From the ashes of Looking Glass Studios (one of the more remarkable developers in gaming history, with critical and cult successes such as Thief and System Shock under their belt) rose Irrational Games, pioneered by Ken Levine, Jonathan Chey and Robert Fermier. Such as it was, LGS was the launching pad for many studios such as Ion Storm (Deus Ex), Harmonix (Guitar Hero) and Arkane Studios (Dishonored), yet it was Irrational Games that arguably stood out the most within the past decade, and Levine’s voice and beliefs that drove the studio into critical and commercial acclaim; Levine’s name was easily the standout and the go-to person to quote and interview, despite Chey’s helm with Irrational Canberra, and Fermier’s otherwise small stint with System Shock 2, leaving afterwards to join Robot Entertainment in Texas.
Despite Irrational’s critical and commercial acclaim, only a handful of games were ever developed by them. It was 1999’s System Shock 2 that launched them into acclaim, and it was System Shock 2 that would forever redefine and shape their success.
System Shock 2 was something new. Having never played it in its release (seeing as I would have been 7 at the time and playing something like that would have traumatised me for my childhood) I couldn’t begin to fathom its depth and influence at the time, but much like Deus Ex (another ActionRPG ahead of its time) I could appreciate it further down the line. System Shock 2 was an amalgamation of survival horror, action and role-playing executed to terrifyingly difficult design and seamless transitions between each genre. It is impossible to appreciate Bioshock without first experiencing System Shock 2; much of its DNA is embedded in System Shock. Hacking, upgrading your character, research mechanisms and resurrection machines: all huge parts of Bioshock that originated with System Shock 2. The sound design was incredible; even in 2014 creeping along a corridor will have you at the edge of your seats as you hear every creak and crash of the horror infested spaceships, but outside of the fantastic aesthetics and punishing difficulty it was SHODAN that really stood out. One of the most memorable characters in gaming, SHODAN was the forerunner for unique characters such as GLaDOS as a terrifyingly cruel and cunning AI system that defied tropes and stood out as one of the best parts of a game with such highs. Yes, System Shock 2 (made with a development team of a dozen people) was the pinnacle of ARPG despite its flaws and it laid the groundwork for future titles.