All games have secrets that stay locked away for years on end. Creative Director Ken Levine sits down and reveals some of these secrets from 1999’s classic shooter System Shock 2.
“The original story had the player going to a spaceship to assassinate a character similar to Colonel Walter Kurtz from Apocalypse Now,” says Creative Director Ken Levine. “We pitched the game to Paul Neurath at Looking Glass Studios based on a story outline I wrote and they gave us access to the Dark Engine which was used to make Thief.”
“We took the concept around to all the major publishers of the day and we ended up talking to Electronic Arts, who held the rights to System Shock,” Levine adds. EA eventually did sign the project and the original story outline quickly emerged. As Levine puts it, “you can’t have a System Shock game without SHODAN, so I wanted to rewrite everything. I was such a System Shock fanboy that it was a dream come true to create the sequel.”
Zero-G vs. Technology
“Originally, the level that would become The Many had the player traverse from the Von Braun to The Rickenbacker on the outside of the hull,” says Levine. “We thought it would be a really cool mission because it would change everything the player was used to by introducing a zero gravity environment as well as changing the behavior of all the monsters.” The technology in 1998, when System Shock 2 was in development, really didn’t allow for such grandiose ideas unless it was a major feature in the game. Levine remembers chatting with Lead Programmer Robert Fermier to discuss the level and being told, “Dude that is going to be a huge amount of work for it to work properly.” A feature specific to only a single mission of the game didn’t fit into the schedule. Levine adds, “It was good that it got cut. If you don’t have the resources for it, you can’t make it that good.”
F’ing with the Player
“To fuck with the audience was a new concept in video games,” says Levine on creating the plot twists in System Shock 2. “It was a bit of an experiment and it had some resistance from the team, but once I had the idea I really wanted to run with it.” With the help of Randy Smith, who was on loan from Looking Glass Studios, the script that Levine wrote was built into the sequence in DromED (the tool used to create levels in System Shock 2). Levine remembers, “That was a very challenging task and ended up being the most complex sequence in the game to script, with the multimedia presentation where the player finds out that Shodan has been posing as Polito the entire time.”
The End? Rewrite.
“Due to miscommunications or differing ideas, a different cinematic video was created from the one that I originally scripted,” says Levine. “It had this elaborate sequence where Shodan would attempt to kill you in a double-cross, as this ‘cyber stinger’ that was in view provided tension of your impending doom.” Upon getting his hands on the video for the ending sequence, Levine didn’t see anything that he wrote in the script. “We didn’t have much to work with. It was like when you look in the cupboard and you’re trying to make soup, and you have a bag of salt and couple of pinto beans.” Working with fixed assets can be extremely challenging especially with limited time and resources as well as fighting the technology back then. Levine remembers, “We had to write to the assets we had at that point, and all we could do was edit it. We completely ran out of time and that cut scene wasn’t the right ending for the game.”
900 Square Feet of Amateurs
“System Shock 2 was made in single room, which was around 900 square feet,” Levine recalls of the original office space that Irrational Games called home. “We didn’t have any money and didn’t have a lot of experience shipping games at that point. We lucked out by hiring some newcomers like Nate Wells, Ian Vogel, Michael Swiderek, and Mauricio Tejerina, as well as being loaned some guys from Looking Glass, including Dorian Hart, Alexx Kay, and Randy Smith.” Working in such conditions on a project that lasted 11 months lead to many sleepless nights and likely some foul body odor. “If we knew then what we know now, we probably would have just stopped in our tracks petrified, and not have been successful because we wouldn’t have thought we could pull it off,” remembers Levine. While conditions were cramped, there was a great deal of optimism while working on System Shock 2. “I remember getting that first milestone check for around $75,000 from Looking Glass and thinking, ‘OH MY GOD! WE CAN DO ANYTHING!’ We made it happen.”