From Blade Runner to Cyberpunk 2077: a short history of cyberpunk video games

From Blade Runner to Cyberpunk 2077: a short history of cyberpunk video games
The long-awaited launch of Cyberpunk 2077 has put an end to years of feverish trepidation for those who have been looking forward to walking the streets of Night City, but it's just the latest example of the bond video games have made with the world. symbology of the cyberpunk genre.

It is perhaps inevitable that video games and cyberpunk are so closely intertwined, given that both were born during the boom of the 1950s and gained a presence within mass pop culture in the same years between the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s. The hard part is figuring out how to separate video games that have carefully chosen only some aspects of the cyberpunk aesthetic, literally a hundred, from those that are or have attempted to be genuine examples of cyberpunk fiction.

To do this we must precisely define the key elements of the genre, namely a dystopian vision of a not too distant future, an interest in digital alternative realities, modifications to humans based on technology or medicines and drugs, and a cultural environment where corporate interest has long supplanted the antiquated notion of elected government.

It all started pretty early, in the 1980s, with cyberpunk film adaptations for 8-bit computers such as the ZX Spectrum. The Blade Runner video game, rather cunningly, took its license from Vangelis' anguished synthesizer soundtrack rather than the film's more expensive, despite asking players to fly their Spinner over Los Angeles to locate replicants and then chase them. with simple walking sections. A fun distraction but one that failed to grasp cyberpunk themes in a way that was even vaguely meaningful.

D / Generation marked one of the first roots of cyberpunk within video games The game dedicated to Max Headroom, released in 1986 and based not on the MTV show but on the original Channel 4 TV movie (one of the most painfully underestimated cyberpunk), put you in the shoes of a hacker as he infiltrated the offices of a sinister information-field corporation. The brainwashing company had Max, the first digital intelligence ever created, imprisoned within its mainframe, and it was your job to free it. Climb through all floors, defeat security systems, hack elevators and be rewarded with an animated scene of Max thanking you personally through a distorted and robotic speech, something revolutionary at the time.

The founding ideas of the cyberpunk were a crucial part of Max Headroom's TV debut but weren't really explored within his game. And it was the same in 1991's D / Generation for PC and Commodore, a game that was very similar to Max Headroom in both concept and actual execution. Once again you take on the role of an unfortunate intruder (this time a courier) trapped inside the Genoq skyscraper, once again a dystopian corporation, in which he found himself forced to fight floor by floor to reach the final against an army of gelatinous bio-weapons. The gameplay was slightly more complex, the plot a bit more pretentious (your character takes his name from the philosopher Jacques Derrida) but ultimately all you had to do was shoot monsters and solve puzzles. Cyberpunk as a philosophy was still just a facade for family fun.

Everything finally changed in the 90s with the rise of the internet in combo with the ever-growing spread of anime titles like Akira and Ghost in the Shell, a mix that created a perfect Petri dish in which the concepts of cyberpunk could reach a culturally relevant impact. As a result of this, it was only in 1993 and 1994 that we saw the launch of four key cyberpunk games whose influences are still being felt today.

Beneath a Steel Sky offered macabre twists and a sardonic comedy. . The Syndicate released in 1993, Bullfrog's ultraviolent team strategy, was probably the first video game to be cyberpunk in both concept and content. Set in 2096, Syndicate envisioned a scenario in which world governments were engulfed by giant megacorporations and the population was kept compliant through the use of implants that left people unaware of the dystopian hell they inhabited.

Where Syndicate deviated from written and live action cyberpunk stories in this case is tied to the gory side of video games as they took on the role of an enthusiastic supporter of villains. Controlling a quartet of bio-enhanced agents through an isometric overhead view, your task was to venture into desolate cityscapes to complete missions for your corporate-owned employer, sabotaging rival megacorporations and generally wreaking havoc with an arsenal. of weapons and useful gadgets to carry out your purposes. Among the gadgets available the infamous Persuadertron, which allowed to modify the NPC alliance thanks to its own chips, a really dark and brilliant cyberpunk idea

The same year saw the release of a cyberpunk franchise on SNES seminal for video games: Shadowrun. Intertwining a hint of Japanese RPG DNA into the genre, with Tolkien-esque high fantasy elements, Shadowrun was also an example of a crossover between board and video games.

Playing as the amnesiac protagonist Jake Armitage, you found yourself in Seattle in 2050 but in the reality of Shadowrun mythical creatures like orcs and elves share our cities, and cybernetic grafts coexist with magic. It's one of those mixes of genres that could easily have turned out to be sewage but the result proved genuinely fascinating by leveraging another hugely popular post-Blade Runner cyberpunk theme, detective noir mystery interlaced with sci-fi, to immerse you in a unusual world. The game also offered another recurring cyberpunk idea popularized by William Gibson's 1981 short story Johnny Mnemonic, with Jake turning out to be a "data carrier" carrying sensitive information through a hard drive in his brain. br>
Deus Ex, the game in which cyberpunk became a superhero. Johnny Mnemonic received a film adaptation in 1995, a film in which Keanu Reeves communicated with a cyborg dolphin and which also inspired a point and click game in the same year but first, two more seminal (and original) cyberpunk stories were told through video games.

Released in 1994, Beneath a Steel Sky was a collaboration between legendary adventure designer Charles Cecil, best known for his work on Broken Sword, and the best known artist for Watchmen, Dave Gibbons. Set once again in a dystopian vision of our future with the world divided into vast city-states scattered across desolate continents, Beneath a Steel Sky balanced the predictable nihilism of the cyberpunk genre with an ironic sense of humor close to gamers accustomed to Lucasarts adventures. . What to note, the video game explored the idea of ​​sentient machines, both through a shoulder with the appearance of a robot vacuum cleaner and through a rather dismal revelation in the final parts of the game linked to the nature of the LINC, the AI ​​that controls the city. from behind the scenes.

As a graphic adventure, Beneath a Steel Sky was able to bring the story to the fore in ways that previous cyberpunk games had never achieved with an emphasis that continued too. in the other key game of the genre from 1994: System Shock.

Set in 2072, System Shock played you as an anonymous hacker blackmailed by a TriOptimum Corporation executive in order to extract information about a new bio -Weapon from SHODAN, the AI ​​that controlled Citadel Station. That synopsis alone already placed System Shock squarely in cyberpunk territory, and the first-person perspective and non-linear construction gave players plenty of leeway to move around the game world and explore the implications of actual action. The title was also dedicated to the real world ("meatspace") as well as the digital realm of cyberspace. In a time when the mere notion of websites was seen as intriguing and new this aspect cannot be underestimated.

Hostile corporate takeover, in full Syndicate style. Even more important was the freedom the title gave players when it came to self-definition and improvement throughout the adventure based on their preferred play style. It is a mechanic that we take for granted today, seen in every historical brawler up to fantasy RPGs, but System Shock pioneered this notion of the player character as a living canvas on which different abilities and skills can be added through the implants. What had been a background concept in previous titles was now a core gameplay idea, and it's no exaggeration to say that gaming was never the same once System Shock normalized it. There are few AAA video games that today do not offer upgrades and skill trees and the concept itself is deeply cyberpunk. Can't you do something? Upgrade until you get the chance.

Themes like uncontrolled corporations, technological subterfuges and dystopian futures were well grafted into gaming in general even in video games that weren't immersed in cyberpunk culture as demonstrated by G-Police, a 1997 PlayStation exclusive where you control a kind of futuristic helicopter through the Callisto colonies. The gameplay was pure realization of the power fantasy but the conceptual debt to Blade Runner's cityscapes and a story that subsequently led to typical corporate offenses are enough to put the game within the boundaries of the cyberpunk genre. Although the narrative idea that heavily armed surveillance aircraft are something negative does not tie in with the fact that in terms of gameplay they are actually fantastic.

Oddly, as the new millennium saw a new batch of movies inspired by cyberpunk (especially The Matrix and Strange Days) the gaming genre subsided or at least the innovation that had its peak in the mid-90s was evidently absent. Deus Ex, released in 2000 and created by System Shock producer Warren Spector, is the only lighthouse of those years. Definitely a spiritual brother of System Shock in both concept and execution, this time you played as JC Denton, a United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition (UNATCO) agent, on the trail of a deadly nano-plague.

Modular self-enhancements in the seminal System Shock. The System Shock upgrade aspect here could run at full speed. Traditionally in cyberpunk the idea of ​​implants and upgrades was linked to providing the underdog on duty a chance to fight against a corrupt and oppressive state, or allowing criminal actions such as data smuggling. In the world of Deus Ex, they were the gateway to superpowers (strength, speed, stealth) that would make the average comic superhero pale.

Deus Ex also entered the realm of conspiracy theories by taking suspicion against the authority inherent in the genre and exasperating it with extensive references to Area 51, the Illuminati and more. The story is based on a moral choice with global implications but it was only in 2011, with Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, that the series delved deeply into the philosophies behind cyberpunk, fully exploring the ramifications behind having supercharged men. around the world.

Following Deus Ex and its immediate sequel, cyberpunk in gaming regressed to become an aesthetic choice rather than a thematic obsession. Titles like Fear Effect and its sequel were all about style but seemed more interested in addressing the issue of media coverage through its main characters. The sci-fi and demon action Oni, a collaboration between Bungie developers and publisher Rockstar, was not bad in terms of action but ultimately only borrowed Ghost in the Shell clothes to cover old concepts of gameplay.

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Surprisingly the game that has best explored cyberpunk themes in the the 2000s before Cyberpunk 2077 was one that almost completely abandoned all expectations typical visuals of the genre. Starring once again a courier fleeing authoritarian forces, Mirror's Edge distinguished itself by imagining a world where corporate control has given rise to a kind of oppressive place of peace with its majestic skyscrapers presented in brilliant white silhouetted against a beautiful blue sky and splashes of red to show parkour paths with which to escape the system.

Without neon signs, brain-wired figures on streets beaten by pouring rain, Mirror's Edge doesn't look like a classic cyberpunk game at all, yet its story is all about suffocating control and rebellion supported digitally was undoubtedly one of the most recent approaches, by a large publisher, to the issues that defined the genre in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Which brings us to these last few days and the release of Cyberpunk 2077. The game arrived with a huge amount of hype on its bionically enhanced shoulders and with its first-person view, tons of customization options and emphasis on freedom of choice presented as an attempt to join the pantheon of iconic names like System Shock and Deus Ex.

At the same time it is also a multi-million dollar AAA entertainment product, developed and published by what are n of today's corporations. Such is the dichotomy inherent in the exploration of cyberpunk through entertainment. The hope is that Cyberpunk 2077 will be able to prove, despite legitimate criticism and controversy, that it lives up to its ancestors and the promise that resides in its very name.

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