The Rise Of Cyberpunk - Games Weekly

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Monday, April 13, 2015

The Rise Of Cyberpunk

As we look forward to another entry in the long-running Deus Ex series with this month’s cover story , it’s only right that we look back at the roots of cyberpunk and the profound influence the genre has had on pop-ular culture especially on games. Cyberpunk concepts are now so rooted in the modern understanding of science fiction, it might be hard to imagine a time when the word wasn’t part of the lexicon. Take a look back at where all those dystopian futures got their start.

What Is Cyberpunk?
Speculative fiction had any number of compelling visions of the future long before cyberpunk came on the scene. From the utopian dream of Gene Roddenberry’s  Star Trek  to the military imaginings of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers , creative voices had no shortage of ideas regarding humanity’s future. However, the advent of computers and the rise of corporate culture in the ‘70s and ‘80s worked together to foster a bleak new fictional backdrop.

Cyberpunk is a broad-reaching genre often defined by exceptions rather than rules, but a few major tenets show up again and again. Cyberpunk envisions a high-technology future, but that technology has rarely led to an improvement in the quality of life for humanity. Instead, giant corporate entities (often called mega-corporations) have come to dominate the social and political landscape, dictating the way people live. Giant cities house an overwhelmed and destitute lower class, while the few rich and powerful hide behind the protection of their monolithic companies. Artificial intelligence runs rampant, often altering the very nature of how people live and work.

While some cyberpunk reaches out into outer space, it’s rare that the genre leaps into interstellar voyages. Instead, the genre has a grounded near-future setting on Earth or its nearby planets and moon. These grim urban locales lend themselves well to noire overtones, and it’s not unusual to find allusions to private detectives in long trench coats and beautiful women who aren’t what they seem. Protagonists are rarely cut-and-dried do-gooders. The “punk” moniker comes from predominantly anti-heroes in the lead role counterculture loners put upon by the system and forced to take action.

Cyberpunk is pessimistic and dark, and its themes tend to run toward cautionary tales, as if to say: This might be where we’re headed if society doesn’t change course.

Where Did It Come From?
There’s no clear line in the sand about the earliest appearance of cyberpunk, but it’s hard to chart the genre’s origins without mentioning novelist Philip K. Dick. The visionary author explored issues of A.I., corporate governance, and social decay throughout his career, and inspired countless creators with his surreal stories.

Not coincidentally, it was the adaptation of one of Dick’s short stories that led to one of the most foundational visualizations of cyberpunk fiction. Ridley Scott’s  Blade Runner built on the foundation established in Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? . The movie starred Harrison Ford as a man out of time, wandering through a neon-soaked city that housed androids who might be people. 

While dozens of authors tried their hand at the emerging field, William Gibson’s  Neuromancer  became the de facto standard. Its hacker star and dystopian vision of virtual reality world called “the Matrix” helped further define the genre. Many of its ideas, along with Neal Stephenson’s  Snow Crash , served as inspiration for one of cyberpunk’s most popular offshoots in later years: the Wachowskis’ The Matrix film series.

The Early Adventures
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, game creators were eager to tap into the potential for riffing on cyberpunk settings and themes, and in the years since we’ve seen dozens of games that flirt with the genre.

Some of the earliest interactive explorations of cyberpunk came from the tabletop RPG world. Ready to move on from the wizards and dragons that dominated early Dungeons & Dragons games, titles like Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun tapped into the opportunity to control a character in a dystopian future.

With its focus on storytelling, puzzle solving, and exploration, the adventure game was a great avenue to capitalize on cyberpunk’s potential. While lesser known in the United States, 1988’s Snatcher drew heavily on story conceits introduced in  Blade Runner  and the foundational anime,  Akira. The mostly first-person adventure had players investigating a plot wherein real people had been kidnapped and replaced by A.I. bioroids. Beyond its role as an early innovator in game storytelling, Snatcher was also written and directed by Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear fame.

Another adventure game, Rise of the Dragon (1990) barely disguised its emulation of  Blade Runner’s main character Agent Deckard and urban setting. William “Blade” Hunter is a police officer turned private investigator making his way through futuristic Los Angeles on a hunt for the killer of the mayor’s daughter. By 1994, Burn Cycle added full-motion video into the adventure/puzzle experience, and told the story of a hacker inflicted with a virus that will destroy his brain if he doesn’t find a cure within two hours.

One of the most fondly remembered adventure games rooted in cyberpunk themes arrived in 1995 with the release of I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. Based on the Harlan Ellison short story of the same name, the story involved a malevolent artificial intelligence that wipes out all of humanity except for five individuals. Players choose between the five distinct characters, and confront the deadly computer in bewildering psychodramas. Through exploring oppressive and mature topics of insanity and the nature of existence, the title stands apart as an early PC classic.

Branching Out
Beyond a number of adventure games, other genres explored  cyberpunk throughout the 1990s. While stretching the boundaries of the genre, the cinematic platformer Flashback (1992) included corrupt cops, memory transfers, and corrupt manipulation by the powerful, and its 2D rotoscoped visuals mixed shadowy backgrounds into alien worlds. Syndicate (1993) embraced the urban landscape from a real-time tactical view, putting the player in command of a team of cyborg soldiers taking part in a shadow war against rival corporations. And the magic-meets-tech world of Shadowrun finally transitioned from tabletop to digital screen with two console releases. The SNES and Genesis Shadowrun games were completely different, but both managed to aptly relay the fascinating fiction of ork deckers and elven street samurai fighting it out on the futuristic streets of Seattle.

As first-person shooters rose to prominence in the mid to late ‘90s, several cyberpunk releases provided something different than shooting demons or Nazis. System Shock (1994) blended puzzle solving with enemy confrontations. Set in 2072, players controls a hacker trying to halt the efforts of an A.I. called SHODAN, who has taken over a massive space  station. The pioneering game had a follow-up in 1999 with System Shock 2, which once again explored issues of A.I. gone out of control, this time aboard a starship in 2114. Deus Ex (2000) introduced a profound level of personal choice, stealth, and role-playing elements into a first-person shooting framework. The widely praised game embraced its cyberpunk roots in its exploration of humanity’s interaction with technology in a grim and uncertain future.

Still Gaining Steam
The popularity of cyberpunk seems to ebb and rise as the years pass, and one need only wait a short time between entries before witnessing a revival. Recently, Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011) revived the long-dormant franchise with aplomb. The excellent PC and mobile adventure game Gemini Rue (2011) feels both futuristic and nostalgic. The action game Remember Me (2013) explores fundamentally cyberpunk themes of personal identity and memory. Watch Dogs (2014) posits a pre-cyberpunk world, where computerized monitoring and tech are beginning to control society, and Transistor (2014) draws heavily on cyberpunk visuals and themes to tell its story of a futuristic city being pulled into ruin.

As we head into the future, there’s no shortage of options to be excited about. Satellite Reign aims to be a spiritual  successor to the classic Syndicate games, lending a modern gameplay edge to tactical urban play. Harebrained Schemes’ success in reviving Shadowrun is leading to a new title set in Hong Kong. The creators of The Witcher games at CD-Projekt RED are steering toward a release of Cyberpunk 2077 in the coming years. Our cover story this month, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided takes the next step for the vaunted series.

While one of the only constants for cyberpunk fans is arguing over what is or isn’t part of the definition, there’s no arguing that the genre is alive and well in video games. If anything, the recent resurgence of cyberpunk storytelling may be the most concentrated we’ve seen since the genre’s inception. All signs indicate a bright future for dark futures, and that’s good news for game players.

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