Image from the forthcoming Hyper Light Drifter

Cynicism, Recession, and the Resurgence of Cyberpunk

"Human nature might be augmented and highly channeled by technology, but human nature stays the same. And that tech might actually amplify all the worst things about us too."

Cyberpunk has seen a recent resurgence in video games. Seemingly every game developer working today has a William Gibson book tucked under their arm or follows @swiftonsecurity (a satirical Twitter account that imagines a Taylor Swift consumed with cyber security). Cyberpunk video games are pervasive, including cyberpunk game jam projects on itch.io, Twine games, indie titles, and major AAA releases. All of these projects embrace cyberpunk themes and aesthetics. Observers credit the current trend to a number of cyclical and cultural factors. After talking to the indie developers behind a number of exciting cyberpunk titles at the center of this resurgence, I believe that the creators of these games are overwhelmingly inspired by the headlines in today’s newspapers.

It seems like no coincidence that these games have all appeared in a short time period following the economic recession. On the most basic level of analysis, it seems that these games may be providing a sense of escape from recent economic events. Last Life developer Sam Farmer notes, “I’m gonna go back to my film school class on Sci-Fi and Fantasy and say that it’s escapism. Horror, in general, and escapism, in particular, is often more popular in times of economic downturn, when you want to be somewhere else.”

Garrett Cooper’s Black Ice is an action game which casts the player as a hacker taking down corporate servers. Promoting the game, he’s found that cyberpunk narratives may be popular for reflecting reality as much as for providing an escape. He says, “I’ve talked to people about my game. I say, ‘All the corporations are evil.’ So they’re like, ‘Oh. So you’re talking about real life?’ I’m like, ‘No. Not exactly.’ That’s what people feel. The fantasy of being the one guy that can take something technological and turn it against the corporation.”

Games writer Austin Walker is an academic and cyberpunk superfan who sees the same throughline in these games and the literary roots of the genre. Walker says, “A key to traditional cyberpunk again and again is that there is economic inequality. We are positioning ourselves somewhere on that scale of how we feel about this stuff. Cyberpunk stories do that too. Usually they position the hero at the bottom of that; they’re usually in or near poverty.” In a time of extreme real-world inequality, cyberpunk stories locate players in a fantasy of rising up to subvert the system and taking down greedy corporations.

David Pittman’s indie project Neon Struct deals with a fictional near-future surveillance state. The game was heavily influenced by the recent leaks about actual domestic surveillance in the present day in the United States. Pittman says, “Edward Snowden’s release of NSA documents in 2013 was an essential part of the inception of Neon Struct (formerly Die Augen der Welt, or ‘The Eyes of the World’). I have strong feelings about the abuse of surveillance by the U.S. government, and I’ve known for close to a year that I wanted to make a game about it.” He’s quick to add, “Despite my own interest and leaning in the real world debate over mass surveillance, I am developing a way to introduce the story, which does not require the player character to actually leak any classified information. I don’t want to assume that the player shares my biases.” Nonetheless, it’s clear that the forthcoming project was informed by recent events.

Other examples of indie games providing commentary on and gaining inspiration from world events abound. Brigador is an isometric cyberpunk shooter with an extremely stylish trailer, and developer Jack Monahan lists a surprising influence. Monahan says, “While I’m not sure if the author would agree with the genre classification {of cyberpunk}, my brother and I both read and enjoyed (and were worried by) a book called Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism by Stephen Graham. Like William Gibson said, the future caught up to all of his writing, more or less. We basically are living in a dystopic future”. Notably, Monahan made these statements before the recent military-style urban clashes in Ferguson, Missouri. The aforementioned Last Life is shaped by real world advances in medicine and philosophical debates about transhumanism. Matt Conn is seeking to expand LGBT representation in the games space with the cyberpunk RPG R.O.M. He says, “Because I did GaymerX and prior to that I did a startup that was very successful and then crashed. Seeing how all that happened, I feel like I have an interesting perspective of the tech scene and the LGBT rights scene.” These varied examples show the differing events influencing today’s cyberpunk boom.

As strongly as these games are influenced by the socio-political climate, it is reductionist to say this is the only thing bringing cyberpunk back into prominence. Again, Austin Walker says, “It’s tempting to just say, ‘Oh that’s happening again. We’re getting concerned again about things like privatization and inequality.’ I think that’s part of it. I don’t know if I’d be comfortable saying, ‘This is the one reason why'”. Many developers also noted the power of nostalgia as a reason for the influx of cyberpunk games. Alex Preston a developer behind Hyper Light Drifter says, “I think my generation is coming into its own, creatively, and we have a fondness for these themes and ideas. A lot of us grew up with books, films, and games that touched on these themes, and it bleeds through in our creative work. I think nostalgia is a powerful force.”

Likewise, Brendan Chung, creator of ’90s-influenced hacker game Quadrilateral Cowboy has noticed the cyclical nature of cyberpunk themes. He says, “My guess is that the people who grew up fiddling with old PC tech are now at an age where they now have the skillset and financial means to make their own games. Now that we can make games, we’re making things that harken back to one of the things that got us interested in games in the first place.” Nostalgia for ’80s and ’90s cyberpunk is another likely force bringing these kinds of games back to the games market.

Additionally, I kept hearing indie developers suggest their own outlook about the state of the world today is extremely bleak. Conn says, “On a more philosophical note, this is a way of writing about the future we kind of want to see. Even if it’s dystopian or dark. I think that for a lot of us, it’s very scary going into the future.” A similarly grim outlook is shared by Monahan. He says, “I think the dystopic elements of cyberpunk point to a certain cynicism that things aren’t going to get any better. Human nature might be augmented and highly channeled by technology, but human nature stays the same. And that tech might actually amplify all the worst things about us too.” Monahan also sees this cynicism in the nostalgia that drives the cyberpunk resurgence. He adds, “So much great work from the ’80s was in a similar vein. I think of Snake Plissken’s deadpan response to news that the president’s plane has gone down: ‘President of what?’. There’s a disillusionment from the classic era of cyberpunk that makes a revival now seem fairly natural, I think.” Natural or not, the revival is in full force, and it’s becoming a strong and subversive undercurrent in the indie games space.