Thursday, January 30, 2014

Cyberpunk in Zork and Neuromancer

William Gibson’s Neuromancer written in 1984 created a new sub-genre of science fiction referred to as “cyberpunk” or also called, “speculative fiction.”  This genre centered on “the transformative effect of advanced science, information technology, computers and networks (‘cyber’) coupled with a breakdown or radical change in the social order (‘punk’)” ( Neuromancer epitomizes this definition and indeed sparks speculation of the reader in all of its cyberpunk elements. Questions regarding the plot, the people, the language and terminology, places, and the sequence of events arise while reading the novel. The same questions are speculated while playing one of the earliest interactive fiction video games, Zork. Neuromancer and Zork have created their own culture and cultural nihilism, which categorize both in the speculative genre “cyberpunk” fiction.
            A gamer begins the video game, Zork, as a nameless character. In the game, the player only sees a black screen with white text to navigate the nameless adventurer through to reach the end of the game. The black screen and absence of any imagery of the adventurer makes it difficult for the human player to contextualize who the virtual player is and any characteristics of the player. Similarly is the ambiguity of the main character in Neuromancer. There is provided enough information to understand whom the main character is, Case, but beyond that the reader has little background information of the character. Only through the plot, sequence of events and interactions with other ambiguous characters can the reader formulate some kind of idea of the humanistic qualities to attribute to Case. Besides the main character in Zork, there are only a few other “characters” in the video game. These other characters aren’t given very much description at all since the game navigates with little communication. The gamer may run into dangerous creatures, a hateful troll, and/or a thief during the game, but besides the few “interactions” with these characters, there is little detail attributed to them. The other characters in Neuromancer are introduced slightly differently. Many of the characters such as Ratz, Linda Lee, Molly, and Armitage are described with an overload of sci-fi detail and lingo and ambiguous traits that are not conducive of contextualizing a character. Julius Deane for example is not described in a way that aids the reader in understanding him well, “His primary hedge against aging was a yearly pilgrimage to Tokyo, where genetic surgeons re-set the code of his DNA, a procedure unavailable in Chiba. Then he’d fly to Hongkong….” (12). This description continues, but continues in the same way, making it difficult to actually contextualize his character.  The character development in both Zork and Neuromancer sparks speculation and the need for imagination to make sense of the characters.

            The plot of Zork and Neuromancer are very much the definitive “cyberpunk” genre due to the structure of both book and video game. Zork functions and advances by the human player typing commands such as “climb up” and then the virtual character climbs up, and the screen replies to the action in white text with a result, such as, “you cannot climb any higher”. The entire plot progresses in a series of action-result, action-result pattern. Neuromancer is structured in a similar way. The plot seems to be very mangled together. One event, leads to another, and then to another that the reader doesn’t expect to happen.  In this way it, too, is constructed very much like Zork, action-result, action-result. “He bolted across Ninsei, scattering a pack of strolling sailors. One of them screamed after him in Spanish. Then he was throughout the entrance, the sound crashing over him like surf….He cut to the right and loped up a flight of unpainted chipboard stairs…” (17). One idea hops to another, and each event occurs so instantly and end so abruptly that the action-result pattern is difficult to keep up with. Because of this, the reader or player needs to use imagination to connect the points and understand what may be happening in the plot.
            More cultural nihilism and uncertainty stems from the places and settings of both Zork and Neuromancer. The reader or player’s imagination is necessary for both book and game to contextualize what is going on. Zork is played only with short communication and no images, thus understanding the place and surrounding area of the player can seem inconceivable.  To advance in the game the human player needs to use quick and simple commands to direct the virtual player around to capture treasures and meet new characters. At one moment the player is headed west, but meets a dead end, then has to turn around and go south, etc., etc. The commands become confusing and contextualizing the surrounding area and location of the virtual player becomes impossible. Creating a map, as the human player, is necessary to understand where the virtual player is located. Neuromancer is written with obscure and foreign sci-fi jargon that makes it difficult to understand where the characters are at any given point of time. The characters jump from one place to the next so quickly, too, that it difficult to contextualize the place and surrounding area, like Zork. At one point in the novel drawing a map seems to be a logical idea, “The pill lit his circuits and he rode the rush down Shiga to Ninsei, then over to Baiitsu…. A block down Baiitsu, toward the port, stood a featureless ten-story office building in ugly yellow brick….” (19). The unfamiliar names of the places cause difficulty in contextualizing physical places. Yet again, the cyberpunk genre provides the reader and player with ambiguity and speculation.

            The vintage video game, Zork, and the William Gibson novel, Neuromancer are surprisingly similar. The questions that arise while reading Neuromancer and while playing Zork, validate both to be categorized in the sub genre of “cyberpunk.” The scientific jargon, computer science, and use of technological ideas and elements provide ambiguity and constant speculation justifying that the book and video game can be categorized as not just science-fiction but also “cyberpunk.”


Jessica Craig said...

Maggie- Overall I think you are off to a good start. You point out many interesting similarities between Zork and Neuromancer. I think your essay would benefit from a deeper analysis. For example, you claim that, “The character development in both Zork and Neuromancer sparks speculation and the need for imagination to make sense of the characters.” Why do you think this is? What role does ambiguity play in forming a significant meaning in the novel or in the game? How might the unique imagination of each reader or player change the game? There is an inherent dynamism in the reader/player’s interaction with the book and game. That might be a possible avenue to explore in a revision. Later you assert, “One idea hops to another, and each event occurs so instantly and end so abruptly that the action-result pattern is difficult to keep up with. Because of this, the reader or player needs to use imagination to connect the points and understand what may be happening in the plot.” How might you incorporate into your argument the way that Gibson loops back to pertinent information; he initially presents vague and obscure cyberpunk ideas and then fifty pages later explains them. Why might he do this? Does this differ with Zork? I think your conclusion could also be strengthened by deeper analysis or the suggestion of a more contemplative idea – what does the reader gain from the game that he does not gain from the book? How does the game interact with the novel? Where does the game differ from the novel?

Adam said...

I like this line. I hope you make it work: "Neuromancer and Zork have created their own culture and cultural nihilism"... It's a big idea. Nitpick: Speculative Fiction is usually used as a category broader than science fiction, while cyberpunk is narrower. Speculative fiction is certainly not the same thing as cyberpunk: the latter is a subset of the former.

Your focus on ambiguity isn't a bad idea, but the details bother me. It's hard for me to accept that Deane doesn't have context, for instance. We know quite a bit about him, really. I think that to really make an argument about him you'd need to move around in the book a little, to include the information Molly gives us about him. The descriptions of characters are *very* limited in Zork - you're surely right about that! - but I'm still not sure what you see in either work (or in both of them put together) that really distinguishes them from any other terse work of prose. I feel like this paragraph is almost a distraction.

The action-result paragraph makes a lot of intuitive sense. Of course, the challenge here is with *Neourmancer*, not *Zork* - what's absent here (and what could replace the previous paragraph, maybe, in a revision). The next paragraph is more of the same - you could have drastically shortened the combination of the two, because you say a lot of the same generalizations repeatedly. It's examples and analysis that you're short on.

I simply don't see the "cultural nihilism." I want it to work, but I don't see what you're doing with it.

Overall: I think that you're on an interesting but mainly intuitively developed line of thought. Your case is easy to make with Zork, but much harder with Neuromancer. For it to really work well, I think a deeper reading of its style and what that style means (and maybe how it differs from earlier styles - action-result can dominate pulp detective novels for instance, but in a rather different way) is necessary. The concept is better than the execution. In a revision you need to first and foremost perform a better, more detailed analysis of Neourmancer.