It is 6:30 AM, the early birds and the actual morning birds are doing their start-of-the-day rituals. Mine is rolling out of bed and crawling my way to the coffeepot for a hot cup of black coffee. However, this Saturday morning, after staying up too late to play Shadowrun: Dragonfall, I tried something bolder — Turkish coffee. An item prominently featured in Dragonfall’s setting. The coffee was one of those little details that stuck with me and provided a tangible sense of culture to the game’s environment.
The Turkish coffee was a gift to my fiancé from a Palestinian friend. After a much-heated debate over the fact that my saint-like fiancé doesn’t even like coffee, she permitted me to open the fresh grinds and try a brew. I stood in the kitchen, babbling like an old chemist, ogling and Googling how to make Turkish coffee. The end result was a bitter sludge in a cup. I stomached some of it before giving the rest to my trash can. I start a brew of regular coffee.
Although my venture into foreign caffeine was a failure, the game that led me to the experiment was an absolute success.
I entered the game skeptically. Not only was it my first real video game adventure into a cyberpunk world, but I also doubted Shadowrun’s use of fantasy elements like magic, dragons lording over the world, and races like trolls and elves living together in a modern setting.
I instead found myself pleasantly surprised by both aspects. Here was this incredible blend of both cyberpunk and magic.
For those unfamiliar, Shadowrun is a longstanding tabletop RPG that has been around since the ’90s. It’s important to note that one of the unique aspects of the Shadowrun universe is that it is not strictly science fiction. It has vital fantasy elements, the most important of which is magic. Yes, magic has returned to this world and changed it. It plays a significant part in people’s lives, and like vines around wires, it weaves itself with the technological world effortlessly.
In Shadowrun: Dragonfall, incorporated within the world, is that dystopian cyberpunk tone. Where technology has advanced unrestrained into the future, but society has negatively shifted or broken down entirely.
These aspects helped create the perfect backdrop to this world of corporate espionage.
The game made me think of the ambiance and overall tone found in East German literature and the few German films I have seen, such as The Lives of Others and Goodbye, Lenin. Despite the Berlin in Shadowrun: Dragonfall being a lawless state (unlike the East Berlin of history), it still feels occupied. Instead of a foreign nation, corporations and associated gangs occupied the streets.
When we talk about creating compelling worlds and how to do that, ultimately, it all comes down to those necessary but minute details. It’s one thing to present an overarching theme, mood, genre, or feeling, but to pin down the unique objects and interactions that make a fictional world feel alive is a type of magic all of its own. I laugh to myself anytime someone in an Elder Scrolls game shouts, “By the Nine!” or an Orc guard in World of Warcraft says, “Zug-Zug.” The details in Shadowrun: Dragonfall captures just that.
Shadowrun’s inspiration went beyond me attempting to brew a cup of Turkish coffee. It became a journey where I deep dived into how this drink fits into Berlin.
I did some reading and discovered that German and Turkish people have a longstanding series of interactions dating back to the expansion of the Ottoman Empire in 1562. You jump 400 years into the future, and in 1961, the Turkish people are openly invited to emigrate to Germany. Not only are Turkish people the most significant minority in Germany, but they also form the largest Turkish population in the Turkish diaspora.
There I had my answer and a peek into one of those cultural wrinkles.
Creating compelling worlds is about not only painting backdrops, but creating the ripples in the main-stage curtain and the objects around a scene. All of those minor details and props scattered around a location are important in their own right. For example, how people introduce themselves, the foods people eat, the curse words people use, and colloquial language. The details matter, and games like Shadowrun: Dragonfall takes the time to use these details to bring a fictional world to life.
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