Gaming might be a seem like a natural medium with which to explore cyberpunk themes, but cyberpunk games are rarer than you might think.
Cyberpunk is a futuristic vision of the world characterized by a frequently nihilistic attitude that explores themes of information technology, artificial intelligence, and the seedy underbelly of the future. Popularized by authors like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, cyberpunk is sort of like the lovechild of traditional futuristic sci-fi and film noir, complete with hardboiled antiheroes and contemporary anxieties.
Sounds great, right? While adaptations of works like I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream and Blade Runner have made phenomenal cyberpunk games, there are significantly fewer ones that are wholly original. Here are a few of the best original cyberpunk games out there.
Deus Ex Explores Human Augmentation and Futuristic Conflicts
When you think of cyberpunk games, Deus Ex is probably what comes to mind. Deus Ex envisions a future where modern conspiracy theories have come to fruition, painting a world of paranoia that’s an extension of our own. As JC Denton, a nanotechnology-augmented agent, players can hack, fight, or stealth their way through a story rife with themes about human achievement, corruption, and power.
The cyberpunk themes aren’t just in the technology and augmentation, but also in the pervasive attitudes of chaos and cynicism about inequality. The world is ravaged by a pandemic called Gray Death, and the vaccine is so expensive that it’s only available to those deemed essential, inspiring riots and dissent among the world’s lower and middle classes. The darkness of Deus Ex‘s setting stands in contrast to the frequently glitzy and optimistic visions of the future, underscoring the skepticism of the genre.
Rogue AI and Cyberspace Exploration in System Shock
System Shock has been credited with inspiring legions of games, including BioShock, Metal Gear Solid, and Half-Life. As an unnamed protagonist, the player attempts to take on a malevolent rogue AI named SHODAN. SHODAN controls the space station on which the game takes place and aims to destroy the earth and make itself akin to a god. The player must solve puzzles, defeat robotic enemies, and explore the space station to save the earth from annihilation.
System Shock and its successors are packed with cyberpunk themes, including the idea that an AI could or would want to raise itself in power to destroy humanity. While traditional combat does play a role, the game also allows players to enter into cyberspace to take down SHODAN. Inside cyberspace, players can open locked doors and defeat SHODAN’s security systems. This ability to traverse between the physical world and cyberspace is one of many aspects that make System Shock a true cyberpunk classic.
Syndicate‘s Rich Backstory Includes Mind Control and Megacorporations
Despite lukewarm critical reception on its launch in 1993, Syndicate has staying power as one of the best cyberpunk games out there. Interestingly, the story is barely present in the game itself, instead being found in the game’s manual—it’s possible to play through the game without completely understanding its cyberpunk themes. The player character is head of a large corporation, sending out cyborg assassins to eliminate enemies and establish world dominance through killing, manipulation, and persuasion- an ironic and thought-provoking twist on the normal underdog morality of games, made even more thematically rich by the player’s potential lack of awareness about the character.
The backstory is what really makes Syndicate—in the year 2096, the world is largely run by huge corporations that actively control the world’s people through advertisements and the economy. The story even includes a device called the CHIP, which allows for direct manipulation of a person’s thoughts and perceptions by these corporations, who fight over manufacture and control of the devices. The deadly influence of corporations and the fear and anxieties over technology are what contribute to the cyberpunk themes of the game, and its legacy earned it a spot among the best violent PC games of all time according to The Daily Telegraph.
What are your favorite cyberpunk games?