The Role-Playing Game That Predicted the Future

 

illustration of Mike Pondsmith
Lauren Tamaki

About 30 years ago, in Santa Cruz, California, a man named Mike Pondsmith laid out a prophecy for the then-distant future—the year 2020.

It was a future teeming with tech. He envisioned the dizzying data-winds of cyberspace, gigantic holographic video screens, bioengineered wheat-powered metro cars, and, everywhere you looked, the gleam of polychrome cyberoptic eyes. In his future, some of the populace suffered from an affliction he dubbed “technoshock”—an inability to cope with technology’s incursions into their lives.

He called that vision Cyberpunk. Cyberpunk 2020 was the second edition of the world he’d imagined in 1988, when he created the Cyberpunk franchise. Now filling 50 books comprising more than 5,000 pages crammed with minutiae, it’s surely one of the most extensively and fastidiously imagined worlds in fiction. And in its themes and particulars, it can feel startlingly like nonfiction today.

If you haven’t heard of Pondsmith and his work, it’s because he operates in what may as well be an alternate reality: the thriving but still terrifically niche medium of tabletop games. As the founder and lead designer of R. Talsorian Games, one of the most prominent Black-owned and -operated tabletop-game companies in the country, he has designed several franchises. But Cyberpunk: The Roleplaying Game of the Dark Future is his magnum opus, sort of like Dungeons & Dragons, with the swords and sorcery swapped for silicon and cyberspace. Pondsmith’s favorite way of summing up the essence of the genre: “It’s ‘let’s pretend,’ with rules.”

a digital likeness of Keanu Reeves as Johnny Silverhand, a rock-star revolutionary who sports a tactical vest, leather pants, aviator sunglasses, and a metal arm.

Pondsmith, now in his 60s, has been known to wear his own cyberpunk uniform: black leather jacket, black jeans, motorcycle boots, mirror shades. Today, at home in the suburbs of Seattle, he’s in a black T-shirt and regular spectacles. It’s fitting that we’re speaking over Zoom, the kind of now-ubiquitous telepresence technology that felt futuristic in Blade Runner in 1982.

[Read: We’re living in the retro-future]

“Writing,” Pondsmith tells me, “is a lot like basically eating a pound of dough, a whole pepperoni, a couple of pounds of mozzarella, and a bunch of spices, then throwing up a pizza.” It takes a lot of work to make an unreal world feel real.

For eight years, the Polish video-game developer CD Projekt Red has likewise been consumed with the task of making Pondsmith’s world feel authentic on-screen. In 2012, when the studio first contacted R. Talsorian Games about adapting Cyberpunk, Pondsmith paid a visit to the Warsaw headquarters expecting the operation, he has joked, to consist of “four guys and a goat.” Instead, Pondsmith met a team with epic ambitions, well on the way to becoming what it is now—one of the most valuable gaming companies in Europe.

Like the tabletop games before it, Cyberpunk 2077 asks serious-minded questions about the place of technology in society. “Technology is sort of like the magic of this world,” the game’s director and the head of studio, Adam Badowski, says of his understanding of Pondsmith’s core themes. It “grants massive amounts of power to those who possess it. Governments, corporations, and the ultrarich all use it as a means of keeping their place at the top of the food chain, while dominating society and keeping down the individual. But what if powerful technology gets into the hands of individuals who wish to use it to fight for themselves, for their personal freedom and independence, to take their fears head-on?”

After years of development featuring an attention to detail verging on the maniacal, the result, Pondsmith said, “looked like it had walked out of my brain.”

The son of a psychologist and a U.S. Air Force officer, Pondsmith spent the first 18 years of his life shuttling around with the military. It gave him an uncommonly panoramic perspective for a young person, and the ability to quickly adapt to whatever surroundings he found himself in. His imagination roved widely too. He became addicted to stories, the more transporting the better: Isaac Asimov’s science fiction, Robert A. Heinlein’s juvenile novels, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom series.

Before settling in Santa Cruz for much of the ’80s, he studied psychology and graphic design at UC Davis. He was a charismatic geek, afflicted, he admits, with “an excess of personality.” He listened to Queen before the band was big, pored over the pages of Marvel comics, and dreamed of working as a set-and-prop designer for Lucasfilm. He also played Dungeons & Dragons, though he was much less interested in the game itself than in one of his fellow gamers, his future wife and R. Talsorian Games’ business manager, Lisa.

At his local games and hardware store, he picked up a science-fiction role-playing game called Traveller; the tactile memory of its hefty black box would stay with him. He enjoyed the game so much that he started tinkering with it, as one would with a beloved car. Soon he was creating his own tabletop games and working as a graphic designer on video games. While running a typesetting shop at the University of California, he raised $500 and published his first title, Mekton. The game was inspired by Japanese comics and anime, and populated by giant monster-fighting machines. It was followed by an oddball one-off called Teenagers From Outer Space. He suddenly found himself running his own tabletop-games company, with a crew of writers, illustrators, and designers eager to help him realize his far-fetched visions.

[From the May 2012 issue: The most dangerous gamer]

Then Pondsmith discovered the genre of cyberpunk. He loved the unanswered questions and ambiguities of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner—could software have a soul? Like a good tabletop game, the film left a whole lot to the imagination. Pondsmith then devoured Walter Jon Williams’s Hardwired, a novel that begins with the image of a car apparently driving itself.

Cyberpunk suited Pondsmith, who himself enjoyed making far-out predictions. “He always seemed a few years ahead of the rest of us,” says Will Moss, a former member of the Cyberpunk writing team. “I remember sitting in his house in Aptos. He was holding up a paperback book and inviting us all to imagine a world in which everyone carried a computer that size. Obvious now, but in those days, when a ‘portable’ computer was the size and weight of a suitcase full of rocks, this was a fairly mind-blowing idea, and we all thought it was purest science fiction.”

Pondsmith’s technique, then as now, was to let his imagination fully off the leash and then hone his ideas with research, which usually meant interrogating a neurosurgeon or an Army paramedic, or driving to Vegas and trying out a bunch of automatic weapons. Cyberpunk was dense with just the kinds of finicky details that films like Blade Runner couldn’t accommodate, the type of sci-fi that goes to the trouble of explaining, to quote one sourcebook, that “a Winchester 458 Magnum Super X … delivers 4,712 foot-pounds of energy direct from the muzzle (that drops off to 1,200 ft-lbs past the first 500 yards).”

In 1988, when R. Talsorian Games released the original Cyberpunk, the genre as a whole held the seductive allure of freshly unboxed hardware. In novels, films, comic books, and more, artists were tapping into the excitement and anxieties about the century’s brave new worlds of artificial intelligence, cyborgs, video games, and the internet. The granddaddy of the movement, the writer William Gibson, was fascinated by the way young people’s nervous systems seemed to interact with the video-arcade games they played. It’s no surprise that reading the psychedelic technobabble of his debut novel, Neuromancer, is like having your brain rewired.

But the genre didn’t suggest that tech would solve all the moral and social ills of the world. Instead, it laid out a dystopian vision in which ubiquitous tech was an awesome tool of disruption and oppression, and the nimble-fingered hacker was a warrior-outlaw battling corrupt forces. The word hacker itself seems to carry a whiff of punk rebellion, its implied sophistication contrasting with a denotation of smashing and severing. Eventually, what began as a literary movement felt like a social one, an entire digitally savvy counterculture.

Lately, the genre’s gotten a reboot, with shows such as Black Mirror, Westworld, Mr. Robot, Upload, and Altered Carbon; films such as Upgrade, Ghost in the Shell, Blade Runner 2049, and Alita: Battle Angel; and countless other media offering their take on the clash between technology and human nature. And no wonder. In the news and on the streets, isn’t this the world envisioned by cyberpunk’s progenitors? Eye-transfixing apps mining our minds for data; hacktivists, cyberterrorists, division-sowing bots; Big Tech monitoring our movements; the facial-recognition company Clearview AI scouring our social-media photos.

Much of 2020, Pondsmith admits, would feel right at home in the pages of a Cyberpunk sourcebook. His early visions, coincidentally, also featured a devastating airborne plague and blood-red skies. “The running joke among my friends and family is, ‘Okay, Mike, it’s turning out the way you described it,’?” he said. “?‘Think happy thoughts.’?” When we spoke in July, Black Lives Matter protests were raging across the country. “We’ve got a lot of people who feel like it’s out of control and they cannot affect their own destiny,” he said. “I think cyberpunk is in a lot of ways an articulation of that frustration.”

[Myisha Cherry: Anger can build a better world]

As civil unrest erupted this year, powerful technologies were marshaled to monitor it and tamp it down. U.S. Customs and Border Protection surveilled protesters with a military-grade drone. Activists feared that police were using facial-recognition technology and intercepting smartphone communications with cellular-tower-impersonating stingray devices (IMSI-catchers).

But, as cyberpunk predicted, some tech also became handy weapons in the fight against surveillance. Protesters encrypted texts, anonymized photographs, tuned in to live audio feeds on smartphone police-scanner apps—or, in the case of the unrest in Hong Kong last year, shone laser pointers at surveillance cameras and police officers alike. Hackers hijacked police-radio frequencies; they obtained 269 gigabytes of law-enforcement agencies’ data, including police and FBI reports, which a group known as Distributed Denial of Secrets published on its website. In February, headlines announced the creation of a cyberpunk-looking ultrasonic bracelet that would allow users to jam the microphones in smart speakers.

“We are finding ways to utilize technology to free ourselves,” Pondsmith said. “Think about this phone. You can use this cellphone to gossip. You can use this cellphone to tell lies. You can use this cellphone to tell some really great jokes. You can use this cellphone to expose corruption, inequality, bad behavior. What’s important is that we actively think about how we use it, how it affects our lives and our societies, and learn from it.”

Amid the pessimism that largely permeates the broader genre, Cyberpunk reveals Pondsmith to be something of an optimist—at least relatively speaking. In his own words, the game tells players to “grab the wheel, steal the power, break the strangleholds of the corrupt and gun down the thugs they sent to crush you”—and potentially make the “Dark Future” a brighter one. Or, as he told me more prosaically, “if you want a better future, you’d better get off your butt and make it.” It was that implicit message, Pondsmith guesses, that made the game a hit in the first place.

In his work, Pondsmith ultimately sets out to entertain, not preach. “A game is a toy for having fun,” he said. Even so, he knows that a game, like any story, can affect how we relate to the world. “Almost every story invites you to ask yourself, How would I fit into this story? What would I do? Could I be the hero??

When we spoke, Pondsmith still hadn’t played a final version of Cyberpunk 2077. But he told me he got a kick out of playing sections of the unfinished game. He enjoyed just perusing the in-game world, eavesdropping on its inhabitants—a flaneur strolling through his own creation. “I walk around. I go where I’m not supposed to go. I stand on street corners.

“It’s great, because there are moments where somebody walks by. And they’re having a real conversation. And I listen in. Just as I would on a real street. I’m thinking, Well, it’s not my business … but it does sound like an interesting story.” And suddenly, Pondsmith is feeling inspired again. “I’m thinking, Hmm. Maybe I can add this to the pizza.


This article appears in the December 2020 print edition with the headline “We Are Living in Mike Pondsmith’s Dark Future.”

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