With its rainswept cities and bleeding neon signs, the cyberpunk genre is often a feast for the eyes. And Cyberpunk 2077 is no exception. However, beyond CD Projekt Red’s ambitious adaptation of the popular tabletop role-playing game, there are a ton of smaller teams plugging away on their own cyberpunk adventures. These games bring to life dystopian worlds crafted from exaggerated versions of our own reality, tackling topics such as inequality, climate change, and workers’ rights, to name just a few. From Anshar Studios’ isometric RPG Gamedec to Origame Digital’s post-disaster photography game Umurangi Generation, cyberpunk fans are spoilt for choice right now.
A Brave New World
Marcin Przybyłek is a Polish science fiction author who is currently working on adapting his popular Gamedec series of books into an isometric RPG with the help of Anshar Studios. In the Gamedec world, the Earth has mutated and become hostile to humans, and so individuals flee into virtual realities to live out their wildest dreams.
Playing as a detective in 22nd century Warsaw, you’re tasked with venturing through these sensory worlds, investigating various crimes that demonstrate the worst aspects of humanity. This means gathering information, interrogating witnesses, and exploring an assortment of fictional worlds from rural farms to shady nightclubs. Ultimately, it’s up to you how you decide each case, with the game drawing inspiration from the tabletop role-playing genre, with skills, stat checks, and your moral decisions shaping the outcome of the story.
For its author, one of the main concerns in making the transfer from books to games was all about remaining true to his original vision. Though Gamedec does seem to fit in with what many have come to expect in regards to the visuals of a traditional cyberpunk game, the series has its own internal logic to uphold.
“I have built this world for 18 years now, and it is different in so many ways from other visions, has so many details and specifics, that it would be unwise to copy anything else,” says Przybyłek. “Writing the Gamedec saga I didn’t know either Mike Pondsmith’s Cyberpunk nor Gibson’s books, so I really think I created something “pure.” I think the whole team tries to depict that. Every time I see that an idea is derived from a known production, I raise the alarm.”
Through Gamedec, the questions Przyblłek is hoping to pose are not only moral ones, but existential in nature. With humanity inputting their consciousness into simulations, what does it now mean to be human? And should we embrace these artificial connections or search for something more tangible?
The Real Cyberpunks
The point-and-click adventure game VirtuaVerse also explores the concept of virtual worlds, albeit from a slightly different angle. In the game, humanity is locked into a single neural network which constantly optimises the user’s experiences based on their own personal data. It’s an outcome that leads to mass censorship and individuals becoming increasingly isolated from each other. Within this world, you’ll take control of Nathan, an outsider using digital archaeology to live off-grid. After his girlfriend, an AR graffiti artist named Jay, goes missing, you’ll have to step up the search, entering a world of AR technomancers and digital delinquents.
“The world of VirtuaVerse is basically in the middle of a transition that is similar to that phase of when everyone transitioned to smartphones and social media,” explains Victor Love, Theta Division’s co-founder. “In Virtuaverse everyone is getting hyped and voluntarily getting chipped to access this thing we call permanent reality or AVR (Augmented Virtual Reality). Something that isn’t much of a sci-fi concept anymore.”
VirtuaVerse has had a strange journey from its initial development. Beginning life as a concept album for Love’s solo music project, it steadily morphed into a game as the album took on more of a visual element, incorporating the artwork of the pixel artist Valenberg. Nevertheless, the concept seems like a perfect fit for the team, who have spent much of their life engaging with the real cyberpunk culture.
“My background comes from hanging around newsgroups like alt.cyberpunk since the early days and been into the actual cyberpunk subculture IRL for like 25 years now,” explains Love, known online by his screen name MBR. “Even if the inspiration comes also from classics of cyberpunk a lot of the elements are also inspired by real life experiences.”
Theta Division’s Alessio Cosenza, better known online as Elder0010, adds, “There’s a lot of real underground computer culture [in the game] that comes from our experiences in coding, IT, networking, demoscene, bbs, ascii and the underground scene as a whole which is a real cyberpunk world that is much more interesting than that of the mainstream because it’s where real cyber “punks” have been hanging around since the rise of technologies, into newsgroups or IRC channels, bulletin board systems and the deepest corners of cyberspace.”
A Grand Play
Our fraught relationship with technology is among one of the most common themes of cyberpunk, and General Interactive’s Chinatown Detective Agency is emblematic of this kind of narrative.
Taking place in the year 2032, as governments are struggling to cope with a global economic downturn, players explore a futuristic version of Singapore, controlling the private investigator Amira Darma. You interact with your surroundings using a point-and-click interface: accessing news reports, private messages, and a dialpad that’s available as part of the UI. Additionally, you need to travel around the world to investigate leads and even conduct real world research to solve certain puzzles.
“When I was brainstorming the setting, I had just moved to Singapore in 2015 and initially I wanted to set the game in one of those quintessential sci-fi cities like Hong Kong or Tokyo,” says Singapore-based Filipino director Mark Fillon. “But having spent just a little bit more time being in Singapore and seeing the nooks and crannies I realized it would make a great location for the game. Simply because Singapore is a very futuristic city. It’s also extremely well organized and it’s a city that’s embraced the automated future.”
Fillon acknowledges that tension between AI and their human creators is not necessarily breaking new ground for the genre, but he hopes that the game’s setting and its approach to tackling this theme will be refreshing for players. For one thing, Chinatown Detective Agency features a predominantly Asian cast of characters in an Asian country, something that has been somewhat of a rarity in Cyberpunk fiction, in spite of the genre’s appropriation of Asian culture as set dressing.
Fillon explains, “Most of the cast are Southeast Asian — a region where the people are often an afterthought or an exotic but inconsequential backdrop in mainstream western media, because there seems to be little understanding or appreciation for both our cultural diversity and the things we share in common. One simply needs to refer to the one-dimensional portrayals of Thailand or Vietnam in the movies. Chinatown Detective Agency is my way of flipping that somewhat — a story featuring Asian characters in an Asian city, but with the whole world as the stage for this grand play.”
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Cyberpunks vs the Gig Economy
Beyond questions about technology and human nature, developers are also using cyberpunk to explore issues relating to the gig economy and inequality. Ionlands’ lush voxel adventure game Cloudpunk, for example, casts players as a delivery driver in order to deliver a scathing indictment of corporations and unregulated free market capitalism. Taking control of a courier named Rania on her first day on the job, you explore the city of Nivalis making illicit deliveries and talking with the city’s inhabitants.
“In Cloudpunk, we’re going mainly for the atmosphere,” says studio head Marko Dieckmann. “It’s not about killing people in a futuristic environment or dystopian city or whatever. It’s more like okay, what would it be like to fly through that city and to walk through it and meet all the people. What would they say? What would they tell you? The most interesting thing for us was to explore that from the perspective of a normal worker like a delivery person.”
Soaring through the skyline of Nivalis, you’ll brush up against everyone from snobbish elites to heartbroken androids and frustrated workers, with Ionlands taking the Ballardian metaphor of a high rise segmented by class and applying it to an entire city scape.
“The city is very vertical, so it’s separated into different height layers,” explains Dieckmann. “So you can explore the city from below the ground to way above the clouds. The parts above the cloud we call them the spire. This is where the very rich folk live and they can actually see the sun and the sky. By sky I mean, not clouds, but beyond the clouds. The majority of the city inhabitants can never actually see that. They can only see a thick layer of clouds, which is always hiding the sun.”
The Red Sky Generation
It’s not just the gig economy that has faced the ire of developers though. Cyberpunk games are also addressing the subject of climate change. For Naphtali Faulkner, a New Zealand game developer of Ngai Te Rangi identity living in Australia, climate crisis has directly informed his approach to his upcoming Jet Set Radio-inspired photography game Umurangi Generation. Faulkner’s family were among those impacted by the recent bushfires in Australia, which experts claim were a direct result of humanity’s impact on the natural climate. This has led to him channelling a lot of his frustration at the government’s response into his current project, albeit through an indirect analogy.
“Umurangi Generation means Red Sky Generation,” explains Faulkner. “The idea is that these characters in the game, they’re the last generation who get to watch the world die. [It’s the] idea that at one point, in human history, in the future, we’re going down this pathway of generations not giving a fuck what they leave behind for the next group. There’s going to be a last generation and they’re going to have to sit, like how we are at the moment, where we can’t really do anything about that.”
Faulkner believes cyberpunk is the perfect avenue in order to explore these themes, but is critical of where the genre has been in recent years.
“The genre of cyberpunk, I feel like that’s been a bit stale for a couple of years, because it’s always referencing 80s cyberpunk, where it’s about mega corporations and the surface race issues of black and white, drugs, and all that stuff that was very relevant in the 80s.” He highlights the potential for cyberpunk to go beyond simple explorations of these concepts to tackle themes from a more contemporary and pressing angle.
Is cyberpunk a stale aesthetic or a vital genre with relevant stories to tell? Umurangi Generation and games like it are an argument for the latter. And even as hype builds for the release of CDProjekt Red’s expansive cyberpunk RPG, it’s worth keeping an eye on how indie developers are injecting new life into an old genre.