Punking the Cyberpunk

I am a big cyberpunk fan for so many reasons, but there is a trend in Cyberpunk games that I have been noticing, the empowerment fantasy. Now, people like being heroes, they like being powerful, it is why FPS games give you all sorts of weapons and now have regenerating health, and ability to take beatings that are quite unrealistic, because having a character folding like a piece of paper in a light breeze isn’t really making players feel empowered.

Why is this a disturbing trend in my eyes? Well, because Cyberpunk is about the dichotomy of high-tech and low-life, featuring advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as information technology and cybernetics, juxtaposed with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order. Think about some of the characters in what is considered original cyberpunk fiction, like Neuromancer or Snow Crash, where the cyberpunk protagonists are manipulated, placed in situations where they have little or no choice, and although they might see things through, they do not necessarily come out any further ahead than they previously were. To quote from an interview with Mike Pondsmith, the creator of Cyberpunk 2020 RPG:

True cyberpunk also needs an adult feel (and that means more than just the sex). Unlike other genres, cyberpunk characters should have vices to go with their virtues. How they deal with those vices is a big part of their complexity. When we looked at the Witcher series, we saw a world where gambling, drinking, hookers and other vices were a big part of character development, but were also handled as part of the general adult character of the world. But in addition, relationships were treated as actual relationships, with the fights, negotiations, regrets and reconciliations that are part of the way real adults handle real situations.

Last, doomed, Romantic quests are another part of the cyberpunk mythology. You’re not just fighting an evil mega corp because  it will get you money. You’re doing it to save a friend, settle a personal score, win a lover, champion a cause. Most of the time, you’re a solo gunslinger riding a dirty, dangerous path, depending on your wits and skills as your follow your lonely quest to do what you know you must. You don’t stride in like a superhero, triumphantly defeating all enemies; you win by the skin of your teeth, and it means more because it’s PERSONAL.

And when talking about the tech angle, he explains why so many get that element wrong:

Cyberpunk isn’t just about high tech. It has to be the RIGHT LEVEL of high tech. Most “cyberpunk” games miss this important element, larding up the process with superpowers, spaceships, blasters and other overblown technologies. But the devices, vehicles, weapons and gadgets of a truly cyberpunk world have to be things that are only a few seconds ahead of where we are right now. They should be things that will spring from the real world we live in; direct extensions of trends currently in play. You can’t have ray guns in a cyberpunk setting—but you can have advanced sub-machine guns. Perfect example: in a Cyberpunk® project  written several years ago, I created the “agent”; a hand held super cell-phone that used small micro-programs that could tailor the device to the users needs. At the time, it was a logical extension of what cellphones should be able to do in the near future. Ten years later, I’m writing this on my tablet smart-phone. See what I mean?

Now, look at some of the big Cyberpunk video games recently, like Deus Ex, movies like Dredd or Elysium or Chappie or even as far back as Robocop and Escape from New York. The protagonists are powerful characters with access to all sorts of ways to dole out punishment to their enemies, and usually there will be a large amount of fight scenes, usually with a high body count left in the wake. There will be a lot of new technology, be it cybernetic enhancements, new weapons or vehicles or some other sort of high tech, but we don’t get to see much of the low-life element in a lot of the situations. Usually, they are the color, the background in scenes, or they are a cut to that is used to show how much better the other people have it., like this cut in the opening of the second Robocop movie to show life on the street and the violence before bringing in Robocop to the scene.

I am not opposed to Cyberpunk characters becoming powerful in any way. It’s to be expected that you gain power and become stronger and get harder enemies, for sure. However, at the same time, pretty much every Cyberpunk game starts you out already powerful when you play them. Adam Jensen may not have asked for it but he certainly got a lot of great upgrades before the game begins, to the point he can take on groups of bad guys without trouble. Blade Runner shows us a detective who can’t compare with the robots physically but still manages to do his job. CP2020 the RPG has character roles as Rockerboy, Solo, Netrunner, Corporate, Techie, Cops, Fixer, Media, and Nomad, showing that not everything has to be about combat if you can tell the story right.

Indie games have given us some mundane style events with games like Cart Life playing a salesperson trying to make ends meet, Papers Please where you play as a border guard, Orwell where you play as a surveillance operative. Some of these lead into much larger stories, as the character gets into situations where they have limited control over the way the events unfold, much like those characters from the original stories. Sure, it may not be very powerful as you try to find your way to survive within the system because you can’t kick ass of the people keeping you down.  There are many other indie Cyberpunk based games here from a themed Ludum Dare and some like VA-11 Hall-A and Ronin have gone on to become some greatly reviewed games on Steam, and Va-11-Hall-A has you as a bartender, listening to people’s stories rather than being the big focus of your own.

What would I like to see as a character for a cyberpunk game? That would depend on the story being told and the type of game. In Cyberpunk 2020, the core rulebook even directly stated there were four main rules to being a Cyberpunk:

1) Style over substance

“It doesn’t matter how well you do something, as long as you look good doing it. If you’re going to blow it, make sure you look like you planned it that way. Normally clothes and looks don’t matter in an adventure — In this world, having a leather armor jacket and mirrorshades is a serious consideration.”

2) Attitude is everything

It’s truth. Think dangerous; be dangerous. Think weak; be weak. Remember, everyone in the 2000’s is carrying lots of lethal hardware and high-tech enhancements. They won’t be impressed by your new H&K smartgun unless your swagger into the club looking like you know how to use it — and are just itching for an excuse.

Never walk into a room when you can stride in. Never look at someone unless you can make it your best “killer” look. Use your best “I’m bad and you aren’t.” smile. Don’t sit around the flat or cube waiting for the next job. Get on out and hit the clubs and hangouts. make sure you’re where the party starts.

3) Always take it to the edge

The Edge is that nebulous zone where risk takers and highriders go. On the Edge, you’ll risk your cash, your rep, even your life on something as vague as a principle or a big score. As a cyberpunk, you want to be the action, start the rebellion, light the fire. Join great causes and fight for big issues. Never drive slow when you can drive fast. Throw yourself up against danger and take it head on. Never play it too safe. Stay committed to the Edge.

4) Break the rules

So, let’s take a look at some games and see how we could convert that into something that fits with those Cyberpunk rules and operates closer to the streets.

  • In This War of Mine you play as civilians in a war-torn country just trying to survive. That could be reskinned as a poor or jobless person trying to find ways to survive in the building they are squatting in, and the soldiers become police officers or gangers. The idea of how much of a bite they are willing to give in the face of authority before running for safety.
  • While in Beholder, you play as the landlord of a building in a totalitarian regime and spy and snoop on everyone, take the concept and put the player in the role of an ordinary citizen living in the oppressive surveillance society trying to find a way to survive or get out without getting detected doing anything illegal.
  • Beyond Good and Evil is a great example of what I’m talking about, as the key protagonist started out as watching over orphaned children and then pulls together a ragtag band of characters to help rebel against the government by bringing conspiracy to light with the help of a resistance movement. They never got overly powerful to be able to charge all enemies with ease like in Alpha Protocol, leading to scenes like this rooftop chase instead of a fight.
  • The opening area of Final Fantasy 7, the bits in Midgar where Avalanche fights against Shin-ra’s destruction of the environment, is very Cyberpunk both in the design and the story being told. However, it quickly veers from the ‘Rage against the Machine’ story to a typical ‘Save the Entire World’ story seen in many fantasy RPGs. And if you want to discuss the idea of eco-terrorism in Cyberpunk, even Marvel 2099 had Ravage, a champion of the environment.
  • Games like Mirror’s Edge or Smuggler’s Run put us in the role of couriers delivering things, with the first being navigating through a city and uncovering a conspiracy while the second is picking up packages in vehicles and driving them to locations, both don’t give us much of a way to take out the oppressive and endless forces coming after us. Sort of like the Transporter movies but without all the fight scenes.
  • Marc Eckō’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure gives us a graffiti tagger who is brought into a larger conspiracy that he then works to bring to the forefront of things as he fights against the oppressive system. Just take a look at the trailer for an idea of how in the face of the establishment this is.
  • Watch_Dogs and Watch_Dogs 2 could be considered quite Cyberpunk already, and does show some great examples of the technological integration, so maybe a street level Decker story?
  • Any number of survival games, specifically ones that are post-apocalyptic or zombie based could fit in this category as a style of Cyberpunk play. Replace the zombies with gangers or police or security drones, perhaps. Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead and Project Zomboid are two such games, where you need to focus on getting food and shelter to stay alive and scavenging supplies to make the things you need.

All of these are examples of people with what could be considered relatively simple and straightforward lives. They usually live simply, sometimes with not even a home of their own. They may have no job, or just a basic job to help make ends meet, or they might find their own way by improvising. William Gibson did write ‘the street finds its own uses for things‘ in Burning Chrome, after all. These are the people on the fringe of society, the edge that we normally never see much of in TV and movies unless the idea is to point at it.

Another way to show the idea of the underclass of society, besides making our character from there or the entire story focused towards that area, would be to have the elements of that side of the world be portrayed in more than hushed tones. To quote an article about the show APB and how it misunderstood Robocop’s elements,

But the plot is only half the story of RoboCop. More important are the tone and stylistic flourishes, which are astoundingly good ventures in pitch-black comedy. Newscasters announce nuclear armageddon and accidental presidential assassinations with ignorant cheer; folks use comically oversize guns to shoot at their victims for 20-second stretches, unrealistic blood squibs firing left and right; everyone watches a TV show in which buxom ladies hit on a hideous old man who incongruously shouts, “I’d buy that for a dollar!” at random; an elementary school is named after Lee Iacocca; and so on. It depicts a fallen world where tragedy long ago faded into farce and were supposed to ridicule virtually everything that goes on. If you’re not laughing, you’re not paying attention.

You want to bring the idea that society that is great for those who have the money and isn’t to those who don’t, then you play up the elements  that help show that distinction. Sure, you’ll have the NPCs on the street like in any other game, perhaps a beggar asking for money or someone pushing everything they own in a shopping cart like in Hollow Man where a homeless man dumps a mattress in an alleyway as the invisible man heads past, likely leaving the man thinking he is crazy as things happen around him with no indication. However, beyond the NPCs, we have other elements like the music playing on the radio (or the talk stations and news shows like in GTA or even VtM:Bloodlines), various ads plastered everywhere and graffiti on them or the walls in general, maybe play up the the audio whirring of a camera as the lens focuses on the last person to walk in the door to play up the idea that everywhere someone is watching them, refer to the fact that the cop car that drives down the street is the same one that’s been around three times before in the last fifteen minutes or  that there is a group of random people just hanging about in the player’s view and that they are wearing the same colors as others that the player has seen around thus making it look like a gang is watching him. The Genesis Shadowrun game even had some random events where people would take pictures of you and melt back into the crowd, or another where gangers walk out of the crowd, giving the following interaction:

A sudden disturbance is up ahead.
Impressive figures pass through the parting crowd.
Your first impression is that they are veteran shadowrunners.
Then you see they are wearing gang colors.
They continue on down the street in an air of confidence, not bothering to harass those they pass.
Gangs going pro? You doubt it!!
Shrugging, you continue your way.

There are other events in the game that have choices, but some are just there to add the theme. People observing you or signals that there are other groups with power, these help to show rivals and opposition without making everything a direct confrontation. This is the idea of horror games, building up the tension, making you get to the edge of your seat as they add little things that hype you up. Check out this video by Extra Credits talking about this idea of horror cycles, which would be great for oppressive environments as a FPS would be full of enemies, while a horror game would have a few around while other areas would be so empty and alone of oppression. You become more worried of did they spot you, can you get away, are you going to be caught? After all, isn’t that what we expect in a Big Brother 1984 style world, we are being watched, we are observed, so were we able to find a crack in the system where they cannot monitor us?

Along with that horror mentality aspect is understanding the living on the street aspect. At one point, I started reading Survival Guides, Bug Out Bag kit designs, and other such books as I wanted some character design ideas. I was interested in the sort of skills and equipment people say would be required for survival if you were suddenly cut off entirely from society. This led me to some sites talking about homeless people and tips they had taught to people about survival and in general. A couple are great for when it comes to talking about building on the idea of oppression and control over the people in your environment. For example, from this site, we have some really great safety rules that I think Cyberpunk characters could live by, like ‘if you fight you put your survival at risk’ and ‘When you are noticed, hostile people might come at you’. Of course, to give a fair perspective on the idea of homelessness, I recommend taking a look at free browser games like Invisible and Spent or the board game Outside or actual video games like Hobo: Tough Life showing how homelessness and poverty are problematic and very easy to have happen, but as the trailer to Hobo: Tough Life says, ‘You are Homeless, not Hopeless, Yet’. Could be a mantra for some Cyberpunks, I think.

There is quite a lot one could say about what exactly makes something Cyberpunk and so many people have what could be considered conflicting opinions, just like with anything these days. In the end, the elements of the story you want to tell are the ones you are going to focus on, I just think, much like in horror games, we can play on the disempowerment. Extra Credits talks about creating Scary Settings and disempowerment and has some ideas we could build off of, and this Gamasutra article talks about other ways to make games scary. It might be harder to do in tabletop, since it is all in their head. However, as they say at the end of the Gamasutra article:

Effective execution requires the synergy of every department: game designcreature designanimationworld designsound, and lighting.

All of these different components are critically important to the complete whole. To neglect any single one diminishes the effectiveness of them all.

So, build on every element of the game, play on the paranoia using these elements and you may have characters wondering about the effects of their actions and the outcomes of their choices, as they may not see an immediate impact. They may steal something or kill someone and get away with it, but as a GM, make a note of it and perhaps it might come back to haunt them, like that courtroom scene in Chrono Trigger.

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