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A dark turn in the pop-culture? (Part Twenty-One)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted July 14, 2014


DARK HORIZON: Escape, An APE Game of Prisoner Agents vs. CorpsGuards in a Bleak Future (Magnolia, TX: APE - Advanced Primate Entertainment) (1996)

10 Future Warrior Grenadier miniatures; 5 full color floor tile sheets - 45 pieces total; 1 sheet including 12 full-color piece and stands; 24 Close Combat cards; 32 page rulebook; 10 UV-coated, erasable player forms; 1 sheet with 120 die-cut counters; 1 felt-tipped pen; 4 6-sided dice; Game Design: Kevin Brusky
Scale: "Squares are 1.25" across, and represent about nine feet. Game turns are broken into a series of 15 one-second impulses. This means that four game turns make one minute of "real" time." (p. 4)

This lavishly produced game is essentially rules for a “man-to-man” combat system (for no more than five combatants per side in any one general area) using the finely-crafted miniatures on the floor tile sheets, with various support sheets. The societal background (a corporate-run dystopia), it must be said, appears to have been put together on a rather perfunctory basis. The main point of the game appears to be the slam-bang kind of action most often found in arcade-style computer games.

The disjunction between the amount of effort put into the production of the physical components, and that devoted to sketching out the background, is rather too jarring. 

CYBERNAUT: The Duel for Cyberspace (Sacramento, CA: One Small Step -- OSS) (1996)

Designer: Joe Miranda; appeared in Competitive Edge (formerly GameFix) no 11 (printed, full-color cardstock sheet yielding 120 double-sided counters -- requires careful assembly; 11" x 17" map; introductory essay, pp. 9-12;  rules, pp. 13-20; "A Guide to NSA Strategy", pp. 21-25).

One of the few cyberpunk boardgames available, Cybernaut is actually a twist on the conventions of the genre. It posits one world government called STATQUO -- perhaps, something like "World Union for Peace and Progress," or "the United Nations," would have been a more likely term for such an entity. A small number of superhackers are challenging STATQUO's NSA (Net Security Agency) (the reappearance of German SS runes is highly gratuitous, typical one-worlders are more likely to have a dove or flower as their emblem, the better to mask their hidden agenda, some would say).  In what could be seen as a rather sharp reversal of the subgenre conventions, a handful of individuals is said to be initiating the revolution that will topple STATQUO. It would have been helpful if Joe Miranda had either explained that these superhackers' activities are simply a schematic for what is being repeated tens of millions of times over in that world (as the planet-wide revolution against STATQUO begins), or have refocused the game on the merely individual flourishing/survival of these superhackers. As currently posited, the situation has a highly naive optimism about the possibility of revolutions in a dystopian world, as well as a major over-inflation of the role of one, resisting, individual hacker. The message of most cyberpunk settings appears much different: the individual is thrown into a rather inhuman technological system of which he or she understands little, on which he or she can have little impact, and where their personal flourishing/survival is the paramount question. Serious politics is usually dead, in that sort of world.

In the Cybernaut world, which is a somewhat currently-discernible near-future, the opposition to the hackers is an oppressive world government run by other humans. The world has not reached the rather more fanciful situation shown in The Matrix series (the first movie premiered in 1999), where the enemies are AIs, and it is posited that one resisting human hero is crucially important. Ironically, in some of its aspects, it could be argued that The Matrix series was more “optimistic” than some other cyberpunk settings.

SUPREMACY: The Game of the Superpowers (Buffalo, NY: Supremacy Games), Game Design By: Robert J. Simpson (Third Edition, 1992; First Edition, 1984), 30" x 20" gameboard; 65 cards; six charts; 370 plastic playing pieces: armies, navies and mushroom clouds; 260 bills of game money; banker's tray; rule book; four six-sided dice.

This game, in some ways a derivative of the simple, abstract “conquer-the-world” wargame, RISK, would be a highly dystopian world, if one were to take it as a literal projection of the future. The main game, and its various supplements and extensions (of which there are too many to list here) is full of really savage weapons-systems, running the full NBC (Nuclear - Biological - Chemical) spectrum, as well as space-based systems (e.g., orbital laser satellites).  It gives a whole new meaning to "victory at all costs." Many of these games end with the sprouting across the planet of nuclear mushroom clouds.

Looking at the items discussed over several earlier installments of the series, there can be perceived an increasing turning away from politics and history (even in its most attenuated form) in many of these gaming subgenres. There is, in the last several years, a burgeoning of dark space fantasy, dark fantasy, and horror in RPGs and videogames. It appears that late modern society is indeed being overwhelmed by various kinds of ever more florid simulacra. ESR

To be continued.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.






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