The Making Of: System Shock 2
“My job was to present SHODAN in a fresh way,” Levine says. “You’ve encountered her in the first game, and if she says the same things, why is it Shock 2? Why isn’t it Shock 1.5?” The result was to team SHODAN up with the player as a prickly, uncomfortable ally – but an ally nevertheless. “That was pretty daring for the time,” says Levine of the AI’s introduction. “Villains appeared in cutscenes, did their thing and then disappeared when you jumped on their head three times. It was really fun to try and do something more sophisticated. That twist at the beginning – even how she was introduced to you – was an important part of continuing her character and making sure the player knew what they were dealing with.”
In the working partnership with Looking Glass, Irrational provided the design, art and programming, while its old company provided the Dark Engine’s technology base and the services of its quality assurance team. Looking Glass also provided other talents, including sound maestro Eric Brosius (who has been involved with everything from Thief to Guitar Hero). His work on System Shock 2 is particularly memorable. “One of the reasons that he creates such powerful soundscapes is that he creates a soundspace which has a bit of ambiguity to it,” Levine argues.
“You can’t identify every single thing you can hear. Sounds, voices, things people are saying, things you can’t hear that are of unclear meaning. That creates a great deal of tension. It adds another element of mystery, another element of suspense.” Audio is undoubtedly one of System Shock 2’s highpoints, with designer, writer and wife of Eric, Terri Brosius, reprising her role as SHODAN, sitting alongside a host of memorable roles, from mutants to robots to… psionic monkeys?
It wasn’t just the team that was inexperienced; the Dark Engine itself was far from finished technology. The latter, while one of the most fondly remembered of the game’s cast, were actually an fortuitous accident. Finishing a mo-cap session two hours early, Levine was bullied by Jon Chey into just doing something to justify the time they’d paid for. “So I said [to the motion-capture actor]: ‘Do monkey motions’,” Levine says. “We had no monkeys in the game, but we did it anyway.” These assets had to find a home, and Levine hit on the idea of lab-experimented apes gaining sentience, and being justifiably annoyed about their treatment at the hands of Man.
“All those story elements we had to back-solve. I find I tend to write best in those situations, when I have a constraint set already,” Levine remembers. “I had these psychic monkeys… so I had to work out how and why, in a way which wasn’t ridiculous and hopefully kinda scary. When my back’s to a wall, I tend to work better.” Not that everyone saw the appeal of psychic monkeys from the outset: “Everyone else was: ‘Dude, you’re ****ing insane. We’re not having monkeys in the game!’”
That was about as easy as the development got. Every element was problematic. “No time. No money. I had no experience,” Levine states. “I’d never shipped a game before that.” In fact, of the three founders, only Chey had actually done so. “I think that only one or two people on the team had shipped a game before,” Levine adds. “That was a blessing and a curse. We had no idea what we were doing in some ways, but we also had no idea what we couldn’t do. That’s why the game feels innovative to some degree, as we were figuring it out as we went along.”
It wasn’t just the team that was inexperienced; the Dark Engine itself was far from finished technology, as Shock 2 was well under way before Thief came out. “It was still pretty broken,” Levine says. “It ended up giving us a lot of powerful things, but it constrained us in a lot of ways.” For example, the oft-ridiculed low-polygon models resulted from having to make a conservative guess at what the engine would definitely be able to manage and still be playable. There was also some misplaced effort in creating the co-op multiplayer which was patched into the game post release. “It was a real distraction,” Levine laments. “There are a number of people who really enjoyed it, but the amount of time versus the amount of reward for that versus what we could have done with the rest of the game… I don’t think it was a win. The singleplayer game would have been much, much, much stronger if we had that time back.”
Not that it hurt Shock 2’s critical standing; despite slender sales (“I don’t know the exact figures, but it certainly wasn’t a blockbuster”), the game has grown in people’s minds since, a key influence on the hype for Irrational’s BioShock. “When I first did it, people would just look at me unless they were the intelligentsia of the intelligentsia of the industry,” Levine says. “But now there’s so many people who know it. I’d imagine if the game was still available commercially, it’d still be selling – and would probably have been a small success at that point. It may have made money because it was so cheap to produce.”
Away from the matters of its financial performance, in terms of why it lingers in the imagination, Levine settles on the immaterial. Despite all the problems of its development, Shock 2 engaged with the imagination. “I think it has an atmosphere. Not a lot of games have atmosphere, and that really draws people,” he argues. “It’s not a Lord Of The Rings atmosphere, and I think people are drawn to that.”