I just read the Escapist article published October 4, 2019, in which Warren Spector and Paul Neurath are inteviewed about System Shock 3.
I have Some Thoughts. :D
First, the comments from Warren and Paul are really meaty. There’s some great information here, including how Paul views what happened with Underworld Ascendant and the lessons – for OtherSide Studios – that he’s drawn from it.
Second… oof. The hang-wringing, woe-is-us millenarianism from the interviewer is unnecessary, inaccurate, and gets in the way of the interview. It is not a good framing for any article, much less one about a computer game we get to play (and write online articles about) precisely because we’re not facing anything even remotely like an actual species survival challenge at this moment.
Yes, there are some real problems in the world today. (And it would be a mistake to assume you and I disagree on what some of those problems might be.) But this is the world in which humanity has already survived multiple species-lethal threats, and did so with far fewer problem-solving resources than are available to us now. Also, I was there for Y2K. I worked on Y2K solutions. It was a nothingburger because we solved that problem, just like we successfully solve everything else that is an actual problem.
There is room for intelligent fictional dystopias. It’s not a bad thing to be reminded, carefully, with attention to the reality of human nature and cultural progress, that humanity is indeed always capable of hurting itself. Wisdom is what prevents our powerful tools from turning on us, and scary fiction, thoughtfully presented, can be a useful caution. But whether it’s because someone, inexplicably, wants to believe the world is worse off than it actually is, or for more cynical reasons, the ahistorical “we’re doomed (and it’s our fault!)” stuff is without value and has no value in a conversation among adults.
Now, the positive things from that interview (and there were plenty of them). It is a source of continuing pleasure to me that Warren actually says all the things I most want a game designer to say. I care about immersion in my fictional worlds: he gets that. I thought one of the (if not the) most important functional aspect of System Shock was how everything combined to deliver a game whose pacing rewards intelligent play: he gets that. And the most interesting question we can ask – a question we have the opportunity to ask because our civilization has been so successful, by the way – is always, “what does it mean to be human?”: Warren absolutely gets that.
In particular, Warren’s comment on pacing deserves a quote:
“The most important thing to me is the pacing,” he said. “It’s not just a straightforward shooter pacing where you run and gun, and move forward like a shark, and inevitably succeed if you keep saving all the time. What System Shock had was pacing more along the lines of stop, see a challenge, or hear a challenge, make a plan, and then execute that plan.”
YES. Anyone here who’s been on the OtherSide forums for any length of time has already heard me banging on repeatedly about the pacing of System Shock, but I haven’t described it as eloquently (or succinctly) as Warren. But to reiterate: while you could play the original game in a kind of run-n-gun way, it clearly wasn’t designed with that playstyle as the primary intended play experience. SS, so unlike most games since, rewards thinking within an action game framework.
Most games are not so much tactical challenges as obstacle courses: just banging into a challenge enough times is sufficient to eventually win. In other words, what most games reward is persistence: they want most players to be able to beat the game. That’s what allows repeat sales. So most games are designed to allow anyone to win by simply trying enough times. They ask not for thought, or feeling, which most people already do more than enough of during the day, but for a simple investment of time.
Some games try to engage your heart through a gripping narrative, such as The Last of Us. But there’s a fraction of games such as System Shock and a few others (such as Zach Barth’s: SpaceChem, TIS-100, etc.) that ask the player to think – to accurately perceive the key dynamic elements of the local (gameworld) environment, to imaginatively create a plan to use those elements to change the environment to the player’s favor, and to thoughtfully analyze the consequences of implementing a plan so as to perform even more effectively next time. That’s not a game you can win (or, at least, enjoy) through nothing but simple persistence. That’s a game that rewards the (many) gamers who enjoy being perceptive and clever and thoughtful, including in their action games.
System Shock was exactly that kind of game.
And then, within System Shock’s mechanics and dynamics, the Looking Glass team also layered and integrated a well-told story about what it means to be human. This is basically what all science fiction and superhero stories are about: given radically greater power, does this change a person, or a culture? If so, does using this power cause us to stop being human in some way that matters?
System Shock, albeit in a limited way caused by being set within an action game that the player has to be able to win, grappled with this question of the human condition through its setting, opponents, and audio logs. While you thought your way through the action challenges, you could not escape the meaning of them: the dangerous tool you set free is now trying to kill you. What, if anything, can you learn about the wisdom of creating thinking systems with no ethical constraints?
And notice that System Shock doesn’t try to answer that question for you through a hard-coded story. That’s a question YOU have to answer for yourself. That refusal to impose meaning on players, to demand that they decide for themselves, is a hallmark of Warren’s games; it’s something he’s clearly proud of achieving in Deus Ex, and rightly so. And, if to a lesser extent, that expectation of both freedom and responsibility to think, to decide, to reflect and choose, runs thoughought the DNA of System Shock as well.
There have been few games like System Shock, ever. There should be more like it. Games that ask players to think meaningfully is a real and enormously underserved market. It’s completely fair to acknowledge that the percentage of gamers who like prefer this kind of fun is significantly smaller than those who (perfectly reasonably) enjoy persistence-rewarding games. This is why sales of thoughtful games have historically been much lower than sales for games where just bulling forward is enough to win.
But that’s a percentage, a relative comparison. The enormous number of people now playing computer games today means that the absolute number of people who dig thoughtful games is higher than it has ever been. That should mean a game designed – like System Shock – to deliver perceptive, creative, thoughtful action play that results in the kind of “stop, think, test, analyze” pacing Warren described, with reflection on deeper human themes, has a better-than-ever chance of being both a critical and a financial success.
Which, rightly, should encourage the money people to fund more such games.
And that would be a Good Thing.
But hey, no pressure.