A Decked Out Retrospective: Cyberpunk Games

Welcome to a Higher Level Gamer Critical Retrospective! Retrospectives can take many forms: some focus on a single franchise while others are more expansive. For these retrospectives, I’ll be taking the latter approach.

These retrospectives aren’t meant to be best-of lists. Rather, I’ll examine some of the tropes of particular game genres, their historical contexts, provide some examples, as well as explore why I think these genres are fun.

This third retrospective will focus on games in the cyberpunk genre. Though the influences of cyberpunk date back several decades to the film noir genre and even further back to the gothic style of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, cyberpunk as a genre exploded into the popular imaginary in the 1980s with William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. These two works set the tone for what would become the main tropes of the genre: a dystopian future, a complex  often tortured – relationship between humanity and technology, and a rabid fascination for the underdog.

So let’s begin with this week’s critical retrospective!

Watch Dogs came out a few weeks ago, and given that it’s been described as a cyberpunk game, I kept an eye on it. That’s likely not a surprise to anyone reading this blog. I mean, I’ve made it quite clear in the past that I’m a big cyberpunk fan.

However, I have to admit that so far my initial reaction to Watch Dogs has been lukewarm at best. So much so that I’ve delayed this post several weeks to see how far into the game I’d eventually get. As of this date, I’ve just barely completed the first act, and at this point I really can’t tell if I’ll get any further into the game. At first, the game was entertaining, but there’s only so many times that I can press the square button before my level of amazement begins evaporating.

Does the game get better from this point on? Perhaps it does, and perhaps I should keep giving it a chance. I probably will, even though the most fun I’ve had playing the was when Gaines, Nick, and I embarked on a chaos-causing rampage across Chicago in a private free-roam game.

Given the great way that the game started, the fact that I find the most amusement in causing chaos is disappointing to me. Cyberpunk’s never been about chaos. In fact, beyond the fact that the game’s main character is a hacker, I’m slightly puzzled as to why so many sites describe Watch Dogs as a cyberpunk game.

The roots of cyberpunk are deep (think Victorian-era deep), but they really coalesced and popped into the popular imaginary in the 1980s with works like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Though nowhere near unique or completely original, these two works have set the tone for what is popularly referred to as cyberpunk.

In the introduction, I mentioned three characteristics of cyberpunk: a dystopian future, a complex relationship between humanity and technology, and a rabid fascination for the underdog. Both Neuromancer and Blade Runner perfectly epitomize these characteristics.

Neuromancer’s Sprawl – think of a huge, continuous city between Boston and Atlanta – is a dirty, dangerous place. As we read the novel, we get the distinct feeling that Case, the book’s protagonist, is as likely to get stabbed as get run over by a car. In fact, the book gives us the very distinct impression that, in the Sprawl, nothing really good ever happens.

Blade Runner’s Los Angeles gives much the same impression. From the opening scene, it’s clear that LA is a dark and dangerous place. It’s dirty and full of people ready to turn on you in an instant. As Deckard races through the city streets chasing replicants, it’s quite clear that his quarry isn’t the only thing that can end his life.

As far as technology is concerned, both Neuromancer and Blade Runner offer a similar perspective. At the start of Gibson’s novel, Case is evidently tortured by the fact that he needs his enhancements to be who he is, while at the same time he tries to learn to find a new life without them. Similarly in Blade Runner, the relationship between society and Deckard’s replicant prey makes it quite clear that they should be objects of fear, as far as LA citizens are concerned.

Similarly, both Neuromancer and Blade Runner cherish their underdogs. Gibson’s Case finds himself early on without any means to access cyberspace because the ability was stripped from him using some kind of bacteriological weapon, whereas Scott’s Deckard struggles constantly during his chase. Neither protagonist evoke moments of awe with their actions. Rather, they represent the little guy facing an uphill battle.

Largely, cyberpunk games have adhered to these tropes quite faithfully. However, they’ve also added another element: a game type. In general, cyberpunk games can be separated into two different types: Neuromancer-influenced heist games, where players infiltrate various locations in order to acquire various artifacts, and Blade Runner-inspired chase games, where players follow a particular path towards some climactic confrontation. Granted, most cyberpunk games will incorporate both of these types, but usually one is prevalent in terms of gameplay.

Some of the earliest cyberpunk games were actually table-top RPGs. Here, we can name Cyberpunk 2020 (1988), Shadowrun (1989), and GURPS Cyberpunk (1990) as the most visible representatives of this category. It’s also worth mentioning that these three games have had, and continue to have, an impact the development of cyberpunk video games.

The first such game that I want to briefly discussed is Shadowrun, published in 1994 by BlueSky Software and released for the Sega Genesis console. If there’s a game that I’ve played more than either Pirates! or Starflight, it’s probably this one. To this day, I still occasionally play it via an emulator.

Shadowrun‘s setting can be a pretty polarizing game within the cyberpunk community. Some hate the cyberpunk/fantasy mash-up espoused by the game, while others love it. Personally, I find myself in the latter group. I first played this game in the 1990’s and was mesmerized by what it allowed me to do. I could search for my own missions, I could build up my team, and I could become a member of the wider Shadowrun world through interactions with various obtainable contacts.

Shadowrun is a heist game. Most of the gameplay revolves around infiltrating various locations in order to extract assets. For example, during corporate heist missions, your crew will need to make use of all their talents in order to steal an important artifact. Typically, missions begin by acquiring the necessary equipment such as a fairly high level maglock passkey and weapon silencers. After this, you have to decide how you’ll infiltrate the building. Here, Shadowrun doesn’t give you a lot of choice: infiltration is done unstealthily through the facility’s front door. However, that quickly changes once you’re inside.

For these type of missions, I usually put a team together. Most of the time, my crew consisted of Winston Marrs, Rianna Heartbane, and Trent Delisario. In terms of efficiency, this group is far from optimal. However, I’ve always loved them.

Once you’re in the building, you notice that there are a lot of security cameras. Well, that’s not too much of an issue. If I can find a security terminal, my decker Rianna can work her magic in the Matrix and disable them. A random employee wants to question me? I’m sure Trent, my mage, can ensorcell them and make them go away. Security guards are around the corner? Well if we duck into this room we should be able to avoid… Winston? What are you doing Winston? Put that gun away! No, Winst… Dammit Winston, now we have to clean up your mess. And would you please stop laughing?

Uplink: Hacker Elite was published for PC in 2001 by Introversion Software. The best way to describe Uplink is that it’s a simulator of the kind of hacking that you see in Hollywood movies. The game’s interface is unusual in that there are no characters or locations. Rather, you are the hacker, and the game itself is a representation of your computer and it’s programs.

Like Pirates! or Starflight, Uplink doesn’t tell you that there’s actually a main story. You’ll blunder your way into it (maybe) as you hack away willy-nilly. I’ve never actually finished the main plot because I was too busy having fun relieving fat corporate cats of their hard earned assets.

Uplink is another heist game in that most of the gameplay revolves around stealing information during missions that are given to you. However, Uplink is extremely open ended. Most of the time, you’ll likely be doing missions, but you can also randomly hack things and servers based on the information you obtain during said missions.

For example, one mission might require you to hack into a database to change a person’s personal information. As you’re executing the mission, you find out the person’s bank account number. Well, there’s nothing stopping you from hacking into the bank and transferring all of that money into your own account. However, be careful and cover your tracks carefully. Otherwise you might get the hammer brought down on you, and if that happens, then it’s game over.

When discussing cyberpunk games, it’s difficult to avoid mentioning the Deus Ex franchise, which is probably one of the most enduring and beloved cyberpunk video game franchises. I came late to the series, probably because it’s a chase game and I prefer heist games, with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, published in 2011 by Eidos Montreal and Square Enix.

Deus Ex‘s gameplay eschew complex hacking in favour of sleek combat and infiltration. Sure, Adam Jensen can hack things, but he’s really a chromed-up street samurai out for vengeance. The game itself tries to espouse most of the main tropes of cyberpunk, with mixed success.

Deus Ex‘s Detroit embraces cyberpunk’s love of dystopian environments. At least, it does so aesthetically. Detroit is a dirty, rundown place. However, it isn’t really dangerous. As far as I can remember, you don’t really get accosted by anyone trying to mug you outside of missions.

Deus Ex also adheres to cyberpunk’s traditional tortured relationship between humanity and technology. In fact, Adam is so tortured – emotionally, if not physically – by his augmentations that he keeps telling everyone he meets that he’s never asked for them or for everything that’s happening to him.

When it comes to underdogs though, it’s hard imagining Adam as one. Sure, he’s small fry compared to all the big corporations out there, but I don’t recall him actually struggling to accomplish anything. Remember Blade Runner? In that movie, Deckard gets tossed around and banged up a lot. However, in Deus Ex, Adam is a quasi combat-god who plows through enemies by the dozen with nary a scratch.

Does this mean the game is bad? No, of course not. Despite some of its faults, I really enjoyed playing it and will likely do so again in the future.

This finally brings us to Watch Dogs. Nick wrote an excellent post about the game shortly after its release (which he’s also published here), so I won’t go into too much details. Rather, I’ll try to highlight my own personal experience with the game.

The opening of the game was great. You’re Aiden Pearce, hacker extraordinaire, and you’ve just finished interrogating (ok, beating the tar out of) some guy who was involved for an accident that destroyed your family. Shortly after this opening scene, you’re contacted by a friend who tells you that things are heating up and you need to move out.

In a very cyberpunk moment, the following cutscene shows you walking into a corridor full of dead bodies before being accosted by a gang member who threatens you. Luckily, your friend Jordi – who looks suspiciously like Oh Dae-su from Oldboy – walks up behind him and shanks him out of nowhere, before starting to position the bodies in a way that suggests a gang mugging gone wrong. Brilliant!

But after that, the excitement wanes. Oh sure, the first hour you spend hacking things is amusing. However, it quickly loses its charm when you realize that it’s all kind of flavourless. What the original Bioshock did so well with its tape decks, Watch Dogs doesn’t quite manage to reproduce with its hacked phone conversations. Sure, you get a glimpse of the lives of Chicago’s citizens, but it never really amounts to anything, at least as far as I’ve played.

Watch Dogs also falls short when it comes to the three tropes of cyberpunk that I previously defined.

When it comes to dystopia, Watch Dog barely delivers. In fact, its version of Chicago is extremely clean and friendly. Oh sure, some crimes happen, but it’s a big city so that’s bound to occur. However, there’s few, if any, rundown buildings, the streets are in good repair, and all the drivers even stop for you as you cross the street. In fact, Watch Dogs‘ Chicago is a city where I wouldn’t mind living, whereas you wouldn’t find me within a thousand miles of Neuromancer‘s Sprawl.

As far as technology goes, Aiden Pearce doesn’t really seem to be tortured by it. If anything, he embraces it fully and thrives in its company. For example, early on when Aiden finds himself in prison, he tells Jordi that he needs his phone if he’s to succeed in his mission. This is far from the relationship portrayed in Neuromancer, Blade Runner, or even Deus Ex.

How much of an underdog is Aiden? Well other than the fact that he’s up against (I presume) a large corporation, he isn’t really an underdog at all. Aiden is a competent and confident hacker who also happens to excel when the going gets a bit rough. Compared to Deckard, Aiden Pearce is practically a superhuman.

For the past few weeks I’ve been running a table-top Shadowrun game for some friends. None of them had ever played the game, but one of them was familiar with the setting, so I figured: why not?

 It’s been a fascinating experience to see them  navigate the rules. Most of them had plenty of experience with various editions of D&D, so moving to Shadowrun was quite a shock. In terms of complexity, Shadowrun is several degrees of magnitude above D&D, though this is partly because of the underlying assumptions that undergird both games.

Where D&D wants to reproduce heroic reality – a reality where the player’s character are larger-than-life heroes who save the world – Shadowrun attempts to reproduce cinematic action reality – a reality where the protagonist are mortal beings that get banged up a lot when their plans go awry. For this reason, moving from one game to the other demands a few adjustment in one’s play style.

They’ve adjusted extremely well, however, and have provided several moments that were particularly Shadowrun-esque, as far as I’m concerned.

In one particularly memorable moment, the party tried to ambush a gang convoy that was carrying weapon crates. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned – in Shadowrun, they rarely do – and ended up facing a chromed up troll wielding a large machine gun.

The party’s face went down quickly. The party’s decker was in the team van, navigating the Matrix in VR and trying like hell to disable the troll’s gun. The party’s rigger, on the other hand, decided to take a more direct approach.

After a few rolls, he jumped into his van and decided to ram it into the troll. To the hilarity of all present, a catatonic rigger driver and his catatonic decker passenger repeatedly slammed into an unmovabled troll, thereby resulting in them being tossed around the van’s cabin and sustaining several injuries.

The troll, on the other hand, was barely scratched… and then he opened fire.

Good times.

About Erik Bigras

Erik Bigras is an independent scholar. He studied as a PhD Candidate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He graduated with a BA in Anthropology (2009) from the University of Prince Edward Island (Canada) where he focused on the creation of subjectivities through digital media. He's been playing video games since the mid-1980s, but expanded his gaming interest to table-top RPGs in the early 2010s.
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