Interview: How System Shock balanced faithful recreation and modern design

Interview: How System Shock balanced faithful recreation and modern design
Gaming & Culture
May 2023

After nearly seven years of development, more than a decade after Stephen Kick first started looking into the rights, and almost 30 years after its release, System Shock is back. It's simultaneously just how you remember it and also quite new.

One of the unique aspects of this new version of the game from Nightdive Studios is how it mixes the concepts of "remake" and "remaster," which are typically applied as binary labels. The levels, puzzles, enemies, weapons, and items are largely the same, though they look and feel different. The textures, visual effects, audio logs, and engine are redone, and some story elements have been tweaked for cohesion. Not all the door codes are the same (except the famous one), and some rooms and hallways are redesigned for better navigation. Is this something of a ... remake-ster?

I asked Stephen Kick, CEO of Nightdive, and Larry Kuperman, director of business development, how the developer decided which changes to make to one of gaming's most revered and influential classics to make it accessible to a modern audience. They were more than prepared for the question, seemingly having asked it of themselves.

"That was one of the biggest pillars we built the game on, that anybody who played it originally, it should feel like you're playing it again," Kick said.

"It's been a theme, a mantra of ours," Kuperman said. "For all our games, we like to say that the games play the way you remember them playing. Not the way they actually did on your 486 [computer], but in an evocative manner."

Having played about a dozen hours of System Shock, I agree (a full review may follow). It looks good, and it sounds just as ominous and creepy as the original. Even on a Steam Deck, it runs smoothly. You can adjust the difficulty and toggle several quality-of-life improvements to the game. But its inherent pushback against your power fantasy--the way you can get trapped with a lack of resources against auto-spawning enemies--remains.

I told Kick and Kuperman that I'd forgotten this aspect of the game: die, respawn in a medical replicator, then be forced to try to reach the same point again, this time with even less ammo or health, and maybe with more robots. The studio intentionally maintained this aspect, Kuperman acknowledged.

"I think people are going to find it really challenging. There are parts of it that are going to be frustrating--that's OK," he said. "When you get past that frustration, the satisfaction you get is commensurate with the frustration that you felt before."

System Shock is now available on PC on the Steam, GOG, and Epic stores. Versions for PlayStation and Xbox consoles will follow "in due time," Nightdive has said. What follows is more of my interview with Kick and Kuperman, condensed and edited for clarity.