This blog post is part of the State of Cyberpunk series.
Hamish is best known for his creation of The Sprawl, a tabletop RPG where high-tech low-lives – through cunning, luck, or sheer brute force – make runs against ruthless, powerful corporations and sometimes even survive to tell about it. The Sprawl has a particularly special place in my heart because it, in conjunction with the Shadowrun Returns video game and the first half of Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash, was my introduction to cyberpunk and is probably the single largest influence on The Glitch Logs. In light of that, Hamish seemed like the perfect place to start in my survey of cyberpunk creators and I was thrilled when he agreed to an interview.
Hamish’s introduction to the genre of cyberpunk was a mashup of Shadowrun and William Gibson’s famed Neuromancer. The draw for Hamish into this world of washed-out neon and chrome veneers was how near-future everything seemed. Unlike the hyperdrives, deflector dishes, and other hand-wavy constructs that mark the science fiction genre, cyberpunk stories played out in a world that seemed almost too true to be good. Hamish built The Sprawl out of a desire to play mission-based stories in that almost-realized world again. Other cyberpunk games like Shadowrun existed, but combat took too long and he wanted a system that could deliver a satisfying story in just a couple of hours.
Power of Play
Cyberpunk, like all the punk genres, has always been an exploration of political and social ideologies, and Hamish found it lent itself particular to the medium of TTRPGs.
“I like that people can bring their own concerns to it,” said Hamish.
He pointed out that when you’re reading, you’re on the rails and if the story isn’t exploring an idea you find meaningful, your only option is to put down the book. The beauty of the collaborative conversation of a tabletop RPG, Hamish observed, is that, “You don’t have to wait for someone to write it. You can deal with whatever’s relevant to you now, politically or technologically.”
I made a promise to myself that I would never, throughout the course of these interviews, ask anyone “What is cyberpunk?”, but I was curious to know what touchstones cyberpunk creators looked to when they think of the genre. For Hamish, it’s the aesthetic: neon, chrome, the oppressive darkness of tall towers, and a strong theme of vast, powerful, and uncaring corporations. He added though, that for every element he considers central to cyberpunk, he can think of a counterexample that he still feels belongs in the genre.
It’s that last element, the corporatization, that Hamish thinks makes cyberpunk particularly relevant today.
“We are living in an increasingly corporatized world with increased cybernetic surveillance,” said Hamish. “[Cyberpunk] helps us think through the implications and the ideas involved.”
He pointed to early playtests of The Sprawl as a prime example. “The players always created at least one corporation that was clearly based on a contemporary cable or cell phone company,” he explained. “We all want cable, but the company is also screwing us.”
Hamish also observed that the politics of the 21st century are increasingly corporate-driven, making cyberpunk both a form of catharsis and a sandbox for us to think about the implications of decisions and laws being made in real-time.
“I think people avoid it for that reason,” he added. “If you’re looking for escapism, [cyberpunk] won’t work.”
Looking to the Future
As he looks into the future, Hamish said he hoped he would continue to see creators develop cyberpunk from their own particular angles. He pointed out Fraser Simon’s The Veil, and Kira Magrann’s Resistor as two examples of creators coming at the genre from completely different angles.
“I’ve done what I wanted, which was to emphasize a particular kind of play, and the political corporate fuckery angle of it,” he said. “But obviously I haven’t “solved” cyberpunk.”
He also pointed out that no genre consists of a single work, and so attempts to recreate the exact trappings of a landmark work within a genre miss the point. I found this to be a helpful insight for creators of any genre, as it gives us a lot of space to explore and expand a genre, rather than feeling confined by it. Developing these stories in new directions also helps us avoid the dangerous or harmful corners of already established genres. Every genre has its “origin sins” – problematic tropes or themes from the era of its invention – and it can be tricky to navigate them as creators or even, sometimes, realize they’re there to begin with. Tricky, but not impossible.
As Hamish noted, “If the only thing that makes a genre that genre is its problematic content, then you should ditch that genre.”
It’s a thought that deserves its own post. I’d already taken up an hour of Hamish’s time, so we didn’t have time to unpack that idea, but I was encouraged by Hamish’s perspective on creators and fresh ideas within the genre.
His advice to other creators is this: “If you have a cool game design idea, then build the game. My bookshelf is full of weird and wonderful things I never would have created.”
It was an encouraging sentiment to hear, and one I hope gets repeated often in the years to come.
Hamish Cameron is a writer, game designer and historian raised and trained for adventure in New Zealand and now venturing deep into the wilds of the infamous “New England”. He is best known for The Sprawl (2016), a PbtA game of mission-based cyberpunk action now translated into several languages, including French. He is currently working on Dinosaur Princesses, a game for young roleplayers focused on cooperative problem-solving, and Kratophagia, a game for older roleplayers focused on cannibalism and protean body transformation. He publishes RPGs as Ardens Ludere and board games as part of Cheeky Mountain Parrot Games. You can find him tweeting merrily at @peregrinekiwi and @thesprawl_rpg.