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The ‘Netrunner’ Video Game Has the Potential to Finally Shake Up Cyberpunk Narratives

We speak to writer Meg Jayanth, the woman behind the amazing story for "80 Days," to discover how video games can move past "Blade Runner" clichés.

by Danny Wadeson
Nov 16 2015, 5:15pm

Screengrab from Fantasy Flight Games' Complete Tutorial for 'Android: Netrunner' via YouTube

Even if you've never read Jules Verne's classic book about a posh English gent gallivanting around the world in 80 days for a boy's club bet with his charming French butler, you've probably heard of it. Or, thanks to the wonderful marvels of modern technology, you could play 80 Days, the "de-colonized steam-punk" mobile (and now desktop) game interpretation of Verne's tale created by Inkle Studios. It came out of left field like one of the game's own mechanized camels in the summer of 2014, almost certainly the best mobile title since the same year's Monument Valley—and with very basic visuals, much of its appeal was down to a thought-provoking and often hilarious script, written by London-based Meg Jayanth.

A few weeks back, exciting news broke of Jayanth's next project. She is to write the story for a new mobile game based in the cyberpunk-themed Android (board game) universe, popularized by the asymmetrical deck-building game, Android: Netrunner. The game is being put together by Legacy Games, a Los Angeles studio best known for a number of casual mobile distractions, including hidden-object tie-ins with several TV shows including Murder She Wrote, Criminal Minds, and House.

Wait, what? A mobile developer with a reputation for making cash-grab licensed games, now working on a non-linear, free-to-play (F2P) adaption of a niche cyberpunk mythology about hacking megacorps with a great, young, female writer on board? This seems an unlikely pairing of celebrated creative flair and commercial brute force, so I spoke to Jayanth herself about what was going down with the first video game adaptation of the Netrunner phenomenon.

Read Motherboard's three-part series on 'Netrunner'. Check it out here.

First of all, the mobile question: It's not like that's a market that witnesses a great amount of invention now, is it? "There's a lot of innovation and risk-taking happening on mobile," Jayanth counters. "It's possible to carve out a successful niche, to talk about subjects and make games outside of the narrow range of triple-A console blockbusters." Of course, that's true, as both 80 Days and ustwo's Monument Valley illustrated in 2014. But for every breakout success such as 80 Days, which came from an established studio full of industry veterans, how many great, progressive indie mobile games die on their ass under the maddening pressure of predatory Candy Crush clones?

Jayanth remains bullish. "It's a good time to be a writer in the games industry. Better than it has been, anyway—with more discussion about narratives in games, and so much creativity going on in Twine and indie games. And that's all starting to trickle into the mainstream."

This trickle is something Meg, who is of Indian descent, has experienced first hand. One of her earliest games was Samsara, a StoryNexus title of courtly intrigue and dreamwalking set in 18th-century Bengal, and it was through this project, which mixed heavily researched history with fantasy, that Inkle Studios were first attracted to her. She's the perfect pedigree to tackle, and hopefully breathe new life into, the iconic Android tabletop franchise.

Illustration of the interviewee via MegJayanth.com

And just as a swift aside, if you have never played 80 Days, you really must. The way the story is laid out across the world map, unfurling steadily at your touch, is wonderful, with dialogue decisions aplenty to take your repeatable journey in all manner of fantastical directions. The themes of the game wriggle their way into your psyche as you play, subtly, ranging from post-colonialism friction to the player's own willingness to buy into their role as valet. It's a remarkably fresh feeling game that requires no fingers-and-thumbs dextrousness a la a modern console epic—anyone can play it.

Many readers will equate the very word "cyberpunk" with the sights and sounds of Ridley Scott's seminal 1982 movie Blade Runner, an adaptation of Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and there's no problem with that, at all—it's an iconic, beautiful film with a unique sense of oppressive loneliness and unstable identities. "There's a lot to learn from Blade Runner," Jayanth tells me, "in its darkness, complexity, how it amalgamates and synthesizes culture influences without replicating them." This is part of what made 80 Days so alluring, and though it won't mean much to gamers if the core gameplay is pony, the Netrunner game has this same potential. But it must do much more than conform to easy stereotypes if it's to really expand on what it means to be human in the near future, and how megacorps will come to replace nation states.

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Look at the recent Shadowrun releases, where elves and orcs and shit are shortcuts to any real sense of the cultural melting pot, and the white America paradigm of the previous, and quite possibly the next, Deus Ex video game. They're both great series, ones that I love, but I can't honestly say there's been a new cyberpunk idea between them, in terms of characters, themes or settings. So how does Jayanth approach the core issues of cyberpunk, and what attracts her to it?

"What is humanity? What is empathy? What is the nature of truth in an increasingly mediated, synthetic world?" These are the bigger issues that Jayanth wants to engage in "a conversation with the audience" about. And maybe through these filters, combined with her multicultural worldview, perhaps we'll finally get a new perspective on cyberpunk. To know the future we must study the past, so what exactly is it about humans poking around in their own brains, and the dystopian fantasy that we'll all be citizens of Apple in the near future, that Jayanth is particularly attracted to?

"Discovering cyberpunk was like a revelation," she tells me. "It's like the difference between Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. Suddenly I found characters who were less than perfect, less than admirable." On reflection you'd be forgiven for thinking that in the past few years this applies to every Brodude McGrubbyGun to grace a video game's cover, but Jayanth is clear on the pertinent difference: "I love that cyberpunk is usually about the person on the street rather than the head of the megacorp. It's so wonderfully infused with politics at the individual, human level."

Read on Motherboard: Five Days at the World Championship of Competitive Cyberpunk Card Gaming

Screenshot from Fantasy Flight Games' Complete Tutorial for 'Android: Netrunner' via YouTube

For all the protagonists whose hands we entrust our second lives into, most video games don't really handle that "individual, human level" very well, unless they're reducing the thinking to simply counting the bodies they're responsible for. With 80 Days, Jayanth and Inkle proved there was new life in a classic tale, and now Legacy Games, untested on this kind of fare, are charged with shaking up cyberpunk while not ruining it with the worst elements of F2P gaming.

Details about the game itself are still scarce on the ground, and Jayanth isn't at liberty to discuss the particulars. Legacy Games producer Jamar Graham has provided some clues, though, saying: "In our game, your character will physically do that [the hacking]... You are getting past the corporation's ice [anti-hacker traps] and protectors and you're gaining skills, abilities, and powers to steal the data and sell it."

Here's hoping Legacy can match the quality of the gameplay to what's sure to be some stellar writing, bringing its own, never-before-seen augmentations to a formula that can, in other hands, be treated with an almost insulting laziness. And, hopefully, our gaming narratives and characters will keep on maturing in general. One thing is for sure: Thanks to bold new writers like Meg Jayanth, mobile games can be home to some truly incredible stories.

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