August 5, 2021

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A brief history of cyberpunk games

The long-awaited release of Cyberpunk 2077 brings to an end years of feverish anticipation for those who have been itching to roam the streets of Night City, but it’s only the latest example of gaming’s fixation with the trappings of the cyberpunk genre.

It’s perhaps inevitable that gaming and cyberpunk are so closely entwined, given that both were birthed in the technological boom of the 1950s and gained mainstream pop culture presence around the same time in the late 70s and early 80s. The hard part is working out how to separate the games that cherry-picked aspects of the cyberpunk aesthetic – of which there are literally hundreds – from those that are, or at least attempted to be, genuine examples of cyberpunk fiction. For that, we need to nail down the genre’s key tropes; namely a dystopian outlook on the near-future, an interest in alternate digital realities, drug or technology assisted human modification, and a cultural milieu in which corporate interests have long since outranked the quaint notion of elected government.

Things got started pretty early, with adaptations of 1980s cyberpunk movies for 8-bit home computers like the ZX Spectrum. The Blade Runner game, rather cunningly, was licensed from the eerie synth score by Vangelis rather than the more costly movie despite asking you to fly your “Spinner” craft over Los Angeles, locating errant replicants then chasing them down in simple foot chases. An amusing distraction, but one that failed to grapple with the themes of cyberpunk in any meaningful way.

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