When bad things happen to good games.
Android: Netrunner has been murdered, my friends.
Who did the deed? It's hard to say. The six-year-old cyberpunk card game was killed in a most appropriate fashion: through invisible, impersonal corporate machinations beyond any one person's control. Information is scarce at present as to exactly why Netrunner got the axe-apparently its existence was the result of labyrinthine licensing agreements that, for whatever reason, couldn't be renegotiated. Disappointed fans are already disagreeing on who to blame. Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter. In a nondescript conference room in a lousy office park, some suit decided Netrunner was no longer profitable to an adequate degree and moved on to the next agenda item. I bet the meeting was boring.
While the Netrunner community (including me) was certainly shocked by the news, perhaps we shouldn't have been so surprised. Expandable card games are born with a built-in kill switch. The need for a constant stream of product and support means that, unless your game starts with "M" and rhymes with "tragic," you're playing on borrowed time. And while it sucks that Netrunner was seemingly canned due to corporate bad faith rather than a drop in popularity, it had an exceptional run for a card game: two core sets, five deluxe expansions (with a sixth on the way), and eight data cycles. So why does this feel so sad?
I'm having a hard time talking about this with any sort of critical distance, because when it comes to Netrunner, I'm a true believer. I'm a card-carrying cyberpunk junkie, so when the core set was released way back in the halcyon days of 2012, I knew that I had found my game. Being in grad school, I didn't have the scratch to keep up with the relentless expansion pace, but I picked up sets here and there and now have a decent collection. These days I'm more of a Netrunner fan than a player-I'll play a game with friends from time to time but keep up on the news and watch the popular streamers. I know that the nerd community is famous for letting fandom act as a kind of critical blindfold, so I hope you'll forgive me when I say that I am sad right now because I think Netrunner is a very, very special game.
Let's start with the setting and theme. Netrunner is set in the universe established in FFG's 2008 board game Android, a flawed but charming murder mystery. It hits all the beats you expect from the cyberpunk genre, but little more: faceless corporations, gritty near-future tech, and unsubtle social commentary (guys, it's like racism, but against robots). Netrunner started out in this same well-trod territory, but as it expanded and started drawing inspiration from more diverse sources, it became a more and more interesting place to inhabit.
While Netrunner is centered on a familiar trope-lone hackers attempting to subvert the oppressive regimes of megacorps-it largely eschews the rainy streets and gray-on-gray aesthetic that has become the genre stereotype. Instead, it paints a vibrant and strange portrait of the near future, where the psychedelic and mythical frequently sit side-by-side with the almost comically mundane. In a game where digital constructs are named after dead gods and experimental drugs propel hackers through cyberspace, my favorite card depicts something so painfully ordinary it makes me cringe a little.
I'm talking about Day Job, a card that lets you trade your entire turn to make a few dollars. Its art is simple and brilliant-a punk hacker sits unhappily in a cubicle with her fingers pressed like a pistol to her head. Everything I love about Netrunner is right here on this one card: a perfect pairing of theme and mechanics, a sense of humor that extends beyond tired nerd references, and an understanding that sometimes the best way to show corporate oppression isn't through a cyberboot on some android's head, but through a mandatory name tag.
G.K. Chesterton, writing about fairy tales, posits that "they make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water." For being a game ostensibly set in a science fiction future, Netrunner feels like one of the only games I've played to accurately describe what it's like living in 2018. The game plays with hot button topics like mass surveillance, corporate dominance, and populist movements, all without preaching at the player or forsaking its pulpy roots. It reminds us how strange it is to live in the uneasy present, as a blip of data in a hostile, unknowable world.
Netrunner displays this same sort of subtle intelligence when tackling the thorny issues of race and representation, something games historically have been terrible at. The game imagines the future (and in doing so, the present) from a truly global perspective, filling its world with characters of all races, genders, and ages. This is a game where some of the star runners include a working mom, a journalist, a bunch of academics, a kid, and an old man. It also doesn't feel like the game is working through a checkbox or engaging in tokenism-rather, the creators of Netrunner realize that focusing on a diverse set of characters just makes things more interesting. By widening the scope of who gets to be a hero, it turns out we have better stories to tell.
Of course, none of this would matter if the game itself isn't good. Thankfully, it is. I won't get too deep into the mechanics of the thing, but I will say that what makes Netrunner such a compelling experience is that it keeps a laser-sharp focus on the most interesting part of a competitive game: your opponent. There's a reason that the Netrunner community likes to say a player "pilots" a deck. Because no matter how good your deck is, it doesn't mean anything unless you know exactly how to use it against your foe. Each game is built out of a series of feints, bluffs, jabs, and counterattacks. The game is clever because it makes you, the player, feel clever-it heightens your sense of fear, bravery, and brashness. Each decision leads to a new, equally interesting decision. And at the end of the game, you can look back on your duel and see, piece by piece, the story you and your opponent built together.
So, is it sayonara, then? So long and thanks for all the memories? That depends. On one hand, the lack of official support and new cards certainly means that an era has ended. On the other hand, perhaps the reports of Netrunner's death have been exaggerated. If we take away any lesson from the game's world, it's that we can't count on some corporation's whims to take care of us-we have to take care of each other. This is where the "punk" in "cyberpunk" will really be tested. Already plans are percolating for fan-run tournaments, expansions, and campaigns. These folks may not have the resources of a megacorp, but they have gumption, determination, and moxie. I think the community has everything it needs to jury rig the game and keep it humming for years to come, even if it's slightly more cult, slightly more underground. In some ways, it feels like that's what Netrunner should have been all along. I, for one, am optimistic about the broken, grimy, beautiful future.