What System Shock 3 Needs to be About

OtherSide Entertainment has revealed that one of my all-time favorite villain, SHODAN will be returning with System Shock 3. This is not a big surprise, although this made me wonder if SHODAN is really that essential to System Shock, or are there much more important elements in the series that we need to see?

Don’t get me wrong: SHODAN is the trademark of the series (especially if Terri Brosius is involved). If the story justifies her presence, if the developers can make her new and terrifying again, if she’s not just a recycled icon repeating her catchphrases… she might be the star again.


But System Shock is fundamentally a game about the clash of philosophical ideas, and SHODAN is merely an impersonation of one side. System Shock was always about humanity. How the human race fares in extreme situations. It was about the importance of the individual versus the needs of the many. It was about flesh versus technology. About the corruption of certitudes. About the culture shock in reaction to a higher system (artificial intelligence, space exploration, augmentation of humans, etc.).

More importantly, the game allowed the players the freedom to approach and interpret their dire situation in any way they wanted (even if that freedom was an illusion).

This is the reason why System Shock 2 remains a fan favorite, and is even today very well playable (adding HD textures and controller support, it’s more accessible to newer players). It is a hard game, harder than anything we’re used to nowadays, but even so, one cannot deny its superiority when compared to the more streamlined, yet more safe Bioshock.

System Shock worked well because of these principles:

  • The player’s nemesis isn’t the “villain” of the game (SHODAN). The player’s enemy is the hostility of the environment, and the fact that the player is merely a puppet in a fight of a much bigger scale (Bioshock tackled this as well). This has a subtle lovecraftian philosophy behind it, but it’s much more contemporary.
  • The player has limited resources, whereas the environment has unlimited resources. The player’s goal isn’t to emerge victorious, but to survive. System Shock 3 needs to be very careful with this, without replicating the biggest fault of System Shock 2 (that you can develop a useless character), but also, it shouldn’t allow players to play through a power fantasy where the player can do anything.
  • The game features one location: a series of interconnected levels where progress can be nonlinear, yet confined enough to be claustrophobic. A sort of metroidvania-style level design. A spaceship is a viable option for System Shock 3, if not overused: I’d like to see a small, secluded colony on a desolate planet for a change.
  • The player must make use of the opportunities and tools the environment provides, and not (only) rely on weapons and tools that can be picked up and stored for later use.
  • No ingame cutscenes interrupt the exploration, atmosphere. That’s a standard for Looking Glass (as well as Half-Life, Dark Souls, games by Frictional, essentially any horror game where the illusion of control is contrasted with the vulnerability of the player).

I dare say that with the success of From Software’s games, there might be a chance that System Shock 3 will not be afraid to appeal to gamers who love the sense of danger, insignificance and vulnerability, because frankly, this is a key element that needs to be present. Anything less wouldn’t be a shock. The absurd amount of shooting and the easy progress in Bioshock Infinite proved that even a great story and great visual presentation can be ruined with ludonarrative dissonance. System Shock is about the shock. It needs to shock its audience.

And here lies the danger involving SHODAN: we all know her. She’s not shocking anymore. She alone cannot make System Shock 3 work. This is most important: she can be present, she can be utilized well in the story, but she shouldn’t be the ultimate villain. The “big twist” in System Shock 2 was awkward because SHODAN was already featured on the cover of the game, even if it was a very-very effective dramatic moment. But it was a delightful experience that there was another voice: the Many.

So I would say: System Shock 3 shouldn’t be about SHODAN. If it is, she should become a much more complex character to show her new intentions, new abilities, anything that is surprising and shocking, yet not incompatible with her previous incarnations. But better to involve more threats without overcrowding the game, or make it about the player without being too heavy-handed with the narrative.

To put it more simply, System Shock 3 needs to be about system shock.

This is a massive, ambitious goal, and System Shock 3 needs to be a very balanced, very delicate, nuanced, tight and focused game. Many critics have mentioned that System Shock 2 is too short; I say it has the perfect lenght for its tension. It falls apart in one of the late levels (involving the body of the Many), but mainly because some odd level design choices. Still, it worked well as a shorter game.

I don’t envy OtherSide Entertainment. We’ve seen how the “oldschool” fans of Thief tore the new game apart even before release, I’d say System Shock has even more dedicated, ferocious and probably very intelligent and design-aware fan base, but not big enough to support a triple-A production, so it’s a challenge. It’s a very dangerous undertaking, but if in any way successful, probably very rewarding as well.

I wish OtherSide good luck for it.


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