Though Descent to Undermountain was one of several critical stumbles on Interplay’s part in the late 90’s, one only needs to look at their past work to remember their best days. Heading back ten years from Descent to Undermountain, we arrive at 1988 when Interplay did an adaptation of William Gibson’s cyberpunk classic, Neuromancer.
Gibson recounts the experience in an interview with CGW as having “offered a lot more opportunity for input than I felt capable of acting on” going on to explain that “As a novelist, I’m not primarily concerned with the creation of what I believe are called ‘gameable’ scenarios”. It’s a perspective that still rings as true today as it did 24 years ago underlining the difference between a piece of media such as a novel and a piece of interactive fiction whose scenarios are driven by a participating player.”
Interplay recreated Gibson’s vision with a veteran crew that included Michael A. Stackpole, Rebecca Ann Heineman, and company founder, Brian Fargo. Neuromancer even had a soundtrack by DEVO and the box boasted a film that was being made by “Cabana Boy Productions”. And it was from Interplay! At the time, all I knew was that they were responsible for the Bard’s Tale and Wasteland, two of my favorite games. And Neuromancer’s cyberpunk was looking to be just as unique and awesome an experience.
Brian Fargo and Interplay were actually introduced to Neuromancer by Timothy Leary, the man who had told college students in the 60s to “turn on, tune in, drop out” as an advocate of LSD. Leary and Fargo were friends and Leary had tried to get Electronic Arts and then Activision interested in making a game with the rights he had bought to do so. According to The Games Machine’s October, 1988, feature on the game, it was then that Interplay threw their hat into the ring for the rights to the game which would also become one of the cornerstones for their independence as a self-publishing development studio. The rest was history.
Neuromancer loosely followed the book while expanding on everything that was only hinted at by Gibson’s prose. Taking place a hundred years from now, you play a hacker down on their luck in Chiba City, Japan, which was the underbelly of Gibson’s cyberpunk vision. Friends of yours have been disappearing lately and no one knows why. They jack in, and then that’s the last of who anyone sees of them. There’s something happening out in cyberspace and you’re about to get drawn in to find out just what it might be.
In Gibson’s cyberpunk, mechanical limbs can be bought off the shelf and organs sold for easy money. In fact, if you need to pay off a tab at the start of the game or get a piece of hardware you have your eye on, you can sell a kidney or an eye for some extra dough. In this future, people were as disposable as body parts — the dregs made do with whatever the corporate managers of society boxed them in with.
Neuromancer didn’t hold your hand on through its experience. Like a lot of older games, there was no real tutorial aside from whatever the manual eased players in with. And though it had the look of a traditional adventure game with a GUI interface at the bottom along with puzzles to solve, it was also Interplay’s attempt at an open sandbox where multiple solutions were available to the player adding greater depth.
You don’t need to sell your organs, for one, since that also impacts how much damaging feedback your body can ultimately take when you’re fighting in cyberspace. Instead, you can always try and hack your way into a fat account to feed your wallet along with your arsenal of software. Sure, there was a bit more footwork and intrigue required, but at least you won’t have to worry about having a hole in your body where your kidney used to be.
The reality of Chiba City also had its own challenges that you’ll have to find your way around, or face the law at the hands of an automated judge — certain offenses have apparently become so routine that society has literally built this into their justice system to speed things along. It also felt as if it took place in a more quiet zone of the city, though there were still enough locations and things to do if you were curious enough to go looking. There was even an internal BBS system mimicking the real thing along with news reports and mail, all in a cyberpunk’ish microcosm on a 5.25″ floppy.
Its representation of cyberspace was also one of the better ones I’ve seen as crude and as simple as it may compare to other ideas seen in film such as the adaptation of Johnny Mnemonic. Instead of a fancy virtual reality conforming to the player’s sense of reality programmed in by software a la PnP settings such as Mike Pondsmith’s Cyberpunk, Iron Crown’s Cyberspace, or FASA’s Shadowrun, a simplistic grid extended out as far as the eye could see. Coordinates gleaned from an email passed along to you revealed databases encased in ICE (Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics) waiting for you to knock your way inside. It was a low-tech look that bespoke technical pragmatism in a part of Gibson’s world that favored speed, efficiency, and little fluff to get in the way of essential functionality.
Doing battle most often meant tapping the number of whatever program you wanted to use and waiting for the results, hopefully beating the ICE before it beat you. If you had sold one too many organs, you could almost expect the fight to be a short one – for you. But often the best stuff lay inside those sealed files such as programs, cash, and more importantly, information. And then there were the AIs.
Running all of this on 128Kb of memory on my Apple meant that I was in for some slow performance, but it looked good and I could still get all the way through to the end. It attempted to fuse RPG-like elements, an open approach, and a slightly convoluted story that could often lose you as it could keep you moving through every uncovered file into a unique experience and for the most part, it succeeded in bringing the flavor of Gibson’s world and a genre rarely seen in PC gaming to players as only Interplay could do. In some ways, a number of its concepts could even pass collectively as an early prototype for what games such as Ion Storm’s Deus Ex would later thrill audiences with its first-person rendition of a dystopian sandbox.
A digital face greets players in the ad below, a motif that also doubled as the box art for the game. Two screens showing cyberspace and one, on the far left, showing what the world looked like provided the eye candy to tempt armchair hackers into the game. Though I thought it looked fantastic on my old Apple, most other accounts I’ve read have pointed to the Amiga version as the best looking which doesn’t come as much of a surprise.
Neuromancer has the rare distinction of being one of the few games to embrace the look and feel of something truly “cyberpunk” in the classic sense. Though some of its conventions may seem dated in today’s wireless world, the core of its technological overtones and themes still hold true. It’s one of those games that seems ready for an update, or at least a re-release for today’s players to get a taste of what cyberpunk was like or how it was seen in other products such as in PnP settings from R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk to Iron Crown Enterprise’s CyberSpace before the arrival of FASA’s Shadowrun.