Warren Spector says his major contribution to System Shock was to stop 'it many times from getting killed'

System Shock remake - Shodan
(Image credit: Nightdive Studios)

PC Gamer's all-singing all-dancing all-action 30th anniversary issue is on-sale today, and includes a slew of major interviews with the creatives that have shaped our industry and some of the most important games in history. PCG's editor Robert Jones sat down with Warren Spector and Paul Neurath, key members of the original System Shock team, which is generally considered the first game you could call an immersive sim, with its influence is still prevalent in the contemporary industry across the likes of Arkane's various titles and 2K's Bioshock series.

The origins of the game go back to its lead programmer Doug Church who, while Warren Spector was polishing up a proposal for something called Alien Commander, shared how bored he was with the then-industry's over-reliance on genre tropes. 

"Doug Church was hanging out in my office one day, and we were both talking about how sick we were of fantasy games, and dungeons, and rescuing princesses, and heroes that were built like the Mighty Thor," says Spector. "He and Paul [Neurath] were working—I didn’t know—on another similar project. They were sick of that as well, as I understand it. Doug came to me with an idea that ultimately became System Shock.

"I just sort of sat there with my pitiful, little, two-page Alien Commander proposal, with art I had done, which you never want to see. I listened to what he had to say, and went, 'Yeah, that’s better'. And so System Shock was born. I produced it. We could talk more about my specific role, but I represented it at Origin, and kept it many times from getting killed. I think that was my major contribution to the game."

The studio that would become Looking Glass was at this time called Blue Sky, and Paul Neurath says the studio's goal was always "to create this kind of new genre of immersive games, where we try to pull the player as much as we could into feeling like they really were in that world, and that they really were themselves making the decisions. We tried to do this genre mashup. It also had this mix of roleplaying and combat and real-time gameplay–but, in this game, all in the first-person perspective to create that deep immersion."

This included the idea of 3D itself, which in the industry's early forays tended to mean 3D visuals but a locked perspective on a single plane (as with something like Doom). System Shock was conceived as having a truly 3D environment and traversal mechanics that would work within such a setting. 

"The kind of 6D version of 3D was something new," says Spector. "I mean, you could turn your head in a direction that you weren’t actually going. You could look around corners. You could crouch. You could lean. You could do all sorts of things that no one had been able to do. We could create sloped surfaces. We could create enormous chasms that, you know, you could look down, and see hundreds and hundreds of feet below you, which was kind of scary."

This was seriously ambitious stuff and Spector, who had the ultimate responsibility for producing a shippable game, was alternately angry and delighted by how hard the team pushed what they could do: recalling one occasion where they added a moving starfield right before beta.

"That doesn’t sound like much, but you don’t add features right before you go beta," says Spector. "It just isn’t done. I was furious. I mean, I was really angry. I went back to my office, and did my little happy dance, because that was how committed the team was to making something of the highest possible quality."

Spector adds that the way the game used physics was also new, with everything from recoil to head movement to in-game objects depending on physics systems that were "very sophisticated for its time, and I think it’s still relevant today – and, frankly, underused. Because if I ever see boxes stacked again, I’ll scream."

Another overlooked element, according to Spector, is that "I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that System Shock introduced the idea of environmental storytelling to the world. The idea of killing everybody, and telling the story through video logs and emails, and then having the players piece the story together, and then see elements of the story in the world [...] That is still relevant today. That’s kind of the key to the immersive sim genre. It’s not about telling players how to solve problems."

The full interview contains much more chat about System Shock and its remake, but that's far from the only classic this issue of PCG covers, with exclusive access to Nightdive's upcoming remaster of Star Wars: Dark Forces. There's also a special group test looking back at the best graphics cards of the last 30 years, an exclusive interview directly with CD Projekt Red on Cyberpunk 2077's 2.0 patch, a comprehensive guide to the best Starfield mods available, a special time-traveling dispatch from The Spy, and much more besides.

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."