I’ve heard people bemoaning the lack of a comprehensive science fiction roleplaying game and I see what they’re getting at – the epistemologies of roleplaying tend to underestimate the relationship between the capacity of the SF Megatext and the specificity of particular subgenres of science fiction.
Games that try to take on the whole shebang – old stalwart Traveller, say, or Ashen Stars from Pelgrane Press – benefit from a certain fixity of theme and narrative shape (Technology noir in the case of Traveller, the Television mystery procedural for Ashen Stars); games that, conversely, concentrate on particular modes or motifs of Genre SF, such as Psi*Run (strong on the emergent properties of a shared story arc) or Starfall (strong on the scientific and historical accuracy that underpins its 1950s alien-invasion theme) rely on “zoning in” on what they’re trying to do, very often over a single session or mini-season of play.
A great many science fiction games, however, fall somewhere in-between these two approaches, usually by (a) offering those playing the chance to “hang out” among familiar science fiction Clichés, or (b) adapting particular “sci-fi” properties, or (c) combining both; games like this find it all too easy to confuse their thematic delivery mechanism (Space Opera, Planetary Romance and so forth) with its emotional payload (a Sense of Wonder or Transcendence or some other group affect).
Even popular and deeply-examined themes such as Cyberpunk suffer from this misalignment of tone and ingredients, in part because (a) science fiction tends to inherit its narrative shapes from other genres and (b) cyberpunk takes a Postmodern approach to genre, mixing and matching the ways in which its tropes – Cybernetics, AI, and so on – interact with its story arcs, primarily as a means of interrogating the process by which our world is sold back to us in a diminished form by the corporations that define the terms of everyday lives. Here are two of the narrative modes most associated with cyberpunk:
- Noir: nothing is clear and everyone’s motives are murky.
- Hard-Boiled: the plot is constantly interrogated out loud by the characters.
These flavours are often combined to memorable effect – The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Rashomon (1950) are just two outstanding examples from the world of Cinema – but it’s all too easy to go wrong by trying to answer the questions posed by one approach with the narrative responses of the other. A Roleplaying Game with Gamemaster and players might waste a good deal of its time by allowing its player-characters to pontificate about “what is really going on” (a hard-boiled question) when what they really need to do is engage with the Psychology of the story’s characters (a noir response), whereas a story game might deliver a precisely-engineered structure whose mechanics elicit little or no emotional response from those playing due to its focus on delivery mechanisms over emotional payload. Narrative is transmuted into story when feelings are involved and feelings are better suggested or improvised than dictated or quantified.
By adding a hard-boiled voice-over to an essentially noir narrative, the first theatrical cut of Blade Runner (1982) obscured the much more interesting question of whether or not Rick Deckard was a replicant – and, therefore, of whether or not any perceived difference between replicant and human is simply a matter of who is interrogating whom. The who am I? character arc of Deckard is a vital dramatic corollary of the what is real? what is human? theme that underpins so much of the work of Philip K Dick.
Dick understood that any shift in Identity for his protagonists needed to apply at the societal level in order to function fully as science fiction: a character’s domestic dilemma was usually the solution for a world-sized threat in his stories and this – be it alien invasion, an all-powerful demiurge or an uprising of enslaved replicants – usually became the key to the personal dilemma of his main protagonist. One of the major disappointments of Blade Runner 2049 (a film I otherwise liked a lot) was its failure to (a) bring this implication of social change to the foreground and (b) examine the role of gender in the Slavery of the replicants. Deckard “retires” sex-slaves… until he learns to sleep with one. Blade Runner 2049’s focus on the subjugation of people due to their body-type implies that gender might easily be an important signifier of social change but the film’s screenplay allows none of the correspondents of Dick’s “dark-haired girl” archetype – K’s hologram girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), corporate enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) and virgin Messiah Dr Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) – to change themselves, their material circumstances, or indeed one another; the society-sized insurgency of replicants-in-the-bodies-of-commodified-women is almost entirely consigned to the background as a consequence.
New-Wave science fiction roleplaying game Dream Askew (a game in which plurality of gender and representation + white space = a brighter future with better Sex lives for all) is the outstanding exemplar of an approach that posits the free expression of gender identity as a possible solution for the false consciousness of a patriarchal society. There is every reason to apply the same principle to other subgenres of science fiction.
“Many cyberpunks defy binaries too,” says the introduction to volume one of the cyberpunk zine Resistor by Leslie Anderson, Banana Chan, Elissa Leach and Kira Magrann, “taking on complex identities that aren’t easily checked off in those info forms like M/F or Black/White or Straight/Gay or American/Other. Cyberpunks are also liminal, existing partially out of body somewhere in digital spaces, expressing those parts of their identities through words, sounds and images only interacted with on a screen.” Our everyday world is rendered as an incessant scenario owned by multinational corporations: games, flash-fiction and live action roleplay provide the means by which we might re-represent ourselves in order to be ourselves.
Kira Magrann’s solo-game Emoji Sigil Rose offers a player the chance a create a sigil for sympathetic magic by drawing a single, uninterrupted line between five-to-nine relevant symbols from the emoji on her phone; Leslie Anderson’s story Student – “Hey girly, need a job! Soft beds! Less hours than your factory gig!” – communicates the supply-driven onslaught of a dominant ideology that wants to reduce everyone to a product; Banana Chan’s live-action conspiracy roleplay Zero is played in an internet chatroom and is about an untellable text with a terrible secret: “It’s actually code for what is happening in the world now.” Diagrams by Elissa Leach of ID badges and other corporate paraphernalia connote the imposition of privately-owned space over public life: there are photographs of photographic equipment, games laid out as business presentations, drawings of outmoded pieces of technology ready to be re-appropriated from the overwhelming control and falsity of corporate life.
In Resistor (as in the best cyberpunk) the question of what is real? is everywhere enclosed by the simulated version of the world sold to us by corporations; what is human? are those acts of reterritorialization that allow a protagonist to represent herself, however briefly, as an avatar of self not yet owned by a corporation. “Whereas representation attempts to absorb simulation by interpreting it as a false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation itself as a simulation,” writes Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation (1981; trans Sheila Faria Glaser 1994). Baudrillard goes on to outline a three-stage historical process by which any idea of distinguishing between reality and representation has become impossible:
- The image is clearly a substitute or representation of something real (e.g. painting).
- It is possible to distinguish image and representation despite the mass production of imagery (e.g. photography).
- There is no difference between the reality of something and the representation of it (e.g. social media).
This third stage of the precession of simulacra – what Baudrillard and other postmodern theorists term “hyperreality” – was allegorised in The Matrix (1999), and forms much of the dramatic action in many forms of cyberpunk, which is to say one in which real human experience is intermittent, transformative and meaningful. Liquidity of representation and identity is used to counter-balance an all-encompassing corporate simulation of human experience; it’s this metier that makes Resistor (in my opinion) thematically superior to many of the cyberpunk RPGs out there, the greater part of which tend toward a resolutely hard-boiled, masculine aesthetic in which players end up as unthinking reflections of the dominant ideology, festooned in guns, kit and cyberware. I’ve played these sorts of games quite a bit over the years – and hey, I like them a lot – but they form a fairly small part of the overall attitude and sensibility of cyberpunk.
The McGuffin in a fully science-fictional form of cyberpunk is very often a matter of unravelling the representation of something in order to comprehend its transformation into something unexpected; in both Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 this is a Memory appropriated from a real person in order to be simulated which then again becomes real (and therefore meaningful); in Akira (1988), the transformation is between human and artificial life; Resistor’s untellable texts, cyberwitches and online avatars describe similar processes of self-alteration, mediated not only by cyberpunk’s dominant mode of action (transgressive violence = revolutionary transformation) but also by its creative agenda (revolutionary transformation = personal freedom).
Feminism functions so well as an operating system for cyberpunk because it is (a) an idea designed to produce a Conceptual Breakthrough throughout society, and (b) was there at the inception of science fiction, when Mary Shelley first dramatized the idea of a human constructed by human agency in Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831). By refusing to separate issues of gender and class, by setting its games amid the hyperreality of image-centric networks and by using feminism to inform the identity of its protagonists, Resistor succeeds in addressing both the specificity of cyberpunk and the capacity of science fiction to describe societal change, and in doing so describes a widespread impulse to resist being owned by people who have no interest in any living thing but themselves.