In Real Life

The New Cyberpunk: The Promise Of A Brighter Video Game Future

Cyberpunk: it’s a genre that seems perfectly suited to video games. So where is its defining experience? In this feature David Rayfield speaks to the developers and creators attempting to invent Cyberpunk anew for a gaming audience. The promise of a brighter video game future is upon us.

What is it we see? Is it the same every time? We allow our minds to wander during some mundane task like washing the dishes, paying bills or brushing our teeth. That’s usually when it happens. In our mind, things start to change. Our imagination takes over. This room could be different. So could our lives. Suddenly, our surroundings begin to transform into what we want. What we’ve always wanted. We pick and choose from what we have read, seen and played.

Our huge wall monitor shows constant news reports of transhuman riots a few blocks from here. A hovering police cruiser on a routine patrol shines its searchlight through the blinds into the living room, moving on after a few seconds. The neon from the nearby skyscrapers shine onto our plastic kitchen cabinets, no different from the hundreds of grimy apartments in this building. There’s another message from our handler. She’s giving us another job. This one’s risky but we need the credits. We allow the titanium safe to scan our retina and we retrieve the pistol, the lights on the barrel indicating a full clip of explosive rounds – ready to perform. Before heading out, we check the weather only to discover heavy radiation poisoning and constant rain for the next few days. We’ll manage. The implants in our brain start to fire up and give us the adrenaline stimulants we need. Time to disappear into the madness of the city. It’s going to be one long night.

Then reality breaks through and we’re still brushing our teeth. No flying cars outside the window. No dangerous contacts we have to meet in a shady noir nightclub. Just our normal, everyday lives. But the desire remains strong. A desire that has been there for years.

In recent years, certain types of video games have arguably secured their prime examples. For decades, the wild west was depicted very loosely. Either from a very esoteric angle or coupled with some other unconnected tropes. But then Red Dead Redemption happened. It became the singular blueprint that everyone pointed to when asked about video games that featured cowboys, saloons and the high plains of the American West. Other settings in video games have experienced similar paradigm shifts. The medieval fantasy was reinvigorated for a new audience with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Haunted houses transformed from a mild curiosity to truly terrifying with the arrival of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Even the possibility of a renewed interest in pirate adventures has become a reality with the current direction of the Assassin’s Creed series.

There’s one setting in video games that has yet to be completely capitalised on. One genre that hasn’t been fully fleshed out or explored to extensive, varying lengths. Arguably, Deus Ex leads the pack when referring to these types of games. Warren Spector’s original PC adventure and Ubisoft Montreal’s recent Human Revolution certainly move about in that universe. Others have joined them. System Shock 2. Syndicate. Dreamweb. Gemini Rue. Shadowrun Returns. All released to much deserved praise and all of them echoing certain themes, visuals and elements of a world that holds more excitement and appeal to people than any number of modern-day crime dramas. A setting that has countless fans throughout every type of media and yet, no defining or current-day touchstone in the field of video games.

The time of cyberpunk is still to come.

“You never get tired of the romance of the street. Of late night bars, rain-wet boulevards, shadows passing in the night on mysterious errands. Sometimes I like to just stand on the highest hill in the city and stare down at the neon and shifting traffic and imagine all the stories that are unfolding around me.”

“You never get tired of the romance of the street”

Mike Pondsmith has lived with cyberpunk in his veins for decades. As creator of the pen-and-paper role-playing game Cyberpunk (later known as Cyberpunk 2020), he is acutely aware of the outside world slowly changing to fit what he birthed in 1988. It both surprises and excites him. “The world is catching up on a lot of what I envisioned in the original Cyberpunk,” Pondsmith tells me, touching upon his vast experience with the genre. “There’s cyberwear that looks like it could be grafted onto Johnny Silverhand (one of Cyberpunk’s characters) right now. Computer systems that rival the old vision of the Net. Megacorps that actually hire private armies and engage in world wide plotting that rivals anything modern nations can imagine. So one part of the excitement is in staying a step ahead of the unfolding future.”

It’s been almost thirty years since R. Talisorian Games published Cyberpunk 2020 and Pondsmith is approaching sixty but the excitement surrounding dangerous streets and futuristic corporations is still at the forefront of his mind. He understands and revels in its universal appeal. “People love cyberpunk because it’s a tangible future. It is a future that is directly tied to where we are right now, instead of a distant future that will require huge leaps in technology to make it real. The other part is that it’s a human future. The heroes and villains of cyberpunk fiction aren’t mythic characters with superpowers. They’re people with flaws, dreams and desires just like the readers have. In a cyberpunk future, the very act of making a living can be both dangerous and romantic and not all that dissimilar to making a living today. You are part of the events, but you’re not the centre. You’re a little hero instead of a ‘big damn hero’. The battles you fight may be small, but they can occasionally have huge effects on the world. But what counts is how those battles affect you and the people you care about.”

It is the work and time Pondsmith (who is known as ‘Maximum Mike’ in his 2020 fiction) has spent creating and maintaining Cyberpunk that has now become invaluable and in turn, immensely exciting. His creation will become fully realised soon. Announced in 2012, CD Projekt Red is collaborating with Pondsmith to create Cyberpunk 2077 for consoles and PC. An update and ambitious upgrade to his original pen-and-paper game, 2077 is an open-world role-playing game that is set to be released in sometime in 2015. In Pondsmith’s view, the Polish developers of the Witcher RPG series represent the first true chance to bring his vision to a major video game. In the past, his experience with video games have all been leading to 2077. “I actually worked on a cyberpunk styled game many years back, the old Matrix Online. One of the reasons I joined that project was to learn how to make a good cyberpunk game. We’d been through the mill since the late eighties trying to get a workable Cyberpunk game project going. I’ve lost track of how many times companies optioned 2020. It’s been ‘going to be a video game’ since at least 1989.”

For anyone interested in cyberpunk and played the Witcher games, 2015 cannot come fast enough. Both Pondsmith and CDPR are remaining tight-lipped on details of the game (presumably until after The Witcher 3 ships in 2014) but even the most meagre scraps I manage to get from the creator of Night City is enough for an appetiser. “I meet with the 2077 team pretty regularly via email and Skype. We also travel over to Poland every six months or so. I’m getting to know Warsaw pretty well by now. The CDPR team has also been over here to meet with us recently. We work pretty closely making sure that the world of the paper game and the digital version match up, probably the closest cooperative experience I’ve ever had, whether as a license holder or a licensee. The story line is multi-layered and very complex, that you will be able to play either sex and really tailor your character the way you want, and that the world will be as rich and deeply structured as the world I originally created. It’s really mind-blowing to see things that up to now have only been words on a page depicted in three dimensions.”

Cyberpunk 2077 holds a great deal of promise. Not only as a (hopefully) enjoyable game but as part of a greater spearhead into the future. It is likely the biggest and most expensive cyberpunk video game on the release calendar and represents an open door for more developers to step through and help change the void created by ultra-successful military shooters and sports games. Typically, cyberpunk games have found their home on the PC so CD Projekt Red’s joint focus on console development for 2077 could bridge the long-standing gaps between desire, execution and widespread seminal satisfaction for cyberpunk fans.

That vision returns. We might be driving a car this time or staring off into space at some menial job. Our thoughts return to that other life we could have. We push our way through the midnight crowd, past the food stands and the angry vendors. This contract won’t be viable forever so we need help. A shopkeeper not far from here deals in black-market augmentations. He’s not trustworthy at all but probably our only hope. The electronic billboards tower over our heads as the rain starts to fall. Steam starts to lift from the gutters as we see two figures in black emerge. Immediately, we know they’re hired killers. Sent after us by the largest corporation in the city for failure to repay a debt. These two have state-of-the-art tech in their arms and eyes so we’d best avoid rather than engage. We disappear into an alley as the vendors drown out the noise of the street. The constant hum of the street.

No such luck. Back to work. That other life remains fictional. For now.

Enter Mike Diskett.

“I think there’s a few influences at work that make cyberpunk so popular. We live in a world of constant technological progress so it’s fun to imagine where this progress will take us over the next few hundred years. But cyberpunk adds drama to this outlook by factoring in the worst sides of human nature to be greedy, power hungry, selfish and exploitative resulting in a mix of a high technology paradise with squalor, poverty and slavery.”

Since the mid-nineties, Diskett has been a name synonymous with cyberpunk games. He was lead programmer of the Amiga version of the seminal strategy game Syndicate and creative lead on its sequel, Syndicate Wars. Its notion of EuroCorp, persuadertrons and corporation-based assassinations is still held in high regard to this day. Whenever cyberpunk games are talked about, the Syndicate series is usually near the top of the list.

“But cyberpunk adds drama to this outlook by factoring in the worst sides of human nature…”

Despite this influence, Diskett knows the limits that the genre has suffered in video games. There has always been challenges that are only now being properly addressed and potentially overcome. “I think part of the problem of representing cyberpunk in games is that it’s not just about the tech or the environment, it’s about the culture and culture is a very difficult thing to get across in video games. In movies, you can show a brief clip of thriving low-life black market stalls filled with all kinds of ad hoc gadgetry and that fills your mind with all kinds of details. They are still using currency to trade perhaps for black market trading only, the tech is ubiquitous and hackable, the streets are filled with people eager to purchase and haggle. Perhaps the people appear poor but are carrying what would be to us outrageously expensive and amazing technology.”

“All of this comes across in a two second clip. In a game, it’s a ton of work to give meaning to this scene because the player can interact and if the interaction fails the whole experience becomes meaningless. Can you actually buy the tech? Can you use it? Do people even respond to you? Does the tech work? Can you hack it or upgrade it? Do AI’s recognise the tech and respond properly to it? Culture really comes across in all the minute detail and to fill a world with this kind of detail requires a lot of CPU power and memory and also a lot of artist, designer, concept hours. So really I think we are a long way from creating a real cyberpunk environment where you could really believe you were in say the Blade Runner universe, but we are getting there slowly.”

Diskett’s new development team, 5 Lives Studios, launched a Kickstarter campaign for Satellite Reign in June of this year. A spiritual successor to the Syndicate series steeped in cyberpunk elements. It was promptly funded and currently sits at £461,333 of a £350,000 goal. Satellite Reign garnered an unprecedented amount of attention when it was announced and the reason for this was cyberpunk. People sit up and take notice of this genre like no other because the appeal and enthusiasm to see extensive effort put behind it is simply intoxicating. Diskett knows it and that’s why Satellite Reign exists. The city in the game is reportedly ever-changing and filled with corruption and danger at every turn. Corporate espionage, agent augmentation and infrastructure manipulation will all be present and correct.

“We are prototyping at the moment. That basically means we are putting systems together to allow us to make the game, deciding on the best way to build the city. We have a small team, essentially one person from each major discipline, so we have to work incredibly efficiently to build a fully working city. As it stands, we have a working traffic system, we have basic AI doing things like wandering the streets fleeing from gun fire, guard behaviours, AI’s that use cover and the basics of some squad behaviour. We have a lot of base systems in place and tools for helping us to make the game. The mechanics of the game are that its a point and click interface that allows you to direct four heavily augmented cybernetic agents through a city environment, to complete certain goals and objectives that the player must uncover and decide for themselves. The mechanics could be considered to be like playing League Of Legends but you control the whole team, or Diablo with four characters controllable at once. To allow this control of four agents at once we have agents who have a reasonable amount of autonomy so they can be left safely alone to complete their orders most of the time.”

Towards the end of each interview, I ask both Pondsmith and Diskett about the potential realities of cyberpunk and how this vision of the future could actually manifest outside our windows. Their responses are not only fascinating but stand as hard evidence that the future of cyberpunk games are in safe hands. That knowledge and excitement is present in both of them.

Pondsmith: “I don’t think I’ll ever be finished with cyberpunk, because the world keeps evolving. The flying cars and neon streets are only a step away from Chandler’s mean streets of 1930’s Los Angeles and there’s no reason to think that will change a decade from now. There will always be stories to tell about little guys who follow their own street code of honor, up against powerful, corrupt forces that are trying to crush the truth and stifle justice. As long as the street needs heroes and the heroes are willing to throw the dice to beat impossible odds, the world is going to need cyberpunk.”

Diskett: “I kind of hope as a society we don’t go through a real cyberpunk phase, it would be healthier to have the ability to go direct from now to a Star Trek-like utopia of free energy, as much free time as you want, replicators to generate any physical items etc. Cyberpunk is an opposite view of the future. Sure, there’s incredible technology we can only dream of today, but there’s still the underbelly of society there still huge conflict between the haves and the have nots. But thats what makes cyberpunk interesting.”

We’re back on those streets, about to execute this contract and earn our credits. The sleek hover cars of the ultra-rich float over our heads. We can’t help but feel a twinge of envy. But on the other hand, these streets are part of us. They define us as much as they endanger us. Our overcoat disguises our new augmentations from the pulsing crowd. Can’t afford any of those prejudiced types getting on our case tonight. We have work to do. A city to navigate. A future to fall into.

This dream of a dangerous, neo-futuristic lifestyle will probably never happen for any of us. Despite astounding advances in technology surrounding our everyday lives, it’s not quite what we imagined 2013 to be when we first watched Blade Runner or read Neuromancer. Cyberpunk is something we have to seek out because chances are, it won’t come to us. We have to approximate the fear and thrill that cyberpunk brings. Even if one day in the distant future we all end up in mega-cities bursting at the seams with corrupt syndicates, dangerous weapon dealers and rainy, neon-lit streets, it probably won’t be for at least a few decades.

It’s a good thing we have video games.

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