System Shock Series


So I just recently finished both System Shock 1 and 2 and I have to say that I think the First one is better. System Shock 2 suffers from a lot of problems that don’t get brought up that much. The level design in System shock 2 is very linear(compared to other looking glass games anyway) and the whole “play your own way” thing isn’t done as well as it should’ve been. There aren’t many different ways to approach and complete objectives or to arrive at areas and trying to complete the game primarily through the tech route(which is essentially also the stealth route) is pretty much impossible. I feel like a lot of these problems stem from the fact that that this game was being developed by two different developers that probably had different visions for what they wanted this game to be and Ken Levine got his true vision for the game he wanted to make with bioshock.

To be fair System shock 1 and even Ultima Underworld to an extent also suffered a little since these games didn’t have great stealth sections either but I can still excuse these games since they were some of the first of their kind and were made before thief was created. System shock 2 on the other hand came out after thief so I feel like it should’ve had more general improvements and not as many problems as I mentioned earlier.

System shock 1 feels more focused since its specifically about a hacker and the level design is weirdly better than system shock 2. I hope system shock 3 improves upon a lot of this and uses the same physics engine that Underworld ascendant is using. I really want the “play your own way” thing to shine in this game and for it be as immersive as possible.


That’s my feeling as well, although I’m not so down on System Shock 2.

Have you read Jon Chey’s post-mortem of SS2? It’s got some good info on why certain aspects of SS2 are the way they are. The IncGamers interview with Jon Chey and Dorian Hart is also illuminating.

I disagree with you a bit on the linearity question. If you think about it, traversing the individual levels of Citadel Station was pretty linear. In addition to backtracking, some levels required you to complete specific plot points before the higher levels would unlock. That’s not very different from how System Shock 2, and Ultima Underworld 2, and many other games are structured.

On stealth, someone from the original team can correct me if I’m wrong, but my impression is that the Looking Glass and Irrational folks who’d worked on Thief felt they’d already done stealth in Thief, and so didn’t want to emphasize that in their next game. That said, I lean toward agreeing with the feeling that, despite the very specific training paths at the start of System Shock 2, the Navy path never felt as fully fleshed-out as the Marine and OSI paths. You could specialize in combat, or psi, but you pretty much had to pick up the Hack skill no matter what, leaving the roguish playstyle not so much a choice as a necessity. (This is an observation others have made over the years.)

Really, for me the single most meaningful difference between SS1 and SS2 was the addition of the RPG stuff. Adding learnable skills in SS2 expanded the mechanical play options enormously over SS1, which emphasized power progression through the acquisition of new gear (mostly weapons). It also added to the narrative by giving SHODAN the opportunity to express her character by awarding (or retrieving!) cybermodules for upgrading skills.

I’m honestly conflicted about this. I actually think the RPG elements were handled very well in SS2 – they were fun to optimize, they created interesting choices, and they mattered to the play experience. I enjoyed them!

And yet… I find the original System Shock more memorable, not just because it was first but because that experience was, as you say, more focused without the RPG choice-making. As well-integrated into the game world as upgrading Stats, Weapon, Psi, and Tech skills was, and as enjoyable as using Psi and Tech skills was (Stats and Weapon skills were essentially passive), it’s fair to say they were so integral to success that focusing on them pulled me out of the world somewhat. They felt a bit game-y.

That wasn’t the case in the original System Shock. No RPG elements meant less “stuff” one could do in the game, and less opportunity to build a character that felt functionally unique or personally relatable. But it also meant that what remained constantly front-and-center was the world of the game itself. There certainly were mechanical moments (“Nice jump, human”), but they were moments – by far most of the game was a continuous emphasis on “Oh, man, what’s around this sharp corner, and am I wielding the best weapon to meet that threat?”

In a funny way, having fewer tools in System Shock ratcheted up the challenge, required more ingenuity, and emphasized the aesthetics of the world more constantly.

So why do we complain that the BioShocks, which were also simpler than System Shock 2, “dumbed down” the experience?

This is where I come back to the level design of System Shock, which I think was geometrically and dynamically much more complex than any of its descendants. If you’re going to eschew RPG mechanics, making the gameworld more continuously prominent to the player, then you’d better build that world to be complex and diverse and reactive – and I think that correctly describes System Shock, but less and less so the “Shock” games that followed it.

Basically, you can simplify the mechanics, or you can simplify the world, but you can’t do both if you want a game that’s appealing to thoughtful, creative gamers.

So: my personal preference for System Shock 3 would be a game that minimizes RPG skills and maximizes the active dynamics of the world. But my guess is that the OtherSide Austin team will wind up making a System Shock 3 sequel with RPG elements, because they think fans of SS2 will expect that, and whose world is only moderately dynamic, because they’ll believe they should be making “a game, not a simulation.”

That prediction could be wrong if the SS3 team can reuse a good chunk of the “Improvisation Engine” code from Underworld Ascendant. I think there’s a fair chance of this, given Warren’s stated interest in player-centric game design… but maybe economic reality dictates a more traditional structure for a System Shock 2 sequel that needs to earn back its development and advertising budget.

Sure would be nice to hear some official news on the System Shock 3 front. :wink:


I agree with this 100%.

And I might have to play SS1 since people here are praising it.


I want to make it clear that I still like System Shock 2 and I don’t hate it or anything.

Those two links that you posted are very illuminating and make me realize that there were time and money constraints and the fact that the game was actually mostly developed by irrational games. This might explain why I don’t like this game as much as the first since I’m also not a big fan of the bioshock games which also have a very linear feel to them.

You’re also right about some other looking glass games having linear design(and instead of doing the same thing I feel like we should be pushing them to improve this by making their future games less linear) but my main criticism has to do with the levels themselves not having a lot of alternative routes. Deus ex is a game I think that did this pretty well(I still criticize deus ex though for having its linear moments). The main story and some objectives are very linear but the map design isn’t linear and allows for lots of different playstyles although, as I’ve noted above, I would’ve like it better if deus ex wasn’t as linear either in its story. System Shock 2 on the other hand has the type of linear design that doesn’t allow for many different playstyles and renders most of the tech route pretty useless as you’ve noted as well.

I do agree that I would probably prefer less RPG mechanics and a much more dynamic world that allows for more player agency.

I will say that I should give Irrational Games a little of a break since there were time, money, and technical constraints and I didn’t expect them to do everything perfectly but I still stand by my criticisms as I see them as constructive so that hopefully they can be fixed for future releases.

Overall I would prefer System Shock 3 to be non-linear and have lots of player agency in a dynamic and immersive world and with Warren Spector being involved then this could be the case but who knows. I expected them to finish underworld ascendant and then work on system shock 3 but it appears that they are developing them concurrently so they will probably be using a completely different engine which makes me speculate what they are doing.

And yes System shock 1 is very well designed.


I also wanted to say that System shock 3 should have a more interactive and physical environment as well(akin to what we’re seeing with underworld ascendant). System Shock 2’s environment was also not as interactive and physics based as it could’ve been.


That’s a fair point. In fact, I hadn’t really thought of it this way before, but your comment made me realize that System Shock’s levels are, in a way, an upside-down version of the levels in the original Ultima Underworld.

In both cases, the levels are complex pathways, mostly at about the same height, that circle around a central core. In UU, that core is visible; it’s the walled-up well that you can peer into at each level that gets progressively brighter with lava the further down you go. In SS (other than the Reactor and Security levels) the “core” is really more the outer skin of the cylindrical Citadel Station; you basically move around it in a circle just as you did when exploring the Stygian Abyss. In both cases the exploration of a level feels non-linear – with some exceptions, you can move around in a level however you like.

But where in Ultima Underworld your direction through the levels was generally downward to find the Slasher of Veils, in System Shock you fought your way progressively upwards to meet SHODAN. There’s some backtracking, but both games gave you a clear sense of overall direction spanning the whole of each game. In a way, that “linearity” was helpful in keeping players focused on the larger goal – reach the next level down (UU) or up (SS) – while still letting them roam around pretty freely to explore each level individually.

You could say with some fairness that System Shock 2 and Deus Ex didn’t have this clear sense of physical direction in which to move. Their levels, especially in the case of Deus Ex, were less tightly connected to an “up” or “down.” But I’m not sure this cost either of those games too much, as in both of them the objective that would let you move to the next level was generally very competently signposted. Even if it wasn’t about moving upward or downward in a physical layout, SS2 and DX were still visibly linear; you could usually see how to finish a level to get to the next one.

If this analysis has any value, we might see better how it could be applied once we know more about the setting for System Shock 3.

If nothing else, the ending to SS2 will make a lot more sense if you do give SS1 a try.

The System Shock Enhanced edition is available at This version (based in part on fan mods, I believe) offers the original game’s 320x200 graphics and Underworld-style mouse movement/interaction controls, but adds improved graphics (up to 1024x768) and a WASD+mouselook mode.

GOG’s Enhanced edition also gives you the Classic release if you really want to see what playing the second version of the original game was like. :smiley:


Might want to wait for the source port before playing SS1.


Do it!


So yeah, My biggest problem with System Shock 2 has to due with its pretty linear map design that doesn’t actually allow for many different play-styles despite the whole “Play your own way” line unlike say thief or deus ex where the story for both are linear but the actual game-play isn’t which is kind of weird if you think about it. Even Warren Spector in this video,, says the same thing, at around 3:52 to 4:40, about the whole linear story but nonlinear game-play thing.

So I can understand that having a linear story in a lot of looking glass games was probably necessary due to technical limitations and due to a focus on non scripted gameplay, non linear map design with lots of alternative routes, very interactive and physics based environments, and simulation. So I would prefer a nonlinear story along with all those other things I mentioned but I can understand if they can’t do it because of money and time constraints. I’m kind of fine with a linear story as long as they have all those other things I mentioned which, as I said, system shock 2 fell short on but thief and deus ex excelled at.

I hope I explained myself better about System Shock 2 and I stand by my criticisms stated here and in the above posts. Hopefully System Shock 3 improves upon this and has most of what I said I wanted it to have as stated in my above posts.

I like to think that Warren Spector and people working on System Shock 3 are reading this thread and agreeing but they probably haven’t. lol


If the developer trying to tell a linear story imposes a linear high-level geometry (the path between areas) on a game world, that makes it sound like the thing to go after is a developer-written linear story. Take that away, and the areas of the world can be visited in any order, right?

So… either the developer has to give up trying to tell a story, leaving it entirely up to the player to create small stories – as in The Sims, for example – or the developer has to figure out how to tell their big story in a non-linear way.

Some movies have tried to take that latter option, such as Memento. But it’s really hard to do that in comprehensible way even in a two-hour movie. So how can a developer tell a satisfying story that doesn’t follow the usual beginning-middle-end sequence in a game that might last for many hours?

I’m not disagreeing with you. I’m just curious how you’d address this design question.


Yeah I see where you are coming from which is why I said I’m ok with a linear story as long as they have everything else and go the thief, deus ex, ultima underworld route where the map design allows for many different play-styles.

If they were going to try for a nonlinear story, one thing they could try is a branching level system where not only will there be things in levels that players miss due to a certain play-style and choices but there will also be whole levels that players miss out on also due to their play-style and choices. I’m going to use deus ex again as an example. As stated many times Deus ex’s story is linear but it could’ve been made nonlinear in certain instances. There is a part in deus ex where you are trying to escape from the majestic 12 but no matter what you do you’ll always be kidnapped and taken to a prison cell. If there were branching levels they could’ve allowed the player to be able to actually escape leading to a different level and branching it out. They could’ve also let the player side with the majestic 12 leading to yet another branch. This is just something I thought up pretty quickly so its pretty messy and I can see how this idea can go wrong very quickly too.

I’ve got to brainstorm a little to see if there are other ways to create a nonlinear story. Other than that I can’t think of any other way to create a nonlinear story without just doing what you said and not focus on the story and let the player make their own story.


Linear vs non-linear stories in games are really interesting for me, especially having gone from the player to developer side of games.

When I grew up on games like Pokemon and Etrian Odyssey, it never bothered me that the stories were “linear” because there was so much freedom to achieve the endgame goal and a LOT of variation between my and my friends’ adventures. (For anyone who hasn’t played a staple Pokemon game, you essentially are thrust into a world and need to defeat 8 bosses, then an “Elite Four”, and finally a “Champion” before you are told you’ve beaten the main storyline. The variation comes in with the Pokemon you can randomly and selectively encounter along your journey, as well as what moves you allow it to learn, etc.)

On the developer side, we’ve realized that a big part of allowing for player agency is setting goals like those. The overall goal can be set, but the WAY to do it should not be linear.

When we add branching routes to the mix, this is where things get tricky. Ideally, we’d LOVE to have full on simulation games where EVERY single interaction counts towards “the main story”. This can get difficult really quickly, and normally far bigger teams (with bigger budgets) can spend the time and care necessary to make each of those branching narratives equally interesting.

I think the fun part would be polishing up the smaller scale interactions that show your decisions mattered. Maybe the single Lizard Man you refused to trade with earlier at the game sees you traveling in the Abyss and still holds a grudge, so he decides to attack you! Maybe an Outcast watched you hop across some wooden scaffolding to reach a treasure chest and decides to set a trap for you later knowing your curiosity! (These exact scenarios haven’t been placed into the game, these are just examples I could think of that I’d enjoy.)


I totally agree with this. Also, linear story allows for scripted narration, as per the story sequences & NPC dialogues in Half-life. Playing out the story in-character, and in realtime, is the best way to frame a story to date.


You can always do the Fallout method of patching together multiple cutscenes to show the end result of each of your actions as the finale.


Fallout method is good! But would it feel a little strange to only see the results of your interactions at the end of the game, rather than in “real time”?

For example, I really enjoy games where your choices in the first chapter directly come back to bite you in the second or third chapters, and you’re still given an opportunity to “change the course of the story.”


Why couldn’t you have both? Choices during the storyline that have an effect as an outcome. Later on, the end cutscene sums up your actions throughout the campaign.


Absolutely it would feel like a missed opportunity for my choices to matter.

Also please note that this kind of “delayed meaningful consequence” design feature is one of the reasons why I think save-anytime is fine: virtually no one is going to want to lose hours of progress by reloading a very old save in order to make a different decision that has a visibly different consequence much later in the game.

Delayed meaningful consequences shouldn’t be game-enders. But they should be clearly signaled as the result of an action the player remembers taking a while back. If the consequence makes sense, you’ve made the world feel a bit more plausible, and your choices more valuable – that is very cool.


Yeah, I agree with this. It would be a nice addition if there was a non-linear story but as long as underworld Ascendant and System Shock 3 have all of this, “non scripted gameplay, non linear map design with lots of alternative routes, very interactive and physics based environments, simulation and a general kitchen sink formula of allowing the player to do whatever he possibly can in a situation based on his abilities and skills and the environment and nature of the situation itself.”, then a linear story isn’t much of a problem.

Its also why i wanted to make it clear that when I was criticizing System Shock 2 for its linear design I was talking primarily about the game-play and maps themselves being very linear which doesn’t lead to many different play-styles, makes the tech route useless, and pushes a certain play-style, rather then letting the player play their own way, to get through the game. The story being linear was more of a minor criticism when I was talking about the linear design. As I’ve said above Thief, deus ex, ultima underworld, and system shock 1 did most of what system shock 2 was trying to do much better aside from the horror element. And hopefully System shock 3 improves on this.

I do find it interesting to think about what a nonlinear story game would look like or even a full on simulation.


So again, when I started this thread to criticize System shock 2’s linear level design, I wasn’t really talking about the story which flatfingers seemed to think I was talking about since in his first post he said that I should also be criticizing other looking glass games for being just as linear. And he’s right. If I was talking about the linear story then I also would’ve criticized those other games, which I have done in private actually and here in regards to the story. But I was talking about system shock 2’s linear gameplay which is why I said “system shock 2 has a very linear design(compared to other looking glass games anyway)” which is true in terms of gameplay but wouldn’t have made sense if I was talking about the story since system shock 2’s story is just as linear as those other looking glass games. Just making it clear.


No worries, TheAbsolute! I think the conversation arose because you mentioned that the linearity of SS2 made it less interesting than SS1, so one of the ways to interpret that was based on the lore.

It’ll be interesting to see how the NDS reboot and SS3 decide to move along with the story. I admit I haven’t played the internal SS3 demos yet because I like the idea of keeping it a surprise once things are further along, but the Austin team is a BEAST and so much gets done with each passing month.

(Also, if anyone’s wondering, Warren set up his forum account recently so he could check in on the threads occasionally. It’s nice to see more SS3 related threads!)