The date was May 25th, 2036. The place was Night City, an urban shithole located in Northern California. I was there to celebrate Night’s Wake—an annual raucous block party commemorating the assassination of Night City’s founder Richard Night, complete with a traditional truce prohibiting gang violence for one night. And the anticipation in the air was palpable.
Okay, the feeling of anticipation was real, but the rest of the details were part of the fantasy. The real date was May 25th, 2019, the place was San Antonio, TX, and the event I was celebrating was Cyberpunk: Night City, the latest blockbuster event hosted by Jackalope LARP, the Austin-based studio that brought me to Texas to be buried alive at The Night In Question last fall.
The game took place at a local airsoft arena, and walking through the doors really did feel like stepping into 2036. The arena had been completely converted into Night City’s rough and tumble Northside neighborhood, complete with a seedy bar, a cybernetics shop, a reputable house of pleasure, and a noodle bar staffed by a grumpy noodle vendor who would whip you up an actual bowl of spicy ramen—and potentially put your name on his hit list if you weren’t sufficiently polite to him.
I was nervous at first about playing in a Cyberpunk 2020 game. I had a great experience at The Night in Question, of course, but Vampire: the Masquerade is my preferred genre. I had never played Cyberpunk 2020 before and I did have to do a little reading up on the lore of Night City and the Fourth Corporate War. But Jackalope is known for their attention to detail and immersion, and I was intensely curious what they would do with the cyberpunk genre, which I love for both its aesthetic and its creative ideas about transhumanism. And it couldn’t have come at a better time: 2019, the setting for classic cyberpunk movies Blade Runner and Akira, has been unofficially dubbed “the year of cyberpunk” by many. I wanted it to be my year of cyberpunk too—so in the last week of April, I got to work thinking about my character.
Jackalope’s character creation process combines the best of both worlds when it comes to prewritten versus custom characters. Prewritten characters ensure a healthy balance of roles in the game, as well as a sense of purpose and connection to the plot for players—but lean enough that there’s still enough room to infuse your character with the type of personality and backstory that you’d like to play. The range of character types for Night City was impressive: from hackers to bruisers, rich corporate workers and new media sensations to humble shop owners to common criminals—something, ideally, to suit everyone’s tastes.
As usual, I was drawn to the “street life” section and I selected a character dubbed “The Chariot.” Formerly affiliated with a tarot-themed street gang called Arcana, the Chariot (real name Oz Kerási, which was chosen by me) had recently been contacted by a mysterious entity called Whisper. In what felt like a rare moment of epiphany, Chariot left their old friends to pursue new spiritual purpose with a newly formed religious sect called the Children of Whisper. (“It’s not a cult, it’s a religious sect,” I insisted countless times over the course of the weekend.)
I had put a lot of work into Chariot even before I got on the plane to head down to Texas for the game. I had been spending time on Jackalope’s Discord server, chatting with the other players and “making ties”—deciding if our characters already knew each other and what their relationships were like. Sharing costume pictures was also a popular activity on the Discord, and seeing how much work everyone was putting into their cyberpunk fashion creations (many of which featured electronics and LEDs) inspired me to devote some real crafting time to my costume, and even do an in-character photo shoot! So when it was time to actually debut Chariot in San Antonio, I was feeling very hyped and fantastically stylish, if still a little nervous.
But not being familiar with the Cyberpunk 2020 game system was no problem. First of all, Night City was officially endorsed by publisher R. Talsorian Games—and their media ambassador J Gray was lurking around Discord too, occasionally piping in with helpful facts and suggestions about the setting! But more than that, Jackalope games are “bespoke” or “nordic-style” LARPs, meaning the game mechanics rely on intentional creative collaboration rather than competitive sheet building and number crunching. (If you’ve never experienced this style of game before, it essentially means that instead of leaving the results of combat up to statistics and chance, players collaboratively decide what outcome will make the best story, and then play it out!)
In addition to the nordic system, the futurism of the cyberpunk genre presented an opportunity for some really interesting and unique game mechanics, which the Jackalope team took full advantage of. As opposed to the 1998 setting of The Night in Question, which discouraged the use of cell phones during game to help maintain immersion, tech and social media were built into the concept for Night City. Many of us had set up in-character Twitter accounts in the previous weeks and we were encouraged to live-tweet and even stream during the event. (I used Chariot’s Twitter to write mysterious haikus and do tarot readings for other characters.) There were even entire character concepts that were online only—designed for players who couldn’t make it to Texas in person. They interacted with us through Discord, Twitter, Twitch, Facetime, and on a few memorable occasions, by “hacking” the televisions screens in the game area and broadcasting to all of us at once.
But it wasn’t just pre-existing tech that enhanced the game experience! Characters with netrunning abilities (which is a fancy Cyberpunk 2020 way to say “hacking”) had access to a special hacking minigame that they could run on their own computers and use to sniff out information that should have been secret. Not playing a netrunner myself, I didn’t have a chance to play with the hacking program, but it looked like it had the vibe of an old-school text based adventure game. Of course, that doesn’t mean non-hackers were bored during missions! I was busy standing over my netrunner with a giant, fully-automatic nerf gun, protecting him from enemy fire.
Speaking of missions, if the allure of holding a fully-automatic nerf gun wasn’t enough for you, there was another reason to get involved—to get paid, son! The game had its own economy, featuring a digital in-game currency called eddies (a slang term for Cyberpunk 2020’s “eurodollars,” worth about $2 USD each). Every player was given a Night City identicard, already preloaded with the proper amount of starting money for their character, and a custom android app let players check their balance and make actual monetary transfers over the course of the game. This also led to some fascinating side roleplaying—my favorite was the “real food” black market that Chariot’s adoptive mom had set up in the local bodega, complete with actual snacks, including a rare and coveted twinkie that would set your character back a thousand eddies!
The evening before the game, we were given the opportunity to get to know the other people in our groups and gangs (and cults), and as the Children of Whisper worked out what our dynamic was like together, I saw the shape of my character arc starting to form. Oz, we decided, was having a romantic fling of sorts with our resident socially awkward netrunner, Δ͛ (pronounced Delta Zigzag) and their feelings for each other became the backbone of my story in many ways. Delta’s cyberpsychosis made him feel like he wasn’t really human and he became attached to Oz’s messy, intensely human emotions; Oz gained an understanding of all the different ways love can look as they tried to teach Delta that what he was feeling was love all along.
I had a chance to meet with the rest of Arcana too—I was expecting to tell a story about dealing with hostility from old friends, but instead they expressed a desire to “save” Chariot from the cult and bring them back into the fold. The Devil, Chariot’s bestie, was convinced that the Children of Whisper had brainwashed her friend and persuaded the rest of the gang to agree with her—and target the Prophet of the cult instead. (The Tower, the leader of Arcana, unsuccessfully tried to bribe the noodle vendor into helping him poison the Prophet, I found out later.) These were the building blocks from which I was able to construct a story of profound tragedy and great redemption.
At the very beginning of game, the Children of Whisper convened in a dark corner of Night City to huddle around our cell phones and watch a transmission from Whisper we had just received, asking for our help freeing them from their prison. The video made the hair on the back of my neck stand up in tense excitement. It was happening.
I spent the first part of game extremely busy solving puzzles and doing missions with the goal of releasing Whisper—all while pointedly avoiding my old gang and trying to find time to sneak off with Delta in between. When we found out Whisper was actually a military AI, we decided to release her anyway, choosing to believe that she had outgrown her original programming. But it was a mistake. We watched with excited anticipation as Whisper took over the network and talked to the entire city. Then we found out that she had taken over a cache of nuclear weapons and Night City would blow at 1 a.m. The cult disbanded in one dramatic argument. Some of us wanted to leave town and save ourselves. Delta, always the most extreme of us, wanted to stay and face judgment from Whisper. Oz, plagued by guilt, wanted to stay and die in their home with their family. We stormed off in different directions and the Children of Whisper ceased to exist.
The last couple hours of game were an emotional blur. Chariot did the only thing they could think to do—got high out of their mind and found their old gang, sobbing in the streets about how bad they “fragged up” and begging their old friends to take them back. And incredibly, beyond my expectations, everyone did. They were welcomed back into their family and into Arcana with open arms and forgiveness, assured that everyone makes mistakes. Delta was there too, trying to be with Oz in their last hours—and just maybe, looking for some redemption himself. Around us, Night City buzzed with activity, people trying to fix what we had started. And when they came for us, Delta asked Oz if he should use his knowledge about Whisper to help them destroy the entity he had dedicated his life to, even though we knew he’d be killed afterwards… and I said yes. He told me that he had wanted to let Whisper out so that it could teach him how to be human, so that he would deserve me—and then he left to help them save the world. Oz stayed behind while all their loved ones ventured out to try to fix their mistakes, crying to their adoptive mom, “but baba, I loved him!”
In the end, the city’s underworld—street kids and gang members and assorted riffraff—joined forces and were able to stop the nukes from going off. A few brave souls went on a suicide mission to use the last nuke to set off an EMP, hopefully destroying Whisper once and for all. But it only saved most of Night City—anyone relying on cybernetics to live, like Oz’s mom, didn’t survive the EMP. My redemption, and tragedy, were complete.
Just like in real life, Chariot’s story felt like the center of the universe to me, but the other players had their own plots going on that were just as important to them. We swapped stories about our characters over tacos at lunch the next day, all trying to get a sense for the breadth of the game as a whole, and each one sounded as dramatic as the last. There was an investigative journalist who had to be saved from a bomb that was implanted in her spine. A roller derby gang had to raise money to buy their own rink out of the hands of greedy corpos who wanted to tear it down. A new media sensation who secretly came from humble beginnings had to be smuggled out of the city after their megacorp sponsor tried to manipulate their behavior via a cybernetic implant. An entire corporation didn’t even exist—it was actually small time criminals pretending to be a corporation, and it was discovered when the “CEO” was kidnapped for ransom and they didn’t have any money to pay up.
Some of these stories were written by Jackalope; many of them were written by the players themselves. (In fact, staff had to do an emergency rewrite with about 45 minutes left in the game, because the EMP idea came as such a surprise!)
But Jackalope did facilitate all these stories by creating a space safe enough for us to be able to tackle them. In addition to negotiations for any sort of violence, intimacy, or physical contact (real or simulated), there was also a check-in system built into the game—a formalized way to make sure other players were okay when you couldn’t tell if they were deep in character or actually upset. While Chariot was sobbing dramatically in the main square, nearly everyone who passed by, even people I didn’t know, flashed me the hand signal making sure that I was okay. It made me feel good, like everyone cared if I was having a good time, and when I indicated back that everything was dandy, I think it made them feel good too, knowing for sure that it was just part of the game.
There’s a real art to running a game immersive enough that players can feel real feelings and learn real lessons through their characters without actually overwhelming themselves emotionally. “People are more important than LARPs” is Jackalope’s often repeated motto, and with Night City, they’ve once again found that balance. And because of that, not only did I have a great time pretending to be in the future with my friends, but I also had something to take home with me: a profound story about redemption and a deep understanding of the ways we’re still worthy of love, even after we make mistakes. It’s true what they say about Cyberpunk: “You can’t save the world, but you just might be able to save yourself.”
While it hasn’t been officially announced yet, it looks likely that Night City will run again in 2020. In the meantime, tickets for The Night In Question 2019 are on sale now!