“When a story or game or movie goes out into the world and it becomes owned by its audience emotionally, it doesn’t give the creator free license to go and fuck with our memories, right?” We were talking about Star Wars, but Shadowrun creator Jordan Weisman sees George Lucas’s blasphemous adaptation of his own work as a cautionary tale for his own current reboot project, Shadowrun Returns.
Shadowrun is a pen-and-paper role-playing game developed in 1989 by Weisman’s studio, FASA. Conceived in the spiritual cyberpunk vein of William Gibson’s seminal science-fiction novel Neuromancer and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the game was originally set in the near future (circa 2050), a future where giant corporations run the show (I know, pretty far-fetched), and cybernetic implants are the norm. The big catch is, owing to Mayan prophecy, magic has reentered the world, and many humans—by birth or mutation—change into trolls, elves, dwarves, and other familiar species from the Tolkien petting zoo. Shadowrunners are untrackable specialists who use their augmented skills to wage covert espionage between the larger corporate and governmental entities.
After 15 years away from his nth-degree fantasy capitalist dystopia, Weisman decided to return. In 2012, his new studio, Harebrained Schemes, launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowd-fund a new Shadowrun game for tablets and PCs. The original goal was set at $400,000, but by the time it was complete, Weisman et al. had raised $1,836,447, from 36,276 different backers. As the coffers filled, so did the project’s ambitions: “The audience funded the project at five times what our original ask was, but our original vision was much smaller. The audience response really allowed us to open up the floodgates a lot larger,” Weisman said.
But why reboot Shadowrun now? And why use Kickstarter instead of a more traditional route? Well, for one, corporate shenanigans don’t just occur in noir-ish mega-cities. The Shadowrun license was purchased by Microsoft in 1999, resulting in not much more than an intriguing but disappointing 2007 multiplayer shooter for the Xbox 360. While the game’s premise does lend itself to a bullets-and-magic kill-for-all, the 2007 iteration lacked a single-player mode or any semblance of a story—the lifeblood of any world originally conceived as a role-playing game.
To find a true Shadowrun experience, you have to go back to 1993 and the relatively unknown gem of a Super Nintendo title. “It’s something we’ve been trying to get off the ground for a long time,” Weisman said. “The property kind of got left in the vault at Microsoft, and so a number of years ago, I was able to work out a license with them to allow me to do projects and work in these worlds again. I took Shadowrun out to publishers and explained the kind of game vision we wanted to do, but we just didn’t find a receptive audience. Today’s publisher world is very focused on huge titles that are 20 or 30 million dollars or more. No one really wanted to invest in that property, which they couldn’t own because Microsoft owned it.”
The Super Nintendo title is a kind of spiritual antecedent for Weisman’s vision. In that game, you play an amnesiac data courier named Jake Armitage who must discover secrets of his identity and past, all while avoiding the trained assassins on his tail. (You can’t really like his chances, as the game starts with him on a gurney in a morgue.) There isn’t a ton of wiggle room in how you could approach the game—Armitage was your only playable option—and it perhaps wasn’t as dark as the traditional setting suggests it should be. But on the whole, it was faithful to the spirit of the original title, and it was even mentioned in a 2002 GameSpot list of notable games that should be remade. While Weisman isn’t remaking that particular title, Shadowrun Returns will contain the genetic material—and possibly some of the characters—of its predecessors on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis.
One of the big hurdles to rebooting a game like this is the fact that the near future looks a lot different now than it did in 1989 or 1993. “Any time you’re playing the futurist, you know you’re ultimately bound to screw up,” Weisman admits. “2050 seemed farther away in the ’80s than it does now.” The original Shadowrun was developed during the dawn of the internet, and the game’s version of the World Wide Web is known as the “Matrix.” Hackers (known in the game as “deckers”) use cyberdecks and cybernetic datajack implants to access the world’s data streams, gleaning intel and causing all sorts of mischief. Much of it seems quaint now, and the Shadowrun canon has evolved to account for real-world technological advances.
There was some internal debate at Harebrained Schemes as to how much Shadowrun Returns should stay true to the past history of the future. Ultimately, Weisman and his team opted for faithfulness, rather than projecting again from here into an updated fictional future. Weisman said that the fans “really want that kind of original vision, and that original kind of futurist view from that perspective. The only thing I’ve done is in some places where stuff is too jarring, we kind of sawed off a little of the edges there, to make sure that its accessible to an audience that didn’t have that history of the old property. But for the most part we’ve kept it pretty true to what that future vision was 24 years ago.”
There’s no real telling how this devotion to an antiquated future will play with the portion of the targeted audience that has no prior exposure to the game. For younger players, references to a “Matrix” might jog memories of a classic movie enjoyed by their parents, but the idea of a pre-internet internet might make their Gangnam-saturated brains explode. Then again, the urban samurai-for-hire is as timeless a theme as you could want, and the game—in theory, anyway—aims to be more than just an opportunity for longtime fans to relive their past gaming lives.
Shadowrun Returns promises to be a turn-based, character-driven affair. Unlike the Super Nintendo title, players will be able to generate their own characters from a variety of classic Shadowrun archetypes, each of which will interact with the world in a different way. A mage, for instance, will see ephemeral auras around people, while the street samurai will glean real-time, actionable information—who is packing an Ares Predator under her jacket, locations of immediate environmental threats. The decker will see things through the digital lens of the Matrix. As Weisman puts it, “This is a very kind of tactical game, where you’re spending action points, really working the combat out and finding out how to take out that troll with the right combination of a fireball and a hand grenade and a burst from an Uzi.” But unlike the half-aborted failure of the 2007 game, Shadowrun Returns will rely less on shooting and more on story.
And it’s not just the developer’s take on that tale. Weisman intends to include tools for players to create their own adventures, supporting characters, dialogue—all hallmarks of pre-internet role-playing games. It’s this element of invention from scratch that has been largely missing in the ongoing translation of pen-and-paper to video game role-playing—the agency to develop original, playable threads in the story. Weisman said that Shadowrun Returns will allow players the same design capabilities that are available to the developers (much like Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet does), which sounds pretty ambitious for a project funded entirely from small donations. But if it works, it could set an important precedent for future small-scale RPGs.
With more games being created outside the gated corporate development community, players are raising the question of how beholden Kickstarter-funded developers should be to their direct investors. “They know this property, they have their own vision of it from their years of reading the books and playing the games, and I can taste a little of the fear that Peter Jackson must have had during the Lord Of The Rings movies,” Weisman said with a nervous laugh. “Obviously, it’s a much smaller-scale property, but it’s the same challenge—trying to bring to life something that’s been in people’s heads—and you just know you can’t get it right for everybody.”
It’s helpful to think of Shadowrun Returns, and other small games like it, in the game’s own terms. The Shadowrunners—in this case, the indie developers and gamers uninterested in formulaic, financially-driven titles—now operate outside of that monolithic corporate sphere, using an evolving array of technology and magic. (Is there any other way to explain nearly $2 million in small donations for a non-existent game?) Working together, these parties should be able to survive, and even thrive, in the dark corners, far beneath the notice of the faceless behemoths waging vicious, mutually destructive economic warfare against one another. Welcome to the future’s past future.