“Let's Reboot” takes a look back at a classic in need of a new outing or a beloved series gone stale and asks how it might be best redesigned or given a kick up the backside for today's gaming audience. The Rules: Assume a free hand, and a decent budget, but realistic technology and expectations. This week's sacred cow – the cyberpunk adventure from 1994 that sparked the 'Shock series.
Ken Levine. Kenny Lovin'. Kenbo Baggins. The Manly Jowelbeast. I recall an interview with King Divine, in which he said that System Shock 2 was not, contrary to all common sense, a perfectly-realised vision of the authors' intent. That the monotonous corridors of System Shock 2's Von Braun were as much a product of technical limitations, as the thundering powerhouse of the creativity behind it. Learning this, I had a brief teenage response. I felt like a Belieber trying to process Justin tweeting, “Did I say I love my fans? Naw. They're dicks, and that includes hypothetical ones like Anne Frank. #worldwarPOOmorelike”
I wanted to defend SS2 against one of the guys who made it.
That's an argument I'd probably lose, so let's just reboot the bugger. Commence spoiler warning klaxon for System Shock 1, 2 and BioShock Infinite: AROOGA AROOGA AROOGA etc.
WHAT DO YOU DO WITH A ROGUE AI LIKE SHODAN?
You can hear Shodan's tame, morality-restricted voice during the optional intro to System Shock 1. And at the risk of spoiling a 14-year-old game, at the end of System Shock 2, she collapses cyber and meat-spaces to occupy the body of Rebecca, turning her into a kind of hard-wired fusion of Tron's MCP and Bonnie Tyler. One of the best moment of going back to SS1 is watching that optional intro, and hearing her voice change as she narrates the story of the hacker removing her morals.
But what can we do with Shodan that hasn't already been pre-empted by GLaDOS' tale of unexpected humanity, humility, and anti-redemption?
How not to do Shodan:
2. Multiple body-swap comedy in which she learns how difficult it is to be a Californian teenager, a rock star, and a single mum;
3. Endlessly looping animated GIF of Shodan's face slowly appearing and disappearing from Anton Corbijn's iconic 1981 photo of Kate Bush.
Look: it's fine, but it's not a video game.
So, why not make Shodan the playable character? She's totemic enough to step around that pervasive bullshit about gamers not wanting to play women, in case we all start spontaneously trans-identifying, or something.
Plus, in the body of Rebecca, she's a total unaugmented newcomer to meatspace, a perfect way to put her at the bottom of the skill tree. Stranded in her new body, her only access to computers would be hacking - a process that would be disgusting to her. Imagine having to use arthritic bones, where once was a sheer force of will.
This might seem like I'm trying to turn System Shock into a comedy. Insane, ambitious evil is innately comical when it's powerless - but that's forgetting her sinister history with comedy. She was powerless in SS2. She needed you, and it actually was pretty funny that even then, she couldn't hold back the insults.
Besides, even Portal 2 didn't plunder the comedy mine of malevolent impotence too deeply. For potato-GLaDOS, it was a chance for sympathy. Shodan's tale could be a study in human psychopathy: there are real people who think like Shodan. The bastards run the world. And being a psychopath would reduce the sense of disconnect, when the inevitable “snap their spines, slashing blood across the screen” moment comes, as it probably must.
You'd need a mutual cause to give Shodan an air of possible redemption - and as the player, we'd need to believe there's genuine conflict between the megalomaniac AI, and the new unaccustomed waves of hormones and humanity.
(Again, GLaDOS has taken the best line, with “Caroline deleted”. Note to self: ask Valve if System Shock can be part of the Half-Life multiverse. Half-Life 3, maybe. Cool? Cool.)
BUILD A GRAND UNIFYING THEORY OF *SHOCK
Bioshock Infinite's Sea of Doors was a massive pull-back-to-reveal that can't ever be matched in the Bioshock universe. You really get the feeling it was a final defiant piss on the franchise that was Irrational's way of saying, “Oh, you just try another Bioshock 2.”
Is there room for another, crashing, pull back? Can we fold System Shock into the world of lighthouses, men, and doors? “There's always a sentient thing, there's always a location. And space. That's just how it works in this, even more generalised, multiverse.” Shodan collapses meat and cyber in the same way Elizabeth collapses branching universes - they could be distant relatives.
OK. Maybe not. In that case, I've got another idea:
OH MY GOD GUYS WHAT ABOUT A MINI-SERIES
Bioshock Infinite didn't feel to me to be quite as important as it wanted to be. I'm aware that there are dozens of people more intelligent, sexy and taller than me who feel otherwise. But taken on plot alone, it felt like a Doctor Who season finale. This similarity includes the fact that my family still look at me like a demented adult baby because I tell them to shut up on Christmas day while we all watch a kid's TV show. Only, you know, with this it's my choice of career.
Moving on - I would love the same prolonged sense of “what's going on?” that Doctor Who gives. I loved the post-ending discussions of Bioshock Infinite more than I liked the actual ending. Imagine three months of constant System Shock speculation, forum chat, talking to strangers in ATM queues. I know the episodic thing is tough, and nowhere more so in the world of shooters. Half-Life, Sin, s'up. So why not stuff shooting - shall we just give System Shock to TellTale?
You want a real 1999 mode? In 1999, LucasArts had just made Grim Fandango.
WHERE IS IT SET?
Irrational have built a fantastical rod for their back with locations. But we've already got a location with unrealised potential, here. Cyberspace. A revamped Cyberspace could go further than the aesthetics of Monolith's Tron 2.0. It could be a place where imagination is tangible. And god knows, you could seed endless stuff in the environment when it's all conjured by the perception of an unreliable narrator. In fact, this could be the solution to the another annoying problem:
FIND THAT ALTERNATIVE TO AUDIOLOGS
I really don't like audiologs. I don't like the acting in them, because there's something about pretending to record their thoughts in this way that always rings hollow. And I don't like the fact that finding one creates an artificial zone of in-game safety, because you know the writers will get snippy if combat happens over their precious story.
(Either that, or they make it so the audiologs fade out as you walk away, and that can sod off twice as hard.)
OK: so I've been all over the place, here. But I've settled on this - a serialised TellTale adventure, in the vein of Walking Dead, that flips between the perspectives of a disempowered Shodan and a Rebecca finding her feet in Cyberspace. They're racing to Earth - Shodan to become a god, Rebecca to get her body back. Of course, many exciting things will happen on the way, but I'm not the details man. Someone start the Kickstarter and send me ten million when it's the most popular game in the world. I'm off to eat a bunch of grapes.