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What cyberpunk was and what it will be

Noirpunk
What cyberpunk was and what it will be

Illustrations by Gareth Damian Martin

We often forget when predicting the future that it will inevitably continue to change. Whatever we dream up, however utopian or dystopian, will be subject to resistances and reimaginings. It will be a temporary state. The future will get old fast and there will be no end of history, despite frequent claims to the contrary, until the last human breathes the last breath. Travelling through modern metropolises at night, particularly in Asia, the temptation is to dwell on how prophetic cyberpunk classics like Blade Runner (1982), Neuromancer (1984) or Akira (1982) have been (to say nothing of earlier works like the books of John Brunner).

Yet there is also a sense, when we look closer, when the rain and the neon lights peter out, that this is partly an illusion. While cyberpunk-esque technological developments, and their side-effects, are increasingly coming to pass in meatspace, cities are stylistically moving away from the model we envisaged for so long. Just as the utopian space-age future of the West in the 1950s passed unthinkably into the past with space shuttles entering museums, so too is the largely dystopian cyberpunk vision, at least aesthetically, becoming outmoded. One of the central inspirations for Blade Runner, the labyrinthine Kowloon Walled City on the outskirts of Hong Kong, was demolished in 1994. It is now the site of a park with gardens, floral walks, ponds and pavilions. It is a post-cyberpunk space. If the apocalypse has come and (temporarily) gone, what was it really and what comes next?

WHAT CYBERPUNK WAS

Hideo Kojima's Snatcher, 1988
Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher, 1988

I first encountered cyberpunk several steps removed. Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher (1988) was a gorgeous Blade Runner tribute that came admirably close to outright theft. Though it was set in Neo Kobe City in 2047 rather than the LA of 2019, many of the cinematic tropes were familiar: the blazing refineries in the opening, the monumental corporate megaliths, spinner vehicles zipping through the sky, the jaded raincoat-wearing detective with a questionable past, bioroid snatchers in the place of replicants. Snatcher was not the only game to reference the film; Jeff Tunnell’s excellent Rise of the Dragon (1990) went so far as to name its central character “Blade” Hunter. There was even the curious case of Westwood Studio’s adaptation of the film, which had to be an indirect story altered enough to avoid the minefield of copyright. It had to mimic itself but not too much (less human than human, to reverse the Tyrell Corporation’s motto). An earlier 8-bit port by Andy Stodart and Ian Foster in 1985 had even feigned inspiration from Vangelis’ sublime soundtrack rather than the movie to avoid a Warner Brothers lawsuit.

bladerunner
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, 1982

Questions of plagiarism matter less when we consider how much of a collage the original Blade Runner was. Following the maxim of its baptist William Gibson that “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed,” cyberpunk has always been a scrapyard, with pieces of what is to come scattered through the past and present. Indeed, its saving grace is that it recognizes, as other futurology often fails to, that the future will be a collage and it will be considerably older than the present. One of its notable ancestors, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), incorporated everything from the Abrahamic myths of Towers of Babel and golems to the very real towers of Manhattan and the assembly lines of Henry Ford. Blade Runner followed suit. It borrowed from Moebius and Dan O’Bannon’s sublime short comic The Long Tomorrow (1975). With the artist turning down the chance to work directly on the film, the design fell into the hands of the visionary Syd Mead, who’d been designing the actual future in the preceding years with Philips Electronics and Ford’s Advanced Styling Studio.  

One notable departure from previous blockbuster dystopias like Logan’s Run (1976) was the fact that this future had a very visible past and had not been built from scratch. Existing buildings of Los Angeles were incorporated; the police headquarters is Union Station, the eerie stairwell courtyard is inside the Bradbury Building, Deckard’s apartment is in Frank Lloyd Wright’s neo-Mayan Ennis Brown House. It was all contained in a city that Ridley Scott revealed was indebted to contemporary Hong Kong. The colossal, recurring geisha girl on the electronic billboard is significant not for what she is advertising (the pill, as it happens) or even the echo of the decadent “Floating World” of Tokyo legend but for the implication that the future is both otherworldly and compromised. We can speculate on whether an orientalized U.S. West Coast represents the subconscious fear of the end of American exceptionalism, latent memories of having once been a colony, or fears that the Greater Japanese Empire was not entirely buried in 1945. In fact, the dread of being usurped by the Eastern nations was well-placed—a prescient indication that the world’s axis was shifting from mid-Atlantic to mid-Pacific. Asia was the future, and this is what it would look like. For a while, perhaps even still, it held true. The question is: which Asia? South Korean Smart City futurism? Colossal Chinese ghost cities? Drowning the sorrows of a 20-year deflationary recession in Tokyo’s Shinjuku?

Rise of the Dragon, 1990
Rise of the Dragon, 1990

Though the genre has become clichéd through repetition, much cyberpunk offers at least the comfort of an instantly recognizable world. Certain tropes are almost always present, occasionally in order to be subverted or tweaked (as in Joshua Nuernberger’s 2011 Gemini Rue). It is traditionally a hi-tech world that is environmentally, socially, even morally in decline. In this sense, cyberpunk is not just about the future or, satirically, the present; it’s also about the past. It recalls previous incarnations of familiar cities that have settled into the darker reaches of history and the collective memory: the London of Hogarth or Dickens, pre-Haussmann Paris, the New York of the Five Points. It is torn between cosmopolitanism as an urban dynamo and a barely concealed Malthusian dread of overpopulation. “Twenty billion people … we’ve really screwed up this planet,” reflects the narrator of Rise of the Dragon “Half of ‘em could use a blaster shoved down their throat.” It is a world where the individual exists between the repressive remnants of the state and unfettered market forces, where corporations have usurped democracy and conspire against one another (the classic Syndicate series of strategy games is a pitch-perfect introduction). It is the point where echoes of the past begin to disturbingly resonate as portents of the future.

black and white reinvented in neon

The most immediate feature of the cyberpunk city is its physiognomy. It wears its character on its flesh, from the looming conspiratorial towers to its shadowy depths. All that trickles down here is corruption and contaminated rain. The lower we descend in games like Project Eden (2001) and the unreleased Star Wars 1313, the more dangerous it becomes. The higher we ascend, the more nefarious it becomes. Cyberpunk is, in lighting, setting, plot and characterization, a direct descendant of noir. Escaping the Nazis, Fritz Lang and fellow German émigrés brought expressionism to the U.S. Their tales of underworlds and overlords, bathed in chiaroscuro light, found a home in the lichtarchitektur of the American seaboards—illuminated buildings which sought to make use of their night-time appearance. The imported world of secrets and plots took hold in an age of political demagogues, entrepreneurial gangsters and robber barons. It was a moralist’s universe of shifting identities and ulterior motives, where none can be trusted bar the flawed or fallen anti-hero. The reason it was perpetually night-time in film noir was not just a case of melodramatic pathetic fallacy. Cyberpunk was partly a reaction against the bright yet somehow inhuman perfection of utopian planned cities like Niemeyer’s Brasília and Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh. At the time, before the pessimism turned passé, it was a novelty to suggest that the future would be dark, squalid and malfunctioning.

Noirpunk3

Cyberpunk was, and remains, noir brought into the digital age; the black and white reinvented in neon and then LED. Given it was Edgar Allen Poe who introduced the first detective story, it seems natural that the procedural and the gothic interconnected. In 1985, ICOM released the hard-boiled and wisecracking Déjà Vu, complete with femme fatales, snitches and sewer alligators. Yet it, like its predecessor, the Agatha Christie-inspired Mystery House (1980) by Roberta and Ken Williams, harked almost entirely back to past settings. By the time of the Yuuji Horii Mysteries (1983) trilogy by Yuji Horii, the focus has shifted forwards but, however futuristic games seem, the old stories remain. In the midst of the flying machines of PsygnosisG-Police (1997) is an age-old reflection: “The inquiry gave a verdict of suicide. I didn’t buy that.” The original Shadowrun, released in 1993 for the SNES, opens in a morgue with a glorious combination of future slang and classic noir discourse, “Brain burnt. They say some gang geeked him.” “Yeah? He don’t look so dead.”

In a sense, the dilemmas faced in cyberpunk games and novels were ancient philosophical questions, which developing technology have made increasingly unavoidable in daily life. Once followers of Nietzsche or Buddha might seek out some form of transhumanism. In cyberpunk worlds, the technology would seek us out. “Discard your flesh and transcend your limits,” is the promise or threat of “sublimation” in the Japanese version of Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere (1999) and, like the addictive “Trance” in the adventure game Technobabylon (2015), many would take the machines up on the offer. It is not surprising then that interest in cyberpunk coincided with virtual reality entering the popular imagination. Before then, it had largely been the stuff of intriguing novelty (Morton Heilig’s Sensorama for example), military simulators or Cartesian discussions among philosophers. With the advent of mass gaming, it appeared that its time had finally come, with the likes of Atari making tentative inroads. Though somewhat premature in terms of the processing power required to create a real-time 360 degree environment, it stirred up inevitable questions and anxieties, which found expression in the dystopian games of the time.

Interphase, 1990
Interphase, 1989

The fear and power of plugging in and losing our humanity in the process, continually evident in cyberpunk, is again not new; we find precedents in Descartes’ Demon and Plato’s Cave. There is also a certain guilty pleasure in immersing yourself in a videogame world that warns you of the dangers of immersing yourself in videogame worlds. The early game Interphase (1989), by The Assembly Line, deftly equates virtual reality with dream-space, a crossover we will no doubt increasingly see with advances in VR, AI and augmented reality. At that time such developments seemed the stuff of dreams, but they are incrementally becoming more real. In Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs (2014), the hacking abilities of the lead character Aiden Pearce suggest that the human brain, the city and cyberspace are now interwoven networks. To accumulate great power in the latter two is to potentially wield power over the first. In the 2084 Neo-Paris of Remember Me (2013), consciousness, memory and identity have been effectively privatized. Reassuringly, such games show that this is just another battleground opening up, and with sufficient skills, resistance can be waged.  

The 1988 game adaptation of Neuromancer
The 1988 game adaptation of Neuromancer

As with many artforms and subcultures, gaming has been subject to frequent moral panics. These have chiefly focused on the effects of simulated violence and sex on impressionable young minds but there has also been a notable aversion to virtual reality. Concerns are raised periodically that escaping into these otherworlds will lead to a docile, slovenly population. Federico Heller’s film Uncanny Valley (2015) captures many of these concerns in its depiction of VR junkies lost in immersive environments while their real lives and surroundings crumble around them. The connection was made early between escaping reality for virtual environments and escaping reality through the use of mind-altering drugs, with similarly grave consequences. Both seemed to follow the maxim of the LSD advocate Timothy Leary, “Turn on, tune in and drop out” (a phrase notably suggested to him by the critical media theorist Marshall McLuhan). In 1969, Ron Herron of the radical Sixties architectural collective Archigram proposed an Enviro-Pill “for inducing architecture or virtual and imaginary environments in the mind.” It is there also in William Gibson’s description of cyberspace as “a consensual hallucination” in Neuromancer (1984), a book that Leary attempted unsuccessfully to adapt into a game (“the PC is the LSD of the 1990s,” Leary claimed at the time). Again and again in Gibson’s central cyberpunk text, virtual reality seems to pass into the realm of dissociative dream-state, “And in the bloodlit dark behind his eyes, silver phosphenes boiled in from the edge of space, hypnagogic images jerking past like a film compiled of random frames. Symbols, figures, faces, a blurred, fragmented mandala of visual information.” The comparison was reinforced by cyberpunk games with their strain of moralism inherited from noir. In Rise of the Dragon, the search is on to prevent a spate of horrific deaths as side-effects from the designer drug MTZ. In the KEMO city of Quarantine (2008), a behaviour-altering drug administered through the water supply makes half the population violently deranged. The prospect of escape from a decaying, decadent world into an artificial paradise, whether drug or cyber-induced, comes with a price.

a kitsch self-parody

For all its outward cynicism, cyberpunk is often wilfully naive; conspiracies are unravelled, the lone maverick is redeemed, the lone aberration at the head of the system is taken out and all is well again. For all its gritty imagery, this dissonantly contradicts reality. Indeed it is questionable whether cyberpunk is an entirely dystopian genre. For the oligarch-villains occupying the luxury penthouses and boardrooms in which boss battles occur, this is utopia. The ubiquity of scaffolding in the genre’s platform games suggests there is even a building boom. It is a great time to be an engineer. Even for the average citizen, perhaps things aren’t that bad; there are plenty of exotic street-food outlets and sports to enjoy (you can follow the blood and chrome progress of Brutal Deluxe in the Bitmap Brothers’ 2007 Speedball series). Escape to off-world colonies, as we are told repeatedly by advertising neo-blimps, is an option for the rich and genetically sound. Some of the tyrannies are fairly relative. In X-Kaliber 2097 (1994), the reign of the warlord Raptor means “there are no more jobs to go to,” echoing the current fear that automation might render us all unemployable. “Well,” we might say, “thank god for that.” Even when the apocalypse beckons or has already happened (the release of the planet-decimating biochemical Lucifer-Alpha in 1988’s Snatcher, for example), it is survivable.

Noirpunk4

Having been the default vision of the future for nearly 30 years, cyberpunk has arguably become clichéd, even conservative. Occasionally a series will rise above the generic through charm or ingenuity; Deus Ex (2000), with its whole-hearted embracing of nanotechnology and conspiracy theories, being perhaps the most notable. Hard Reset (2011) and especially Satellite Reign (2015) tick every box but do so with exceptional élan. It’s a blunt fact that there are only a few concept artists that reach the levels of Moebius or Syd Mead or Katsuhiro Otomo. For others, the genre becomes almost a kitsch self-parody, though admittedly a degree of self-awareness was always there from the beginning. In Paradise Cracked (2002), the main character is called Hacker. Cypher (2014) is set in Neo-Sushi City. The prevailing look of cyberpunk is now as much a time capsule as the Tech Noir nightclub in The Terminator (1984) or Neo’s trench coat, shades and slo-mo bullshit in The Matrix (1999). When the SiN Episodes series was announced, it boasted every stereotype; a city that combined New York, San Francisco and Tokyo, themes of hacking and drugs that supercharged evolution, and characters with names like Colonel John R. Blade and Viktor Radek. They never saw the light of day.

WHAT CYBERPUNK WILL BE

The choices for Deckard at the end of Blade Runner are essentially stay and decay, try to escape off-world, or leave the city and go on the run. Given that cyberpunk clichés may well be the default that new progressive games developers have to rail against or try to rewrite, similar exit routes require finding. The declining city can be outright destroyed, as we find in post-apocalyptic games like the Fallout series or even post-human in the cases of the ruins and robots neo-folklore of Primordia (2012) and Shadow Gunner (1998), which seems like a desiccated Philip K. Dick short story. Though real-life off-world colonies sadly seem further away now than they did at the birth of cyberpunk, interplanetary escape is also an option for games, as Mass Effect (2007) has demonstrated.

Flashback's well-lit city
Flashback’s well-lit city

To truly move beyond the cliches into what might be called post-cyberpunk means offering genuine alternatives rather than displacing them elsewhere or blowing them to pieces. Where there was darkness, there might instead be light. One of the finest twists on the genre came relatively early on, with Paul Cuisset’s Flashback (1992). Following intriguing early rural levels, which contained a novel vine-draped wilderness-tech, the game moved to the city. Rather than the gaudy sunless sin city with torrential downpours and murderous cyborgs, this was a pleasant if slightly liminal place, with the added uncanny realism of rotoscoped sprites. It was clean, picturesque even, with systems that worked; streetlights, air conditioning, hover-taxis and ultra-violet-lit nightclubs, all designed with an understated stylish sheen that tipped a hat to Syd Mead. It was one of the few futures on offer that seemed not only believable but vaguely desirable, until the alarm is raised and the jetpack-toting police draw their weapons. 

Flashback nevertheless pointed the way to a future that might be conceivably cleaned up or fixed. We were so enticed by the once-edgy cyberpunk look in the ‘80s and ‘90s that we often failed to anticipate that, for all its miseries, things in the future would work, that its evils would be concealed in a shiny green aspirational environment; where tyrannies are enacted as often by omission as active repression; where corporations do indeed wield devastating powers but they also have formidable PR and people want the junk they’re selling. In a sense, we shouldn’t have been surprised; the era of film noir was, after all, also the great era of the musical. The spectacle only becomes more refined and integrated with our lives as time goes by. It is still alarming that the most prophetic of dystopias was also the most ludicrous: the kitsch consumerism, corporate corruption, metropolitan bankruptcy and technological sheen of RoboCop (1987). There is no longer a delay between tragedy and farce, as Marx once conceived. If you want a picture of the future, imagine the “I’d buy that for a dollar” guy playing in a loop forever.

Noirpunk2

It would be tempting but limiting to separate cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk into pessimistic and optimistic views of the future. Instead, it might be seen as the process of moving beyond overt symbolism into a more complex view of the future city. Terrible things happen after all on sunny days and in beautiful places. The multiform isometric city of Cloudbank in Transistor (2014), with its variety of architectural styles, and the familiar but luminous environments of There Came an Echo (2015), remind us that the future will contain unexpected marvels (a view we may have forgotten since our days playing the dazzling urban levels of Sonic the Hedgehog or Mega Man). In Mirror’s Edge (2008), resistance to authoritarianism is waged through the medium of space in the otherworld of rooftops that exist largely forgotten above us all. This is parkour and urban exploration as both dissent and an articulation of liberty. With the privatization of public space in our actual cities, the game is only becoming more prescient. All of this occurs in broad daylight.

a breath of fresh air
Mirror's Edge and its daytime dystopia
Mirror’s Edge and its daytime dystopia

It’s surprising that cyberpunk games have generally been more inclined to travel meaningfully in time (the Art Deco world of 2007’s BioShock for instance) than in space: i.e. beyond Japan and the West. Kouichi Yotsui’s Strider (1989) was remarkable for its setting in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic of 2048, with the main character battling his way across moonlit rooftops, before a backdrop of Russian onion dome architecture. For a brief moment, it seemed as if a world, or rather the world, had opened up to games. They could be set everywhere and anywhere. Sadly, the locations remained largely fastened to the areas where games then sold. There were notable often-overlooked exceptions. Strider itself had a spiritual arcade sequel of sorts, Osman (2001), set in a glittering heavily mechanised world from the Persian Gulf to Prague, that sank with barely a trace. Dave Gibbons and Charles Cecil’s Beneath a Steel Sky (1994) began among a tribe in a wilderness called The Gap not quite beyond the dictatorial reach of Union City. The story was a revitalized case of the outsider, or errant prince, with the patchy memory rediscovering the metropolis but it was a breath of fresh air. In addition to being based on the graphic novels of Enki Bilal, Nikopol: Secrets of the Immortals (2008) sought to refresh the medium with a dose of Egyptology. Perhaps the game which most gripped the collective imagination in taking the neo-noir template elsewhere was the Día de Muertos world of LucasArts’ Grim Fandango (1998). These have sadly proved to be exceptions rather than the rule.

One of Simon Stalenhag's digital paintings
One of Simon Stalenhag’s digital paintings

The future always remains to be rediscovered. Imagine cyberpunk with the complexity of one of China Miéville’s cities or the deranged reflexivity of a Grant Morrison comic strip. Imagine taking the glorious procedural generated planets of No Man’s Sky to build open universe cities, cities which no two people will ever play or inhabit in the same way. As the gap between the virtual and the real closes with developments in augmented reality, imagine expanding our shrinking ability to roam in our own cities. The easy assumption is that the likes of Oculus will lead us down the rabbithole to the detriment of our real lives. This view fails to acknowledge that virtual reality will be the source of countless ideas, connections and experiences applicable to the everyday world. At the very least, the contradiction between plugged in freedom and real-life restriction will become glaring. Given how architecture and games have replicated each other’s methods from isometrics to 3D software, it is very likely physical environments will develop in response to virtual ones. What these worlds, within and without, will look like is debatable but they may well have already outgrown the aesthetics of cyberpunk, if not its central issues. There are countless artists, some already working on games, offering alternative futures—Nicolas “Sparth” Bouvier, Ian McQue, Victo Ngai, Pascal Blanché, Kilian Eng, Kirsten Zirngibl, Sergi Brosa, Sam Chivers, Simon Stalenhag. Each is different from the last but they are united by the sense that crucially their worlds have room for individual mythologies, resonances, stories and eccentricities, tales beyond the private eye, the hacker, the murder victim and the tyrant. They remember, as we all should, that eventually the sun has to rise.

 

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