Following the monumental success of the Dark Souls series from FromSoftware, a plethora of games arrived in its wake. Nioh, Blasphemy, Salt & Sanctuary, Lords of The Fallen, Code Vein, Mortal Shell, and even Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order were tarred with the “Souls” brush, regardless of their differences be they intentional or otherwise. Following this logic, we at 9to5gamers argue for an unrecognized genre to stand and be counted amongst the rest: The Shocklike.
Recently, I’ve been playing through Arkane Studio’s underrated 2017 title Prey for the very first time half a decade on from its release (not to be confused with 2006’s identically titled Prey by 2K Games, although it serves as the loose basis for the 2017 game). Trapped all alone within the confines of a futuristic space station, Morgan Yu must travel through the various levels of Talos 1, looting, shooting, and rebooting as he goes. Upon picking up the first weapon, a wrench, I laughed to myself. “That’s just like Bioshock,” I thought. Live humans are a rarity as bodies litter the hallways, every cupboard in sight is ransacked for supplies for survival, you are provided alien-esque mind powers, there’s a hacking minigame, and the only sane voice that you hear is through a radio…
The unmistakable similarities kept piling up, and it got me thinking. Wasn’t Bioshock itself based on 1994’s LookingGlass Technologies title System Shock? The first of its kind immersive sim that ALSO laid the groundwork for Deus Ex and Thief? With my well and truly head spinning, I got to work researching.
First of all, what conditions does a title need to fulfill to be considered a Shocklike? Most obviously it must derive from the lineage of games stretching back to System Shock. This can include various features and focuses, such as:
- An emphasis on choice and variety – the player can tackle any obstacles in a variety of manners
- A setting out with what would be considered “normal” or everyday
- Combat including FPS conventions mixed with supernatural abilities
- Infrequent contact with friendly NPCs (usually only over radio to emphasis isolation) or none at all
- A layered and meaningful story (just because it’s a shooter doesn’t mean it needs to be stupid!)
- Dilemmas – The Player can kill or spare meaningful characters at their own transgression
System Shock and System Shock 2
The first System Shock title was released in 1994 to rave reviews, described as the most fully realized game to be available at the time. Due to its science-fiction approach, it was unfavorably compared to the success of id Software’s DOOM (also expertly re-imagined by Bethesda in 2016), yet these are two very different games. While DOOM emphasized frantic movement and constant action, System Shock was viewed as the first “immersive sim”, involving trawling through every inch of the environment available in search of ammunition and other such supplies and multiple routes available for progression. Think of it more like a “play-as-you-like” as opposed to “play-as-best-as-you-can”, allowing for a broader scope regarding individual player agency and choice while popularising the implementation of the now industry-wide emergent gameplay where the players choice alters the events of the story.
The 1999 sequel System Shock 2 was designed by now industry titan Kev Levine as part of a collaborative effort between Irrational Games and LookingGlass Studios, only becoming the sequel to the original System Shock halfway through development. The sequel implemented a skill points system bringing it more in line with RPG’s which provided access to new abilities, more open-ended gameplay as well as a greater degree of customization.
The First Shocklike?
Despite not selling as well as other titles, the System series (themselves based on LookingGlass’s previous Ultima Underworld series) sent an undeniable ripple effect through the industry, with hungry devs worldwide looking to implement Looking Glass’s ideas into newer titles. Many point their finger toward the Thief series, beginning with 1998’s Thief: The Dark Project due to the nature of the gameplay and the overall presentation. Yet, upon inspection, the series was developed by LookingGlass, and you’d hardly consider Bloodborne or Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Soulslike titles now, would you?
Despite being developed by System Shock’s producer Warren Spector, 2000’s Deus Ex can be singled out as the first, true Shocklike. Developed by Ion Storm, it is rife with features first implemented in the Shock titles, such as skill points, weapon customization, a science-fiction plot, and augmentations that allow the player to customize the player character to their chosen playstyle. Unlike System Shock which had sparse dialogue, Deus Ex implemented a dialogue options system while interacting with NPC’s which built upon the emergent gameplay popularized by the former title.
Enter Kev Levine. Remember him from earlier? After the experience of working on System Shock 2 and the Thief series, Levine sought to make a new game, and he chose something different. He chose something impossible. He chose Bioshock. Fleshing out the previous iteration of the immersive sim by implementing steampunk and art deco stylistic choices as well as sociological and philosophical themes, Levine made the bold choice of setting his Shocklike in the distant past of the 1960’s instead of the far-off future of other titles, even going as far to implement the phrase “Shock” in the title itself. The fantastical Plasmids served as the in-game power-up abilities, and much of the games story is hidden in audiobooks littered throughout Rapture, allowing the player to immerse themselves as much or as little as they wish. Bioshock Infinite’s 1999 mode was accepted as a nod to System Shock 2, implementing a far harsher rule set including less health, more difficult combat and the removal of the in-game navigation as well as no auto-aim as a callback to the less forgiving titles of the 90’s that it calls back to.
Shocklikes In The 2010’s
Looking back on a quarter of a century of game innovation, tracing Prey’s lineage is a rabbit hole, both greatly indebted to what came before it as well as streamlining and transforming the experience of what a Shocklike can be. Every dead NPC found aboard Talos One is not an unnamed corpse, but a fully named individual, often to be found with a recording of their voice on their body. The Mimics as an enemy type render a seemingly empty room as fraught with danger, as a supposedly innocent office chair transforms into a tendriled spider creature, flying for Yu’s face. Unlike Bioshock which is comprised of several open levels in sequence, Prey allows for a greater degree of freedom as the player can travel back and forth freely between these spaces without the worry of any part of the station becoming inaccessible, although this does present the danger of The Nightmare appearing and laying waste to your best laid plans. Although the term spiritual successor has a lot going for it, I much prefer the term Shocklike.
Let’s make it happen people.