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Credit: CD Projekt RED

Cyberpunk 2077 is just one part of a massive cyberpunk game boom that's 'speaking truth to power'

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Nov 10, 2020, 6:08 PM EST (Updated)

“In Night City you can become anyone, anything, if your body can pay the price,” says Keanu Reeves, talking straight to camera. “So seize the day... and set it on fire,” he adds, climbing into a sleek sports car.

This short ad for action-RPG Cyberpunk 2077 is part of a huge promotional campaign that almost exclusively teases the violent and salacious pleasures of the game’s imagined future. Sure, developer CD Projekt Red has also mentioned the deprivation and exploitation players will encounter in Night City, but the overriding tone of its buildup is a celebration of the criminal opportunity and hedonistic heights enabled by cybernetic modification. Dystopia is an entrepreneur’s playground, and cyberpunk — the genre that lends the game its name — is the ultimate venue.

In these ads, today’s cyberpunk looks like a glossy reprint of its 1980s heyday, luring us to party in neon sights and synth sounds while barely recalling that they once framed terrifying alternate realities. But cyberpunk isn’t one thing. It’s also about the moment — exploring how classic themes have renewed relevance in the political present, marshaling the prophetic power of dystopian dreams in new directions. Cyberpunk is caught between past and future.

Sherryl Vint, Professor of Science Fiction Media Studies at the University of California, Riverside, explains that defining cyberpunk is not straightforward. “It can be a setting, a set of iconic images, an aesthetic style, or a group of typical themes. Like film noir, also easy to recognize but difficult to define, it is all of these things in shifting combinations, a ‘fuzzy set’ that changes with time and context,” Vint tells SYFY WIRE.

Nowhere is this clearer than in video games, which right now are embracing cyberpunk more than ever. In Cyberpunk 2077’s long shadow are dozens of recent and forthcoming titles spanning all kinds of play experiences. Many don’t merely touch on cyberpunk themes, they explicitly refer to themselves as cyberpunk, have evocative names like Cloudpunk and Neon Abyss, or recreate classic cyberpunk imagery.

Like 2077, much of this new wave of cyberpunk games departs from familiar touchstones, referencing Blade Runner, Neuromancer, or The Matrix, and focusing on shady corporations, street gangs, and hackers, body modifications, and outlandish '80s fashions. While their narratives return to common issues related to social degradation and extreme technologies.

Take the recently released Ghostrunner, a slick, first-person-perspective action game set in a grim cyberpunk setting. Polish developer One More Level’s narrative designer, Jan Gąsior, tells us that the game exemplifies many of cyberpunk’s definitive features. “A metropolis illuminated by neons, omnipresent augmentations, and implants, the oppressed rebelling against authority, incomprehensible virtual reality, transhumanism — it’s all there,” he says.

The two essential cyberpunk themes in the game he says are defiance, or the struggle of the underdog, and this transhumanism, which asks existential questions about the nature of consciousness and the ontological status of AI. For Gąsior, it’s crucial that cyberpunk asks these questions without providing clear answers.

Credit: CD Projekt RED

Other cyberpunk games approach similar ideas through very different play experiences. The forthcoming Chinatown Detective Agency, for example, is a story-led investigative drama with intertwining subplots, characters, and events. Mark Fillon, creative director of Singapore-based General Interactive Co., tells us that they don’t refer to the game as cyberpunk themselves, but it’s hard to escape the label.

“The game is set in a future where advancements in AI and automation play heavily into its storyline and backdrop,” he says. He adds that he’s especially interested in the social themes of cyberpunk, such as “the unbridgeable and expanding rift between the social classes, the commodification of human lives, the emergence of an Epicurean and hedonistic lifestyle amid a crumbling world — all these occurring in a time of technological renaissance.”

These social themes and the concept of defiance recur in Solace State, a 3D visual novel about a young hacker named Chloe living in a biotech surveillance society. Solace State’s city looks less typically cyberpunk, at least initially, but the subject matter around it is familiar. Tanya Kan, director of Toronto’s Vivid Foundry studio, tells us that the game focuses on entrenched power structures, including a conglomerate, looking to seize control over a biotech revolution. Its narrative then considers the possibility of overcoming such structures from the below.

“Cyberpunk centralizes speaking truth to power and finding alternative ways of finding humanity again in the underclasses,” Kan explains. “Many cyberpunk protagonists start off as outsiders, or in transit, or are siloed off from society in some way, and Solace State’s Chloe and other characters fit these subjectivities.”

Credit: Vivid Foundry Corp

Many of these themes are cyberpunk staples, of course, and the danger even when deep-diving into battles against oppressive corporate power, or the intersections between humanity and technology, is one of retreading old ground. Especially when these games employ the romanticized 1980s and 1990s aesthetics of rain-soaked, near-future cities, could the motivation behind these contemporary cyberpunk fictions be primarily nostalgic?

“Interest in cyberpunk now,” Vint explains, “like a lot of popular culture, is nostalgic in a commonplace way. People who were in their teens in the 1980s have now aged such that many occupy positions of power in creative industries. It is unsurprising that this generation would be drawn to make culture that looks back on the formative years of their own lives and experiences.” So, she continues, “the cyberpunk aesthetic in some recent popular culture seems to me to be about style more than content, about the ‘cool vibe’ associated with the genre rather than a return to the themes pursued by original cyberpunk authors.”

Some theorists of cyberpunk have also noted that the "retrofuturism" of backward-looking sci-fi worlds is inherently conservative. It creates a sense of stasis, as if the aim were to return to a time when things were more simple, rather than imagine anything genuinely new. In particular, cyberpunk can seem in-tune with a 1980s culture of neoliberal individualism and hyper-competitiveness, in which hackers and gangs seek personal enrichment and accept that no social alternative is possible. As Mike Pondsmith, creator of the Cyberpunk tabletop RPG series and co-creator of Cyberpunk 2077 has said, “Cyberpunk isn’t about saving humanity, it’s about saving yourself.”

But nostalgia doesn’t fully explain the current cyberpunk explosion in games, and it would be unreasonable to assume that these titles can’t equally resonate with the present, in more progressive ways. Indeed, referring back to '80s cyberpunk can also reveal a continuity between current and historical problems, not least the continuing inequality and corporate dominance in neoliberal orders.

“Neoliberalism was becoming mainstream in the 1980s, due to [Margaret] Thatcher and [Ronald] Reagan, predominantly,” Vint says. “Original cyberpunk authors saw this and reacted to it. Now we live in a world where neoliberalism is hegemonic and so the playbook put into use in the 1980s is largely responsible for the world we live in today.”

Both in terms of today’s digital technology and social composition, there’s an increasing sense, in fact, that cyberpunk is now actually the way things are. “We are living in a cyberpunk reality,” Fillon says. “Technology is advancing at an incredible (and some would say alarming) rate, but through the lens of humanity, we aren’t making much progress.”

Kan shares similar concerns and aims to address them through her game. “Without a doubt,” she says, “with the increasing subversion of rights and untrammeled despotism experienced today, Solace State’s cyberpunk has relevance in highlighting not merely guns and trade, but also in politicking, the role of the media, and the power of the citizens.”

Current technologies also send cyberpunk in directions that weren’t foreseeable. So, Vint explains, cyberpunk in the past never really predicted the monetization of online communities and the algorithm-driven polarization of online culture. For example, she says, “although cyberpunk imaged elements of the bleak future associated with imagery of corporate rule and embodied precarity, it missed thinking about how some parts of online gaming culture have fostered the misogyny we saw emerge with Gamergate.” She adds that “this is not cyberpunk’s fault: it’s just the inevitable result of material culture unfolding in ways that were not anticipated.”

The insights of today’s cyberpunk are thus bound to be different because they emerge from changing social states. Cyberpunk game developers interested in more than nostalgia reconfigure what cyberpunk means as they revive it, touching on issues that matter right now. And that flexibility is as much a part of cyberpunk as any neon-lit urban sprawl or cybernetic implant.

Solace State’s contemporary political message, for instance, builds on a feminist cyberpunk tradition. Another sci-fi scholar, Lisa Yaszek, has written that waves of feminist cyberpunk have tended to “reject the alienation, isolation, and nihilism typically associated with masculinist cyberpunk and replace it with an emphasis on creative self-expression, community, and sociopolitical change.” They focus more on activism, in relation to issues of class disparity, technological exploitation, and ecological preservation. 

“What sets Solace State apart from other cyberpunk titles is focusing on the counter-cultural intimacy of relationship-building and community-building arising against influential powers that are trying to dismantle rights, governance, and humanity without consultation," Kan says.

She explains that Solace State’s story has involved consultation with activists, politicians, cultural consultants, and academics, and notes that immigrant voices are crucial for their unique vantage points on failing institutions and alternative social visions. “This is why a truly diverse cyberpunk story is especially relevant in our increasingly divisive world,” she tells us.

Chinatown Detective Agency offers something different with its future Singapore setting, rather than the usual American, Japanese, or fictional metropolises we see in cyberpunk. But it’s also interested in current global politics and social issues in a state of “high-tech chaos.”

“The geopolitical turmoil and the reimagining of the self has caused great disunity,” Fillon says, “but in the background, we see technology totally changing our lives. There are still countless people dying of hunger in a world of plenty, wars, rampant corruption, and the continuing segregation of civilization into social classes.” These inequalities and uncertainties feed into the game.

Ghostrunner takes a slightly different approach to its social setup, in that in its world mega-corporations have given way to an authoritarian state regime, leaving everyone fighting for survival. According to Gąsior, this isn’t meant as a statement about the present political situation. Instead, he says, “the story and the setting illustrate aspects of the human condition that are present in the contemporary political narrative, but the fact is they have been around forever. Greed, lust for power, inequality, oppression, have always been relevant problems, no matter the level of technological advancement.”

Yet Ghostrunner is still, as Gąsior says, a game about defying an oppressive power, and it’s hard to ignore its parallels with existing political realities. We live in a time when capitalism is increasingly supported by hardline state powers, which do everything they can to turn economic or class struggles into culture wars. In this sense at least, Ghostrunner’s premise feels intriguingly relevant.

Perhaps more than anything, these games and many others embody the schism within cyberpunk itself. Its nostalgic reveries intertwine with unrealized promises of changing technology and the inescapable influence of existing social injustices. Like a cyborg melding of nature and computerized modifications, it’s a combination of contrasts that can pull in different directions, or combine into a powerful whole.

Some modern cyberpunk is living in the past, then, but its current popularity in games says as much about the importance of cyberpunk themes to understanding the present. And as digital technologies evolve further, there will be many more cyberpunk tales for games to tell, especially by indie developers experimenting with more left-field ideas. Hopefully, the industry’s own corporate behemoth, Cyberpunk 2077, will expand from the history of the genre in fascinating new ways, not merely seize it (or set it on fire).

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