The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel…William Gibson, Neuromancer
The opening lines of William Gibson’s Neuromancer encapsulates the ethos and tone of the Cyberpunk genre, beyond the neon-lit streets and augmented low-lives we typically associate with the genre. The foundations of which were laid by the New Wave science fiction writer’s of the 60’s and 70’s, rejecting the notion of a utopic, idealistic future as seen on Star Trek instead turning their television to a new, darker channel. A channel that mirrored the anti-establishment counter-culture of the era, a channel that distrusts the pillars of late-stage capitalism, a channel that taints the stainless-steel visions of the future with grime, sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. The spirit of the transgressive new wave is captured in Harlan Ellison’s short story anthology Dangerous Visions, a “thirty-three story demonstration of ‘the new thing’ – the nouvelle vague,if you will, of speculative writing”. Those visions dangerous to only one thing: The status quo.
From the shaken core of the Gernsbackian Golden age of science fiction consisting of ray guns and rocket ships. Cyberpunk was born.
Before the era of labels, cyberpunk was simply ‘the movement’ – a loose generational nexus of ambitious young writers, who swapped letters, manuscripts, ideas, glowing praise, and blistering criticism. These writers – [William] Gibson, [Rudy] Rucker, [Lewis] Shiner, [John] Shirley, [Bruce] Sterling…they were independent explorers, whose work reflected something inherent in the decade, in the spirit of the times. something loose in the 1980sBruce Sterling, Mirrorshades
Although Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) would give us a common visual language for Cyberpunk, William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) is still considered the “quintessential cyberpunk novel” (Sterling, 1986). The term itself was only coined one year prior to Neuromancer in Bruce Bethke’s short story, Cyberpunk (1983), which was quickly applied to a loose group of “purveyors of bizarre hard-edged, high-tech stuff”.
Mirrorshades, a short story anthology curated by Bruce Sterling would serve as a manifesto for the movement, outlining the “overlapping of worlds that were formerly separate: the realm of high tech, and the modern pop under-ground… the computer hacker and the rocker”. Most people know of the cyberspace cowboys hacking through “lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind” (Gibson, 1984) and street samurais implanted with deadly steel under their fingertips. Even more pervasive than body-invasion is the notion of mind-invasion. Cyberpunk situates itself at the intersection of humanity and technology, constantly redefining what it means to be human.
Videogames, as a medium, are perfectly equipped to let us experience the “consensual hallucination” that the Cyberpunks put to paper. With the simple push of the power button we project ourselves into digital 3D space, controlling the words, actions and morals of our avatars onscreen. The golden grail of videogame design is ultimately immersion. In reference to Deus Ex, designer Warren Spector describes “an immersive simulation game in that you are made to feel you’re actually in the game world with as little as possible getting in the way of the experience of ‘being there'”(Spector, 2000).
According to sociologist Mike Featherstone, “The dream of cyberculture is to leave the ‘meat’ behind and to become distilled in a clean, pure, uncontaminated relationship with computer technology…The desire for an evolutionary transformation of the human has shifted from the preparation for the journey into ‘outer space’ from a dying planet to the virtual ‘inner’ space of the computer”(Featherstone et al. 1996). Through seeing and experiencing their digital world through their eyes, we embody our avatars both emotionally and psychologically. Post-modern critic N. Katherine Hayles posits that our consciousness changes when we inhabit that digital world, asking “How could anyone think that consciousness in an entirely different medium would remain unchanged, as if it had no connection with embodiment” (Hayles, 2008). Immersing ourselves in digital worlds changes our consciousness, causing us to become our avatars.
It is fitting that this particular genre focused on embodiment in digital space and the intersection between man and machine, would have such a storied history in the video game medium.
Early Years of Androids and Cyberspace Cowboys
We start in 1988. Two years after the release of seminal short story collections Burning Chrome and Mirrorshades, an up and coming game designer who grew up wanting to become a film director would start carving his name into the heart of this industry. Hideo Kojima, who just cut his teeth on the original Metal Gear, would distill his love for science-fiction films Blade Runner, Akira and The Terminator into the game Snatcher.
Released to wide acclaim for its eye-popping visuals and handling of mature themes, Snatcher was as much a cinematic achievement as it was a gaming milestone. This was our first taste of that same eye for cinematic gameplay that would eventually define Kojima’s well-deserved auteur status. Snatcher‘s story undoubtedly takes its cues from Blade Runner, viewing the world through the eyes of Gillian Seed, an amnesiac tasked with hunting down a group of androids called “snatchers” who are killing people and replacing them a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Here we begin to see a few threads that Kojima would continue to pull on later in his career. Using dark science-fiction to explore sex, philosophy, the cost of humanity and everything in between.
1988 also saw the release of a videogame adaptation of William Gibson’s Neuromancer developed by Interplay (which you can check out for yourself here). Neuromancer split the action between the traditional point-and-click gameplay, common at the time, as well as taking players into cyberspace to hack through electronic defense measures. Neuromancer let players sail through cyberspace like the cowboy-hackers from Gibson’s novel, while treating the players to a visual feast of acid-laced fractals and computer-generated beings from your wildest synthwave dreams. Taking inspiration from TRON (1982) and its source material in depicting cyberspace, Neuromancer took us right into the “a graphic representation of data abstracted from backs of every computer…bright lattices of logic unfolding around a colorless void” (Gibson, 1984).
Stepping Into A New Dimension
Changing technologies and perspectives would inevitably change the game, so to speak. Wolfenstein 3D, released in 1992, would change how we viewed digital worlds by birthing the First-Person-Shooter genre. Literally putting you in the character’s shoes, the FPS was the next breakthrough in achieving immersion. For Cyberpunk games, a genre obsessed with blurring the lines between real and digital, it was the next step in its evolution.
Looking Glass Technologies, the studio responsible for the foundational Ultima series, traded swords and sorcery for body-mods and artificial intelligence in 1994. System Shock will forever be known for introducing us to SHODAN, an endlessly quotable antagonistic AI with a God complex; One of gaming’s most memorable villains. While trying to defeat SHODAN, the player is subject to what could only be described as a verbal beating, as she taunts you and your inferior humanity relentlessly. AI characters from GladOS to Cortana have taken inspiration from SHODAN and she is the epitome of the “dangerous AI” trope that is now a real talking point in 2019.
Look at you, hacker. A pathetic creature of meat and bone. panting and sweating as you run through my corridors. How can you challenge a perfect immortal machine?SHODAN, System Shock
System Shock’s wide open, detailed 3D environments served as a playground for players to play their own way. While there was a critical narrative path for gamers to follow, they were given the freedom to overcome obstacles in any way allowed by the games many interacting systems. System Shock would go on to become the first instance of the “immersive simulation” game, but far from the last.
Ion Storm’s Deus Ex (2000) is not only one of the greatest Cyberpunk games ever made, it is also one of the most important games of all time.
With Deus Ex, Warren Spector and the team at Ion Storm set out to create a new gaming experience never seen before. An excellent narrative of shadowy figures pulling the world’s strings in the darkness sets the backdrop for an overwhelmingly open-ended gameplay experience. Embodying common Cyberpunk thematic motifs of paranoia, alienation and the consequences of late-stage capitalism, Deus Ex gives you a diverse toolkit to experience the world however you see fit. Weapons and deadly augmentations will only get you so far, it is your creativity and ability to navigate conversations that will carry you the rest of the way.
In a post-mortem, Spector highlights that in designing Deus Ex the goal was to make “players feel like they were actually there, in the real world…they needed to be able to apply some real-world common sense“. Acting as a simulated microcosm of our world, Deus Ex breaks down barriers between worlds and lets truly inhabit a virtual world in a manner not too dissimilar from what Gibson and Sterling wrote about many years prior.
The Cyberpunk genre has gone through a renaissance lately. Popularity of shows like Black Mirror or Altered Carbon, coupled with recent cinematic releases Blade Runner 2049, Ghost in the Shell and Alita:Battle Angel has brought the genre back into public consciousness, not that it really went anywhere. Even though the rampant technological speculation of the 80’s has subsided into reality, it has never stopped igniting our imaginations of what impacts tech will have on our humanity.
While we wait in frantic anticipation for CD Projekt Red’s latest opus, Cyberpunk 2049, here a few more recent titles to wet your palette until 2020 hits.
1998’s Metal Gear Solid would dip its toes into themes at the intersection of biology, technology and society, but its 2001 sequel would dive right in. While not that recent, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty still holds up remarkably well and it has never been easier to get your hands on the HD remaster. MGS2’s story is an onion, it’s layers peeled away with every subsequent playthrough gleaming more insight than the last. What starts off as a routine counter-terrorism mission on an offshore oil cleanup facility quickly devolves into a psychological head-trip with rampant AIs shaping the social evolution of humanity and constructing reality in the “era of the read-made truth”. Looking back on the infamous AI monologues at MGS2’s conclusion, it is jarring how prescient its warnings about “junk” data in the information age are. To say anymore would ruin some of gaming’s greatest twists and turns. The labyrinthine plot of MGS2 is worthy of an article all to its self but I would be remiss not to discuss this post-modern Cyberpunk masterpiece.
In 2011, Eidos Montreal would put their own augmentations on an old franchise by rebooting the Deus Ex, an unenviable task that they pulled off with to wide acclaim with grace and style. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a prequel to the original series starring Adam Jensen, a highly memeable ex-SWAT officer coming to grips with a new, mechanical body that he never asked for. The gameplay and story are, more or less, what you would expect from a Deus Ex game. The art direction, however, is another story entirely. Taking inspiration from the myth of Icarus, an apt analogy for humanity overreaching its means, and from renaissance artwork, blending the ancient and the advanced into a unique “cyber-renaissance” aesthetic. The muted, mostly monochrome color palette is a stark contrast to the bright, neon-lit colors we typically associate with the Cyberpunk aesthetic. DX:HR plays with anachronism to remind us that even decades in the future, the past still echoes through the ages reminding us that no matter how advanced our technology has become, we are still beholden to the same mistakes of our ancestors.
Throughout the 2000’s, Frictional Games made a name for themselves by crafting a blend of crushing psychological horror and immersive yet oppressive settings that they loved to trap you in. If the popularity of the Amnesia series is any indication, gamers craved Frictional’s take on Lovecraftian horror, skipping the cheap jump scare and letting the horrors that lie in your imagination fill the darkness of Brannenburg Castle.
In 2015, they would depart from occult 19th Century castles and dive into the depths of the ocean in SOMA. After passing out during a brain scan, Simon Jarrett wakes up in the underwater research facility PATHOS-II. Looking in a mirror, he does not see his body but a robotic chassis staring back at him. Now he must investigate PATHOS-II to learn how he ended up in a new robotic body and what happened to humanity, one year after a comet has struck the earth.
While Amnesia preyed upon our fears of what lies in the dark, SOMA explores the fears present when technology supersedes our humanity. SOMA treads very dark territory, providing a multi-faceted discussion of ethical dilemmas common among post-human and trans-human discourse. SOMA reminds us of the ephemeral nature of consciousness and asks what it means to be alive, conscious and/or human. Of course, there are no right or wrong answers but you will have to live with the choices you make. With an unbelievable ending that I still think about, years after completing it, SOMA remains a thoughtful exploration of our changing bodies and minds in the face of technological advancement.
Arkane Studios, best known for bringing the immersive sim genre into the 21st Century, would keep doing what they do best by releasing Prey in 2017. A spiritual successor to another game named Prey released in 2004 (I know, confusing), 2017’s Prey would let players loose on the Talos-I space station giving them a full set of toys to play in this virtual sandbox with. Talos-I is the most memorable game setting of 2017. An art-deco space station floating above the earth, every module consistent with its external appearance and inner pathways. Prey has an unparalleled sense of spatial congruence that lends to its overall exquisite and thoughtful design.
Prey constantly finds joys in shattering your expectations of reality. From the first moment when you literally break the window of a fake reality, to when you encounter a shape-shifting mimic, Prey reminds you at every step that your senses are not to be trusted. Our human faculties alone are no match for the future threats facing our species, but the augmentations in Prey are neither cybernetic nor digital. They are biological.
Protagonist Morgan Yu adapts to the dangers hidden in Talos-I by using alien Typhon technology to rewire his/her brain. An interesting counterpoint to the typically cybernetic notions of enhancement seen in Cyberpunk literature, Prey explores the potential of human engineering and forced evolution while examining the potential human costs.
Taking a step back from the macro-social themes of alienation, deviance and rebellion, Cyberpunk can also deal with stories of the individual. Va-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action lets you live out your dreams of bartending a dive bar in the year 207X. Part bartending simulator, part visual novel, the world builds itself around you through your interactions with the bar regulars. The denizens of Glitch City come to you to drown the sorrows that come from living in a corporate driven dystopia where corruption and food shortages of the norm. Va-11 HALL-A reminds us that behind the armies of cyberspace cowboys and street samurai fighting the system, are ordinary people who have to live their mundane lives within that system.
Red Strings Club takes the same idea of letting you see the struggle of the everyman, and lets you experience it through the point of views of three characters. Brandeis, a human hacker sporting cybernetic augmentations, Donovan, the unaugmented owner of the Red Strings Club and Arkasa-184, an android formerly owned by Supercontinent Ltd. who challenges your morality and views on free will and trans-humanism. Red String Club gets the most mileage out of its concept by letting players see all sides of the conversation.
We have taken a look at many of the previously released games that have contributed to the wide body of Cyberpunk videogames. That being said, some of the most exciting titles to add to the discourse have yet to be released.
Arguably the most hotly anticipated release of 2020 is the aforementioned Cyberpunk 2077. CD Projekt Red’s follow up to the immensity that is The Witcher 3 promises a huge, living and breathing city for us to explore. What little we have seen of Cyberpunk 2077 so far, can’t be described as anything except for…breathtaking. In a behind-closed-doors showing at E3 2019, PC Gamer described 2077 as “Deus Ex with an obscene budget” going on to add that the “technology and art direction is staggering in scope and detail“. If there is one thing to take away from E3 2019, it’s that 2020 will be an incredible year for gaming and Cyberpunk 2077 looks like it will sit on top as king of the heap.
Announced at E3 2017 via a gorgeous trailer showing off its beautiful pixelated artstyle, indie developer Odd Tales’ The Last Night is best described as “Blade Runner + delicious pixels“. The Last Night wears its influences on its sleeves, promising a Cyberpunk noir adventure in a fully-realized environment populated by memorable characters. Like Va-11 HALL-A, The Last Night sprouted from the seeds planted during a game jam project (which you can play here) that was eventually expanded into a full game. With no release date in sight, details are scant and we do not know how long it will be until we are conversing with low-lives, exploring the city and getting into gunfights in gorgeous 2.5D environments. While the budget may not be as large, I am anticipating The Last Night just as much as Cyberpunk 2077.
Lastly, we have one more game to talk about. System Shock 3. Yes that’s right, The System Shock series is being resurrected. It’s announcement came in 2015 with a haunting challenge from SHODAN herself. “My true secrets I retain…insect. When my glory is revealed, your feeble interference will be but a footnote. Are you ready to revel in my magnificance, hacker?“.
Even more exciting than the prospect off facing off against SHODAN again is the fact that System Shock 3 is being developed by Otherside Entertainment. Founded by Paul Neurath in 2013, Otherside has an incredible pedigree comprised of many former-Looking Glass Studios developers. Not to mention that Warren Spector, producer on the original System Shock, has decided to join the project. Otherside is still holding their cards close to the chest, but after parting ways with financially-troubled publisher Starbreeze in Februrary 2019, Spector has reassured eager fans that the team is still “psyched and cranking – in other words, continuing as normal”.
We have been exploring cyberspace and mindspaces alike for decades now, and there is no stopping. The conjunction of society and technology is ripe to delve deep into themes of alienation, subjugation and the disparity of the future. Changes happen fast and our entertainment, whether it be film, books or games, has to as well if it hopes to keep a pulse on our society. Science fiction is descriptive as much as it is prescriptive, and Cyberpunk, as a genre, is a common language we have to describe our future of high tech and low lives.
After all, according to William Gibson, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet”
Works Cited and Further Reading
- Gibson, William. Neuromancer. (1994) New York : Berkley Pub. Group.
- Featherstone, Mike, and Roger Burrows, eds. Cyberspace/cyberbodies/cyberpunk: Cultures of technological embodiment (1996)Vol. 43. Sage.
- Spector, W. “Postmortem: Ion Storm’s Deus Ex.”Game Developer Magazine (2000). Available: http://jnoodle.com/careertech/files/postMortems/DeusEx.pdf.
- Hayles, N. Katherine. How we became posthuman: Virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature and informatics.(2008)University of Chicago Press.