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System Shock 2: How an underfunded and inexperienced team birthed a PC classic

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For me, System Shock 2 is one of the all-time greats. Tying together sharp storytelling, taut gunplay and RPG character development, all set on a claustrophobic spaceship that drips with horror-inflected tension, it was the gateway to the immersive sim classics to come, such as BioShock, Dishonored, and Prey. For its makers, though, System Shock 2 was a test.

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(Image credit: Future)

This article was originally published in PC Gamer magazine. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US.

It was the first project by a new studio called Irrational Games, a chance to prove it could deliver a game that matched the calibre of Looking Glass, the developer of the original System Shock, Thief, and other PC classics. “It was probably the most pressure I’ve felt in my life,” says Jonathan Chey, one of its three lead developers. “My strongest motivation was not wanting to look like a fool, because we’d never done anything like this before in our lives.”

Now, over 20 years later, Chey can say the gamble worked. System Shock 2’s sci-fi horror adventure made Irrational Games’ name, laying the foundation for a future in which it would make the likes of SWAT 4, Freedom Force and, of course, BioShock, and lately, Chey has found himself returning to it for inspiration. At the time, though, it didn’t quite light up the charts. Sure, it was critically lauded, but for Chey and his fellow founders, Ken Levine and Rob Fermier, it was simply enough. 

(Image credit: Irrational Games)

These three developers, two programmers and a writer, met after joining Looking Glass, where Fermier had worked on the first System Shock. Ken Levine had contributed to Thief: The Dark Project’s initial story and design, while Chey programmed for Thief and Flight Unlimited 2. They were young and not terribly experienced, and they wanted to found their own company. But they had already learned something important from Looking Glass. 

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