Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall
Harebrained Studios, 2014
Recommended: Without question
Summary: Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall is a fun, incredibly well-written computer roleplaying game that takes place in a good-guy-anarchists-against-evil-megacorporations future. It nods to punk anti-fascism; it makes fun of state communists; there are multiple, non-sexualized homosexual relationships; and there’s awesome German graffiti everywhere in the background. So yes, I like this game. It didn’t get everything perfect, but it got a hell of a lot right.
There’s always going to be a place in my heart for Shadowrun. I think I was in fourth grade when a friend introduced me to the world for the first time, handing me the second edition core book. There on the cover were a bunch of punk humans and elves, hacking a computer terminal in the middle of a gunfight.
For those who haven’t yet been exposed to it, Shadowrun is a roleplaying game environment set in the mid-21st century. In 2012, magic returned to the world, and since then a lot of people turned into elves and dwarves and trolls and orcs, the dragons woke up, and all hell broke loose. Technology marched forward and people started replacing their nervous systems with wires and their flesh with steel. Corporations took over and most nation states fell apart. In short, it’s essentially the ultimate cyberpunk fantasy world. Characters play the role of shadowrunners… streetwise mercenaries who attack and/or help corporations and dragons and gangs in order to survive.
Shadowrun didn’t change my life, but it’s possible that it set up my expectations for life. I spent plenty of my middle school days immersed in game books and the Shadowrun novels, but the next time after that when I was exposed to the pen-and-paper game was when I was in my twenties in a squat in Amsterdam. We’d stolen our house from an imprisoned mafia boss and our friends pirated their internet by way of crazy jury-rigged wifi antennae. And the GM had his jaw broken fighting nazis in the street. Punk life meets 21st century technology—cyberpunk.
The first two Shadowrun video games were for Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, back in the 90s, and I loved them. It’s been awhile now since I’ve played either of them, and I can’t tell you everything about their plots, but I have a feeling they watered down some of the politics. Evil megacorps were bad, of course, but so was just about everybody else. And of course, most people aren’t playing Sega or SNES games anymore.
Enter Shadowrun Returns, a turn-based RPG system designed so that players can make their own modules for others to play. The module that comes with the game, Dead Man’s Switch, is an enjoyable, linear story told in a noir detective style. There’s some interesting themes in it to talk about I might cover sometime, but it’s got nothing on the sequel.
At the end of February 2014, the second official module came out, Dragonfall. Every game review site is quite happy to point out what a vast improvement it is over the original, from a gameplay point of view. And that’s true. But that’s not what I’ll focus on here.
Dragonfall is an immensely entertaining Shadowrun roleplaying game that is explicitly about anarchists. It’s set in Berlin, in the anarchist-run “Flux State.” I hadn’t kept up on Shadowrun canon, so I didn’t know about the Flux State before I picked up Dragonfall, but the world of Shadowrun includes an anarchist Berlin.
They get the anarchism either almost-right or dead on, depending on how you look at it. At one point, while you’re busy raising money for an information broker, you can tell her she’s a bad neo-anarchist, that she’s almost as bad as the corporations. She laughs and tells you these days it’s hard to tell the difference between the two.
There are numerous really-not-so-anarchist things about this anarchist Berlin—you’re made second-in-command of an anarchist group of Shadowrunners and everything costs money. But you get the feeling (at least, I got the feeling) that the Flux State, well, fluctuates. That anarchism is the ideal it is constantly striving for. There seem to be no official power structures within the F-State, and there are actually a decent number of mutual aid relationships explored in the game. So no, anarchist Berlin isn’t the anarchism that I and my friends preach and practice, but it’s not an awful approximation of what might happen in a world gone insane where some anarchists step in and create a permanent autonomous zone.
One of the themes of the game is the idea that, in anarchist situations without explicit authority, natural leaders step forward. The protagonist is in fact expected to be one of these leaders, filling the shoes of the recently-deceased.
Yet I appreciated how, in one character’s backstory, it shows the way charismatic leaders can twist anarchism—and in this case, Nietzschean philosophy—to suit their own nefarious ends. The “good” natural leader is the one who is critical of her own power. The “bad” one embraces his power. I can’t say I entirely disagree… I’m just still critical of even organic, non-institutionalized leadership, because it so quickly becomes authority.
Which is cleverly brought up in another character’s backstory, when, as the singer for an anarchopunk band, he unintentionally “led” a lot of impressionable anarchopunks into some seriously dangerous conflicts. They were fights worth fighting, but I appreciated his critique of his own un-institutionalized authority.
The anarchist setting is more than just background in Dragonfall—it’s integral to the plot. I appreciate that.
Dragonfall is a game about power. Dragons run the world, standing in as metaphors for the ultrarich, and there’s this maxim, “never deal with a dragon.” But dealing with dragons is inevitable, and we are perhaps forever pawns to those with power. We step up and take it ourselves, too, for better or worse, and we need to be forever vigilant lest leadership become authority.
The writing in Dragonfall is amazing. Computer RPGs have advanced by leaps and bounds from last I played them a lot back in the 90s, apparently. After most missions, you wind up back in your neighborhood, a sort of village-within-a-city complete with urban gardens and political graffiti. There are characters there you can talk to and build relationships with over the course of the game that have no game relevance whatsoever—you don’t generally gain experience points (“karma,” in Shadowrun) for talking to them, you just talk to them because their stories are engaging and because they feel like people. Learning to make connections with them is genuinely fulfilling. In post-game write-ups on forums, I see at least as many people talking about all the ways they (the people posting on the forums) handled conversations with the various non-essential NPCs as about what guns they bought for their characters.
In your little anarchist town, there’s a charity that helps troubled youth, and there’s an old war vet whose gone pacifist. But my favorite side character is Simmy. Simmy is a troubled kid who hides in BTLs—“Better Than Life” simulations at all times. She’s completely addicted. You can help her begin to get over her addiction over the course of the game. At the end, you can have a conversation with her in which it comes out that sometimes BTLs are okay, for when you’re anxious or in need of a break from life, but that the real world awaits.
Which, of course, is a good summary of what the hell I was doing playing this video game obsessively in the first place.
In another subplot, there’s a computer hacker tracking down his ex-girlfriend who up and left him without warning. Finally, she tells him to back off when he gets too close, and you can either encourage him to keep pestering her against her wishes or talk him into respecting her wishes. Which is to say, you can save him from his White Knight complex. Definitely a good lesson for the average videogaming man. And, judging by comments in the forums, most players told him to just keep bugging her and learned this lesson the (simulated) hard way.
You’re given ethical choices at every turn, and some of them get downright complex. Some of them, however, are pretty easy—like when you get hired to shoot up the anti-metahuman bigots’ brainwashing center. Why yes, I’ll take that job.
There are four playable NPCs (non-player characters) in the game, each with their own backstories and personalities. The two women are the fighters, the two men are the support team. There are as many lesbian relationships in the game as there are heterosexual ones, and there’re more or less no romantic interests in the game for the protagonist. There’s a lewd drug dealer who offers drugs for sex to a junkie, who is repulsed by the idea, but I don’t think (I’m no expert!) that this qualifies as shaming or victimizing sex work.
Although the game tries to tackle race more head-on than it tackles gender, it might be there where it fails more. In the world of Shadowrun, no one cares about race, only metatype (human, dwarf, elf, troll, orc, etc.). The racists in 2054 are pro-human instead of pro-white. One of my favorite moments of the game is hearing your face-tattooed anarchopunk shaman tell you about days fighting racists in the streets, and I think I mentioned that “kill all the bigots” sidequest. But the thing is, we players of Shadowrun don’t live in a post-racial society, and all four of your teammates are as white as can be, even if one of them is a troll. Your player, of course, can be of whatever race or metatype.
Oh, and, as a final, spoiler-as-hell note:
I absolutely love that the “evil” dragon, in the end, was just a Miyazaki-style defender of the earth, enraged by what the humans had done. And even that dragon’s antithesis gets in some clever environmentalist zingers.
and some picking-on-the-commies: