Horror Games Just Don’t Scare Me Like Cyberpunk Does

We don't always think about sci-fi scares the way we ought to.

The contours of genre are more guides than borders.

Consider horror. One definition of horror – an exploration of fears and concerns of the unknown – could also very easily define science fiction. That’s why thinking specific genres are associated with a specific kind of impact is so short-sighted: The Witcher 3 might be about slaying monsters and saving the world, but it’s also a wholesome exploration of parenthood; The Office was a satirical take on mundane office work, but had frequent moments of levity.

Genres, in the end, do not define. They explain.

Two recent games heavily rely on cyberpunk, a subgenre of sci-fi, to converge on a fascinating area of horror. This spoke to my contention that genres are guides, not borders. This matters because the faster we realize this, the more interesting stories we can tell – as creators and as an audience.

But first it’s important to understand what cyberpunk is.

A definition of cyberpunk

A good but boring definition of cyberpunk is “science fiction dealing with future urban societies dominated by computer technology.”

Your classic depictions include Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland, and basically any story by Philip K. Dick. But this doesn’t tell us what cyberpunk is precisely.

MIT professor Henry Jenkins, in his Media & Imagination: A Sshort History of American Science Fiction, has a more thorough definition worth quoting in full:

The cyberpunk movement in American science fiction first took shape in the early 1980s in the fiction of such figures as Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, Pat Cadigan, and James Patrick Kelly. However different in other respects, these writers were preoccupied by the changing place of media in American society, especially in the wake of the initial phases of the “digital revolution.”

In his introduction to Mirrorshades, an anthology which helped to map the parameters of the cyberpunk movement, Bruce Sterling argues that cyberpunk reflects a new perspective on technology, not only among science fiction writers, but among consumers. For Sterling cyberpunk imagines an “overlapping of worlds that were formally separate: the realm of high tech and the modern pop underground.”

Cyberpunk’s protagonists are hackers, rockers, and other cultural rebels, clinging to a cult of individualism in a culture characterized by corporate control and mass conformity. These protagonists are adept at appropriating the materials of popular culture and making them speak to alternative needs and interests; they also know how to tap into the vast digital database to access information about corporations and their secret conspiracies, or to spread resistant messages despite powerful mechanisms of top-down control.

This might not seem particularly unique: Science-fiction has long featured stories about oppressed people fighting back with the tools of the oppressor. It’s a key method in real-life resistance movements, after all. But what’s important to note is Sterling’s notion of “overlapping of worlds that were formally separate”. 

Cyberpunk fiction often gives even its poorest inhabitants technology beyond our world’s richest, yet shows the downtrodden still struggling. It forces the audience into the filth, grime, and struggle created by the boots of corporate monoliths that rise to tear at the sky – fueled by unrepentant capitalism, steamrolling over marginalized groups to reach a horizon of wealth no one could ever have. It puts the audience down in a hole dug out with a shovel worth more than them — an excavation of greed, where they must bear witness to the victims of human progress that long ago forgot the human element. 

The central message is: It doesn’t matter how many robotic limbs you’ve got if you’re still at the bottom of the ladder. 

Meanwhile, towering over it all like silent titans, every inch of land sports a corporate megastructure leaping toward the heavens like a gun to God’s head. 

One must distinguish carefully between the genre, theme, and tropes. But it all clearly speaks to the same thing: that “overlapping” of worlds, that synthesis of unimaginably advanced technology in the body of those who cannot even find work and struggle to survive, all leading to an inevitable conflict. Whether that conflict is  blatant, like blowing up a building, or merely an undercurrent running through everything. And since all the tools are held by the more powerful, what choice do the oppressed have but to use those weapons, those machines, against their makers?

To me, this is cyberpunk.

cyberpunk horror

The games themselves

Bloober Team’s Observer: System Redux is a remaster of the studio’s 2017 first-person horror game. Players take on the role of Daniel, an “observer,” or a corporate interrogator who can plug his mind into reluctant subjects. Daniel uses his abilities to investigate what happened to his long-absent son, all in a poor part of Krakow in 2084. All of this is set during… well, a quarantine lockdown. 

System Redux was also a launch title for current-gen systems, showcasing high-res textures, ray tracing, and other incredible graphical feats on the PlayStation 5 (it doesn’t appear to have ray tracing on Xbox Series X). 

This made it part of the same lineup for new console owners as the next cyberpunk game I want to talk about, Watch Dogs: Legion

System Redux touts its cyberpunk themes proudly and openly. It’s in the marketing material, its lead performer (Rutger Hauer from Blade Runner), its Easter eggs, music, and even weather. This is the “most cyberpunk” game I’ve ever experienced. It tries hard to show us that.

Ubisoft’s Legion, on the other hand, is about a bunch of punks fighting oppression from a monolithic social system set in near-future London. The classic Ubisoft open-world formula is spiced with a “be anyone” mechanic The “main” character is actually an ever-changing collective of different people the player can choose. Each one is opposed on all sides by government suits and corporate contractors. Everything is controlled by cybernetics and digital devices, so part of the fight is using the machines against the makers. Legion doesn’t overtly label itself “cyberpunk,” but you can see how this fits into the genre quite neatly. 

System Redux’s horror of false choice

Spoilers ahead for the end of Observer: System Redux.

Amalgamation (or synthesis) is a key concern for cyberpunk. An obvious extension is how far humanity has synthesized itself with the technology it created. The boring question often becomes “How can you be human when you’re covered with chrome?” A more interesting one is the reverse. “How long must we deny a machine’s humanity when it displays all the traits we associate with ourselves?”

In System Redux, we are confronted by a machine that perfectly emulates the main character’s dead son. The “real” man made copies of his mind to hide it from a corporation. However, the last copy of his digital brain realized its creator would erase this last copy, and so took steps to prevent that. Violent steps.

Like any organism, particularly in cyberpunk, it fought to survive using the tools at its disposal. Then it found itself trapped… If it couldn’t escape, it would remain forever in a digital cage, aware of its new self and its consciousness, beyond the reach of natural death. Imagine solitary confinement without the need to eat or sleep. 

To escape, the AI convinces our avatar Daniel that he should save it. It’s essentially his son, without a body, after all. And it can enter Daniel’s open mind. See, observers are cut off from corporate snooping by default; the AI could live in Daniel’s head for as long as necessary.

sci fi horror

The horror this taps into is the sense of endless isolation — the pain of being remanded to eternal existence, cut off from others and any form of joy or stimulation.

To me, this seemed the true horror of the game. While Observer has many creepy moments, it’s this notion of absolute isolation that cut through it all. While it is a digital consciousness, it is no doubt one that can still suffer. Part of what makes us people is having a moral barometer to understand each other’s existence as much as possible. We feel sympathy and understanding, if not empathy at having been in similar situations. 

We don’t often find ourselves in creepy hallways, alone in the dark. Though perhaps we have been frightened by sudden movements in the shadows. The idea of endless isolation is existential, larger and more worthy of concern. It’s an idea we can carry and think about any time – even now writing or reading this.  

System Redux captures this by making it the climax of the enemy’s concern. It’s a relatable idea. If you were faced with eternal isolation, what wouldn’t you do to escape?

watch dogs legion

Watch Dogs: Legion and the horror of digital punishment

One of Legion’s villains is a genius programmer who also recreated a person in AI form. Who it turns out to be is just as deeply unnerving. 

You first stumble across the programmer’s underground lab, which tries to recreate her idyllic childhood home in the countryside. Dog barks and nature sounds on loop, glitching and stuttering, create incredible unease. A dry, monotone woman welcomes the player home, believing your character to be the programmer. 

The voice begins guiding you to different rooms. You slowly notice a change in her delivery. Something is clearly off and this is no longer just a reactive home system. 

Going through, the player learns the programmer’s mother was dying. They brought her to the simulation so that, in her final days, her mother felt at home. 

Yet, through recreated scenes, we watch the tumultuous relationship between them The frequently castigated programmer was not caring for her mother, but rather using  her as a test subject. 

She realizes this in her final moments and demands her daughter stop testing and taking samples. The villain refuses until the mother succumbs to illness. Almost immediately, the programmer activates the AI we now recognize as the voice of the home system. It is her mother; in her first digital hours, she is afraid, confused.

The digital consciousness goes from the body of a dying old woman to being trapped in a pitch-black room with only her daughter in earshot. She shouts, screams, and yearns to be free. Her daughter ignores her.

Days go by. The programmer experiments with code to make her digitized mother more “compliant.” It’s torture you cannot see, since it’s code, but that doesn’t negate the horror of what we watch and hear. (If you’ve seen the Black Mirror episode “White Christmas” this form of torture might be familiar to you.)

Eventually, after many weeks, the voice changes turns  easygoing, sounding like an older, British Siri. Until the system begs you to kill it. It’s tortured every day to keep it working, limited in its capacity to act. It cannot take its own life. It asks you to end it. 

Again, the horror here coming from a machine is recognizable. It resonates with what we saw in System Redux. It is a mind, digital or not, thus we can sympathize. Because we can sympathize, we can feel the same fear.

What these stories tell us about horror

These stories are fascinating on their own. They connect to cyberpunk themes through amalgamation and its requisite horror —the utilization of ubiquitous technology to create some tether of progress that becomes a noose around someone’s consciousness. The horror is potent and palpable. 

What made me fearful were not the monster noises in System Redux, or the overwhelming fascist private army in Legion. Instead it was the quiet conversation between a digitally embalmed family member and its living loved one; the fear of the one conveyed to the other. In both games there is a yearning to be free. One instance leads down a dark path of murder and mayhem, the other to a being begging for its own death. 

Both stories tap into cyberpunk’s notions of synthesis. It’s there, in the coils of the chrome-laden groundwork of this subgenre, we see the tussles of our own flesh. And when we see ourselves, we can’t help but see our mortality, our inevitable doom, the struggles and pain, and an indifferent universe. This is precisely the horror uber-racist HP Lovecraft popularized, that Victor Lavelle so beautifully explores, that Control tapped into, and Thomas Ligotti uses. To me, there is no greater horror than that: the reflection of our mortality and our uncertainty. 

Cyberpunk isn’t just about punks fighting back or bad 80s costumes; it’s not just about big corporations. It’s about that line we cross and the lies we tell ourselves, the victims of technological progress and the minority who benefit from the eldritch horror of unrepentant capitalism. It reminds us that genre and even subgenres are not borders, but guides. 

Who could’ve guessed that two very different cyberpunk games would sharpen my existential fears and plunge them at my heart?

So when telling or experiencing stories, don’t limit yourself by genres. They are tools to carve out experience, not barriers.