A Piece of Work has a long, sordid history. It originally started out as a zombie “survival” RPG called Do Not Go Gentle—a game which might get made at some point, but which we had trouble nailing down. Then it became a kind of straight up cyberpunk game with heavy existential themes. Finally it settled nicely into a genre that seems to call itself cybernoir. I’ve made reference to it in my last post. The term is by no means RPG-specific, and is used to describe a lot of different works.

For reference, when we say cybernoir, we mean Ghost in the Shell. We mean Blade Runner. We mean Hammered. A corporate dystopia that’s just above livable for the underclass and way over really great for the upper class; the upper cogs are powerful and wage private hidden wars, but are no less trapped by the system they control. It’s much like the present, but there’s cyberware.

Austin and I had an excellent discussion about the role of voice in an RPG just the other day. The challenge in A Piece of Work is that cyberpunk and noir both have defining features that oppose each other. For instance, in noir, it’s common to be direct, blunt, and uncompromising about how you feel about things. Even trying to be delicate gets an exhortion from people to “Give it to me straight, Doctor!” Not so, the world of cyberpunk. Cyberpunk, especially in RPGs, is about compromise. About avoiding the offensive. Rightly so, when mouthing off could literally start a gun-fight. It leads to people speaking in hints and asides. “I have a problem I need someone to deal with.”

So we have this voice issue; we’re pretty up to snuff on our cyberpunk, but our noir is a little lacking. And the noir in cybernoir needs to be a full partner. Good examples of such stories are a precise blend. Consequently I’ve been trying to study up. There are a lot of public domain films available at archive.org. The quotes that come out of listening to them in the background for hours are delicious; I recommend marathon viewings to anyone who finds the genre appealing.

But there’s this challenge when talking about voice. The difficulty is in how to talk about talking without descending into rampant example-ism or faking an accent. Those things work well enough for certain authors, but they don’t seem consistent with our writing styles. We prefer explanatory, educational text. Often with a hint of pretentious grandiosity.

So without further ado, here’s a list of the top items we’ve identified as the voice of cybernoir.

  • People speak directly. Noir characters are passionate, under a lot of tension, and they don’t have time to embellish their speech. It’s fine if you state how you feel, but avoid saying why. If you have to say why, make a generalization out of it—”When he left me to hang for the crime, I knew then that you can never trust a rat.”
  • Corporations/public officials speak indirectly. One of the ways that noir portrays bad guys is to have them be obvious weasels. If someone minces words, or tries to explain how unspecified powers have taken an interest, that person is probably not a good character. This works because the baseline is for people to speak directly.
  • Everything is connected. In the future, Zawinski’s Law is not a humorous commentary, but is fact. If it has a microchip today, you can network it in the future. If it doesn’t have a microchip today, it will in the future.
  • State of the Art is terrifying. The truly cutting edge is alien, disturbing, and can casually destroy buildings or overthrow societies. Imagine what an M1 Abrams would seem like to someone who hadn’t invented the stirrup yet. The only thing that keeps all hell from breaking lose is society, but that’s the same one that’s intrinsically broken.

The question now is, what are we missing? We have a whole page of things that sound good to us, but it’s good to hear from others. So, leave a comment!

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  • Eric Duncan

    After watching Alphaville recently

  • Eric Duncan

    After watching Alphaville recently and thinking about some more modern films that draw more upon it moreso than Orwell’s 1984 (Equilibrium, Blade Runner) what I wonder is:

    Can the voice of cybernoir  have room to tell stories of those who are in the “system”, up to and including their subversion’s of the methods of control. Can you tell stories that deal with the other 2 reactions to hegemony: Collusion and Voice or only Exit?

    Can and should those seeking or acting upon passion yet are still citizens, knowing full well those passions can upset the “great society” have their stories told in this game?

    How much Camazotz can/will there be?

  • Ivan Vaghi

    Hi guys, I spotted your blog yesterday by chance (via storygames??) and when I saw you guys are living in Boulder I thought it was one of those really happy coincidences as I am coming to Boulder from Milan for one month in a couple of weeks time.   I used to roleplay a lot as a kid and at university, then I stopped for lack of a group and I recently started reading about storygames and I am really interested in the theory, emergent narratives, improv techniques etc.. but I work a lot and I never have any chance to play. I am into software design, emergent narratives, entrepreneurship, complex systems and other geeky stuff so let me know if you are up for a beer or a game sometimes this summer!

    (You should see my email from the post logs.)