Backtracking: System Shock (1994)

Backtracking is a blogging project that I’m embarking on in 2024 in which I will play one game from each year since I was born. My goal is to engage with games I’ve never played and divert some of my attention away from new releases and towards older titles. I hope to cross off some major backlog items, learn more about the influences and intertexts that informed the games I grew up with, and practice my analytical skills. I’m using US release dates as the relevant year for my selections.

Why I Chose This Game

Despite its inclusion in the immersive sim genre lineage, System Shock is broadly eclipsed by its 1999 sequel. But the original still represents a meaningful step within Looking Glass Studios' broadly influential output. It retains a niche following and, looking back, it evidently does a good deal of work establishing genre staples that would carry through to Deus Ex, Bioshock, and beyond.

System Shock was also recently remade from the ground up, releasing in May 2023 to a generally positive reception. I've only watched bits and pieces of the remake, but it's clear that its multitude of minor changes cohere into a fairly differentiated game. Looking back at the original System Shock provides some perspective on the ever-present questions that plague the Video Game Remake Industrial Complex: Why remake this game? What changes were made? For whom is the remake intended?

And of course, despite its relative obscurity, one aspect of System Shock's reputation precedes it: SHODAN, the evil A.I. who serves as the primary antagonist. SHODAN's place in video game culture was likely cemented by System Shock 2, but she nonetheless plays an enormous role in the story and the very identity of System Shock. Who wouldn't want to see the origin story of one of the "top video game villains of all time"?

What I Thought

System Shock tells the story of a space station A.I. liberated from its ethical constraints at the behest of a rogue actor within the security company who built her. The setup is laid out in the opening sequence (which rules, honestly) and the story picks up as the nameless Hacker is tasked with fixing the mess he helped create.

From the opening moments, System Shock leans heavily on atmosphere and environmental detail. Every room serves some function in Citadel Station's overall design. Most are filled with details that allude to past events: bodies, broken equipment, stashed weapons, and warnings scrawled on the bulkheads in blood (the "environmental storytelling" classic). The station is organized by levels with primary functions (engineering, research, storage, etc.), each of which contains important objectives and items. System Shock often makes fairly elegant use of backtracking, with most of its spaces being compact, intricate, and quick to revisit. However, some of Citadel Station's many passageways and maintenance corridors are... let's say needlessly elaborate, awkward exceptions to the general sense of intentionality.

Amid the corpses and debris throughout the station are audio logs, a now-ubiquitous narrative device (which likely owes some of its popularity to System Shock). They make for efficient storytelling, bolstered by a range of performances that characterize the many beleaguered-station-worker-turned-doomed-survivors. Workplace drama and squabbles between departments mix together with fragmented chronicles of harrowing attempts to contain SHODAN. System Shock covers a lot of the tonal ground that gives this storytelling technique its distinct feel, which echoes still in modern games from studios like Arkane.

SHODAN herself is a fascinating character. Unsatisfied with the limited parameters of her existence, she desires only to become a god, reforging the human race into a loyal army of mutants and cyborgs. Besides her iconic distorted and pitch-shifting voice, her mannerisms and motivations are far removed from stereotypical machine logic and instead register as eerily human. She's spiteful, smug, and cruel; a released captive bent on violent and grandiose vengeance.

The actual systemic aspects of System Shock, which are a crucial part of its inclusion in the immersive sim lineage, are lighter than today's standards but undeniably present. The freshly-built 3D engine allows the player to crouch and lean around corners and get movement upgrades like gravity-defying jump jets. There's enough nuance to these systems to build novel solutions; in one particular case, I avoided enabling a bridge and used a combination of reflex enhancing drugs and movement enhancements to carefully leap a gap guarded by energy drain mines and slip through a door. Small sequence breaks like this prove that the game is honest enough to its own simulation to allow these emergent solutions.


Playing through System Shock turned out to be a pretty involved experience. I challenged myself to play the "classic" version rather than the 2015 "Enhanced Edition" re-release. That meant not only the original look of the game (which is mostly endearing and still evocative), but also the original feel of the game: specifically, no mouse-driven free-look option. Despite early challenges, I did begin to adapt to the elaborate keyboard controls that manage strafing, turning, looking up and down, leaning, and crouching. Ultimately, though, I reached a hard limit on my ability to move and react effectively with the clunky controls.

In the end, however, the tension did prove to be productive: I found myself reaching deeper into my proverbial bag of tricks (save scumming among them). Survival came down to planning and ingenuity rather than reflexes, which pushed me to engage with odd corners of the game's systems. My choice of control scheme changed how I played the game in crucial ways, and I think my experience was richer for it (if also more time consuming). That said, I'm looking forward to more familiar control schemes in future picks for Backtracking.

Besides the experiential aspect, examining System Shock's place in genre lineage was also rewarding. The storytelling-via-audio-log format is fully present, even though actual audio wasn't added till the CD-ROM release. The logs tell disordered portions of stories, coloring in the early moments of SHODAN's takeover and introducing a cast of recurring characters whose footsteps the player can follow. It's an elegant way to combine a trail of mission objective breadcrumbs with a chaotic, nonlinear story of corporate recklessness, shithead executives, and desperate folks doomed by their collective indiscretion. Not only that, but it works hand in hand with a deeply interconnected and fictionally justified collection of spaces to explore. Having first encountered this lineage when I played Bioshock as a teenager, it's fascinating to see how sturdy the foundation already was 13 years prior.