System Shock gets Kickstarter right... so far
By Steven Burns
Confession time: I've never played System Shock. Having not owned a PC when it debuted in 1994 (I was 10), I missed it entirely. And besides, being 10, I probably would have just wanted to play Doom instead. I missed the sequel, too, even though by this point I did have a PC. 1999, eh? I was probably still playing Half-Life, or – for reasons never fully explained – the N64 version of Quake II.
Anyway, after years of hearing about these games – their influential nature, their place upon many top 10 and all-time lists, the endless bleating from old DOS wonks – I thought it best to check out the new System Shock remake demo, which was just released on Steam. And you know what? I liked what I played. It feels like a cool demake of Alien: Isolation, particularly the moment when you look out of a window and see Saturn.
Now, I know comparing it to A:I – even if that title's own inspiration and System Shock's are essentially one and the same – might get certain people's backs up, but that is the way many will feel approaching the game after the fact. Similar to anything that is immensely popular, parodied often, or both, experiencing the source of quotes, tropes, and other elements often creates a weird dissonance: you feel you've played it, even if that's not the case, and you start to feel elements of what it inspired colouring it. 'Oh, these are vita-chambers' I thought when I encountered the medical pods which rejuvenate your health.
The demo is only about 20 minutes long, and is creepy and atmospheric, like a certain other starbeast experience. I like the way it marries newer graphical effects with older ones: you can literally see the pixels if you get close to anything – an interesting stylistic choice which updates the overall look while keeping it close to the originals. But further to my enjoyment of what was a cool and interesting video game was that I was playing it at all: not because the passing of time makes remakes/remasters/reboots tricky and unpredictable, but that I was playing a working build of a Kickstarter title.
This has happened before with other Kickstarted projects, but it's hard not to think that this System Shock remake is a special case. Yes, a lot of this System Shock has already existed at one point or another, despite the various bells and whistles currently being attached to it: there's a blueprint to work from, no matter how much actual stuff needs adding (let's not undersell it: loads of stuff). Could the System Shock name carry it over the line without a demo? Probably, and a negative reaction to this 'pre-alpha' snippet could have done real damage to the project. The studio already has nearly half the money needed to reach its goal, with (at the time of writing) 29 days to go. A terrible demo probably wouldn't stop it happening, but it would dent confidence.
Confidence, of course, is something that seems in short supply when it comes to Kickstarter projects. Mighty No.9 is the most recent release to let investors down, but then there's Ouya (millions of dollars raised, load of shite); ETeeski, the Ant Simulator developers (thousands allegedly blown on strippers and booze); and Rinnovated Design, the 3D Printer team which couldn't deliver said 3D printers because allegedely one of the team had spent all the cash on their house instead.
Yes, there are projects that do deliver. And yes, people seem to be confused as to what Kickstarter is: not a pre-order system, but a platform for investment. Like any investment, it carries risk. But it's the big failures that really stand out, and while a bad demo for a remake of System Shock isn't in nearly the same league as those failures mentioned above, a lack of quality would have seen it hit headlines. As it stands, I never would have cared about a System Shock remake, but the quality of the demo means I now am interested, and have an easy 'in' to make it happen. A smart play in unsteady times.