Enhanced System Shock Lets You Play in Near High-Definition
Before BioShock, before DOS gaming latecomers got hip to Irrational’s oeuvre and spilled tubs of ink over System Shock 2, there was simply System Shock.
Not the most popular Shock, nor the smartest, nor the artiest, but at least for me, it was the most momentous. System Shock 2, BioShock, and BioShock Infinite had a fraction of its impact on my embryonic notions of what videogames were, or might eventually be.
And now, thanks to the wreck-salvaging wizards at Night Dive Studios, you can revisit the game at 1024-by-768 pixels. That’s twice its original maximum resolution. Night Dive’s gone so far as to include widescreen support (854-by-480 pixels) as well as the option to use a mouse to swing the view around. You can grab it from GOG right now for $8 (that’s with the promotional discount; it’ll eventually go for $10).
First experiences shape us. You can watch Raiders of the Lost Ark before Casablanca and get yourself into a strange but kind of cool archetypal feedback loop when you finally circle back to the inspirational material. I came to System Shock before I picked up Neuromancer or Mirrorshades or Snow Crash. It’s still what I think of first when I see the word cyberpunk.
I remember crawling through its Citadel space station’s involuted galleries—graffiti on sapphire floor-to-ceiling tile, busy Borg-like textures on sloped three-dimensional surfaces (the simple miracle of not-faked 3D in a first-person game!)—passing through hexagonal doorways and trapezoidal crawlways. You could look up, and not just kinda-sorta, like in Doom, but fully vertical, admiring the way, say, that a multilevel ceiling might converge in a cluster of orthogonal turns and recessed alcoves.
The game had a fascinating pre-Apple-Store-sterile visual vibe, too. Glowing wall panels were stippled with crisscross patterns that shimmered parabolically as your perspective changed (an aesthetic unto itself that I miss sometimes). Its lack of realtime light sourcing gave it a perpetually dim, 1970s sci-fi flick ambience that ironically complemented its simple but grim 256-color palette. I sometimes miss that, too.
You had all that self-augmentation bizarreness, like the implants that let you do indoor barrel rolls, a flight-sim-inspired premise based on actual rules of inertia (indoor physics!). You had its inspired, completely unexpected take cyberspace: convoluted digital chutes you zipped along like surfing wireframe waterslides, trying to solve quirky geometric puzzles.
I still have nightmares about supervillain SHODAN’s chimerical trans-human horrors, by the way. What mutant two-dimensional sprites lack in creepy kinetic fluidity, they more than make up for in jerking, twitching freakishness—like the stop-motion surreality of a Quay Brothers film, and just as indelible.