System Shock — the REMAKE!

by Christopher David Lawton

I feel Sysshockfifteen again. No, not because of raging hormones, face acne, and squeaky voice. No, I feel fifteen again, because I just got done reliving a piece of my youth. A couple of days ago, Nightdive Studios launched a kickstarter to remake System Shock, a classic horror first-person shooter, one of the first to blend a deep narrative with solid gameplay and atmosphere. Of course, a Kickstarter to remake something classic is nothing new. Nostalgia is a powerful force, and nostalgia fuels Kickstarter. So, why then even mention it? Two reasons: First, 1995 Chris is really, really happy about this. He had heard about System Shock when it came out, but he was a console gamer, and his PCs were never powerful enough to play it. Later, when he did have a newer PC that could play these games, and he tracked down a CD copy of the game, it wouldn’t work. The game was notorious for crashing on newer systems, requiring the user to edit files and whatnot. Despite everything I tried, I could never get past the first level, without the game kicking me out, and reminding me to “salt the fries,” an injoke among the developers at Looking Glass Studios.

So, I’m excited to play past the first level, especially in what appears to be a fantastic remake, but more on that later. The second reason I’m talking about this, is because this comes on the heels of another famous video game Kickstarter, one that has not filled the world with much happiness. Mighty No. 9 had all the makings of a great experience. You had gameplay inspired by Mega Man, a team of seasoned video game veterans, and a fantastic presentation. There’s no reason that the game should have failed. But, plagued by numerous delays and setbacks, the game was finally released to middling reviews and a lukewarm response. It was the latest release in a long list of crowd-funded video games, some of which have been released, some of which have been canceled, and some of which are still being worked on… supposedly. It’s an interesting song-and-dance, really. I mean, we’ve always gone into games with certain levels of expectations, and I suppose those expectations are even higher when we invest money into it. Had Mighty No. 9 been released in the traditional fashion, it might have made a minor splash and then disappeared, only to achieve a cult following years later (and possibly a Kickstarter-funded remake). Instead, the game had all eyes upon it as it descended into the madness of release, only to find the fires of Hell, and a lifetime of agony and despair. Designer Keiji Inafune took responsibility for the problems with the game, saying he deserves any insults hurled at him. It’s the statement of a broken man, a man who has seen the dark side of Kickstarter, and a man who just wants a nap.

sshockIt’s, really, an entitlement culture cranked up to a million by the fact that those who feel entitled actually kind of have a reason to be. They have invested their hard-earned money into a creator’s vision, and when that creator’s vision fails to deliver, the backers have a right to be mad. It’s so interesting to me, because these are the exact same gamers that would get mad if a publisher canceled a sequel to a game they enjoyed, because the first installment didn’t sell well. It’s all about money, and when Kickstarter is concerned, it’s our money that’s in the game.

But, I digress. This week, Kickstarter has come into the public eye of video game development because of Mighty No. 9‘s release. Over at Forbes, David Thier wrote about the “tragedy of Kickstarter,” while at Polygon, Ben Kuchera wrote that “Kickstarter has turned us all into crappy publishers.” There’s an optimism in a Kickstarter. The creator can open his or her head, pour out its contents in a pitch video, and watch the money roll in from people who buy into the ideas of what the creator is selling. Ideally, the creator circumvents the big-money publishers, the villains of most video game creation scenarios in our heads, and works with the fans directly to create something more akin to his or her vision. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. More often than not, Mighty No. 9 is the final result.

So, I find it interesting that it was into this culture and environment that the System Shock Kickstarter launched. Like many of the projects in the Wikipedia link above, the remake has a lot of positives going for it. It has a team of people who seem to really love the source material, and it’s got the backing of some very important people, including people who created the original game. They’ve got the voice of SHODAN, the artificial intelligence and antagonist of the game, coming back to record new audio tracks. They’ve got so much going for them, and it’s hard to see any way this can fail.

But, then again, Mighty No. 9.

If Nightdive Studios has one thing going for itself, it’s that they’ve given potential backers a chance to experience the game firsthand, or at least a portion of it. In addition to launching the Kickstarter, they also released a “pre-alpha” demo of the first fifteen minutes or so of the game. I downloaded the demo, of course, excited to see what they had done, and I was pretty impressed. It’s definitely a rough, rough demo, featuring laggy controls and a sluggish framerate. But, it was still fun, and it felt so much like a mid-90s game. The graphics were prettier, but the game just felt great. Again, nostalgia is a powerful force, and while I have never played the entire game, I have played the first twenty minutes probably more than any one else, and the new demo definitely took me back. Thankfully, it didn’t crash. Instead, I left the demo wanting more, it made me want to back the game, it made me want to see what’s coming next.

sshock2The art of the demo is lost to time, unfortunately. In today’s world of YouTube videos and Steam sales, you don’t hear a lot about playable demos. They do still exist, they just aren’t as big of a deal as they used to be. Thankfully, the System Shock demo achieves that lost art. If the purpose of a demo is to make me want to buy the full game, this demo worked on me. There’s not a lot of things about the mid-90s I want to return, but the feeling of happy disappointment when a demo ends is one of them. It just felt right.

I don’t know if System Shock will be able to deliver. The developers are very clear that the pre-alpha demo is extremely early, calling it merely a “proof of concept.” As more Mighty No. 9‘s are released, though, I think that Kickstarters launching with more than just a video pitch will become much more common. Gamers can only be burned so many times before they turn on the system, and they start longing for the days when other people were investing money into these games, other people were taking on the risk. At that point, this interesting experiment of crowdfunding — the idea of bridging the gap between creators and fans — may go the way of the buffalo, at least as far as video games are concerned. Then again, maybe not. There are a lot of video gamers out there, and they can often have deep pockets. Maybe, when all is said and done, the Mighty No. 9‘s of the world will serve as a warning to potential creators: Stifle the crazy, keep things in check. Don’t let your ego write checks your body can’t cash, Maverick.

But, if that’s the case, then are we really any better off than when the publishers reined in the creators, when they “stifled” the creator’s vision?

Maybe then, Mighty No. 9 should serve as more of a warning to fans instead: rein in your expectations, because the final game might not deliver. Oh, and don’t be dicks to creators, but that’s a good message in any case.

Of course, reining in excitement on the part of the fans isn’t necessarily a good thing either, since it’s the excitement of the fans that leads to successful funding. As a creator, you have to get the fans excited, or they won’t buy into your project. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that I’m not sure how we fix. Maybe there is no answer. Maybe this is our future, a beautiful progress ring of excitement to entitlement to disappointment, rinse and repeat. Or, maybe the system will eventually settle, and we’ll find an equilibrium where the creator can see his or her vision come to light, and the fan won’t end up feeling screwed.

I think the System Shock demo is a step in the right direction. It better shows off the creator’s vision, and it lets the potential backer experience at least a slice of what to expect in the final product. I don’t know if the final release of the game will live up to my expectations, but I feel like I trust this Kickstarter a bit more than I have other campaigns. And I think trust is key in a good Kickstarter campaign, trust on both sides. The fans need to be able to trust the creator, and the creator needs to be able to trust the fans.

Of course, in a world where a video game delay can actually lead to a developer receiving a death threat, trust may be a bit much to ask. Maybe we can all just work on being cool with each other regardless of the outcome. Is that too much to ask?