Five years ago, Mike Pondsmith, the creator of the Cyberpunk 2020 pen-and-paper role-playing game that forms the basis of Cyberpunk 2077 told me: "As long as the street needs heroes and heroes are willing to throw the dice to beat impossible odds, the world is going to need cyberpunk."
Done correctly, cyberpunk can help us experience futuristic worlds, amazing stories and emerge as a wiser person on the other side. It’s a genre that takes the problems of present-day society to troubling, dystopian ends, and explores ways to combat them. For a while, major works like Blade Runner, Neuromancer, Akira, and Ghost in the Shell overshadowed strides forward in the genre, but they’re no longer the be-all and end-all. In just the last few years, there has been a surge of new creators in all forms of media who are more than willing to dive into these eternal yet difficult concepts, and explore new issues relevant to us today.
Whether it’s the revival of Deus Ex or Shadowrun that kicked things off, game developers especially are starting to explore cyberpunk worlds. In the last year, studios in Poland delivered two original titles with Observer and Ruiner, both drenched in strong aesthetics and interesting narratives. Observer deals with themes of family and humanity while forcing protagonist Lazarski to corrode his soul through the use of irresistible technology. Ruiner, on the other hand, keeps its focus squarely on blood and balletic carnage, set against the backdrop of corporate augmentation and gang warfare. These games uphold some tropes of the genre, like cybernetic wars in far-off lands and pulsating cities overflowing with dangerous people, but at the same time, they pose fascinating questions. How strong are family ties? Are we losing ourselves to machines willingly? In the end, do we as human beings really matter?
Games like Wadjet Eye’s Technobabylon and 2064: Read Only Memories from MidBoss explore the ramifications of wetware technology used to connect our biological functions to computers and the over-reliance on artificial intelligence. Sukeban’s VA-11 HALL-A made some creative moves with its narrative, dealing with prejudice as witnessed through the clients of a dystopian bartender. Matt Trobbiani’s Hacknet throws the player headfirst into a hacker’s world, a key profession in cyberpunk stories, and explores the failings of network security and our increasingly interconnected world via a rudimentary text interface. All these games were released in the last few years, with some ported to more platforms just in the last few months. In film, Blade Runner 2049 and Snowpiercer propose different ideas of protein farming to sustain human beings as we dive into a new era of uncertainty and decadence. The relevance of examples like these to the modern day are the reason why the current resurgence of cyberpunk is exciting.
As an audience, we’re drawn to cyberpunk because of things like cybernetic arms and all those cool jackets, or because of foreground details like rainy streets and alluring neon lights. Layer by layer, as we creep through a run-down apartment block, hide from a police drone or try our best to disappear into a midnight crowd, the best cyberpunk stories reveal to us modern society’s worst tendencies and offenders. Corporations that have grown too large and powerful to be governed properly. Politicians that are openly engaging in fascist tactics to further their own corruption. Violent and discriminatory law enforcement that continues to rise with no oversight or accountability. Satellites and technology that track our every move. Cities across the world that are choking under the weight of millions of inhabitants who are, in return, choking the environment until all that remains is concrete, glass, and steel.
In the five years since I spoke to Mike Pondsmith, the hope and anticipation for Cyberpunk 2077 has not subsided at all. The critically-acclaimed and wildly successful Witcher series has demonstrated that developer CD Projekt RED is more than capable of slipping players into worlds filled with rich, vulnerable characters and expansive, treacherous sagas. Working in tandem with Pondsmith to bring his pen-and-paper universe to life, the Cyberpunk 2077 project holds a great deal of hope for people looking for thrilling and layered cyberpunk stories to envelop themselves in, but it’s been a mysteriously opaque project for over half a decade, with almost no new information (though some tidbits about its unconventional character classes hint at a number of interesting possibilities) and zero marketing.
— Cyberpunk Game (@CyberpunkGame) January 10, 2018
And then: *beep*. After four years of inactivity, Cyberpunk 2077’s official Twitter account has reactivated.
Cyberpunk 2077 remains an extremely exciting prospect not only because of CD Projekt’s pedigree, but because cyberpunk stories speak to who we are as a society. Stories of downtrodden nobodies trying to get through technologically-driven but brutal lives help us contemplate the picture of humanity bigger than ourselves.
"As long as the street needs heroes and heroes are willing to throw the dice to beat impossible odds, the world is going to need cyberpunk." – Mike Pondsmith
And what a time for this to happen. While unpleasant stories populate our news feeds, technology is bubbling at the surface of innovation quicker than you might expect. Illinois’ Northwestern University is studying the limits of 3D-printed bones, with human testing about to begin, and Harvard chemists have made new breakthroughs in editing genes at the embryonic level to delete abnormalities in our DNA before we are even born. Billion-dollar startups in China are taking sophisticated face-detection systems into corporate security, rail travel, and criminal detection. Uber’s new transport initiative called ‘Uber Elevate‘ is set to launch around 2020 and could be seen a step towards the personalized flying transportation we so often see appear in cyberpunk stories. But in the face of all this new and shiny technology, the global climate worsens, food shortages widen, and corporations grow larger.
Other video game genres have already had the best versions of themselves in the spotlight. Pick a type of game and chances are the definitive example immediately comes to mind. The cyberpunk genre has yet to do this, but we are in the perfect environment for new ideas to cultivate and it’s starting to show. Whether it evolves on our screens, in our books or outside our rainy neon-lit windows, cyberpunk is on the cusp of enveloping us, and Cyberpunk 2077 might just be the big-budget explosion that makes us take a closer look at modern society.