Saturday, April 17, 2010

Is cyberpunk dead?

Cyberpunk > noun [mass noun]
A genre of science-fiction set in a lawless subculture of an oppressive society dominated by computer technology.
* [count noun] a person who accesses computer networks illegally.

About six years ago I started a topic on NTSC-uk asking for recommendations of cyberpunk games. I got a few replies and then the topic died. A few weeks ago someone bumped the topic and it made me wonder: is the cyberpunk narrative genre dead in videogames? Games are interesting because they can be categorised based on their mechanical genres (text adventure, sport simulator, etc) and also their narrative genres (cyberpunk RPG versus medieval fantasy RPG). And cyberpunk settings/storylines have been used on most game types, from 2D shmups to point-and-clicks. When you think about it, they’re a perfect fit: what better way to portray a technology-obsessed world gone mad, than through a piece of modern technology such as videogames? Unfortunately they have fallen out of favour in recent decades.

As BaudAttitude on NTSC-uk pointed out:
When you think about it, a major theme of cyberpunk fiction was the idea that we were heading towards an era where giant, faceless corporations would know everything about us and control every aspect of our lives, and that the very concept of privacy would be a myth. Oh, and the Japanese would be running everything. Turns out, giant faceless corporations DO know everything about us, pretty much DO control every aspect of our lives, and privacy is more-or-less a myth by this point, but nobody really seems to mind much. So the genre seems to have kind of fizzled.

This is certainly true. I can recall in the early 1990s when very few people had cell-phones, and not everyone had computers (my first was in 1998). The internet, if you can say it existed, was also very different – and I’m thankful I was alive at a time when it didn’t exist. If you can remember such a time, consider yourself one of the last of the old guard. Such things at the time, by virtue of being new, were exciting in much the same way as reading Gibson’s Neuromancer is exciting. It was a glimpse into a world which promised so much.

Today our world has in some ways surpassed what was portrayed in al those books, films and videogames – reading the section in Neuromancer where Case visits an arcade is hilarious, since while the rest of it feels authentically contemporary despite being written two decades ago, this one section describing videogames dates the book quite horribly. Today I hate cellphones so much I refuse to own one anymore (women seem to feel the text message needs to be a constant stream of your thoughts regarding them), and I dread it when people email me asking for video conferencing via Skype. Videophones people, they’re now a reality. I hear Japan has also perfected the walking robot. Furthermore, my walk to work is dotted with no fewer than 15 surveillance cameras, I have over 20 email accounts each with a different password (my brother has over 50), my personal details are owned by the banks, government and the dozen or so corporations which I subscribe to, while my café lattes and Cola Zeros are spiked with soy-based products and aspartame, nicely wrapped in a styroplastic container for my convenience. Still, on the bright side there’s always the possibility that on my way to the underground I could – AT ANY MOMENT – be gunned down by government agents for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

Yes, it feels like I am actually living in the oppressive world of Deus Ex. The same exact same world, except with more daylight.

Is it any wonder then that cyberpunk has fallen out of fashion? We are living that reality, with all of the clichés, tropes and conventions that story writers had been warning us about for decades. Regardless, I still love the genre, would happily pay money for games with such a setting, and think it’s a little sad that people have stopped being interested in it.

While cyberpunk is a broad term, and overlaps with a whole bunchy of other stuff including post-apocalyptic and dystopian settings, these are some of my favourites and some which, though I've not played them, come highly recommended by others. If you can recommend more, please do so in the comments!

Game based on the book. Never played it beyond the first couple of screens.

Mixing in high-fantasy in the form of orcs, elves and magic, the games are based on a world featured in a pen-and-paper RPG, a series of novels which William Gibson has a great disliking for, and other merchandise. If you have even a slight interest in cyberpunk, you need to check out one of the 4 games. My favourite is the SNES version, developed in Australia, possibly making it the best non-Japanese RPG around. I don’t like the Mega Drive version of Shadowrun, and people that do tend to not like the SNES version – which are you? The Sega CD game is Japanese only, and the Xbox 360 version, while being technically the last cyberpunk-themed game to be released (maybe?), is a fairly derivative Counter Strike clone.

Covered in HG101, this is an astoundingly excellent point-and-click adventure, portraying a very grim vision of England (so no change from reality then). It reminds me of Morrowind in that I can collect a whole bunch of utterly useless crap from people’s homes.

System Shock 1
FPS featuring a computer hacker trapped on board a doomed spaceship. I struggled for years to play this with the original control set-up which lacked any form of “mouse look” option. Now I’m told someone has updated it to work properly with the mouse!

System Shock 2
Sequel to the above, also set on a doomed spaceship. I loved this, and it stands as one of my all-time top three FPS titles, alongside Deus Ex and STALKER. Before being able to shoot weapons you need to learn how to use them, after which they often break and you need to learn how to repair them. For the first quarter of the game I carried a broken shotgun with me, waiting for the moment when I could fix and unleash hell. The environment was not constructed for the benefit of the game, rather the developers admit they first created what they felt was a logically working spaceship and then fitted game mechanics around that. And it shows. You hack computers, hack electronic locks, fight servo-droids gone mad, deal with various different kinds of ammunition for each gun (regular, armour piercing, explosive, banana flavour), use telekinetic powers, micro-manage a limited inventory space, not to mention cybernetically augmenting your body and a multitude of stats. Plus later on you acquire things like the flesh of a dead enemy which, using chemicals taken from two different laboratory storage cupboards in two far-off sections of the ship, you’re able to analyse and then deal more damage to said enemy. The whole game was a technical mindf**k, especially the need to study weapons before use. Some people, I call them casual gamers, couldn’t handle the constant need to micro-manage everything – and I mean everything – while also shooting stuff up. Which is why I think Bioshock, incorrectly described as the spiritual successor to System Shock 2, was made the way it was. I thought Bioshock was a retrograded piece of mass-appeal, casual gamer garbage. No inventory, no ability to tinker with tools or items, and a shallow, superficially stuck on augmentation system with none of the complexity seen in other games. For all the blabbering people do regarding the story of Bioshock, which I ignored, it has the mechanical complexity of the original Wolfdenstein 3D with a few extra bits stuck on. System Shock 2 to Bioshock is like chess to tic-tac-toe.

Deus Ex
Another FPS, and much like the System Shocks it has what people might describe as RPG overtones. You can augment your body, your mind and your guns, while hacking computers and wandering around a terrorist-plagued future dystopia. There’s already so much said about this game, I’ll leave it there. I hear the PS2 port removed the limb-based damage system from combat – if true, then this sucks and is another example of dumbing things down. Get the PC original instead.

Deus Ex 2
They removed the different types of ammunition for the highly improbable situation of a single, universal ammunition that works in every gun. It’s the Bioshock argument all over again. Note to developers: stop making games simpler for people who can’t deal with something as complex as 23 different kinds of ammunition, appendage damage and stat-enhancing shoelaces. Let them take up papier-mâché as a hobby instead.

Graphic adventure which cribs from Bladerunner and Terminator, made by the guy behind Metal Gear Solid. As derivative as it may be, the first playthrough is still a genuinely magical experience. The Sega CD version is emulated really well on a PSP.

SD Snatcher
RPG variant of the above. Heavy need for grinding later on stopped me from playing it.

Ghost in the Shell – PS1
Magazines and fellow gamers don’t seem to hold this in such high-regard – good but not great is the consensus I hear. Perhaps I didn’t play enough 3D action games on the PS1 and Saturn back in the day (I’m ignoring the N64 since that’s a whole other debate), but to me Ghost in the Shell stands as a landmark 3D release alongside Descent. At absolutely any time you can walk on absolutely any surface, and the camera will follow you, causing the entire game-world to shift perspective. Today I’m still impressed by the technical splendour of riding up the side of a skyscraper while the city behind me spins as I move.
While a lot of other 3D action games from the era played out on a flat surface and never made much use of the vertical, GitS makes full use of every direction, whether hurtling along buildings vertically or cruising on the underside of a bridge upside down. It plays fantastically. Also has a cool, self-contained little cyberpunk story set in the Ghost in the Shell world.

Project Firestart
A Commodore 64 game, and perhaps more survival-horror than cyberpunk. Similar to System Shock albeit in 2D. Wander a spaceship fighting semi-visible aliens, reading old computer entries and trying to escape alive.

Immercenary – 3DO
Imagine a Massively Multiplayer Offline First-Person-Shooter, set inside a computer-generated world. You play a cyberpunk-soldier sent in to shut the system down and free the hundreds of people trapped inside. There are no levels, just one massive cyber city for you to explore at your leisure. As you kill hostile NPCs the overall number dwindles until none are left (or you could just take out the 10 ranked bosses). Very cool Lawnmower Man themed environments, and very weird. The set-up, of ranked fights and wandering around an empty city, reminds me of No More Heroes.

Bladerunner – PC
I’ve not played this, but I’ve heard excellent things.

Burn: Cycle – Cdi/PC
One of the few games on the CDi praised as being excellent. It’s actually a fairly awful graphic adventure. Bad acting, bad script writing, bad CG graphics, disjointed game mechanics which play like a string of minigames – and not cool minigames, I mean semi-unplayable minigames – wrapped up in a totally incomprehensible and illogical game world and storyline. At one point you enter your rented hotel/apartment room with a woman, and she starts going through a trunk of personal items only to find what appears to be bondage sex-toys, at which point the main character tells her to leave them since he'll get charged extra for using them - do hotels really have bondage gear available for rent, in a similar vein to a minibar? I love Burn Cycle anyway, regardless of its flaws and absurd situations. It’s definitely so bad it’s good. The sudden sex change your character undergoes in the latter sections of the game, which he ends up liking, and the plot twists that lead up to it are beyond comprehension.

Beneath a Steel Sky
I don’t really think this is so much cyberpunk, since everything seems a little too rustic, more steam-punk meets post-apocalyptic, but it’s still a great game.

I never could get into this, but again, much loved by those who played it.

Download 1
Download 2
Two hori-shmups for the PC-Engine and CD-ROM add-on, this is a pair of cyberpunk games which I don’t see getting much mention anywhere – certainly not on Wikipedia’s list of cyberpunk games (though as discussed on here before, Wikipedia is a monstrous creation masquerading as a collection of knowledge, when in fact it’s often little more than factual inaccuracies presided over by despotic moderators).
Anyway, I never played either Download game with the serious intention of getting good at them, but they were a lot of fun. I think I prefer the first one more than the second. YOUTUBE VIDEO.

Rise of the Dragon
Available on PC and Sega CD, a bit like Snatcher with platforming sections thrown in.

Hori-shmup set in a dystopian world. The opening city with its neon-advertising is pretty awesome.

And there are no doubt dozens of other cyberpunk games, some borderline cases such as Zone of the Enders, Fear Effect, and others I’ve not played... Have you? What are your favourites? Have I missed some essentials? Is the genre dead?

The ladies from Fear Effect 2 take a break to unwind.


  1. I think that because of it's technological base, cyberpunk was a genre of a certain time and era. In the 80's and early 90's the internet and mass communication were still things of the near future. A future as you pointed out we are living in today.
    Ok the world we live in isn't as blatantly oppressive as those in Deus Ex or Neuromancer but it is still technologically very similar to the worlds of those works of fiction. Future fictional work is either too similar to our own, making it more like alternate history fiction or too futuristic making it more like mainstream sci-fi.

    Yeah I think the genere's dead :(

    1. it's not dead. just look at recent deux ex human revolution. the cyberpunk society is still a lot different from ours and will never really be that. also look at a movie like bladerunner or play policenauts or snatcher to see how different it is. we don't have space colony's

  2. Disappointed to hear that the PS2 version of Deus Ex removed the limb-based combat -- I bought it because I don't have a PC at the moment (it was only £2). If this is the only change, though, I don't mind too much. Having heard your review of System Shock I am looking forward even more to playing it.

    From your comments you might be pleased to know there is a (UK) libertarian movement attempting to hold back the tide of the state and its corporate allies. Check out some blogs:

  3. Sketcz, I know some other games. "Hell: A Cyberpunk thriller", "BloodNet: A Cyberpunk Gothic", "Quarantine" 1 and 2 (intro movie of the first part with real-video with actors is absolutely hilarious).

  4. OH GOD I was thinking of replaying Hell a few days ago. I remember it being pretty bad.

  5. OH, in addition to removing the location based damage, the PS2 version of Deus Ex also changes up the inventory system to remove the grid stuff. The levels are broken up into smaller chunks, the load times are annoying and it can get framey in combat. The character models are a bit better than the PC version. It's the version I played through when it came out and it's pretty alright, but the PC version is definitely the way to go nowadays.

  6. The SNES Shadowrun game is one of the system's great buried treasures. I'm glad to see it getting namedropped in this blog entry. :)

    - HC

  7. What are you using to emulate the SEGA CD on your PSP? I'm guessing you have to have custom firmware to run anything but am unaware of which Sega emu's would be best?

  8. That System Shock mod is getting played today. Thanks for the link!

    I wonder if the lack of cyberpunk will lead to...retropunk. You know, games about futuristic computers that take place in the late 80s?

    Digital: A Love Story is perhaps only the first of such a species.

  9. You won't regret it when you finally get around to Blade Runner! Loved that game.

  10. What about the Shin Megami Tensei games? You could count out the Personas and the Raidou Kuzohona games, but what about the first 2 Megami Tenseis, the SNES games, Digital Devil Saga, and Devil Summoner for the Sega Saturn? The first game was even called Digital Devil Story.

  11. Amiga games Hired Guns and Captive II were both Dungeon Master clones with cyberpunk settings. Captive 2 in particular sought to offer a big open-ended cyberpunk city.

    There's also Ripper, a FMV adventure from the same guys who made BloodNet and Hell.

    The infamously bad fighting game Rise of the Robots and its less terrible sequel take place in a dystopian cyberpunk world too, though both games are only taking place in one robot factory gone haywire.

  12. EA and Starbreeze studios are rumoured to revamp and bring out a new version of the Syndicate game...

  13. One thing that's really cool about Shadowrun is the way the setting changed to accommodate the new millennium. The Net collapsed and was rebuilt, and Deckers are rare in a world where anyone can get a wireless pocket computer and augmented-reality goggles. They really went out of their way to come up with something as futuristic, playable and imaginative as the 80s perception of the "Matrix" was.

  14. The snes Shadowrun had a skeleton of a great game somewhere in there.

    I think if the genny Shadowrun had used the same isomorphic perspective and interface, I would've enjoyed it more. As it happens I couldn't get past the cheesy narration and ugly graphics (even for they're day).

  15. SFC-era Megaten, along with Soul Hackers, had a strong cyberpunk influence. Not so much the later games.

  16. If you look into japanese RPGs, you may find some gems :
    deSPIRIA (Dreamcast)
    Ecsaform (ps1)
    Maten Densetsu (snes)
    Wachenröder (saturn)

  17. Dystopia - Nice multiplayer objective-based shooter built on Half-Life 2 engine.

    Decker - Adventures in cyberspace! Feels more like boadgame but I like it.

  18. Uplink is probably worth mentioning since it's cyberpunk and focuses entirely upon hacking.
    Also an argument could be made for their other games, but not as much.

  19. I played both the SNES and MD Shadowrun games, and I guess I'm one of the few people who liked both. The one for Mega Drive is much closer to the pen&paper game (version 1.0, that is), not only in terms of character creating and development, but also locations and NPCs which were lifted directly from sourcebooks.

    But I have to stay I still like the one for the SNES more, probably because it was my first foray into the SR universe.

  20. Wow, some great replies.

    @ Aquin
    Has anyone else used the word retropunk before? Perhaps for No More Heroes’ styling? Because if not, let the internet records show that the term was first coined by yourself on April 17, 2010 1:25 PM. Man, that is one awesome portmanteau – I intend to use it actively from now on.

    @ btgrave
    Ahh yes, Hell. I’d always wanted to play that, but forgot about it when writing this up. Doesn’t it star Dennis Hopper?

    @Jonathan Howard
    Yes, apologies, I should have mentioned I was using custom firmware on my PSP. I’m using PicoDrive, and while it requires some tweaking of the settings to optimise the synchronisation for Snatcher (otherwise the sound can go funny), it runs damn well. Then again, Snatcher wasn’t exactly a game about reflexes. I’ve not tried other MD/SCD games.

    Thanks for mentioning Captive 2! I’d seen screens of, read reviews and always wanted to play it, but could never get it running on emulators. I read a massive CVG back in the day and they made it seem like one of the best games ever...

  21. Remembered another one:
    Cybercop on the Sega Genesis/Amiga.

    It actually plays a lot like a primitive version of Deus Ex. Unfortunately it's slow, clunky, and the Genesis version's framerate render it unplayable.

  22. GITS was more short than anything else - a fun ride but over way too quickly.

    I'd say Fear Effect is about as Cyberpunk as Perfect Dark.

  23. Half-Life 2 is Cyberpunk... isn't it?

  24. The start could be seen as a dystopian environment with people wanting to "fight the authorities, but it's Post-apocalyptic more, I'd say. There's no computer hacking, and most of the time you spend wandering the wastelands of a ruined earth in a souped up road buggy.

  25. Sketz> Yes, Hell starred CG Dennis Hopper. It was a sorta semi-recurring feature in the series of Take 2 horror adventure games (Bloodnet, Hell, Bureau 13, Ripper, Black Dahlia. Bloodnet was from Microprose but really the same guys as the other five), having known actors in Hell, Ripper and Black Dahlia.

  26. @KaL: Fear Effect did indeed have its Cyberpunk moments; the first part of the first game had, as far as the setting was concerned, almost a Blade Runner feel to it.

  27. Sketcz, Defcon 5. Somehow reminds System Shock, and there's pretty interestingly made hacking system. Darwinia, but that's not a pure cyberpunk. Tron too doesn't fit in a such category very well. Bioforge maybe fits. Also look here.

  28. Most of the well known games are listed already. I guess the old PC game Ubik should count as cyberpunk as well.

  29. Yeah, I've been thinking what's holding back cyberpunk is that most inspiration is taken from mostly 80s early 90s science fiction. I think that modern cyberpunk games should use more modern science fiction like Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End( than simply rely on Nerumancer and other earlier works. Hell, Gibson's Spook Country( is set in contemporary times and has more cyberpunk flavor than most of what you find in games today. These guys should pick up a novel some time.

  30. I always got a strong cyberpunk vibe from D/Generation ( even though it's mostly via the high-rise cityscape visible in the background and the fact that it takes place in the offices of a genetics corporation.

    Also, like it or not but Second Life is probably the closest we currently have to the jacked-in VR experience from the books. Gibson, Stephenson and the rest probably didn't envision the future being filled with yiffing furries, though it fits in with the dystopian themes.

  31. Rumble Fish is cyberpunk fighter from Dimps, Last Resort - great addition to shumps and... what about FF7, SMT 1 & 2, Strange Journey, Digital Devil Saga 1 & 2?

  32. Black Ice White Noise is another good example which someone mentioned – for the Jaguar, albeit unfinished and only available in beta form. It would appear to play like a cross between Shadowrun and GTA, minus the magic.

    Also, on NTSC, someone mentioned Bionic Heart, which looks like an interesting PC visual novel in English:

    Also, I completed Digital: A Love Story yesterday, and it’s pretty damn awesome. You can do it in like under 2 hours, and it’s a nice self-contained little game. It’s rigid, as visual novels/text adventures are, and there’s not much to the visuals anyway, but it’s neat and the retro styling has charm. Cool ending too. I wouldn’t want the author to have changed anything.

  33. Very nice entry once again, I strongly encourage you to dive into the first System Shock, one of the best games I have ever played. I realized controls weren't that weird when I switched to the keyboard for moving the character/view, only keeping the mouse to point and click at targets/objects/interface. It's still not as good as the mouse freelook would have been but it's quite smooth and if I'm not mistaking, freelook had never been used in games at that time.

  34. I live for cyberpunk! Deus Ex is probably my favorite game ever, and I'm also one of those who love Shadowrun (SNES) but can't get myself to like the others.

    Also, about retropunk, it's probably a new term, but the concept of making new cyberpunk that stays true to the 80s vision, is never gonna stop. I made an album with cyberpunk music, myself:

    Good to hear there are others out there who share my passion for this stuff 8)

  35. This comment has been removed by the author.

  36. When I was around 7, I had a demo for a PC game called Assassin 2015 that was, from my recollection, somewhat cyberpunk. The city was bathed in perpetual rain and littered with skyscrapers in the intro, two of the hallmarks of cyberpunk. You were also infiltrating a corporate building if my recollection serves me correctly. Unfortunately, I never ended up buying the full game since it was difficult to find, even though I kept an eye out for it at Babbage's/Best Buy.

    When I finally remembered the title of this game last year, I did some investigation and found out first hand that getting the game to run on anything modern (Vista/Win7) was next to impossible. If you are curious, I'd recommend finding an old machine with Win98 on it. I remember playing that demo on a Win98 machine perfectly.

    The gameplay was very standard from what I remember. I would get confused and disorientated in the levels frequently. System Shock this ain't, but I think old-school shooter fans might get a kick out of it.

  37. I've been playing through Project Eden (PS2, 2001), which is a cyberpunk take on Lost Vikings. (Well, technically, Lost Vikings 2 was a cyberpunk take on Lost Vikings, but you know what I mean.)

    The blocky, early polygon graphics belie some clever team-based puzzles. I'm enjoying it, though the combat is unpolished (since it's not really the focus).

  38. This might be a bit of a loose observation, but I'm wondering if cyberpunk is slowly giving way in favor of the post-apocalyptic gaming. Not the best list here: , leaving out games like Baroque, Fragile Dreams, Borderlands, etc. It might be a stretch, but I wonder if there's a slow shift from what we perceive to be the future to be(cyberpunk) to the next most likely future with the post-apocolyptic setting.

  39. Since you mentioned The Lawnmower Man in the paragraph for Immercenary, why not add the Lawnmower Man games?

  40. They're working on a Deus Ex 3, no? Called Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

  41. Gah - I forgot the Lawnmower Man games! Well spotted observation.

    I'd also agree to an extent with Bionic Commando regarding the increase in post-apocalyptic games. With us living in the worlds described in cyberpunk fiction, it's interesting note people are now predicting the future to be one of collapse.

  42. If Ghost in the Shell is cyberpunk, then surely Oni is cyberpunk - and one of the best third person action games of its era no less

  43. Great post! Thanks. These are some of the most entertaining and creative games I played as a kid. And, yes, the internet was very different when I began using it in 1993. It was largely social and educational, and definitely wasn't the world-wide marketplace that it is today. Part of me longs for those days, but another part recognizes the benefits of the internet as it exists today.

  44. Hi, awsome blog ma` man , outstanding cyberpunk games

    Me and my team are making a cyberpunk game , inspired from shadowrun,blade runer,deus ex,ghost in the shell and others , the game will not have state of the art grapichs but it will have a 100% cyberpunk felling, old school rpg and it will be made in flash , first version will be single player and second multiplayer

    We still need some help with some art and templates if any of you care to joinor contribuit this project pls pm

    More details at
    game forum :
    game oficial homepage :
    the homepage its not done and we have some gramatical mistakes(we are from difrent countrys and none is english lol) but we found a english teacher that will help us now

  45. fantastic blog!! I also love fmv games and what could be considered by you graphical adventures. if you like those as well I would encourage to check out torico/lunacy for the sega saturn

  46. A new game, worth a mention here: Binary Domain by SEGA. Very cyberpunk. Pretty much GITS with more robots. Very good, enjoyed it, and after seeing Deus Ex: HR and Syndicate being released, it looks like cyberpunk is making a return.

  47. I guess we could add Kowloon's Gate (PS1) as a cyberpunk game.