Timothy Leary Neuromancer Art

Timothy Leary's Neuromancer game could have totally changed pop culture as we know it

Contributed by
Jul 15, 2018

Timothy Leary was a colossal counterculture figure in the 1960s, but his experimentation with LSD and iconic entreaty to "turn on, tune in, and drop out" tend to overshadow revolutionary work he did later in life. Thanks to Leary's unpopularity with the government and the media's proclivity to portray individuals who use psychedelics as "crazy" and "weird," his work remains largely unsung.

Younger readers will likely only have heard about Leary when their parents got confused over who the Oklahoma City bomber was. However, Leary was much more than "Dr. LSD." In fact, his abortive attempt to create a video game based on the William Gibson novel Neuromancer had the potential to change pop culture entirely, and his ambitious plans for the title are being mirrored by AAA game studios today.

Most people wouldn't ever have Timothy Leary and video games cross their minds at the same time. However, in 1983 Leary opened Futique Inc., a studio dedicated to the production of electronic entertainment. Only one title would come out of Futique, an odd simulation game called Mind Mirror that actually contained many features that wouldn't make it into mainstream games for another decade or more.

Mind Mirror Sperm

Mind Mirror allows you to create "Mind Maps" by answering a series of questions. The Mind Maps are a somewhat abstract representation of how you feel a person should be (among other things). You could then roleplay as that person through a text-based simulation from conception (as a sperm or an egg) until death. These role-playing tropes were revolutionary at the time, and are still used in modern gaming. As strange as the presentation of Mind Mirror is, it featured character creation via a series of questions and branching dialogue paths years before any mainstream game made them a standard.

Mind Mirror even saw modest success. Published in 1985 by Electronic Arts (it's the same company you're thinking of), Mind Mirror sold over 50,000 copies and would serve as a prototype for Futique and Leary's most fascinating unfinished work: a video game adaptation of Neuromancer.

Later in life, Leary became fascinated with computers, VR, and the burgeoning internet. In the 1980s a globe-spanning network was still an idea in its infancy, but William Gibson fleshed out a future society in which the realm of cyberspace existed, as vital and essential as the real world. Neuromancer set down the foundation for a whole genre filled with gritty corporate dystopia and cyber-cowboys called Cyberpunk. Leary's friendship with William Gibson and increased interest in the effect the PC has on society made Neuromancer a perfect fit for an adaptation by Futique.

Credit: BRUMMBAER

Credit: BRUMMBAER

Futique's Neuromancer was to be, at least in part, a promotional for an in-development Neuromancer movie. Cabana Boy Productions acquired all electronic-media rights to Neuromancer, and Leary attached himself to the production in order to secure the right to make a video game for the new Commodore Amiga. 

Neuromancer: An Electronic Mind Movie was to be almost unparalleled in ambition for the time. Leary was quite the socialite, and through his many connections, he was able to tentatively sign a lot of talent for the game. Devo would be providing the score, and William S. Burroughs would contribute writing. Artist Keith Haring would provide the face of protagonist Henry Case and provide visuals, while German artist Brummbaer provided the Amiga art you see in this story. Grace Jones would have provided the model for Molly, Case's partner. The cast and crew of the Neuromancer game were star-studded in a way that is only now being replicated by studios like Quantic Dream, and at the time it was almost unheard of for significant public figures to be attached to video games.

The game would play out as a choose-your-own-adventure-type fashion. There would be four separate "tracks" you could choose from, and each would put you in the role of a different character participating in variations of the same story. A character in one track might be a lower-class, average person, and in another have a Ph.D. in "cyber-psychology." The actors playing each character were set to be different in each track as well. Keith Haring and Grace Jones would have played Case and Molly in only one of the tracks. In another, they could be completely different characters or not appear at all.

So, what happened? The full story hasn't been told, but the event that likely impacted the cancellation of Neuromancer: An Electronic Mind Movie was that the motion picture never came together. Cabana Boy Productions never found a buyer for its proposed screen adaptation of Neuromancer, and just kind of fell apart. The only footage ever made of the movie is the teaser reel shown above. Although Mind Mirror sold reasonably well, Electronic Arts didn't want to take a risk on publishing Neuromancer. After a tentative deal with Activision fell through, Leary found himself scrambling for a publisher.

Leary eventually found a taker in Interplay. However, by that time he seemed somewhat disillusioned by the project and agreed to take a step back and slip into a role as a consultant. Interplay was a much smaller company than EA, and the scope of Neuromancer was significantly reined in. While some of Futique's ideas remained, with Devo even providing a version of "Some Things Never Change" for the title song, the game plays and looks very similar to its contemporaries.

The Neuromancer game we ended up with is regarded as being well made, but it's far from the blockbuster that Futique's Neuromancer: An Electronic Mind Movie promised to be. Had Leary's version of the game been released it may have set a new bar for production value and storytelling technique for the industry. It's only recently that video game production has begun approaching the same level of polish.

The Neuromancer movie too may have had a massive effect on pop culture. Imagine a world where The Matrix (or something like it) came out a decade earlier. With how much of an impact The Matrix had on changing the perception of the internet and computers as something only for nerds to something cool, would we have seen the internet and social media growing at a faster level?

It's easy to discount the effect of a single game or movie, but as we've seen with Star Wars and Star Trek, an entertainment franchise can have an indelible effect on the direction of societies all over the world. We may only have bits and pieces of Leary's vision for a Neuromancer game, but we may be getting to see a modernized version of it in the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 by CD Projekt RED.