Night City (Cyberpunk 2020)
Night City is a 184-page sourcebook, with two pages devoted to interior cover/editorial/TOC, leaving us with a mighty 182 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a print copy of the book in exchange for a fair review. I am going to break my usual format big time in this review, so a few things: The book features b/w-artworks and maps, two-column standard, and the layout is great. The print copy is a softcover, and ridiculously inexpensive for the amount of content provided.
So, first things first – this book is pretty rules-lite: While there are fully statted NPCs herein alongside encounter suggestions/hooks/random encounters, the majority of this book is a sourcebook – one, as you open the pages, chock full with maps. Most of these are isometric, namely the ones for the city blocks; when e.g. maps of other environments are concerned, like Mallplexes etc., we instead have the traditional top-down view. The maps also includes some blank maps sans keys, so you can use those to design your own neighborhoods.
…you don’t care particularly about that, right? Okay, so, Night City is a city that never was (in our world), but something odd has happened in the time since 1991, when this book was released. Let me go on a brief tangent: When I first read 1984, I was but a kid, but even back then, the Orwellian nightmare depicted seemed cartoonish to me, a recipe for a steady flux of revolts and rebellions. When, not long after, I read “Brave New World”, I was utterly horrified by Huxley’s vision; if you’re not familiar with the vision – think about replacing soma, the wonder-drug and control mechanism in the book with media, and you’ll have some frightening. His theory of control for ruling classes requiring the consent of masses, which would need sedation, being divided, crucial information lost in a flood of irrelevant drivel with clever propaganda…whenever I see the sheer amount of adorable puppy/kitten-videos on youtube, something within me quakes and shivers…because I love them as well, and because I very much realize how successful these strategies are. As an aside: There btw. is an informative interview from 1958 with the man on youtube.
What does that have to do with Night City? Well, more than any other RPG-book I’ve read, it feels prophetic. When it was released, not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, many of its visions were dystopian…where today, I’d consider the city depicted herein more of an allotopia, an alternate version of our world, that is at once worse and better than ours.
In a way, cyberpunk as a genre is always about the anxiety of being shoehorned into a system; more than in any other literary genre, the “punk” aspect, the anxiety regarding Randian visions and corporate oligarchies very much are central leitmotifs for the genre, whereas aesthetically, cyberpunk often is a kind of retro-science fiction; in the case of the 1980s and early 90s, a genre about the feat of lack of corporate accountability, loss of privacy, dehumanizing technology, a society bursting apart into classes, deeply divided by a stream of electronic diversions that help us cope with a dog-eat-dog world where empathy is a luxury few can afford. All the surveillance via cred-chips and on the respective internet substitutions? Don’t they pale in comparison to what big data companies, facebook, google, etc. can do?
In a way, to modern, 21st century aesthetics, cyberpunk-themes, like its aesthetics, are starker, clearer – neon glow and black trenchcoats, a(n un-) healthy dose of ultraviolence…edgerunners/shadowrunners vs. corporate/”the man”…but is it actually more dystopian that internet lynchmobs driving people to commit suicide based on allegations? Is it more frightening than the decentralized social media-powered mob-rule, the conflict between ideologies and news spun in various ways, obscuring any semblance of a reliable narrative? In many ways, Cyberpunk’s aesthetics have developed from a frightening dystopia to something I genuinely considered to be less frightening than the realities we all face on a daily basis; it now feels like an alternate reality.
And here is the genius of Night City. Many old science-fiction scenarios or cyberpunk books suffer from technological advances outpacing their predictions in many ways we consider to be important, while excessively exaggerating others. In a way, Night City manages to be different, but hits the mark remarkably well – and this is due to clever writing that genuinely deserves being called “prophetic” in many ways, it’s this aspect that keeps this book relevant, that is responsible for the tome aging so ridiculously well.
What do I mean by this? Well, for once, the presentation is actually better than that of most contemporary sourcebooks, regardless of game: From the get-go, a central conceit is maintained that must have been so audacious, so far-out, that it’s a testament to the design-team’s skill and vision that they managed to pull it off: Night City is presented, as a series of dataterm entries, as a kind of online travelling guide/wiki/related series of articles – information that, if you replace dataterms with smartphones, mirrors frighteningly our own realities: We begin with the tourist board of sorts, cheerfully written in a manner that mirrors perfectly the luring and compelling tone that we’ve come to expect from tourist sites “Come visit XYZ!”” Sidebars that state “See also pg. XYZ” also provide an illusion of hyperlinks of sorts that furthermore enhances the ease of use of the book as a physical artifact.
Once you’ve consumed the basics about a region, what do you do? Bingo, you check out the maps of the region – and the supplement predicts in many ways how google maps operates: From state maps to maps of airports with dates of departure and arrival noted, to whole quarters, including ratings and comments on restaurants, bars and similar establishments, the book is utterly uncanny in the precision of its predictions, as well as in the sheer amount of detail presented.
In fact, and this may be construed to be a peculiar irony, it is the punk aspect that feels most fantastic – regarding the breakdowns of the gangs, for example, the augmentation-heavy gangs bordering on cyberpsychosis are the more fantastic, whereas the ones that follow more subdued themes can be considered to, once again, be uncanny: What about, for example, the gang called “bozos”, who are essentially Jokers from Batman beyond – or more violent antecedents of the phenomena of the Insane Clown Posse or the relatively recent horrorclown-hysteria? What about the Philharmonic Vampyres, a prankster gang/social activists that blend randomness and activism? They sound a lot like the Anonymous movement to me. Or, if you recall the 80s and 90s, what about the voodoo boys, an academic gang of essentially drug-selling posers? Their write-up reads like a delightfully scathing commentary on cultural appropriation running rampant during that age, with gang membership so hilariously over the top (bone through septum, for example…) in their ridiculousness, it’s hard not to chuckle.
Regarding ecology, Cyberpunk’s world may be less bad off than ours, or worse, depending on whether you believe that we’ve already doomed our planet with men-wrought climate change, or still have a chance to save it. We might not have the more garish and punk acid rain and poisonous smog (at least not in the same extent), but yeah – in that manner, the game is more extreme in its predictions…or is it? If you e.g. look up the issues in Ulan Bator, for example, one can’t help but wonder…It may not be as flashy as in Cyberpunk…but are we perhaps worse off than this dystopia?
So yeah, there is this whole angle where the book gets things right very often – but that alone would not suffice to make for a compelling sourcebook. You see, beyond the uncanny accuracy regarding themes, the book excels in how consequently it is devoted to even the most minute detail of its conceit. A sober guide to travelling to the US is included “telling it as it is”, in a voice less unreliable than the “Come to Night City”-propaganda. See how the whole Brave New World comparison comes full circle? We get threat levels and codes, reminiscent of police information; we get information on where and how people atop a certain social strata live; how Movers live a life inside the corporate hamster-wheel, not unlike the hollow existence of a certain Mr. Bateman, minus the murder. In most cases.
Then again, this is a gaming supplement, and gaming supplements, in one way or another, as supposed to generate a sense of fun, correct? Night City is not a dry reading experience – indeed, while I can’t ascertain this, I wholeheartedly believe that the over the top aspects of the “punk”-component, have, even back n the day, been consciously written that way, for the book ften dives into the at times scathing, at times hilarious territory of satire (hence the American Psycho reference above).
There are generally two types of satire; those in the tradition of Juvenal are supposed to break the individual, ideally make them (or aspects of their persona) cease to exist, while those of Horaz generally seek to redeem the target; Juvenal is scathing and destructive, and one could argue that e.g. the verbal duels in contemporary battle rap could be seen as the heirs of Juvenal, this book is more indebted to Horaz (Horace for English native speakers) in didactic strategies. For example, many of the more exaggerated aspects can easily be read as deliberately extreme forms of hyperbole. I mean, think about it: Combat taxis where you, as the ad in the book proposes, “leave the fighting to us” may exist in Cyberpunk, but what about really bad neighborhoods where no taxis drive? You’ll find that grizzled Uber/Lyft-driver who won’t flinch going there, probably with a handgun or a bigger caliber in the trunk. Are the two worlds really so different? Did I mention the right for disabled people to destroy vehicles parking in their designated spaces, including a signpost showing a person in a wheelchair with a big gun?
If your IQ is in the triple-digits, and I assume that to be the case, courtesy of you reading roleplaying games supplements, you’ll be gently nudged towards plenty of thoughts like this while reading this book. In a way, Night City has transformed over the years and, odd as that may seem, gained layers of meaning instead of losing them. Night City never is just a misery-filled, grimdark cultural pessimism; I was trying to watch “The Purge” while reading this book (I need multiple media to keep my mind busy and focused – overstimulated much? Guilty as charged. That, or I have some sort of neurological anomaly…), and I failed to derive any enjoyment from its ham-fisted attempts at social commentary. It is quite remarkable, then, that a humble RPG-book from the early 90s managed to present a more plausible and nuanced allotopia than basically a contemporary production with a budget infinitely beyond this book. Night City never becomes an exercise in Weltschmerz, it never becomes depressing, and remains nuanced, and plausible to a ridiculous extent.
Case in point: While writing this review, I was researching cities and routes in the US for a little journey…and in the aftermath, there was an uncanny effect – I almost thought I’d find Night City somewhere on the Californian map; not consciously, mind you, but I caught my eyes glancing towards the region where the NorCal/SoCal border is in Cyberpunk. In a way, the book’s structure and almost obsessive attention to even small details in a given city’s block generates an experience not unlike the one I had researching e.g. San Francisco or Seattle, the feeling of loading up on information before getting somewhere, and the sense that you can *feel* the character of a place before getting there.
In a way, Night City is many things – a ridiculously and lavishly detailed sourcebook full of handy maps; a great satire that manages to get its points across without coming off as talking down to the reader, an allotopia – and it’s a great piece of literature. In fact, it’s one of the few RPG-supplements that I’d genuinely recommend to get just for the sheer joy of reading it. Yes, that compelling.
Mike Pondsmith, Ed Bolme, Sam Shirley, Anders Swensen, Colin Fisk, Will Moss, John Smith, Mike Mac Donald and Lisa Pondsmith have penned an all time classic, a book that is at once educational and entertaining, that does not jam an ideology down your throat, but that can and will prompt contemplation on a wide variety of topics. In a way, it is a book we might well need in these times, where plenty of individuals and institutions benefit from generating divisions instead of emphasizing things we have in common. In a way, this is a book that may well be more relevant today than when it was originally released. How many books can claim that? 5 stars + seal of approval. This also gets my “Best of”-tag and should be considered to be an EZG Essential. If you’re a roleplayer living in these troubling times, consider picking this up. Sit down with your beverage of choice, put on some synthwave (I am partial to Keygen Chrurch, GosT and Perturbator, myself) and read. Think. And then think about how even the exaggerated behavior patterns in Cyberpunk are influencing us. You might well come out as a happier and more open-minded person. And even if you don’t, you’ll have read one of the most detailed, lavish sourcebooks ever penned for the cyberpunk genre, not only the Cyberpunk 2020-game.
You can get this masterpiece of a book here on OBS!
You can get the print copy here on R. Talsorian Games Inc.’s store!
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