What are remakes for? It’s a question which feels particularly relevant, so firmly situated as we are in the age of the remade, the reimagined, the endlessly reinvented. Though our consoles may all be brand new, many of the games currently being released onto them are remakes. And while these remakes may have been rebuilt from the bones up, ported to state of the art graphics engines, produced and shipped out on discs that will only run on the newest most expensive modern consoles and computers, they are, at their core, old things.
Why then, are all these old games being resurrected? What does doing so accomplish? What are they precisely for? Mostly it seems that they are brought back to serve as skin horses to be rewrapped in the shiny and new, meant to showcase the numerous leaps in technology and computing power made in the years since the game originally came out. Glorified tech demos, for sale at $69.99 a pop. But look! The sales pitch goes. Look at how this new lighting system gives luxurious new form to this tired old geometry. Look at how these dismembered limbs and spent shell casings drop to the earth in a perfectly realistic and computationally terrifying physics simulation! Many of us in the audience are patently suckers for this type of message, eager as we are to find justifications for the advanced technology we’ve plunked down exorbitent sums on, long before any competent new titles were even released to be played on them.
In addition to their technical potential, these remakes serve as marketing step stones, there to keep the brand image of dead titles alive in our minds, drip-fed into our consciousnesses and thus never far outside the realm of possibility as future products and properties. Take the 2022 reboot of The Last of Us, for example, which kept us talking about the already oft-discussed game (even on this here website) over the past few years, and which certainly primed us to continue talking about the property once it appeared on Max as a widely popular television series.
In stark contrast to so many videogame remakes, which largely disappoint as pointless exercises in brand management or as overblown tech demos, Nightdive Studio’s 2023 System Shock remake provides an answer for its existence, a method to its neon-drenched madness. It’s a game which knows precisely what it is and where it came from. It’s a game that looks downright gangly, with oversized items cluttering an overly simplified architecture, lit with an almost chiaroscuro, high-contrast sharpness. It doesn’t try to mask or efface its roots with the detritus of the modern gaming world but proudly shows them off, makes them crisper and more resolved, so that we can fully embrace what the original game and the games of its period felt like to play: slow and methodical explorations of dark, claustrophobic corridors, often in space, in esoteric science fiction settings.
Where other remakes do little more than provide visual makeovers for their source material by cladding them in updated graphics, Nightdive’s System Shock, through its visual choices, comments on and evokes the sensation of playing the original game, way back in 1994. It is a game which is meant to feel as if it’s being played on a big beige plastic machine, in a garage or a den, with a massive CRT monitor hooked up and broadcasting its blocky images. It’s not sexy, or cool, not meant to be experienced on gunmetal Unreal engine normal mapped space textures floating over HDR nebulas. It’s strange and it’s goofy, and very much of its era.
The 3D worlds of games like Marathon, Doom, Quake, and Half-Life never pretended at perfect facsimile but at portraying a clear mood with limited resources. A tiny bitmap texture repeated ad-nauseum is capable of establishing style and a sense of place just as well as a high-resolution, expensively lit one. With a few synthy chords played on someone’s grandma’s Casio keyboard it is possible to transport the player to entirely new worlds and scenarios. With minimal tools, developers of the time could create fascinating, rich environments, and fill them with inventive mechanics.
Bringing these games into the present shouldn’t boil down to taking their component parts and re-organizing them into new and more visually impressive configurations. The purpose behind their resurrection should be in highlighting the precise shape of the nostalgia which they elicit, seeking to understand why they were so well-remembered in the first place.
Nightdive’s System Shock is chunky, it’s laden with stuff. It’s not smooth or refined. Looking at the surfaces of its rooms and the geometry of its guns and items up close betray their pointilist textures and their low-resolution underbellies. Its menus are dense, filling the screen, crammed into every corner. The objects which quickly fill up your inventory are awkwardly shaped bric-a-brac and best manipulated with a mouse and keyboard. Guns and ammo and power ups and grenades and blood bags and stethoscopes and personal data assistants must be individually clicked on and moved around, organized, and stacked neatly together. As such, the game’s pace often feels blisteringly slow, plodding even. Your hacker methodically explores every last maintenance closet, every lab room in search of items and hastily transcribed messages and clues. There’s no rush, and few high energy encounters with mad dashes and slides for cover. Gun fights aren’t big bombastic exchanges and you aren’t asked to think on your feet against quick moving and strategizing enemy AI. Instead enemies stomp toward you in a straight line, waiting to be put down and picked over. And even though the game takes place on a space station, checkered over with monitors and high-tech looking mechanisms, it doesn’t feel at all like something from the future but from some zany pre-millennial past. Anachronistically built from a variety of inspirations, it remains an ode to the kind of bright, slightly cartoonish sci-fi specific to that period of PC gaming.
Thanks to System Shock’s slow pace, you have plenty of time to pick through its objects and understand what it is you’re looking at. A helpful heads-up notation even lists out the various non-interactable objects your player cursor hovers over, giving you a startlingly clear visual lexicon for the station’s many functions. In most games it's notoriously difficult to make sense of your 3D environment as your race through it, attempting to distinguish the health pack from rocket launcher, the enemy guard from the NPC, the relatively miniscule amount of wheat from the mountain of chaff. Mechanics like Batman: Arkham Asylum’s "Detective Vision," which draws the color from your surroundings to highlight glowing, important items, were born from the necessity of this design constraint. Let the software guide you; show you what is important, which crafting items are necessary to upgrade your assault rifle, which audio logs have already been played, which enemies are elite and which are the meaningless grunts. Everything else can be safely ignored and discarded, visual not-things.
What’s unique in System Shock is the way it fills your environment with junk while giving you the tools to understand what you’re looking at, and what for. As you move from room to room in Citadel Station you quickly develop a fairly competent ability to judge what is worth ignoring and what is worth paying attention to without having to be led by the nose by flashing indicators. There is a visual logic to everything, a method to support patiently sifting through soda cans and candy wrappers and smoke bombs. Everything that clutters these rooms once had some use here; to someone, at some point. They are not entirely devoid of value or meaning. Even if they don’t have any particular use to me, beyond being turned into raw material and currency.
Taking my methodical path through this blocky old station, I feel less like I’m playing a remake than exploring a living homage to a long extinct period of gaming. My nostalgia is called up, not necessarily out of some pavlovian reaction to low-hanging references, but from memories of a different, slower, more thoughtful, and arguably more inventive period in gaming. A period when games contained a certain mystique and depth in spite of their visually flat presentations. Playing this game feels entirely, refreshingly unique, in light of a plethora of other remakes which choose to forget the mystique and, instead, opt only to update the presentation.
Nightdive’s System Shock stays impressively true to the deliberately low-key spirit of the original. Its patina is flat and bright, a rainbow-colored arrangement of rectangles and squares. Beyond this deceptively simple surface, it extends infinitely, it draws me into its universe of rampant AI and endless, mutant-filled space corridors. I’m not precisely immersed in the game, not entirely sold on the game’s stiff conceit of facing off against the evil talking computer monitor Shodan and her army of identical androids. I cannot recapture that same awe that I might have felt playing the original game thirty years ago. Instead, it feels much more like I’m exploring the inside of a dusty old PC, following along with the circuits of its oversized boards, squeezing my way through its narrow diskette slots. The game evokes its time and reenacts the specific sensations of its history. It invites us in; to exist in this history; to feel out its context and to navigate its colorful halls steeped in nostalgia and memory.
Yussef Cole, one of Bullet Points’ editors, is a writer and motion graphic designer. His writing on games stems from an appreciation of the medium tied with a desire to tear it all down so that something better might be built. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.