I’m not sure how to define cyberpunk. Oh, I can recognize it, but I’m not sure if I know how to pare it down to a digestible one-sentence review. I know that I can easily look the answer up online, but I’m more interested in how people categorize it not as a list of features but as a motivated genre. For example: I know that a bildungsroman is the story of a young person becoming an adult ready and responsible for the world; I know that an epic is a hero’s journey from home, to victorious war and back home again; I know that science fiction is a speculation on extremes that contemporary technologies may yet reach. There are histories, caveats and conventions I’m ignoring in these quick and dirty definitions but I think they work as quick and dirty definitions. I don’t have something like that for cyberpunk and I think my not looking for one suggests that I don’t want a satisfying, one-sentence answer. At least not right now. These are the things I think about in the moments I get to chip away at Shadowruns “Dragonfall” over the weekends and between school readings.
Somewhere in me is a more organized, long-form comparative essay about cyberpunk, noir and crime literature and I’d really like to nurture those ideas before I barf them all out but for the time being, this is what you get.
Videogames, right now, seem to be having problems with crime in a airy, theoretical sense. I say this while many people in North America are having problems with crime in a material, bodily sense, and I worry sometimes that my priorities seem off when I take on pieces like this. Write what you know, I guess. That’s a cop out. Hey! Cop out? That’s the title of a recent review of Battlefield: Hardline by Austin Walker! (“Battlefield Hardline Review: Cop Out.” Paste Magazine. Mar 23 2015.).
Yes, Hardline has been another tough nut to crack. It is proof that games are just pure escapist fun and that the politics of where the young consumer escapes, his desires to consume and the desired objects of his consumption are all intensely meaningful. Earlier this year I wrote about Spec-Ops: The Line (“The Great Expectations of Spec-Ops: The Line.” bigtallwords. Jan 12 2015.) (there are many lines in videogames, of various calcification) and even while writing it I felt uneasy with the subtext of my argument. See, I felt—and still feel—that much of The Line‘s meaning making is rooted in its literary heritage: Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness. Underneath that argument is an implicit value judgement that the film and novella are better at manufacturing meaning than the game is, which is a stone’s throw from “games are not as good/smart/art/whatever as film/text literature.” I don’t think that but I didn’t address that undertone at the time it because I’m not sure how important it was. Maybe it isn’t important at all. Who cares?
So here I am two months later, wondering about the meaning produced in Hardline, a game I am unlikely to ever play. Like The Line, Hardline (still funny) draws on other storytelling conventions to produce meaning. Like Walker says, it harkens to CBS crime shows where the detective stoically belches one-liners behind shaded glasses. Victims weep and villains bark melodramatically and stillborn acting careers are politely carted away with the credits. The point is that the repressive state agent gets his man; whether through tortured genius or robotic professionalism, he rises above the individual messes left by the act of crime and organizes all wrongdoing into neat boxes where, like tetronimos, they will disappear and make room for next week’s episode.
Hardline‘s hero, Mendoza, puts everything back in its right place. He cleans the city streets. Reflecting on The Line, as I have been, I keep thinking about how those streets in The Line‘s Dubai couldn’t be cleaned. They could be obliterated or abandoned, but what was there, who was there, was there for good. There’s a case to be made that Walker is in hell, (Captain Walker, not Austin Walker…) that he’s hallucinating, but the city, Dubai, is dying and that even if Walker is the virus killing it, he is microscopic within it and when the city dies he will die. Probably of thirst, or of bullet wounds, or from fire. His death won’t be clean because cities aren’t clean. The magical realism in The Line cues us to the city’s materiality, it’s permanence. Walker descends eternally, becoming bloodier, more raw, more grotesque. Citizens become materially tied to their cities, to the class that maintains it, to the class it abjects.
I’ve been reading K. Sello Duiker’s Thirteen Cents. It’s a hard book and if you’re interested in reading it be aware that it contains very frank depictions of racism, child abuse, and sexual assault. The main character, Azure, is a homeless thirteen-year-old boy working as a prostitute in Cape Town until he gets swept up by the neighbourhood mafia. The novel is inextricably tied to materiality, Azure’s life is dependent on money. Money holds the value of a meal, a blow job, a joint, or a pair of shoes. Azure can’t keep money because he sleeps on a beach, so his material life is connected to what he has on or in his body. He submits his body to sex with bankers, he submits his body to beatings from mafia tough guys. Cape Town is a tourist city, a very nice one, and it operates in large part by preserving the images found on post cards.
Azure doesn’t fit on post cards. His eyes are blue and his skin is black, he is exists in the limens of categorization. A local gangster changes his name and calls him blue, he is constantly ingesting water and bathing in the sea, he also wears orange in defiance of his mafia family, he sets fire to his parents’ mattress in childhood and as a prisoner he occupies his time staring at after-images from a lightbulb till he “destroy[s] the room with half-circles of fire” (54). He is both water and fire. When he abandons Cape Town to climb a mountain the novel shifts from harsh realism to surreality.
Azure is a figure of urbanity but urbanity is not sufficient in creating subjectivity even when the subject is totally dependent on the city. These moments of hyperreality or surreality intrude in the novel. Azure keeps warm at night by burning monsters and washes himself clean in a reservoir. He encounters a T-Rex and other monsters who represent the gangsters he depends on in Cape Town. He pisses out the sun and water becomes fire, the abject becomes power. These dualities follow him back into the city, where his old community are either dead or moved elsewhere in the city, and those left behind understand that Azure was responsible for the change. Finally the novel culminates in an apocalypse, Azure calls in water to sweep away Cape Town and fire to rain over the mountains. Subjection to the city ends with annihilation.
To be honest, I’m still working with this ending, but I think that maybe the novel suggests that the city is the new normal. The city may be failing Azure, but he still needs it to survive. Children like Azure, a hope for the future consumed like a product by figurative and eventually literal monsters, have no say in their inheritance. The novel imagines a magical reality sliding into urban reality to overcome it. But the magic world is gone, capitalism has won, and we need the cities we live and work in. Reorganizing means destruction, it necessitates becoming a didactic message to a distant descendent (mrsdawnaway. “‘If you can read this, LEAVE!!!’ Storytelling in Left 4 Dead and Zone One.” bigtallwords. Dec 22 2014.). To clean the city with water and fire is maybe redemptive, maybe self-destructive. I don’t know.
In either case, what does Battlefield: Hardline offer us for the city? A sanitized team vs team match where bodies evaporate when enough bullets contact them? Is there room for the magic of self-possession? I started this article with a brief mention of Shadowrun because I wanted to talk about it, so I’ll do that now.
Shadowrun “Dragonfall” has too much going on. But it has too much in a way that really works. Its dissonance really resonates: there is a dragon protected by a self-aware anti-virus AI, there are ghosts in nuclear waste bins and a zombie sewer tribe who must be placated with a medical waste treaty. This is a city exploded to darkly cartoonish extremes. I dig it. There is no government, the game’s Berlin is an anarchist state cut up into self-directing neighbourhoods. The player takes the role of a benevolent urban warlord and while they’re rarely confronted with this reality, most of their side missions are related to infrastructure (the plumbing stopped working across town, the racially disenfranchised need beds and shelters, shipments of tools and guns have been stolen, etc.) while their primary objective is achieved by collecting money. The player does all the friendship building quests that would be expected of an RPG, but they do so in the context of an urban world: they only have power with access to electricity, the internet, social conventions, architecture and guns; power’s domain is the city and the city is everywhere. Most of the game the player takes on errands for cash, selling their bodies into violent labour to undermine the big-bad. And yet, the existence of magic always provides hope. As miserable as things may seem, there is a force beyond the city that promises equilibrium.
Compared with “Dead Man’s Switch,” the original Shadowrun Returns campaign, magic in “Dragonfall” keeps the possibility of enlightened redemption alive, even if it comes with the chance of tearing down the world. So long as there are people left to salvage the wreckage for scraps, that offers hope. “Dead Man’s Switch,” while much closer to a traditional crime story, includes a quest near the end where a death cult summons a hivemind of magical insects to destroy the world. While death cults are not unheard of in crime stories, to this point, “Dead Man’s Switch” had been one rogue’s pursuit of street justice and the insertion of a save-the-world plot, while videogamey, broke something. The urban world is not something you save, it’s something you survive. Maybe you wait it out for something else to come along but in the meantime you need it even if it’s killing you. This is the discomfort in the subtext of “Dragonfall,” it’s the cruel reality Azure faces and destroys in Thirteen Cents and it’s in the collapsing walls that swallow Walker in Spec-Ops: The Line.
In Battlefield, we need the city but the city doesn’t need us. The city can turn victims into a one-episode plot engine, presented in melodrama and discarded when the case closes. It turns perpetrators into targets, due process into a monolith and the police into a floating pair of hands with a variety of real-life guns at their disposal.
Further reading: Kim, Grace. “Magical Realism in Cape Town’s Underbelly.” The Mantle. Dec 17 2009.
Petit, Carolyn. “Battlefield Hardline, L.A. Noire, and the Willingness to Leave the Player Unfulfilled.” Secret Adventure. Mar 25 2015.
Hidalgo, Taylor. “Art Tickles: The Very Worst.” Haywire Magazine. Mar 22 2015.