After 22 years, cyberpunk cult classic System Shock is getting an update. A "reimagined" version of the 1994 Windows PC game is in the works at Night Dive Studios for PC and Xbox One, and it's a project that company founder Stephen Kick says he can hardly believe is really happening.
"It's pretty much beyond my wildest dreams," he says.
We talked to Kick along with Larry Kuperman, director of business development at Night Dive, about the project, which we first caught a glimpse of last fall. While the revamped version of the original — with new graphics, an updated user interface and other tweaks — won't ship until sometime in 2017, the studio is eager to give a look at what it's been working on.
The video above shows off the first two minutes of the game. Fans might recognize the medical suite setting at first but, Kick tells us, Night Dive has made some large alterations.
"At the end of the video," he says, "you'll see this massive room with these windows spanning the length of the floor, and outside you'll see Saturn and galaxies surrounding the station" in which the game takes place.
That's the kind of grandiosity that's absent in the original System Shock, and, according to Kick, it's immersive touches like these that make this more than an upgrade. He explains that these subtle additions or tweaks go toward crafting a feeling of "extreme isolation."
Evoking that sensation is something that modern technology affords System Shock now more than it did back in the '90s when Looking Glass Studios was working on it. The original game is meant to be a lonely experience; players control an unseen, unnamed hacker on an uninhabited space station. There are few points of contact, with the most vocal being the artificially intelligent SHODAN. But Kick says that the era's technical limitations kept the game from achieving its intended tone of alienation.
"We've kind of shifted the tone from the original game of a horror adventure to more of a horror experience," Kick says, naming Dead Space as an influence on the revamp of System Shock, which will otherwise maintain the original's story. Changing up the classic chiptune soundtrack to something a bit more subtle is one way that Night Dive hopes to achieve that goal.
Drawing inspiration from games that bear System Shock's influence, like Dead Space and even spiritual successor BioShock, might seem ironic. To Kuperman, however, it makes sense; he compares the process to literary adaptations before explaining that borrowing effective elements from like-minded projects is par for the course in game design, too.
"It usually works that, if you're open to it, it usually works out in a pretty beneficial fashion," he says.
"The System Shock franchise is so storied and there are so many fans there"
Night Dive is looking at the critical and commercial acclaimed BioShock on a design level; Kick praises its sound design and world-building, citing them as influences on the development of the reimagined System Shock. The studio also acknowledges that, for many younger gamers, BioShock is the first thing that comes to mind when talking about System Shock.
The popularity of that series, published by 2K Games, has proven beneficial in increasing awareness of its predecessor, Night Dive says, enabling the latter studio to produce an "enhanced edition" of the original System Shock for PC once it acquired the license to the series. But fans of the BioShock series, which was originated by former members of Looking Glass Studios, interested in going back to its roots might be disappointed by the 1994 game, Kick admits.
"It's a little too archaic to hold a lot of people's attention," he says. Making use of modern conveniences and redesigning for contemporary sensibilities is thus a priority for the development team.
Along with the tonal changes and what the developer hopes will be more immersive gameplay, the user interface has been remade; Kuperman calls it far more user-friendly. But Night Dive is trying not to neglect the tried-and-true System Shock fans while updating the game to a contemporary audience.
The studio has reached out to the thriving community at SystemShock.org, which still creates mods for the old PC games — both System Shock and its 1999 sequel, System Shock 2. "We've received a lot of feedback in terms of what they're looking for or hoping for with this," Kick says. "We've compiled that data and we're starting to kind of go through it and apply some of the better ideas and influences that we've had from them."
Original artist Robb Waters is also on board to help bridge the gap between old and new. The team's goal is to maintain the feel of the original game but achieve an aesthetic that wasn't possible with the tech available back in the early '90s.
Some of those who have already given the project a vote of confidence include Microsoft, who is helping Night Dive bring the System Shock remake to Xbox One, although the pair neglected to get into the particulars of that relationship; it will be the studio's first console game. The studio is also weighing its options for publishers and funding, and is considering crowdfunding.
There's also a System Shock 3 in the works, a completely new game that Night Dive is working with OtherSide Entertainment — Looking Glass Studios' founder Paul Neurath's company — to develop. But the System Shock reimagining project remains at the fore of Kick and Kuperman's minds.
"The System Shock franchise is so storied and there are so many fans there," Kick says.
"It we can get a little more attention and eyes focused on the brand, there's no telling what kinds of amazing things we're gonna see come from that."