Embrace Fans: How One Mystery Modder Has Kept System Shock 2 Playable

There’s this weird thing in the video game industry in terms of how the industry reacts to fans doing things with their games. On one side, you have publishers that strictly control what fans can do with their games, even going the legal threat route at times. Other publishers are more permissive with game IP and are then shocked at what fans manage to do with their games. Still other publishers proactively create tools within their games to allow fans to create wildly cool productions within the games and then celebrate those fans. And, of course, there are fans manipulating properties such as original soundtracks to create new music as an homage to the original score.

There is a wide spectrum of what fans want to do to express their fandom with video games, in other words, and also a spectrum of ways publishers respond to these dedicated fans. The original Doom, for instance, was created nearly three decades ago, but an active modding community has kept the game relevant by building on that original work. In the case of System Shock 2, however, it turns out the game originally released in 1999 is essentially only playable on modern machines due to the dedication of one single mystery fan.

After developer Looking Glass Studios closed in 2000, the game wound up in ownership limbo. For a time, it languished without updates. Getting it to run on more modern machines increasingly became a massive hassle. Then, in 2012, a fan released an unofficial update that took aim at those issues with almost cyborg-like laser precision. To this day, nobody knows the identity of the fan who released this update.

The mystery savior of System Shock 2 goes by the online handle “Le Corbeau.” In 2012, according to a feature over at Rock Paper Shotgun, they first posted their revolutionary patch to the game, titled “NewDark,” on a French Thief fan forum. Nobody’s entirely sure how this fan pulled off an update of this magnitude, but it likely involved building upon an incomplete version of the game’s source code that leaked in 2010.

The effect of the patch was that people could actually play the game again. Strangely, at no point has Le Corbeau sought any credit for his or her work. Nobody to date knows who this person is. But, because of their dedication and, my assumption, fandom, System Shock 2 is not only still relevant, but now on sale on Steam once more. That’s because Nightdive Studios got the rights to System Shock 2 and promptly inserted Le Corbeau’s patch into a re-release. Far from being upset about this, Le Corbeau has continued to patch the game.

Nightdive even tried to get the modder involved, but to no avail.

Nightdive, having found System Shock 2’s actual source code in Looking Glass founder Paul Neurath’s closet, is now making its own improvements to System Shock 2, as well as a remake of the first System Shock and an all-new System Shock game. Despite all this, the studio—like perplexed but grateful fans—has no idea who Le Corbeau actually is. CEO Stephen Kick told RPS that he’s tried to reach out in hopes of collaborating over the years, but hasn’t had any success yet. “They have done an amazing job, but at some point those efforts will collide with our own as we wish to improve the original title,” said Kick.

If that last bit in some way signals some animosity towards the modder on the part of Nightdive, this story is going to have a massively infuriating ending. Because the fact is that Le Cordeau’s efforts directly kept System Shock 2 relevant and available for fans to enjoy, which in turn kept the market open and ready to accept re-releases of the game and new iterations of it.

Regardless, sure, let game companies claim that fans being fans is some threat to their business if they like, so long as everyone realizes how silly that is.

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