Remaking a classic video game is an intimidating prospect. Stick too close to the original and you run the risk of releasing an archaic project that maybe doesn't hold up as well in modern times as it did in its day (see Doom 3: BFG Edition). Change too much, however, and purists will complain that the feel or tone is too far afield from what they remember (see Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes). Heck, even the best remakes still fall shy of their source material in at least some minor way. Wind Waker HD is a more vibrant spectacle than its 2003 GameCube forbear, but its new bloom lighting occasionally robs Link of some of his charm. Likewise, Resident Evil's remake (and ReRemake) are easy on the eyes, but the "better" voice acting is bad in a generic, boring way, whereas it used to be indescribably bad in a hilarious way.
The Vancouver, Washington-based Nightdive Studios is currently walking this tightrope on its remake of cult classic sci-fi horror game System Shock. We liked the demo, and the game's Kickstarter is off to a rousing start, nearly meeting its $900k goal in three days, but there's still a lot of questions about how Nightdive will approach a 2017 version of a 1994 PC game from an era where you could only look along the X axis.
To find out more about this, I caught up with Nightdive founder Stephen Kick at an industry event in sunny Portland, Oregon to discuss the developer's vision for a new System Shock.
When asked about how much of the game's level design and mechanics would stay true to the original, Kick says "We're maintaining the original vision and the original aesthetic and narrative as close as we can. But obviously the UI and player movement and just the way the player interacts with the game is getting a complete overhaul." To wit: there's now mouse-look and a handful of Kickstarter backers will make cameos with their simulated corpse and accompanying audio log offering new vignettes about the horrors that proceeded the player's awakening on Citadel Station.
When pressed for more specifics, Kick explains that most of the new system added will be cribbed from the game's bigger, better and more badass sequel, System Shock 2. "A more robust RPG levelling system is something we'd like to do - and what was successfully done in System Shock 2. I guess you could say that we're going to keep the narrative and level design pretty much one to one," he says. "We'll have some freedoms involved, but the overall game is going to play more like a hybrid between System Shock 1 and System Shock 2."
"We all really love System Shock 2. We felt it was such a wonderful progression from the first game when it first came out. By implementing those systems we're going to have kind of like the penultimate System Shock experience."
Yet even System Shock 2 is pretty archaic by today's standards. It is 17 years old, after all. Is there anything new to the series Nightdive would like to implement? Kick says there's a "very light crafting system where you'll be able to find components for different things and be able to assemble them in your inventor to create a health pack or some other useful consumable items." He also suggests weapon upgrades as a possible feature, depending on how things go.
That's the thing about remakes: it's not always clear which more modern systems will be welcome and which will break the game. Remember when Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes let players aim in first-person, making many of its originally isometric encounters a joke?
"We understand how highly regarded the franchise is and how guarded a lot of people are about it as well, so we're going to use the utmost discretion," Kick says. "If we introduce something in early prototypes and it just seems off or it totally rebalances the core foundation of the game, we won't use it. We're not at that point, but there's going to be a lot of iteration and prototyping involved with some of these systems until we find the best fit."
While System Shock's remake will generously implement additions from its sequel, Nightdive won't stray too far from the path forged by Looking Glass 22 years ago. In fact, one of the reasons Nightdive is developing a remake rather than an all new title in the saga is because this will be the studio's first time developing a full commercial game from the ground up (even if it's based on an already existing title). Prior to this, Nightdive was a tiny studio that made a living restoring lost gems after their licensing had lapsed. It made a name for itself resurrecting the earlier System Shock titles along with other cult classics like the first Turok game and Harlan Ellison's horrific graphic adventure I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.
"We would not be ready to make System Shock 3 as our first internal project. The pressure behind that would just be so considerably high," Kick says. "We felt the only ones who could truly deliver that experience would be the original creators." Thankfully, said original creators - including Looking Glass co-founder Paul Neurath and System Shock producer Warren Spector - have reunited at OtherSide Entertainment where they've worked out a licensing deal with Nightdive to continue the saga.
Kick is adamant that OtherSide Entertainment will have complete freedom in developing the first brand new System Shock adventure in nearly two decades, though the two studios are going to be consulting with one another for quality control and brand consistency.
This is a win-win for Kick and co. as it allows the cyberpunk fan the ability to remake one of his favourite games while also having the power to pass the baton on to his heroes to make more. "How much more could you ask for for System Shock 3? Having the original creators do it themselves!" he beams.
It's an enviable position for Kick, a System Shock super fan who approaches the series with the same reverence as he did in his early teenage years and is still seemingly in disbelief that he owns the IP. Yet for however excited Kick is, it's the player who stands to gain the most. After nearly 20 years, we have not one but two System Shock games coming out: a remake by fans and a new adventure by the series' creators. Who could have seen that one coming?