This year marks the 30th anniversary of Neuromancer by William Gibson. This book takes place in a dystopian near future and was, for many, the defining piece of a new and exciting genre, Cyberpunk. Of course Philip K. Dick had already been doing the dystopian thing since the 50’s, and Blade Runner came out in ’82 based on ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ written in the 60’s. But it wasn’t until the 80’s that the phenomenon took off and was given a name. Of course, it wasn’t long after then that role playing games would come calling on this world of high tech low lifes.
In 1988 Mike Pondsmith and R. Talsorian Games released the first RPG of the genre, set 25 years into the future, 2013. This dark and ruthless future of last year included rampant pollution, recreational plastic surgery, massive political corruption, and corporate sponsored warfare. Sounds familiar, right? When this game came out it was the worst possible future short of nuclear apocalypse that any of us could imagine. And we loved it. This game became an obsession for my friends and I. We couldn’t get enough of Night City and the life of an edgerunner. Where the game lacked details we just incorporated bits of Blade Runner, Max Headroom and Neuromancer into the game world to fill in the blanks, creating a bleak dystopian future that would lead to total party kills on an almost constant basis.
For it’s many correct predictions of life in the 21st century, like bank collapses agricorp controlled farming and abandoned midwest towns, Cyberpunk got it wrong more often than right. The political corruption and corporatization have been subtle and insidious, not nearly as sudden and obvious as the 1989 ‘Gang of Four’ overthrow, or the great economic collapse of ’94 and subsequent riots. The lack of technological innovations like the Biologic Interface Chips that would revolutionize cybernetics and make limb replacement optional, means we won’t be getting cyberarm options with SuperChrome covering and hidden pop up pistols anytime soon. And the defunding of the space race means no Luna colony, or mass drivers or Crystal Palace space station. And of course, the ‘Net.
By this time we were already playing on BBS’ and MUDs so the VR style netrunner aspect was dated to us before we even got it out of the box. It was an aspect of the game that we would mostly ignore and relegate to NPC’s in the van or enemies at desktops somewhere. We were more interested in fighting Booster Gangs or Corporate goons and trying to get our hands on an AV-4 hovercraft. The netrunners were limited by the lack of cellphone and wireless technology. The glaring miss by the brilliant futurists behind the genre would be the most dating feature of the entire game.
The worst part of the differences is that there has been no uprising, no rebellion, no Lawyer Purge of ’96. We’ve sat idly by and allowed this dark future to happen with every reality tv show, and shiny new gadget to hit the market, without even so much as a chipware processor or interface plugs to show for it.
Our dystopia has come not with a bang, but a whimper.