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In Genre

In Genre: CYBERPUNK

by RJ Grady
Sep 30,2003

 

In Genre: CYBERPUNK

by RJ Grady

What Genre Are We In?

Cyberpunk is a thriller, science-fiction genre of social commentary. The characters live in a future world of science-wonder and social despoil, where power, secrets, and greed drive people to extreme measures. Cyberpunk was born in 1984 with the publication of William Gibson's Neuromancer. Gibson's novel examined unchecked capitalist greed, the growing feudalism of a technological world, the societal fringe, and most of all, opiate visions of a virtual reality. The buzzword cyber comes from cybernetics, the study of the relationship between human and machine, especially consciousness and artificial intelligence. The word punk has a long and patchwork history. Punk culture arose from angst, anger, and social pessimism, rejecting the social order, and embracing personal expression, resistance, and aggression. While punk is hard to define, it can be summarized as the belief that society has failed to deliver on its promises of security and happiness. Cyberpunk centers on the dangerous, but often seemingly empty, lives of social outcasts, middle-class sell-outs, and the wealthy elite, and their complex, power-driven inter-relationships. Technology is wondrous, but with every advance, threatens to turn the world upside down, or even destroy the fragile order of life on Earth.

Cyberpunk is a medium-action, high-intrigue genre. Characters are usually of above-average competence.

A Skyline of Glass and Steel

Cyberpunk takes place in a future world, an Earth of far greater advancement in technology than present, but not so advanced as to allow an escape from the problems of today and the day after tomorrow. The characters live on a ruined, polluted Earth, over-run by material greed and saddled with baroque and irrational social structures. Technology seems capable of nearly everything, but somehow, a privileged few live a life of dream-like luxury and near immortality while the masses toil for their benefit, and society's deviants and cast-offs scavenge just to survive. Governments have long ago succumbed to corruption by vast international corporations, or been replaced by them, or have themselves over-run the rules of society and become invasive socialisms. While the details may vary from nation to nation, the result is always the same: the concentration of power in the hands of self-absorbed rulers.

The defining technology of cyberpunk is virtual reality. Virtual reality is a computer environment in which a person seems to move about physically, due to elaborate sensory technologies or a direct jack into the brain. By placing a subject in sensory deprivation, and then subjecting him to simulated touch, sights, and sounds, a virtual world is created that seems almost real. Technologists today are working on such experiences. The jacked-in version is more science-fantasy; while possible, the actual science required is lightyears beyond what we now possess. In general, it is best to assume that such a technology is the "wonder" technology of the setting, a fact for which we suspend our disbelief. Perhaps such technologies are practical in ways we have not yet imagined; revolutionary advances are notoriously difficult to predict. A world computer network came closer to being in 1995 with the privatization of the Internet. While the Internet consists of text and digital media, and does not come close to the information requirements of a world virtual reality environment, it is a baby step toward the global computer library envisioned by Isaac Asimov, or a true cyberspace.

Another important technology is human augmentation. Robotic limbs or computer brain implants are available to those with the means. Some street criminals or mercenaries may turn themselves into living weapons, while cyber-hackers have cyberspace jacks implanted directly into their skulls. Together with virtual reality, bionics put the "cyber" in cyberpunk. A newer buzzword is nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is machines that are built out of individual molecules. "Nano-punk" is a post-cyberpunk genre that adds nanotechnology wonder science to the mix. Cyberpunk settings have very advanced medicine, though typically distributed with vast unfairness. There may even be a market for the organs or implants of the deceased. Some settings also predict radical advances in cloning, genetic engineering, and longevity medicine. The rich may be virtually immortal, and even if they die, their minds may live on in virtual recordings, often called "brain-burns" or "ghosts" or something similar.

Besides human entities, cyberspace may also be home to computer personalities. These may be advanced programs, virtual robots, or even autonomous artificial intelligences. In many stories, written before recent leap-frogs in technology, robots or cyber-entities may seem especially primitive, or notably advanced, compared to other computer and robotic technologies. Realistically, a surgical implant that allows a user to jack into a virtual environment implies a very sophisticated understanding of thought on a physical level.

Cyberpunk has a nebulous, but recognizable, style. Think chrome, steel, glass, silicon, plastic, vinyl, everything artificial. Street lights, flashing signs, and marquees are almost a second daylight, while darkness covers every un-attended corner. The music of the 80s was new wave, punk rock, heavy metal, and techno. The 90s brought the rise of grunge, industrial, trance, and post-punk, a soundtrack worthy of succession to the sound of lost youth. The 80s were a time of Jap-mania and fear of Japanese acquisition; cyberpunk, born of that era, often reflects that peculiar love-hate with internationalism and especially the intertwining of American and Japanese business and popular culture. Africa and South America remain political backwaters in some stories, in others, cradling new post-industrial civilizations on the rise. Some stories may feature Moon and Mars colonies. Most, however, emphasize that space travel mainly revolves around satellites and "jump jets." Hyperspace and such are generally right out.

The High Brought Low, the Low Getting High

Most cyberpunk stories are, at some level, a version of the Odyssey, a physical journey that mirrors a psychological one. Almost all are a fish-out-of-water story from the viewpoint of at least one character, whether a street punk who stumbles into corporate politics, a suit who's taken a dive and must now survive on the streets, a computer posing as a human, or a outlaw trying to survive in a strange city with a culture kilter to his own.

Street characters are typically victims of generational poverty, living in a world without hope. Their despair makes them angry, and their poverty makes them fearless. Most consume frightening levels of drugs and/or virtual simulations such as cyber-porn, virtual reality games, or multi-sensory artistic performances. They are dropouts from society, abandoning a life of social welfare or wage slavery for something, anything, else. Some become criminals, to get what they can, while they can. Others stumble onto something that makes their former existence impossible; they know too much, or maybe have just thought too much. Some are visionaries, others are rogues. Some are nihilistic monsters, others are idealistic dreamers struggling to believe in something.

Corporate characters are typically professionals of a relatively affluent background. While not rich by any means, they manage to live just above the survival level, and actually get to enjoy many of the benefits of technology, such as long life, leisure, and productively. They may become entangled through any number of means, including: falling in love with a random stranger who turns out to be a street criminal; getting mysteriously terminated and thrown out on the street for a seemingly innocent behavior; having an attack of conscience; an ambitious grab at work that turns sticky; or the old favorite, stumbling upon a secret, whether a rogue AI, a terrifying technology, or damaging information about the corporation. The character has neither the connections of the high, nor the capabilities of a hardened slummer. However, the character may be well-trained in a particular field, and may still have some sympathetic friends.

The rich live almost unto the King and Queen of Faerie. They live in spacious homes, and within them, can enjoy worlds of private virtual reality. They can live hundreds of years. They wield vast influence. Their fondest dreams and deepest depravities can be made real. Most of all, they have that precious substance, freedom. Freedom to travel, to study, to do nothing. The problem with having power, however, is that there is always someone else who wants it. Rich characters can become involved through intrigue, attempts at assassination (or success; perhaps they are now a cyber-ghost investigating their own murder), private escapades, blackmail, or discovering a secret. They can also hire virtually any other character.

Important themes include Power, Individuality, Thrill-Seeking, Chrome, and Angst. Power can mean power over another, or power over oneself. The rich have lots of it; the poor have some because they have little to lose; the middle class have only enough to be fearful of losing it. Characters often strive for power over another. Some may hack secure systems, looking for secrets; others may install cyber-weapons, turning their fear into violence and their sense of helplessness into the fuel for physical intimidation and violence. Wealth is power, as is anonymity. Individuality means self-expression, as well as the ability to follow one's own desires. The rich can be individual to the level of insanity or evil. Street characters express themselves aggressively; their clothing, speech, and attitudes reflect active defiance. The middle class, on the other hand, must bury every individual impulse in order to maintain the favor of their employers, without whom they would be destitute and desperate. Conformity to corporate expectations is a common theme, but characters also conform to social memes, mass marketing, or even counter-culture affiliations. Thrill-seeking is the impulse of those who aren't sure they're really alive. The rich can indulge many whims, and for a more serious challenge, can pit their wealth and acumen against their peers in games of domination and conquest. The middle class may live for weekend escapes, or may cultivate private vices. Some may live thoroughly boring lives, and only after tasting danger realize the emptiness of their existence. The amusements of the social fringe are more visceral: drugs, sex, violence, dangerous stunts, and loud music. Even crime may serve as a means to disrupt banal existence. Chrome is a reflective metal that, when polished, suggests style and clarity on the surface. From the holographic designer dress to the tailored suit to leathers and chains, clothing is an expression of loyalty to stratum of culture and an ethos. Commercial advertising tries to capture the imagination with imagery, brain-washing, and appeals to vanity. Chrome also contrasts sharply with black. Chrome symbolizes the dichotomy between glitz and grime. Chrome is bigger, better, faster, more. Chrome is the cutting edge. Even a deadly killer wants to look sharp. Even an office joe wants the shiny new car. Of course, chrome is only skin-deep. Underneath, what you imagined you wanted is not there. Angst means, literally, "fear." Fear of the modern. Fear of starvation. Fear of dehumanization. Fear of the criminal intent. Fear of poverty. Fear of being left behind. Fear of corporate power. Fear of the rioting masses. Angst drives all cyberpunk characters, because they know their chance of any kind of happiness is extremely slim. Angst is a crushing fear that makes existence itself almost unbearable.

Cyberpunk is feudalistic. Often the criminals who roam the streets are not so different from the predatory technocrats who live in high-rises and never see their victims. Characters are often tarnished, antiheroic, or even sociopathic. Cyberpunk often suggests a new Dark Ages, except that technology seems on the verge of finally unlocking our potential, if only we can be bothered. On the one hand, technology democratizes, by giving food, shelter, and information to everyone. On the other hand, it gives the haves vastly greater power over the have-nots. While it can reduce disparities of lifestyle, it can also increase them. In cyberpunk, this can be symbolized by immortal Board Members, or by cybernetic ronin whose wired nervous systems makes him an invincible fighters against those who are merely human. Morality ranges from the truly pessimistic to the subtly humanistic. Rarely is an objective moral standard upheld.

Cyberpunk offers some special challenges to gaming. First, characters tend to be very individualistic. They may have widely varying motivations. Many are self-sufficient characters who are capable of advancing their own agendas without assistance from others in the group. The result can be a lot of solo activities, as well as the possibility for conflict. One answer, probably not a very effective one, is to make the characters share certain motivations in common. A better answer is to weave their stories together, until one cannot be told without the other. To form a sort of glue, employ the principle that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." If the characters are always in hot water, they will have little chance for in-fighting. From a player standpoint, create characters with more than one motivation. If a character is greedy, let him also be loyal. If he's treacherous, let him also be zealously pro-technology. Discourage solo activities, unless the PC group is enthused about the character's goal. Sometimes it helps to run parallel action, such as a bodyguard guarding the hacker in the real world while he works in cyberspace.

The second problem is the same with any game based around intrigue. It can be complex for a GM to handle. I suggest starting with simple capers, McGuffins, or kidnapping/assassination plots, then working up to more complex stories. There comes a point where a group of characters cannot help having stories, but that requires building a foundation. The core of a very complex story can be very simple, if characters are involved. From a gaming standpoint, it can be inconvenient if a character dies in the middle of a byzantine conspiracy plot. As a GM, you should take pains to minimize danger during non-dramatic parts of the game. As a player, be prepared with backup character or at least ideas, and don't get too upset when your character bites off more than he can chew and gets whacked. One idea for the GM might be to have some pre-made PCs or suitable NPCs that can be swapped out as needed to replace casualties.

The third problem is the maturity required. It doesn't require a lot of maturity to waste some corporate police for looking at you funny, but it does to decide when you can get away with that. Nihilistic characters may be used as an excuse to act goofy, narrate disgusting activities, or act without though to the consequences. Resist the temptation to treat a cyberpunk game as a third-person-shooter. PCs who act incautiously, or are overly violent, are likely to choose an early retirement plan. The right balance of paranoia, practicality, and cockiness makes for a fun game. Raunchiness is part of the genre, but should not become the focus. Many characters rely on violent solutions to problems, but trigger-happiness can short-circuit stories, lengthen gaming sessions because of gratuitous fights, and destroy GM preparations.

Many of the assumptions of cyberpunk seem dated now. Feel free to embrace an 80s retro cyberpunk, or to make more logical extrapolations based on current events. Many works split the difference.

Game-Ography

Shadowrun (FASA)
One of the earliest entries was actually this high fantasy, post-apocalyptic crossover. Elves, dwarves, orks, and trolls meet street samurai, deckers, corporate cleaners, urban shamans, and hermetic sorcerers. Heavily inspired by the British, Warhammer Fantasty style of punk fantasy. Its original Matrix rules were clunky; the revised version is far more playable. Now in its third edition, which stands alone well. Despite the heavy fantasy elements, this game is rooted firmly in the cyberpunk milieu, and brought together many elements in a way that helped crystallize the genre. Uses the brain-jacking version of cyberspace.

Cyberpunk 2020 (R Talsorian)
Iconic, streamlined game.

Cyberspace (ICE)
A marriage of cyberpunk with the Rolemaster/Spacemaster gaming engine. But what will the kids look like? Serviceable but quirky entry.

GURPS Cyber-Punk (Steve Jackson Games)
Formidable entry in the cyberpunk genre covers all manner of devices at various tech levels. Requires Cyberpunk and either GURPS or GURPS Lite (free from sjgames.com). It does not, however, come with a setting. Cthulhupunk and Transhuman Space are worthwhile oddities.

GURPS Transhuman Space (Steve Jackson Games)
Post-humanist, nano-tech solar science-fiction setting. Its grittier corners can serve as the basis of a cyberpunk game. Requires Transhuman Space and either GURPS or GURPS Lite. Well self-contained, but compatible with Cyber-Punk, Ultra-Tech, Bio-Tech, and other GURPS books. Its high technology level allows for fairly plausible virtual adventures.

Torg (WEG)
WEG's game of world and genre-crossing adventure spawned one of the most imaginative and memorable game worlds of all time, the Cyberpapacy. France has fallen under the sway of a corrupt Pope from an alternate timeline, but a battle with storm knights has merged his reality with that of a high-tech realm, creating a realm of gothic horror, twisted Catholicism, Orwellian politics, and cyberpunk. There are many interesting comparisons to make between cyberpunk and medieval feudal society, and the Inquisition and the Though Police. Like all Torg settings, and for that matter, the cyberpunk genre, it's a little dated now. Requires the Torg rulebook and the Cyberpapacy rulebook.

Trinity(White Wolf)
Science-fiction casserole features many cyberpunk elements. The North American arcologies and their desolate undercities would be a good setting for street adventures. Trinity's virtual reality is a relatively tame version. Requires the main rulebook. Various sourcebooks may prove helpful.

Bibliography

Anderson, Poul. Harvest of Stars.
Science-fiction story about artificial intelligence, consciousness, and social evolution. Important post-humanist fiction.

Cadigan, Pat (ed). The Ultimate Cyberpunk.
Survey of the genre in short stories. Pretty comprehensive.

Dick, Phillip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.
Surrealist sci-fi about androids, humans, and the difficulty telling them apart. Basis for the movie Blade Runner.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer.
The first cyberpunk novel. A little dated, and somewhat weak in the prose, nevertheless, the starting point.

Harrison, Harry. Make Room, Make Room!.
Dystopian science-fiction about a world so ravaged by population growth that air conditioning has become illegal. Various characters move within an arm's pace, without forging any meaningful connections. Allegedly inspired the movie Soylent Green.

Pohl, Frederik. The Space Merchants.
Science-fiction novel of corporate greed and power. The template for later satires on commercial culture. Chicken Little is quite memorable.

Stephenson, Neal. The Diamond Age.
Surrealist nanotech science-fiction about world culture, memes, and technology.

Filmography

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Class hard-boiled detective story, classic McGuffin (the falcon). An excellent template for adventures with a troubleshooter theme.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Based on the book. The adventures of a young man with a taste for rape, murder, and Beethoven. An excellent portrait of someone who is a criminal not because he has to be, but because he's bored.

Tron (1982)
What does a G-rated Disney film have to do with cyberpunk? An iconic cyberspace, rogue AIs, corporate greed, and hacking. A visionary piece. And it predates Neuromancer by several years.

Robocop (1987)
Satire of corporate greed. The protagonist is a man transformed into a cyborg without his consent. Features an homage to a classic science fiction story with the line, "I'd buy that for a dollar!"

Total Recall (1990)
Science-fiction thriller in which memories are stolen. As a consequence, Arnold is forced to kill people.

Rising Sun (1993)
Modern thriller of corporate cover-ups and cultural clashes between East and West. Sean Connery plays an expert on the Japanese.

The Matrix (1999)
Cutting-edge visual film. While distinctly science-fantasy, it has a cyberpunk style and plenty of virtual reality.

AI (2001)
Muddled film, noteworthy for its visual achievements. The protagonist is a robot trying to become a real boy, a la Pinocchio. In the future, many robots live independently, by scavenging for parts. Much as this movie was constructed, methinks.

Minority Report (2002)
Near future science-fantasy. The cereal boxes have animated computer holograms. A man inside the system (as a detective), ends up on the outside (as an outlaw).

Akira
No cyber, but plenty of punk. Science-fiction epic of gang warfare, friendship, and the powers that be.

Discography

Cyberpunk by Billy Idol.
A themed release by one of the legends of punk music.

The Bits Box
Skull jacks, rogue AIs, shotguns, trenchcoats, narco-jet tranquilizer pistols, amphetamines, holographic clothing, yen, street ronin, cycle gangs, military hardware, advanced chip prototypes, ancient Board Members, social stratification, orphans, suits taking a fall, mirror shades, giant glowing iconc cyberspaces, universal operating system compatibility, implanted darts or guns, implanted bombs, retinal scans, clones, androids, sensory deprivation/stimulation, haves and have nots, crowded apartments, palatial corporate estates, dark grimy alleys, future slang, monowire whips and garrotes, monomolecular diamond blades, smart materials, chopshops (electronic, mechanical, and medical), black market goods, synth foods, media stars, cults, emergent intelligences, one night stands, nanobots, corporate cultism, addictive additives in food, mass produced goods, urbanization, disaffected youth, backstabbing co-workers, loyal secretaries, secretaries who are really loyal to the Boss, urban street guides, artistic memes, computerized everything, the breakdown of the education system, generational poverty, archaic forms of etiquette practiced by the very rich and powerful, slumming it, identity theft, burglary, kidnapping, assassination, caseless ammunition, bodyguards, systems that are crackable but somehow not vulnerable to embezzling, corner markets, monorails, entertainment halls, tasers, virtual porn stars, and very automatic weapons.

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