‘Cyberpunk 2077’, to be released this week, is set in the fictional Californian Night City

Naming a game after an entire genre of fiction is an ambitious gambit. Get it right, and you have created a defining document of a movement. Get it wrong, and you will attract disappointment and enraged fans like a magnet. This is the unenviable position of Cyberpunk 2077, out on December 11, which takes its name from a substantial sub-genre of science fiction. When cyberpunk works first emerged in the early 1980s, they offered a white-hot critique of contemporary politics and a terrifying vision of the future. Yet their blend of gritty corporate futurism and frightening new technology has now been invoked by so many books, films and games that cyberpunk has started to feel stale. Now that we live in 2020, a year after the dystopian 2019 setting of Blade Runner, is there still anything to learn from yesterday’s vision of tomorrow?

The term “cyberpunk” was coined in a 1983 short story by author Bruce Bethke, and defined by writer Bruce Sterling as a “combination of low-life and high tech”. It opposes the utopian ideals of early 20th-century sci-fi: here technology is not a great democratiser improving human lives, but instead a new line separating the haves and have-nots. The genre’s ur-text is William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, which borrows liberally from hard-boiled noir and postmodern literature to conjure a future where technology threatens to erode our very humanity.

Befitting the individualism of the 1980s, cyberpunk protagonists are not world-saving scientists but instead drug-addled misfits who hack corporate technology to their own ends — in Gibson’s phrase, “The street finds its own use for things.” Cyberpunk obsesses over the human body, with characters enhancing their physical abilities with cybernetic augmentations and jacking into cyberspace through sockets in the back of the neck. The human self becomes mutable and detachable. The body can be stripped for parts. 

The quintessential visual document of cyberpunk is Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, introducing the gun-metal skies and rain-lashed neon streets later referenced in Ready Player One and The Matrix trilogy. These cities are often marked by glowing Japanese and Chinese characters and antiheroes slurping noodles at streetside restaurants. This aesthetic is rooted in the perceived economic threat of Japan in the 1980s, yet critics question whether such vaguely Asian imagery should still be used as ominous window dressing today, after Covid-19 has sparked a new wave of real-world Sinophobia. We should not forget that Japan created its own potent strain of cyberpunk in the 1980s and ’90s, including the influential animated films Akira and Ghost in the Shell.

‘Deux Ex’ explores cybernetic implants

The genre provides fertile territory for game developers, who capitalise on ideas such as body augmentation as a mechanism to allow players to customise combat styles and improve abilities. Final Fantasy VII introduced the cyberpunk city of Midgar, Deus Ex explored cybernetic implants, and Hideo Kojima borrowed from the genre for Snatcher and Metal Gear Solid. Games such as Shadowrun splice cyberpunk with fantasy elves, as Bloodnet does with vampires.

Cyberpunk 2077 is based on a tabletop role-playing game set in the fictional Californian Night City, where rival gangs vie for dominance under the gaze of the Arasaka Corporation. It stars cyberpunk old hand Keanu Reeves, who starred in The Matrix and the film adaptation of Gibson’s story Johnny Mnemonic. Game developer CD Projekt Red has a fine storytelling pedigree, but it remains to be seen whether the game will meaningfully explore the genre’s philosophical questions. When Gibson saw the game’s trailer in June 2018, he was unconvinced, tweeting: “The trailer for Cyberpunk 2077 strikes me as GTA skinned-over with a generic 80s retro-future, but hey, that’s just me.”

As a genre, cyberpunk has been hamstrung by its few source texts. Most iterations are derived from Blade Runner and Neuromancer, imitating but rarely evolving their ideas. By 1993, Wired magazine was already running the headline “Cyberpunk R.I.P”. Where cyberpunk once provoked compelling questions, it has today been mostly reduced to a handful of empty aesthetic signifiers. Meanwhile, for a genre nominally about the lives of marginalised people, there are very few black, brown or queer characters, or even believable women.

So why hasn’t our image of the future changed in 40 years? It is telling that the best recent stories that grappled with cyberpunk’s concerns of identity, humanity, memory and freedom — such as Her, Black Mirror and Westworld — steer clear of the genre’s visual hallmarks. Perhaps the problem is that the cyberpunk future partially came true. We now live in a world where corporate power threatens local government, where those who control the flow of information hold all the power. In Gibson’s phrase, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

Yet these questions, about the unchecked power of corporations, the technologically mediated human, the location of the soul, matter today more than ever. Cyberpunk 2077 will answer whether the genre is finally able to evolve or whether it is doomed, like so much technology, to become obsolete.

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