I GREW UP in an indoor fog of computer games, but there are a few moments that stand out in my memory: Bagasaurus, the bagging dinosaur; attack ships on fire in Wing Commander; and stumbling into an indifferent goat inside the space station from No One Lives Forever. I don't spend much time with those old friends these days, but there's no reason I shouldn't. We live in an age that delights in looking backward: You can't throw a mid-century ottoman in this town without hitting a record store, a high-end thrift shop, or a Prohibition-era cocktail. So when I learned that a local outfit by the name of Night Dive Studios was applying a similar philosophy to some classics from gaming past, I decided to investigate.
"I was literally in the middle of the jungle in Guatemala," Stephen Kick tells me from across a table in a strip mall McMenamins in Vancouver. This, in my experience, is an unusual origin story for a software publisher. "We had this wicked thunderstorm, this torrential downpour that knocked out all the power. Everybody's lighting candles and I'm like 'This would be an interesting opportunity to play System Shock 2.'"
Kick had been a character artist at Sony Online Entertainment for more than three years, working on high-profile games like PlanetSide 2 and Free Realms. In 2012, he'd quit his job and embarked on a nine-month-long road trip through Central America with his fiancée, Alix Banegas. "We drove our Honda Civic across the border into Tijuana and got all the way to Panama," he tells me with a slightly wistful look in his eye. He'd brought an ultra-portable laptop loaded with classic games along on the trip, to provide some inspiration for his next project, whatever it was going to be.
System Shock 2 was the gaming equivalent of Ridley Scott's film Alien, both in terms of story and location (moodily lit starships on the fringe of space) and the influence they would exert on their respective mediums. But while Alien has been readily available since the advent of home video, System Shock 2 came out in 1999, and programs from that era can be difficult to run on modern computers. Some old games will run fine with a bit of tinkering, but not in this case. "I don't think it even got past the install screen," Kick says. And when he looked for a more recent reissue of the game, he discovered another problem.
System Shock 2 was the product of one publisher, Electronic Arts, and two developers: Looking Glass Studios, which had created the first System Shock and a number of other popular titles, and Irrational Games, an offshoot formed by three former Looking Glass employees. System Shock 2 was a commercial disappointment, and Looking Glass Studios went into default the following year. The result was that Electronic Arts owned the name "System Shock," Irrational Games housed many of the game's creators, and an insurance company owned the rights to the game itself.
Which meant that for more than 13 years, the game was in a sort of legal limbo. When the System Shock 2 veterans at Irrational Games wanted to make another game, they had to go the "spiritual successor" route. The result was 2007's Bioshock, and a subsequent trilogy of big-budget critical darlings. According to Steve Gaynor, who worked on the Bioshock 2 add-on Minerva's Den and co-founded the Portland-based independent videogame studio Fullbright, "The aesthetics in a lot of ways are very different, but [both Bioshock and System Shock 2] relied on the same kinds of atmosphere and tone: this dark, derelict space that you're alone in and [makes you] feel threatened."
Which brings us back to Guatemala. Kick decided to contact the insurance company, Star Insurance, to determine the legal status of the game. "The communications between myself and Star continued for quite a while. We had gone from Guatemala to Panama, all the way down the Canal, and then we drove all the way back," Kick tells me. "And by the time we got to New Mexico, I remember having my first phone call with [Star's legal counsel], telling them what my plan was, how I was going to deliver this game and do justice to this franchise, but more importantly, how I was going to make them money."
That led to a partnership with Star and the re-release of System Shock 2 in 2013. "I knew what needed to be done. I knew the right people in the industry," Kick says of the plan he presented to Star. "I was just in the right place in the right time," he adds, with a shrug. After that, it was just a matter of hitting up friends for some "hefty" loans to fund what would become Night Dive Studios and, by extension, bring me to Vancouver.
After an hour-long interview in the McMenamins, three cups of coffee, and some exasperated glances from our server, Kick takes me to Night Dive HQ. At the moment, that's his own conservatively appointed suburban home. In a hobby-strewn two-car garage, I'm shown the spoils from Night Dive's second major release, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream: a bookshelf filled with promotional mouse pads, strategy guides, and unassembled game boxes for a 1995 point-and-click adventure game from Cyberdreams based on a nightmarish 1967 short story by sci-fi legend Harlan Ellison.
Cyberdreams isn't a household name now, but in the mid-'90s it was a small, almost boutique game developer with celebrity cachet that had already attracted big names like H.R. Giger (Alien) and concept artist Syd Mead (Blade Runner). The Cyberdreams business model had been to produce high-concept adult-oriented games around established sci-fi luminaries, and Ellison was a natural fit, having written a half-dozen well-regarded novels, thousands of short stories, and scripts for classic TV shows like the original Star Trek and The Outer Limits.
Ellison, along with writer David Spears and game designer David Mullich, expanded Ellison's 20-page short into a voluminous design document. "Over the course of a year or two, they had written like 1,000 pages of dialogue, character background, [and] story," Kick tells me. The game follows five survivors of a nuclear war and the torments they suffer at the mechanical hands of an insane supercomputer. Ellison, a notoriously prickly character, wrote in the strategy guide that his vision was for a game where the object wasn't to win but rather to "lose ethically."
While I Have No Mouth was released in 1995, Cyberdreams was defunct by 1997—and according to Ellison, all he received in place of royalties were crates full of game boxes and associated promotional materials. "We told him what we wanted to do, and he said 'Yeah, absolutely. And do you need any boxed copies of the game?'" says Kick. Not only did Kick receive 30 copies of the game, but Ellison signed them all and annotated parts of the strategy guide he'd written. "A lot of people have this preconceived notion based on Harlan's past that he's this cranky old man," Kick tells me, "but I really enjoy talking with him. He's been great to deal with. I think he's a terrific guy."
Kick's home office is full of the paraphernalia you'd associate with a game studio. There are glass cases full of Transformers figures and Xenomorphs, a display model of Deckard's blaster from Blade Runner, and a substantial-looking computer. Kick's partner, Banegas, is the CFO, but the rest of the organization is fairly decentralized. Tasks like coding, marketing, and business development are contracted out to a small group of industry contacts.
There's one last title that garnered Night Dive some press last year. Although the coverage was anticipatory in nature, it's what caught my attention in the first place, too. In 2000, Washington-based developer Monolith Productions and publisher Fox Interactive released The Operative: No One Lives Forever (NOLF), a stylish, 1960s-inspired shooter featuring British super-spy Kate Archer. I played the heck out of NOLF when it first came out, but its combination of psychedelic color, wry humor, and intelligent gameplay hasn't found much traction since, with the exception of one sequel. When I ask Kick about the rumors that Night Dive had finally secured the license to the NOLF franchise, he gets a pained look on his face. "[Fox Interactive] owned the copyright and trademark, but then were sold to Vivendi, which then merged with Activision Blizzard, which then unmerged with Monolith also being purchased by Warner Bros." He rattles all that off with the air of someone who's had to repeat this litany more than a few times.
It's one of the more notorious intellectual property tangles in gaming: For the past 10 years, no one (including the parties involved) has known who actually owns many games. "Paper, legal documents were thrown away during certain acquisitions," Kick explains, calling it "a tangled web of complete nonsense." NOLF was one of the first projects the company had looked at, but he believes this may have been a case where their early success with System Shock 2 worked against them: "Someone was taking a look at trademark applications and saw that pop through, and they posted it on their website and it spread everywhere else," he explains. With the publicity came a legal opposition by Warner Brothers, which currently owns Monolith. "We've done a lot, but it's a slow process," Kick says with a sigh.
In the meantime, Kick's plans for 2015 involve more technically complex projects (one of which "has to do with dinosaurs") that would involve coding beyond basic compatibility issues. It's an open question if his informal team is ready for an increase in scale on that level, but he seems optimistic.