I was nine and standing in the Sega Genesis section of the local rental place when I first found out about Shadowrun. I couldn’t believe the box art, which felt unlike anything else I’d seen before. I didn’t know what it was that I was looking at, really, but something was happening here. What was that around the corner? Why are they being shot at? What are they wearing? Why is that computer on the side of the building? The ricocheting bullets and the rising smoke and the broken monitors off in the corner. I turned the box over and over in my hands, once a week, for about six months before I finally brought the thing home.
What I found was a world even stranger than I could imagine, one where the technological revolution had been coupled with a mystical one. Rebel hackers teamed up with elven mages to fight against greedy megacorporations, corrupt private police, and ancient evils. At the time, I was enamored with the game’s inclusion of “real” issues: orks and trolls were oppressed populations; many impoverished folks felt the need to join up in local gangs to feel safe; Native American tribes used their (newly returned?) shamanistic power to reclaim their former land. Looking back on it now I can see all the well intentioned missteps, of course. But I still hold a fondness for the setting.
Which is why a surge of adrenaline runs through my body when Deadset, my character in Shadowrun Chronicles: Boston Lockdown, lands a clutch critical hit, zapping an enemy turret that was about to make short work of the rest of my team. “Good going, chief!” says a player in my party. “Null sweat,” I type back, slipping into character almost involuntarily, drawn in by a shared desire to (however briefly) taste the world of Shadowrun. It is a sharp moment. I feel proud for hacking the right thing at the right time. Unfortunately moments like these have to compete with moments of aggravation, disappointment, and boredom that ultimately mar Shadowrun Chronicles. The result is another lackluster cyberpunk game that wants all of the genre’s neon glow without engaging with its murky, complicated politics.
Let’s get the confusing bits out of the way first: Yes, there have been other Shadowrun games in the last few years: Shadowrun Returns and its follow up Dragonfall. Yes, like those games, Chronicles features tactical, turn-based combat inspired by 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown. No, Chronicles is not a follow up to those games, nor was it developed by the same studio, nor does it use the same rules and combat design.
Taken on its own, there’s nothing wrong with a different team tackling an established setting in a new way. It’s sort of like when a new director takes hold of a long running film franchise, or a new creative team picks up a comic book and puts their spin on it. It can be exciting to see what they do with their hands on the reins. (All those years ago, this was true for the Genesis and SNES Shadowrun games, too: The former was an open-world RPG, the latter more like a point and click adventure game, and both had their fans.)
But Chronicles suffers because, like a director struggling to emulate their mentor’s greatness, it fails to separate itself enough from Returns and Dragonfall while simultaneously failing to live up to the quality of that series. The broad sketch is similar enough: Isometric, squad-based tactical RPG set in a cyberpunk-meets-fantasy world with a plot of intrigue, friendship and betrayal. Level up your character in a bunch of different ways Get new guns, cyberwear and magical gear. But zoom in a little and things start to fall apart, especially with the game’s story.
All the players typical of Shadowrun are here: A rogue dragon, an opportunistic corporation, rapid urban change. But it’s hard to care about them. Characterization is weak across the board, with NPCs drawn from a set of classic tropes (“tough guy with heart of gold,” “the one good cop on the force”), none of which are painted with any flair or charisma. Chronicles takes place in future Boston, and I mean that as a warning. Most of the time, the characters speak with faux-Bostonian accents that shift and change and never settle and are always bad. Other times, voice acting is missing all together—which, given the bad accents, I guess I should count as a positive.
It’s the player’s own character that draws the most unflattering comparison with the previous Shadowrun games. In Returns (and especially in Dragonfall), players were given the ability to craft characters with what felt like particular backgrounds and perspectives on the world. There, I made Jenn Teal, an elvish socialite with a penchant for making people feel bad (with her words, and then her pistol). She was bright and cruel, and maybe the game tricked me, but she really felt unique.
In Chronicles, all I have is a boilerplate badass, and one who doesn’t even seem to know what he’s good at. Deadset, my ex-corporate orkish hacker, spent whole missions talking about how he didn’t understand what a hacker NPC was doing. When he first saw “the Matrix,” Shadowrun’s VR internet interface that he presumably used routinely, he was shocked. Worse, he was the sort of character who calls magically-traumatized enemies “headcases,” addresses other orks with the canonical slur “Tusker,” occasionally shouts “fragtard!” in combat, and once described an embedded reporter as “a posh bint.” And so I don’t care about Deadset, and I don’t care about any of the NPCs—not Jane the super hacker or the tall troll with the suit or the creepy doctor or any of them. And no matter how many times they show me the Boston Red Sox logo, I just don’t care about Boston. Like many instances of cyberpunk, Chronicles leans hard on the aesthetic, but never really interrogates it.
In retrospect, it’s unsurprising that my first ever experience of Shadowrun was primarily an overwhelming aesthetic reaction. Because as strange as that box art was, it actually wasn’t unlike anything I’d seen before so much as a careful combination of a billion things I’d already seen and had been taught were rad. At a glance, that’s what cyberpunk is: All the cool shit we love thrown together: The smoke and subterfuge of film noir; the neon lights and clenching robotic fists of sci-fi; the action movie promise that stylish violence is the solution. (And in the case of Shadowrun, the elves and orcs and dragons of Tolkien, too!)
The best instances of cyberpunk lure us in with these things—with mirror shades and sexy robots and datajacks—and then leverage them to aid in something else. Maybe we get a critique of increasing corporate sovereignty or an investigation into the cultural categorization of “human” and “nonhuman” or some message about environmental destruction. Blade Runner gave us flying cars and the warm glow of commercial signage, but it also gave us Los Angeles on fire and the mass extinction of organic animals. Or maybe we just get a good story, as we did in last year’s Shadowrun: Dragonfall, where the genre’s tropes were used as tools for strong characterization and world-building.
The worst instances of cyberpunk not only fail to do these things, they revel in that failure. They forget that the genre can be more than just an aesthetic. Cyberpunk began as a response: A response to the too-clean sci-fi that was ascendant at the time, to the rise of Thatcher and Reagan (whose own ascensions signaled an allegiance between government and business), and to the sudden boom in cheap consumer electronics. But, I suspect that like nine year old Austin, many fans of the genre didn’t know that part of the story. They want a context-free cyberpunk. They want cyberpunk as a statement, not a response. They want the neon lights and the East Asian writing and the HoloVR mainframes and the NeuroNets and the Black ICE and the flying cars and that’s it.
But when writers deploy these things, they deploy a sort of gravity. These things make demands, they pull back on us. The flying cars demand the oil fields on fire, the mass extinction of animals. These technologies want to ask questions: Why would an AI be snarky? What happens when even a robotic workforce is displaced? How has globalization changed media? What does sex look like when bodies are fully replaceable?
But so many cyberpunk stories fail to ask these sorts of questions. They ignore this gravity and luxuriate in the aesthetic alone—a sexy robot for the sake of a sexy robot, a set of neon lights because neon looks cool at night, a robotic gun-arm on another very angry white guy. And we’re left with a familiar nihilistic fantasy of technophilia.
(It is familiar because it is here already. Norman Klein, an academic whose work focuses on the history of Los Angeles, once reported this [maybe apocryphal] story to me: It was in the early 90s when the LA city council agreed to allow the placement of electronic video billboards on the sides of skyscrapers. What was the case made by the guy lobbying for this change? “They’ll make our city look futuristic. You know. Like Blade Runner.”)
Shadowrun Chronicles is, mostly, another of these nihilistic cyberpunk fantasies. There’s no room for interesting questions here. The world is built on bad dialog and collectible encyclopedia entries and glowing signs and cigar smoke and bullets and bad accents. And that is supposed to be enough. I’m not unsympathetic. I get the dilemma, I do. Big, branching RPGs are expensive, time consuming, and difficult to make. So make a tight tactical RPG with less focus on narrative and more on combat. But by flubbing the story so badly, the combat loses all its stakes.
In a game that pulled me into its world a bit more, I’d call the careful pace of combat “tense,” but in Chronicles it’s just “slow” and “boring.” In a game where the recruitable “henchmen” NPCs were fleshed out even a little, I’d ignore the fact that they are wildly underpowered and make playing through the game alone a slog. In a better game, I’d forgive the repetition of game content (“side missions” re-use maps again and again and again), I’d ignore the many times you can see the suture marks where a feature had been cut (“Don’t get detected by security” says a game with no stealth system), and handwave the incongruities (Some robots take damage from magical explosions, others are immune? Some dogs can’t be hacked, others can? Which… okay, cyberdogs, I guess? But really?)
And yet, there I am, typing out “Null sweat” to a another player, adrenaline pumping after a lucky crit. Shadowrun Chronicles began life as Shadowrun Online, and it shows. So many of the games problems drift away when you play with others. And I don’t just mean that in the cliché “any game is better with friends” sense. When you’re playing with three other teammates, things zip by at an intense, heist-film pace.
Suddenly, combat can be surprising: A rocket flies over your head and into the group of ghouls that just rounded that corner. A teammate uses their medkit to patch you up just before you take a shot that would’ve killed you. You “mark” an enemy just in time for an ally’s ability—which gets a bonus on marked targets—to hit. Your friend makes that one foolish, risky move and for a moment everything holds in the air—will this ruin everything, or save us all? It is weird and goofy and, suddenly, good. And then I find myself typing out weird and goofy and good cyberpunk nonsense slang, because god damn it, this world deserves to have a little bit of character, even if it’s up to the players to inject it.
It makes me wish the game had kept the “Online” moniker. It also makes me wish there was any sort of group finding tool built into the game, or repeatable, end-game content, or a slightly more complex skill system that would encourage even more complimentary builds. But mostly, it all makes me wish that the bits when I wasn’t playing with a full group had even an ounce of the charm those moments have.
William Gibson, the guy who coined “cyberspace,” is not a fan of Shadowrun. I don’t blame him, to some degree, since the setting lifts liberally from his Sprawl trilogy. But there is something potent in this setting where magic and futuretech co-exist. “The street,” as Gibson writes in Burning Chrome, “finds its own uses for things.”
Why is it that the magical arts are coded as exotic and aboriginal while the futuretech is gritty and mundane? How do the magical races map to class positions—and what happens to the racialization of humans in a world with elves? In what way do the stories told—both in Shadowrun’s world and in ours—about ancient, powerful dragons and cutting edge, dangerous AIs overlap? Shadowrun stories can so clearly be more than just “all the cool stuff we already love smushed together.” But you won’t find that in Shadowrun Chronicles. You’ll just find neon and smoke, flying cars and bullets.
Austin Walker is a PhD Candidate in Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, writing about games, labor and culture. He writes about games at @austin_walker and at Clockwork Worlds.