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.
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.
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.
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.
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.