleasures, even if they don’t hit quite the same way 29 years on. The then-revolutionary physics engine, originally programmed by Seamus Blackley for Flight Unlimited, can’t leave the same impression on players in 2023 as it did in 1994; we have all seen too many physics engines that cribbed Blackley’s work in the meantime. If you don’t think you can play a game from 1994, then the System Shock remake does quite nicely. Sometimes, it even does something remarkable and original: It makes you truly understand the passage of time.

The System Shock remake is beautiful. It’s not a fully reimagined game like the Final Fantasy 7 remake, nor does it wholly abandon the aesthetics and art style of the original like the remake of Shadow of the Colossus. But it looks like the way games from 1994 appear in my memory. Smoke spouts from vents and dissipates into pixels. The lighting is often dramatic, your screen saturated in deep red with bright blue sparks emitting from the light fixtures. In your hands, your lead pipe hangs heavy in front of your face, swinging directly in front of your field of vision, sometimes slightly pixelated in the light. You walk slowly — oh so slowly — down narrow hallways with flickering lighting, trapped in metal maintenance corridors as you try to make your way through the map. It’s a dungeon-crawler wearing a shooter’s skin.

Famously, System Shock is the story of the Hacker, who was caught hacking into the TriOptimum Corporation. You’re whisked away to its orbital space station, called the Citadel, and given a job: join the corporation and get a fancy neural implant in exchange for removing the ethics protocols of their AI, SHODAN. SHODAN, it turns out, really needed those ethics protocols, and when you wake up after surgery, she has murdered everyone in the station and turned them into mutants and cyborgs.

The player fires a purple laser beam at an approaching robot on treads in the System Shock remake Image: Nightdive Studios/Prime Matter

If you are a fan of video games, you’ve met SHODAN before, in some shape or form. If you’ve played Portal, you’ve interacted with a very close relative of hers. The character archetype SHODAN would create, of a female AI that’s lost its morals with an acerbic, glitchy voice, is now a cliche. GLaDOS is just SHODAN with a sense of humor and a sense of personal animosity toward the player. In System Shock, SHODAN’s hate is cold and pure, the way you hate insects when they get inside the house; they’re below you, and not supposed to be here. As you make your way through the levels, she promises that she’ll strap you to a torture chair and that “you’ll learn more about pain than you ever wanted to know.”

SHODAN’s presence still feels new, somehow — or maybe, everything old just becomes new again. What does feel incredible is the way the flourishes of the remake highlight System Shock’s lineage even more. When you charge your electric weapons in the charging stations, electricity dances on your fingers, and I remember how BioShock descended from this game. When System Shock leans on its horror elements, thrusting you into a dark room with a groaning monster, I remember why I hadn’t played Dead Space; System Shock is more my speed of creepy, but I can see how one became the next. Playing this game in this form helps me bring it into conversation with the entirety of the immersive sim genre, a loose collection of games that offer players open-ended gameplay. You can see the line from the Citadel all the way to the shores of Dunwall in Dishonored; the way Looking Glass, and now Nightdive, offers the Citadel to you not just as a space station but a puzzle, a map for you to unfold with little to no instructions on how to proceed. Seeing this done so expertly on a smaller scale makes me think of a kind of open world that hasn’t been technologically possible until quite recently: Skyrim, Breath of the Wild, Elden Ring.

A lobby-esque room on the space station the System Shock remake, replete with marbled-granite pillars and art deco trappings Image: Nightdive Studios/Prime Matter

What really excites me when I play System Shock is how little it holds my hand. You can — and probably will — eat absolute shit the first time you try to make your way through the medical bay. You can get yourself into unsolvable situations — it’s a game that asks you to pay attention, that doesn’t always signpost the next thing to do. It also rewards your curiosity as much as it does your caution. I often found my way through levels mostly by accident, by deciding to turn down hallways I hadn’t gone down before. There’s always a discovery — a new weapon or a vending machine or a shortcut — or at least a useful lesson lying in wait. It’s easy to understand why people played this game and then became obsessed with it, why you can trace some people’s careers through the game. Ken Levine, who worked at Looking Glass when it making System Shock, certainly never stopped trying to make System Shock, eventually giving BioShock: Infinite an ending that suggests there are thousands upon thousands of variations on this theme.

System Shock will be released on May 30 on Windows PC. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Prime Matter. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon