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Why cyberpunk?

       " The campaign that would become Night City Blues started over Covid lockdown during the tail end of my undergrad program. I played Cyberpunk 2077 when it came out and fell in love with it, and bought the Cyberpunk RED rulebook almost as soon as it came out. I do this thing where I’ll buy a ttrpg rulebook, binge 400 pages in a week, and then immediately start frantically typing out a brainstorm for a campaign, playing off of all of the fascinating pieces of the system and setting that I want to explore. CP:RED was no different. This was all during quarantine, so we played over Roll20 and Discord even though we were all within walking distance of one another. I poured hours into map making, character creation, level design, plotting character arcs, obsessing about this game system, these characters, this city. We couldn’t see each other face to face, so we chipped in and zeroed boostergangers and corpo scum on the streets of Night City. It was our escape during a really hard time, using technology and storytelling to cope with the painful reality of isolation during the pandemic, of social upheaval during the election, of the National Guard invasion of Minneapolis and the soulkilling existence of being chronically online in the 21st century. A pretty fucking Cyberpunk origin story, in my opinion.

      See, it didn't start as a podcast. We ran a full chapter of us just messing around. Fitz, Marsh, Jumong, and Aleksei were there for the founding of Maelstrom; the Inquisitors massacred the Metal Warriors gang, and the survivors joined forces with Red Chrome Legion and the Ironsights to form Maelstrom; A rogue A.I. got loose in Night City’s Datapool; I may have traumatized Aleksei with some medical horror; the party met Michiko for the first time and worked a job for Jacinda Hidalgo. None of it was recorded, and all of it is now lost to the ether. Then I graduated, moved away, and the whole project got put on indefinite hiatus. ADHD’s a bitch, and I am frequently guilty of bailing on my own projects midway through. 

      But that was not to be the fate of Night City Blues. I got back in touch with my Edgerunner crew a year or so later, reached out with my idea for a podcast. We’d pick up Night City where we’d left it. It had been some time since any of us had played, so we decided there’d be an in-universe time skip as well. We hadn’t hung out as a group in quite a while, so neither had Fitz and Jumong. We slipped into the roles of old co-workers coming back together for one last job. We expanded our crew with the addition of Ashe’s Calypso to the party. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I already had the character of cat-girl Sekhmet planned out before Calypso came into the story; it really is just a wild coincidence that we’ve got two cat girls in the party. But the motif was too on-brand not to use, so now our Night City has feline motifs all over. Maybe it’s the bakeneko, who’s to say?

      This story has been a lot of things for me over the years I’ve been working on it. It’s been a creative outlet; an excuse to scribble colorful prose into a notebook during my lunch breaks at work; an outpouring of my political belief into a story that magnifies and examines the dystopia we’re living in now; a reason to spend time with the community of friends I care about and collaborate with incredibly talented roleplayers and storytellers. But on an artistic level, it’s been my reflection on my complicated relationship with big cities.

      Night City isn’t a real place, and yet I’ve known it my whole life. I think most of us have. Most of us that live in a big city, anyway. Night City is the archetype; the same Metropolis as Batman’s Gotham, only written with a different font in another genre. I was living in a small town in Maine when I started really writing the story beats that would become Night City Blues, and it started as my love letter to The City. I didn’t realize I was a big city kinda gal until I moved out to the country. Gardiner, Maine, to be specific. I found myself missing the Twin Cities, that graffiti-covered traffic-congested cop-patrolled wasteland of concrete and neon and steel, the pulse-pounding heartbeat of a living organism with veins of asphalt and fiber optic neurons.

      When I was living in a quiet New England town of 6,000 people, I found myself in a shallow pond after a lifetime of deep water. Not to say there weren’t stories to tell in that place, but they weren’t my stories, and the people there didn’t share my experiences, they didn’t walk through this world in the same way that I did. I can see how that setting gave rise to Steven King, but there’s a reason Gibson moved from Wytheville to Toronto. Night City Blues was my ode to The City, to all its joys and horrors, skull-crushing oppression and fleeting euphoric climaxes. To a place where you fear the cops just as much as you fear the criminals, where there’s enough queer folk to make our voices heard, where people throw riots and aren’t afraid of change, where you can disappear into the anonymity of the crowd, where there are more restaurants and food trucks than you will ever be able to eat at in your entire life. I’d eaten at every restaurant in Gardiner within six months, and I don’t eat out that often.

      Now the point of all this isn’t to dunk on the state of Maine, nor is the Twin Cities Metro Area the pinnacle of cities. It’s a fucked up mess in plenty of its own ways, but it’s a metropolis I’ve been proud to call my own. I raise my head when I say I’m from St. Paul, even though most of us agree Minneapolis has more going for it. But when I was living in Gardiner and told my local friends how much I missed Minneapolis, their responses were confused; “But aren’t you scared of crime? I heard crime rates are so much worse in the city.” “But the traffic is so awful, I have a panic attack just driving through Boston.” “You really want to go back there after the riots?” They were the reactions of people who’d only ever seen The City as a tourist or filtered through cable news reporting; the reactions of people who watch too much Fox News. Many of them watched news footage of the protests after George Floyd’s murder and came away with exactly the wrong impression. As someone who was in the Twin Cities when the 3rd precinct burned, it was hard to come away thinking the cops were the good guys. I have rarely been prouder of my hometown. But the people I met in a small town couldn’t fathom wanting to live in a big city where stuff like that happened, and I couldn’t fathom wanting to live in a small town where nothing ever happened. It’s a cultural watershed.

      My experience is deeply painted by my identity, and as a Non-binary lesbian my bias in the big cities vs small towns issue has leaned particularly urban. My community is full of exiles and found family, queer folk who fled their small town the moment they turned 18 or graduated from college, moving to the closest biggest city they could. It’s partly a cultural thing (conservative christian fundamentalism has historically not been the staunchest Ally and supporter of LGBTQIA+ rights) and partly a demographic thing. In Gardiner I knew every single queer person my age; there were about a dozen of us. Meanwhile Twin-City-Gays could be an entire city unto themselves. The stories you hear in my community typically have the moral of “get out of that podunk backwater before you get hate-crimed.” For many of us, it’s not safe to be ourselves until we find our community, and we’re never going to find that community outside of The City. I know plenty of gay friends who want to start hippie communes and with an organic farm, but not so many want to move to an insular rural religious community.

      While it was a beautiful place in its own right, I pretty quickly figured out that outside the city of Portland, Maine wasn’t somewhere I could thrive. Meanwhile I was pouring myself into the Cyberpunk subgenre. Books, TV shows, movies, games, the lot of it. It wasn’t shy about the uglier parts of urban life—in fact it magnified them and built its entire aesthetic around late-stage-capitalistic urban decay and decadence. Gibson’s portrayal of high tech low life Chiba City in Neuromancer (the original ‘night city’), Richard K. Morgan’s far-future San Francisco in Altered Carbon, the Stacks of Ernest Cline’s Columbus, OH, in Ready Player One, the rainy neon alleys and corporate pyramids of Bladerunner’s Los Angeles. These settings all evoked a sense of melancholic glory, a hopeless urban landscape that was nevertheless beautiful beyond all reason. A place that made you feel small, but where you still had a chance to be somebody. A place you could hate, a place that could crush your face underfoot, yet a place capable of beauty like no other. Beautiful in the way a heartbreak is beautiful, or a sunset stained pink from air pollution. The place where edgerunners with nothing to lose force the world to remember their names. Or if not their names, at the very least their deeds. They are places where the world does not care who you are, but you make it care anyway. Where you could spray paint your name on a wall and tell the world “I was here. I mattered.” 

      The feelings these cyberpunk cities evoked were what I was trying (and failing) to convey to my Mainer friends. These cities weren’t usually pleasant places, they were damn near Grimdark at times, but the characters in these stories couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. Takeshi Kovacs might have hated Harlan’s World, but Richard K. Morgan was clearly in love with it. That is what I wanted to create in this story. I’m a world-builder at heart, and I wanted to create my Night City. It’s not quite the same as CD Projekt Red’s Night City, and we don’t claim any overarching canon with Cyberpunk 2077; and while it’s textually inspired by R Talsorian Games’ Night City, I’ve put my own spin on it, populated it with the people, places, and stories I’ve known. My Night City might have a lot of place names from the Cyberpunk RED rulebook, but it’s also very Minneapolis, its inhabitants are a little more Minnesotan than Californian in spirit. It’s a place where people like me live, flaming punk queers with an ax to grind, ready to burn the city, to break things and get angry. 


      This podcast came about for a lot of reasons, but more than anything because I wanted the world to see My City as I saw it. You probably see Your City a little differently, and that’s fine. Maybe you’re one of those small towners I spent like 50% of the word count of this diatribe shitting all over—my apologies in that case, I’m sure your town is lovely. Unless you hated it and moved away, in which case: power to you, fuck that place. But that sense of place is important in shaping who we are. Night City is as much a character in the plot as any of the cast. It’s got personality and opinions about things.

I’ve long since lost the point of this diatribe (thanks ADHD), but I suppose all of this is to say that my Night City Blues come from my deep love of an imperfect place. That is what Night City is meant to be, a city of dreams. "


                                        -Alexandria Willits

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