The setting of cyberpunk has always occupied a special place in the hearts of sci-fi fans, and that is for a good reason. The core idea of empowering your body and soul with the use of cutting edge technology and the very concept of transhumanism is exceptionally attractive – and while we, the humans, are marching towards the future, the fiction of cyberpunk is getting closer to reality.
It’s rather obvious that the setting has been multiple times examined and implemented in various video games since it is so popular and appealing. The younger generation of players are familiar with cyberpunk thanks to the rather recent sequels to the iconic Deus Ex, and the most anticipated modern title is undoubtedly a game from CD Projekt RED considering the latest Cyberpunk 2077 news. The popularity is driven nowadays by the increased attention from various entertainment companies, and we are not necessarily talking about game developers. Filmmakers are also returning to the once iconic setting, and the most notable recent movie is visually stunning Blade Runner 2049 by Denis Villeneuve. Overall, the setting of cyberpunk is experiencing somewhat of a rebirth or a second advent, but let’s head back a little and take a look at how it all started in the first place.
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Since cyberpunk is not something brand new for the gaming industry, there are a lot of titles – both worthy and trashy – which were released back in the old days. But they had to be based on something – and we are going to say a few words on the history of the setting itself. It is generally believed that the birth to the modern definition of cyberpunk was given by the writer William Gibson who’s gifted the world an iconic science fiction novel “Neuromancer.” The novel stated the idea of cyberpunk as a sci-fi subgenre taking place in the world of low life and high tech. Huge urban agglomerations, total dominance of digital era, various implants designed to give humans new abilities, a wide network of virtual reality duplicating the outside world, the lost value of a single human life, etc.
Gibson used these general ideas to create a grim and dark, yet exceptionally attractive futuristic world. However, the writer initially drew inspiration from the legendary sci-fi novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick. His work was used by Ridley Scott to film a fantastic movie “Blade Runner,” which is considered one of the best ones of all times. The novel raised the question of what it means to be a human. Cyberpunk took it a bit further and touched upon the idea of how far you can go with enhancing your body with augmentations and prostheses till you lose your humanity – and whether it can be lost in the first place. This serious and deep topic has been mostly superficially depicted in the gaming industry, but there were some masterpieces to correctly implement the setting of cyberpunk – and we’ll now delve into the history.
The best cyberpunk games
Metal Gear, being a complex and multi-layered creation, is not the most obvious guess when it comes up to choosing the most influential cyberpunk games. It is first and foremost a stealth franchise examining the topics of politics, genetic engineering, and control over society. However, Kojima’s games touched upon the idea of a world tightly controlled by the spread of digital information – something very close to the nature of cyberpunk. Moreover, Metal Gear had various recognizable traits of the cyberpunk setting including the all-powerful military corporations, the exploration of humanity, and the overall grim and dark dystopian atmosphere. Advancing further into the future, the franchise eventually reached nanotechnologies and cybernetic enhancements, although it has never been the focus of the series.
Megami Tensei, another long-running cult-classics franchise, was not a “pure” cyberpunk series either. It was a sophisticated mixture of settings and genres, mostly fictional ones, which contributed to creating an absolutely unique world. Despite featuring occult fantasy and overall demonic atmosphere, Megami Tensei was among the first video game series to correctly catch recognized cyberpunk aesthetics while also utilizing religious and philosophical themes. Generally speaking, the franchise incorporated cyberpunk elements, but it wasn’t limited and solely focused on them. Much like Metal Gear, the series went through various genre and setting iterations and combinations throughout its history, and while some entries were close to classic cyberpunk, the others were fairly far from it.
If you are looking for a more “conservative” approach towards implementation of cyberpunk in video games, then Shadowrun is finally the answer. The original game was cited as one of the best titles in this sci-fi subgenre, and that wasn’t accidental. Shadowrun, apart from its atmosphere and style, had an ability to enter the so-called cyberspace, which served as a visual representation of a digital world where you could interact with programs and fight them, for instance. The mechanics of hacking into computer terminals and retrieving valuable information was one of the key ways to advance further through the story. The franchise later featured a rebirth thanks to Kickstarter, and while it never hit the AAA-status, the games were exceptionally well made and worthy.
System Shock was a huge leap forward in terms of interacting with the digital world within the cyberpunk setting. You played as a hacker trying to reveal and prevent the dangerous plans of a hostile AI called SHODAN from happening. Produced by the legendary game designer Warren Spector, the original game was praised by both critics and the community not only for the immersive and correct depiction of a dark cyberpunk world of the future (along with implants and augmentations) but also for deep mechanics and emergent gameplay. Much like in Shadowrun, you could enter the cyberspace, although, in System Shock, the digital environment was executed in full 3D thus greatly adding to the immersion. Navigating through the cyberspace was something out of this world in terms of quality, and the experience was truly mesmerizing.
Deus Ex is another huge contribution by Warren Spector to the gaming industry, and it is the project that should be considered the very best one to represent the setting of cyberpunk. This game had it all, like literally, and while being somewhat of a spiritual successor to the themes of System Shock, the game greatly enhanced and improved every element. Deus Ex, being a true role-playing game at its core, allowed you to build your character using a wide set of nano-augmentations and upgrades. The variety of customization options opened a number of new ways to interact with the world and characters, which in return enriched the overall experience. An extended system of weapon modifications also played a great role in setting up your hero, and the amount of freedom was really unprecedented. Deus Ex was a pure cyberpunk title at its finest with all the technological themes it utilized – not to mention the dark dystopian world with all the possible conspiracy theories incorporated into the setting.
What’s next for cyberpunk
The next major gaming event in the setting in question will be the release of Cyberpunk 2077 next year. The community’s hopes and expectations are accumulated into the strong belief that the game will turn out at least as great as The Witcher 3 as the worst-case scenario. CDPR hasn’t let the fans down before, so there’s a reasonable base to that belief. From what we’ve seen so far, Cyberpunk 2077 is doing a great job in terms of catching and depicting the major ideas of the setting stated by William Gibson decades ago. The world ruled by corporations and high-tech criminals, the race for adding new and more refined augmentations closely reminding a case of drug addiction, wealth-driven existence, an escape from reality thanks to VR – and on top of that, the game has Keanu Reeves.
Interestingly, the actor is no stranger to the setting of cyberpunk. Back in 1995, he starred in a sci-fi movie titled “Johnny Mnemonic,” which was based on an eponymous story by William Gibson, the man who defined cyberpunk in the first place. In other words, history is taking a loop, and it’s not just about the fact that the industry is going back to cyberpunk. We might finally witness the next huge masterpiece in the setting after the original Deus Ex. What the official sequels from Square Enix couldn’t achieve, might be reached and exceeded by Cyberpunk 2077. And for the sake of game enthusiasts from all across the globe, let’s hope it will indeed be the case.