Never Stop Running
Alright, the website has been a little remiss but I want to point out it’s been seven years since Derek posted. So, no matter how neglectful I get, Derek’s worse. But that’s probably a good metric for life in general.
Part of the problem with posting is that I have so very little to write for you, world. Life is. Unfortunately, until I become an international man of mystery, that means that the day to day drudgery is rather dull. It’s also the middle of the summer, so outside of me constantly complaining how hot it is, there isn’t a whole lot of culture to comment on.
Unless people would like to listen to me complain about the latest blockbuster release and why it’s bad and everyone should feel bad for enjoying it.
Well, today I do have something to comment on and it is tied to summer and heat. I’ve recently finished Harebrained Schemes’ original Shadowrun Returns reboot. This was my splurge purchase during the always excitingly disappointing Steam Summer Sale. At the very least, Derek was forced to pick up Dungeon Siege III so there’s that to look forward to on the horizon.
I should give full disclosure that I knew absolutely nothing about Shadowrun when I picked these up. Mostly, I’ve been salivating over the Xcom sequel news and broke down on this purchase because some people advertise it as Xcom-lite. It has nothing to do with Xcom save for sharing a similar combat mode so I won’t spend much time on the comparison. I merely want to paint a picture of my humble beginnings before digging in.
Shadowrun Returns is a kickstarter game based on an apparently successful table-top roleplaying series. Honestly, I had never heard of it beyond some luke-warm first-person shooter that was released eight or so years ago. If I had to describe what Shadowrun is, I’d say it’s a bizarre mash-up of Netrunner and Dungeons and Dragons. Which is an unfair comparison since it’s suppose to be a riff of Neuromancer and Dungeons and Dragons. Poor Gibson, you likely hated this derivative drivel and already your contributions to the genre are being pushed out. I feel a little sad, except I don’t remember Neuromancer very well and, quite frankly, your contributions beyond that haven’t really been as influential. But when you birth a genre with your first novel, it’s unavoidable that everything following will be overshadowed.
Perhaps there’s an article on that somewhere…
Nevertheless, Shadowrun is cyberpunk and, unsurprisingly, it was birthed during cyberpunk’s heydays of the early nineties. This is when all those delightfully pessimistic attitudes and themes of the eighties started to bear fruit: the wide-spread technological upheaval of the world wide web became a reality, corporate interests like Monsanto demonstrated moustache twirling villainy in regards to genetics and the environment and science started tearing apart DNA with the cloning of a sheep and the Human Genome Project. It was like we were on a crash course directly into the heart of Blade Runner. So when you take two popular forms of entertainment from the era and squish them together, it doesn’t shock anyone that the attitude of the one created during that time dominates the colouring of the other.
So, yes, Shadowrun unabashedly rips from Dungeons and Dragons with its wide-spread usage of fantasy tropes. We have elves, dwarves and trolls on display bearing all the hallmarks of a good Tolkienesque heritage with our surly stout dwarves and tall but haughty elves. Dragons are kicking around too, leaning very heavily on that hoarding aspect of Smaug and the Lonely Mountain. All of this is given that delightful gritty eighties twist, however. Dragons look to hoard their wealth the corporate mergers and acquisitions. Cybernetic enhancements give street warriors new strength but cut them off from the natural powers of magic and shamanism. Even the titular shadowrun is a branch of society devoted to the balance of corporate power–a black operation committed against an organization in order to steal data for a mysterious client who has a rather nasty tendency for being a rival corporate interest.
There’s that bleak dystopic inevitability on display. The little people are lost to the power shuffles of the mega-rich as they war over research and development for products that have zero intention of ever being released to a global market. The corporations are the new government, made explicit by the fact that there’s (apparently) no such thing as a police force. It’s all private security and para-military organizations exchanging blows within slick lobbies and office buildings. Society itself is stratified into two layers: the “free” people that make up the poor or unaffiliated shadowrunners and the corporate wage-slaves that do the grunge work of whatever corporate people do. Given the strong nineties anarchistic bent, Shadowrun Returns keeps its lens squarely on the romanticism of the unaffiliated shadowrunners and if you aren’t putting bullets or spells into hired security muscle then your unarmed corporate workers are always innocuously absent from the scene.
Shadowrun Returns is an interesting little project separated into two distinct entities: Dead Man’s Switch and Dragonfall. The first comes across more as a proof of concept. This is clearly the kickstarter game and its story seems more cobbled together as a demonstration of what can be done in an engine that appears to be very user content driven. Dragonfall, on the other hand, is a much more directed experience and a completed package you’d expect from a studio release.
And yet, I’m not entirely sure which I like best. They both have a different feel to them, carrying separate strengths and flaws. Overall, I’d probably give it to Dragonfall for being a more complete experience but I’ll try and give a brief run-down of both.
To start, there’s a persistent issue I have with both games and that is in the developers underlying assumption that the player has any idea of what Shadowrun is. I didn’t, and I had to consult online wikipedias in order to grasp concepts and terms which were thrown casually and haphazardly around. Part of the issue arises from the fact that Dead Man’s Switch is very cyberpunk that understanding the disparate fantasy elements is neither intuitive or apparent. Dead Man’s Switch focuses squarely on the player, its story following a very film noir arc of a lone individual trying to solve a murder. The player is hired, amusingly enough, by the victim himself who had the dead man’s switch installed to essentially release a video contacting you about his demise and promising a vast sum of money if you can locate his killer. You were both associates in a prior shadowrunning troupe but the game gratefully leaves your relationship and motivation for this investigation up to you.
So for the first half of the game, you’re basically playing private detective. Unfortunately, you’re playing private detective in a world that keeps yammering on about “shadowruns. leylines, otherworldly spirits and metahumans.” None of these terms are explained or even made clear in context, though the game is far too gleeful to remind you that this takes place on planet Earth and very specifically in Seattle. You can’t really use any of your real world knowledge to navigate this, however, since Seattle is (or maybe) half split with some magical kingdom called Tir Na Nog? I don’t know and the game doesn’t care to tell you though it does go through the effort of saying these things exist anyway.
Dragonfall is far better about explaining what shadowrunning is and who shadowrunners are. Its greatest strength is focusing on delivering what this conceit is for the player as the majority of the game revolves around you doing disparate jobs often obtained over shadowland bbs communications (which I’m guess is the game’s equivalent to “the deep web”). You have a handler and a staple number of runners to chose from for your missions and there’s some back and forth between different employers and their conflicting aims. The structure of Dragonfall is way better at introducing important elements of the world–like the aforementioned meddling dragons–but this comes at the sacrifice of Dead Man’s Switch more stylistic presentation. There’s a fair bit of character that’s lost in the do a mission, cash it in, get hired for next mission structure. And while I liked the inclusion of more permanent members for each of your jobs, I found their execution was a little too predictable. After every mission you saddle up to your companions and work through the prerequisite snippets of their life story until you learn enough to go on a personal loyalty mission and get them upgraded for the final fight. It’s very BioWare in its execution and it comes across as more cold and sterile than Dead Man’s Switches characters who show up briefly and only to perform missions personally relevant to them before they wander off.
The biggest hurdle for both games, however, comes in their final acts. Dead Man’s Switch does a massive heel turn in terms of narrative halfway through when you unexpectedly solve the murder but there’s this greater “massive conspiracy” underlying it all. This conspiracy involves Lovecraftian horrors and seems more concerned with a bizarre departure from the more focused personal tale to reframe the entire game on a horribly stereotypical “save the world” plot. Dragonfall, while initially couching the game in very obvious “big world problems” from the onset still tumbles into a story that’s more aligned towards some epic fantasy narrative that is far too discordant with all the quiet shadowruns and personal tales that lead up to it.
I think this is where the game and conceit really falters. At the end of the day, Dungeons and Dragons isn’t cyberpunk. It’s epic fantasy. You don’t get personal tales of a lowly merchant or peasant’s day to day struggles beneath cruel but not villainous magistrates. You kill sorcerer-kings. You fight gods. You hop between worlds and stop the ascension of mad liches. In Dungeons and Dragons, every day the world is threatened and adventurers need to pop up and rescue it. You are a powerful, enabled force that reaffirms truth and justice can make the world a better place against inextricable evil.
There’s no room for dystopia in D&D. Likewise, there’s no room for hope in cyberpunk. Not on this grand scale. No matter what you do in Shadowrun, you’re always reminded, at the very end, it’s rather irrelevant. The dragons and megacorporations win no matter what you do because they have all the power. You can be the biggest, baddest mage but it means nothing in the face of billions of dollars of net worth. You can hack all the servers you want but you won’t move nations with a single phone call. Taking out an entire corporate branch is basically chopping off the head of the hydra: two more are only going to spring forth elsewhere.
Shadowrun tries to strike a balance between this optimism and pessimism but it’s never well executed. The world is too cyberpunk for the dungeons and dragons power fantasy to really fit. It comes across as hollow and ultimately silly. Shadowrun is at its best when it’s going full tilt on its cyberpunk influences but that makes all the mages, orcs and spirit nonsense stand out in such bizarre relief. You can take the best parts of Shadowrun and strip them of all that Tolkien flavour and they’d be just as good. The elves and dragons don’t add anything. It doesn’t even try to use fantasy races to explore social issues since you still have Turkish, African and Chinese elves, dwarves, trolls and whatnot. There is racism driven by these fantastic races but it doesn’t work when amongst those races you have real life issues of ethnicity and culture that has, seemingly, been magically forgotten in people’s prejudices.
I really liked Shadowrun Returns. Truthfully, despite all my complaining. It’s a solid roleplaying game in a market where roleplaying games have fallen from favour for distilled, cinematic, BioWare-tinged nonsense. But what I really like about Shadowrun is that it’s basically Netrunner with a bunch of silliness tacked on. It made me realize that I just want a pure cyberpunk roleplaying game free of the genre tropes of epic fantasy. If I could have a personal focused story of a ragtag group of vigilantes trying to get by beneath the oppressive omnipresence of a faceless, uncaring corporate world then I would be in heaven.
Harebrained Schemes has announced the next instalment of their Shadowrun series. It takes place in Hong Kong. I’ll definitely be picking it up since the games have been improving with each iteration. And they’re good fun. Mindless but good fun. I’ll still be playing a decker, however, hoping to fulfil that dream of being a world renown hacker that trashes the corporations secrets and exposes their filthy agendas to an ultimately uncaring world. It’s just half of those secrets are going to end up being sex scandals with dragons.