Sitrep: I was so scared of System Shock that I returned it

System Shock

By on July 10, 2013 at 2:03 pm

True story: I sautéed my pantaloons with jaundice water when I played System Shock for the first time. I might even be talking literally but you’ll never know. This game turned me into a screaming and diminutive female Basset Hound. At the time I sat there scoffing at imagined gameplay failings and telling myself it was a bad game and it was all okay: I was still an alpha teen with a bright future ahead of me (no one has ever accused me of being an oracle. Maybe an optimist).

I took System Shock back to the store and told the guy my lies and he gave me this look, like, “Mate are you forreal?” I was not. He had seen through that youthful smoke ‘n mirrors act instantly and laid bare an embarrassing reality: I was Toby McPissyPants over a video game.

I had since repressed this memory because of the great shame it brought upon my family name, but it bubbled up to the surface again recently. I’d just played The Last of Us (get a PS3 for this game alone. No just do it, god). While perturbing in parts, I didn’t do an involuntary wee. I’m desensitised as all get out nowadays – you should see the “Horror” section in my DVD war cabinet, I will be arrested one day – but I started to think: I’m always bitching about survival-horror being sucky. When was the last time I was really afraid? Playing System Shock.

Quick follow-up on that: What was I so afraid of? There is a mathematical formula for the “perfect” scary movie. It looks like this:

(es+u+cs+t) squared +s+ (tl+f)/2 + (a+dr+fs)/n + sin x – 1

What the crap does that mean?

es is escalating music; u is the unknown; cs is chase scenes; t is the sense of being trapped; a is the character being alone; dr is how dark the film is; fs is the film setting; tl stands for true life; f stands for fantasy; n is for number of people; sin is blood and guts and s is shock.

Most games these days are stupid assholes and mess this formula up pretty good, and pretty quickly. Dead Space 3 dispensed with a for alone and became blah. Resident Evil only boasts t in so far as when I play it now I feel trapped by a burning need to not play it anymore. Of the “name” horror-y franchises, Silent Hill remains the closest thing to uneasy, if not exactly scary. You could argue that its fs is so played out now it has neither the capacity to remain shocking and is most definitely not unknown. It’s like Wayne’s World: “Hi… I’m in… Silent Hill.”

“Helplessness” does not factor in as you might expect, but is instead the sum total of all of these things. I realised that System Shock is this formula, and that’s why I cried like a big baby with a stupid big baby head: Because of everything. In the end I just couldn’t hack feeling like I was going to die every second of every minute.

The math doesn’t lie: That’s true fear, and I can’t think of another game that has ever managed that complex equation so completely. It has all that, The Shining of video games. It was also made in 19-goddamn-94 and looks like butt circa now. Hey, gaming. You’re rebooting everything else, ain’tcha?

14 comments (Leave your own)

This game was brilliant. Loved the original System Shock despite having a control scheme that was insidiously evil. One of Looking Glass’s finest hours. I remember playing this game the first time, bought it that day and spent until 2am in the morning glued to it. The only other game to do that was Half-Life.

Actually the other thing I remember about SS was the difficulty options. When games like Doom and the like had one set of options SS had 4, one each for story, combat, puzzles and cyberspace. The fun of that is you could crank up combat, drop everything else and have a straightforward, if intense combat experience, ala the Doom series. Or drop the combat down, crank up the story and have a somewhat interesting adventure experience.

At any rate, a reboot? Seriously? They’d only ruin it, next thing you know they’ll turn it into an fps…ummm wait…

Toby McCasker


My creative direction on this project would be like, “OK make the graphics prettier and SHOOZY up that sound. Right now get out. OUT. Touch nothing.”


you want a better looking System Shock for win 7?

it’s still an awesome game, pitty you can’t customize controls though


I played it when it first came out in 94 on floppy disks as a teen and really enjoyed it from start to finish then played it again after system shock 2 for a bit of nostalgia. The original system shock was definitely a harder game than system shock 2 and both are somewhat different possibly because Ken Levine took over development of system shock 2 also with the new engine, control scheme & gameplay mechanics etc.

As for a reboot I don’t think we necessarily need it as the upcoming game Routine made by Lunar Software can revive elements that the original system shock had.


i loved ss and ss2


vcatkiller: They’d only ruin it, next thing you know they’ll turn it into an fps

they would turn it into a console friendly fps which would ruin it. I don’t think a console controller could handle that level of complexity.

Also scared SS ? O_o maybe I was just young and naive but I loved it ! at a time when i was used to quake it added a hole new depth to my shooting sprees


You’ve manned up and finished Amnesia, right?!?! (geez that game)

I was convinced when doom 3 was released that the first and most logical step for gaminity to take was an SS port on to Id’s engine, seemed like a dead cert at the time.


I’m such a wimp that I’ve never finished Amnesia.


I’m such a wimp that I’ve never finished Amnesia.

Same here, only game to ever make me uncomfortable enough to NOT want to play it. Of course I only played it at night when everyone else was asleep.


phylum: I’m such a wimp that I’ve never finished Amnesia.

I’m another victim of that. Had hard enough time getting through Penumbra.

nekosan: Same here, only game to ever make me uncomfortable enough to NOT want to play it. Of course I only played it at night when everyone else was asleep.

Perfect gaming conditions for soiling ones shorts when dealing with terrifying games. I managed my way through Realms of the Haunting with a strategically queued heavy metal song to be played at key parts to give me some balls when i needed them. :)

Hell, Doom I scared the hell out of me when my dad first brought home the shareware version. Got as far as the demo running in the back ground before i turned it off… Even, It Came From The desert I + II from the old Amiga 64 gave me nightmares…

Shit… I think I’m a wuss…


Same thing happened to me, only with SS2 rather than SS.



I remember playing Penumbra for the first time. There’s a sequence where you walk into a room with a desk in it and hear a sound behind you. Turn around nothing there keep walking. Another noise, turn aromygodwheredidthatbastardbadguycomefromaagh! I admit, I yelped, quit game, walked away from machine, couldn’t go back for over a year. <_<


vid: it’s still an awesome game, pitty you can’t customize controls though

You can remap every key on the keyboard to your hearts delight in any DosBox game.



Ha! the first encounter… took six years off my life right there and then that did. You run and you hide, expecting it to come looking for you. you wait. you wait. your heart slows. you wait. you poke your head out. nothing. you wait some more. you step out. nothing. you return to the scene of the crime. and, nothing. except maybe a brown stain on the ground from where you fell on your ass.
Seriously though, if it was real survival, i think id grab the draw out of the desk and use that as a weapon, or something. i know half the reason these games are terrifying is that you have no defense, but come on, let me at least think i stand a chance… i’d die happily being eaten alive knowing that at least i tried to kill it by strangling it with my mouse cord.

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