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At the start of based on William Gibson's genre-defining cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, you wake up face down in a plate of spaghetti. Well, it's synth-spaghetti because this is the future, but that doesn't make it any more comfortable. Like the book's protagonist Case you're a down-and-out former console cowboy who has lost the ability to hack, though in your case it's not due to traumatic surgery but simple poverty. You can't afford a new computer. Hell, you can't even afford to pay for the spaghetti.
Author Bruce Sterling summed up the cyberpunk genre as a combination of “low-life and high-tech,” and that's a perfect description of both versions of Neuromancer. Later in the game you have the option to sell your internal organs for cash, and hack a computer at Cheap Hotel—its actual name—to pay the rent. Your life is about as low as they get.
In 1993 Syndicate went in the opposite direction, casting you as the CEO in charge of a corporation bent on global domination. In Syndicate you're the villain at the top of the dystopian food chain.
While most of the games in the genre that followed explored spaces somewhere in between those two extremes, there's been a tendency for them to focus on the high-tech and not the low-life. They get the cyber, but not the punk.
Take the heroes of the Deus Ex series. JC Denton is an augmented agent who works for a UN anti-terrorist organization. Alex D is an augmented agent-in-training at the Tarsus Academy with a bright future in the WTO, and Adam Jensen is the augmented chief of security for a biotech corporation. All of these characters go through learning experiences that show their employers are untrustworthy and their world is more complex than they thought it was, but they all start on the privileged side of the fence.
When low-life characters do show up, they're pushed to the periphery. Adam Jensen walks past some punks gathered around a bin-fire in the streets of Detroit so he can overhear a conversation about getting a dog cybernetically enhanced to take part in a pitfight.
In the Lower Seattle of Deus Ex: Invisible War, Alex D also meets two people huddled around a burning bin, one of whom is Lo-town Lucy—a pierced punk who provides some basic info on the area while reprimanding you for being an Upper Seattle tourist. She points out how out of your element you are in the poor part of town, but in doing so makes it clear you're out of place in the genre as well.
That's not to say that there are no cyborg badasses who learn the law isn't always right in cyberpunk outside of games. Robocop and Ghost in the Shell are both classic examples of this kind of story, but in video games characters like Murphy and Kusanagi aren't rarities. They're the norm.
The heroes of Crusader: No Remorse, Hard Reset, Final Fantasy VII, Binary Domain—all are tough guys who learn the rebels and terrorists have a point. They're Armitage from Neuromancer, rather than that story's actual main characters: Case and Molly, the misfits.
Influential as it is, Neuromancer's not the only flavor of cyberpunk. Blade Runner gave us the archetype of the futuristic investigator forced to see a bigger, more troubling world beyond the next case. Since then, whether detectives like in Psycho-Pass or crusading journalists like in Max Headroom, plenty of cyberpunk stories have been about characters who attempt to solve crimes but stumble into more philosophical questions. Games like the Tex Murphy series, Technobabylon, Anachranox, Westwood's Blade Runner, and more recently Read Only Memories all fit into this category.
But even here, with shabby heroes who live in cramped apartments the order of the day, the low-lifes often get a raw deal. In Read Only Memories you see two punks named Starfucker and Olli and immediately accuse them of an unrelated act of vandalism and chase them down, after which you're given the option to call the police like some kind of tool of The Man.
If you don’t you get to know them better and learn they’re not bad guys, but then they transition to comedy sidekicks—those two wacky guys!—instead. They feel like a token inclusion, cast aside by the climax, when they deserve to be central.
In the end it turns out Starfucker and Olli are guilty of the vandalism you accuse them of. But still, it's rough to see the characters with mohawks and shades treated so roughly in a game that's all about evoking the classic retro cyberpunk feel. Like so many games Read Only Memories borrows visuals from Akira, but in Akira the biker gang are the heroes.
Recycling is an essential part of cyberpunk fiction, its cities full of repurposed junk given new life. The initial wave that followed iconic works like Neuromancer, Blade Runner, and Akira recycled too, using their conceits and visuals in new ways. Over time these tropes have been distilled into the core of the genre: all the imagery, with none of the messages.
One game where the malcontents and outsiders get to star is . The Shadowrun series is an unlikely mash-up of fantasy and cyberpunk that exaggerates the cliches of each, where the dragon who demands tribute and the TV personality admired by millions are one and the same, Smaug cast as Max Headroom. Perhaps it's that exaggeration of the basic tropes that makes Shadowrun feel true to cyberpunk fiction, in spite of the elves.
Shadowrunners are hackers and spies who can be hired online, like Uber but for corporate espionage, and in Dragonfall your band of runners have a secret base under a market in the anarchist free state of Berlin. It's as much about protecting the societal dregs who are your neighbours, drug addicts and shifty coffee dealers, as it is about making money. Also, one of the party members is an actual punk, the former lead singer of a band with the wonderful name MESSERKAMPF!
Cyberpunk-adjacent games like this weirdly seem more likely to feature the most cyberpunk protagonists. Sci-fi horror games and are perfect examples, even though they add vampires and the Cthulhu Mythos. The hacker heroes of Watch Dogs 2, Quadrilateral Cowboy, and would all feel at home in glowing near-future cities even though their games are set in the modern day, the 1980s, and a fictional town in Sweden respectively.
As in movies like Sneakers, Hackers, and Inception, they're telling cyberpunk stories about how information wants to be free and unchecked power is real bad, just without the chromed-up settings.
Right now CD Projekt Red is working on , a game that promises to be so chromed-up we'll be able to see our reflections in it. Like Shadowrun it's based on a tabletop RPG, but this time one with a more purist vision—Mike Pondsmith's Cyberpunk 2020, in which players are cast as anti-corporate Edgerunners and where getting too many implants can cause “cyberpsychosis”.
The trailer for Cyberpunk 2077 features a member of MAX-TAC—cops who hunt those cyberpsychos—arresting and recruiting a cyborg killer. But while the tabletop game has cops among its playable roles, it also features Netrunners, biker Nomads, and Rockerboys and Rockergirls who use the power of music to spread their political messages. It lets players emulate the gang members of or the rockstars of Norman Spinrad's Little Heroes as well as Judge Dredd.
There's reason to hope the video game adaptation will follow suit and in doing so, get closer to the under-represented elements of the genre. In , Pondsmith—who is working with CD Projekt Red on adapting his game—talks about what he considers to be important in cyberpunk. “It's not the technology,” he says, “it's the feel. It's getting that dark, gritty, rain-wet street feeling but at the same time getting that rock & roll, lost, desperate-and-dangerous quality.”
Pondsmith goes on to quote one of Gibson's famous lines from the short story Burning Chrome: “the street finds its own uses for things.” Cyberpunk isn't just about the alienation that comes with future shock, or the questions about humanity raised by cybernetic enhancement and artificial intelligence. It's also about the way powerless people find strength and solace by repurposing the future for their own ends.
Gibson wrote that the street finds its own uses for things, not “people who work for security agencies find their own uses for things.”
The streets and their inhabitants are central to cyberpunk. It's the powerless who suffer most in the kind of authoritarian regimes cyberpunk fiction depicts, and games could do with getting back to the idea that the rebels, misfits, vandals, and people who can't afford a plate of spaghetti matter.
At the end of Thief: The Dark Project, one of its characters muses on the future. Beware the dawn of the Metal Age, he says, looking out over the steampunk city. That line was contributed by Terri Brosius, one of the game's writers and designers as well as the voice of Viktoria (she also provided the memorable voice of System Shock 2's villain Shodan). The dialogue was , but it helped shape the series. Thief II would eventually be given The Metal Age as its subtitle, and the story of an industrial revolution overtaking the city would become its plot.
That's how committed the original trilogy of Thief games are to their foreshadowing, and it's part of what makes them unique among immersive sims.
In Warren Spector's all the way back in the year 2000, he coined the term 'immersive sim' to describe the type of game he and Ion Storm had created. Deus Ex needed its own subgenre because it is, as he put it, part role-playing game, part first-person shooter, part adventure game. are games that combine elements of other genres so you can play them your own way, with multiple paths to discover, each of which lets you jump genres as you please. These are the games where you can get past obstacles by talking or sneaking or killing, or sometimes even hacking them or casting spells at them or flying right over the top.
All that variability, all those systems intersecting to encourage player choice and freedom, are what it takes to count as an immersive sim. They don't require a conflict between philosophically distinct factions going on behind the scenes, but it's a common element nonetheless. Deus Ex has its Illuminati, System Shock 2 has the Many versus Shodan, Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines has competing undead clans, Dishonored has the Hound Pit Pub loyalists acting against the spymaster's conspiracy, and so on. In the Thief trilogy, progenitors of the immersive sim, it's the religious cults of Hammerites in conflict with Pagans, with the Keepers looking on as kind of referee-assassins.
You can't just dump secret history on a player straight away. Immersive sims are about freedom to choose your own way of playing, and not engaging with a bunch of boring exposition is a valid choice. (These are usually the games where you can jump on a table while someone is talking to you.) Instead designers hint at the backstory, letting players uncover it so we feel like we're learning things we're not supposed to, experiencing the the same rush we get from finding an unlikely method of infiltrating security.
In Thief: The Dark Project, the first of the series, the Pagans are a cult you don't know much about until you realise one of your employers, Viktoria, is a member. By this point you're at least four missions deep and have been facing off against the rival Hammerites since mission two. But as early as the game's opening level, 'Bafford's Manor', there are hints of what's to come.
A letter from one of Bafford's agents describes Viktoria in passing immediately after summarising how the Hammers are interfering with his plans. Each mission's introductory cutscene opens with a quote from a song or prayer, several of which turn out to be Pagan texts. Those things are seeds that will bear terrible fruit later.
By the time you meet Viktoria you've probably forgotten the letter that mentions her. It's just one of many pieces of scene-setting in a level that also includes notes to a chef about how to prepare dinner, ledgers of illegal payments, a warning to the guards that they need to lift their game, and a letter about expensive relics worth acquiring. Some of these seem immediately relevant as a thief those descriptions of valuable relics are useful pointers, as is knowing the guards have a reputation for drunkenness but others are pure scene-setting.
Thief is full of the kind of scene-setting that broadens your view of its world, and that allows it to hide foreshadowing like this in plain sight. The first conversation you overhear outside Bafford's Manor is two guards arguing about going to the bear pits. One insists it's a good time because the scrawny bears have been fitted with spikes that make them vicious, while the other is old enough to remember when bears were terrifying beasts who didn't need all that knifery strapped to them.
While the bear pits are never mentioned again the theme of nature in decline becomes central, and a world where people need to be reminded the natural world is dangerous as the Pagans plan to has just been set up.
That's the best kind of worldbuilding: hinting at what's to come without you even realising it, while giving the feeling of a larger world beyond the levels you explore. Contrast that with Dishonored, a game that does many other things very well but is full of dialogue in which characters blatantly foreshadow later levels. During Corvo's prison escape through the sewers you overhear two of the City Watch talking about how scary the Flooded District is, setting up a level there. Granny Rags tells you her parties used to be even grander than the ones at Boyle Manor , as you'll see in that level.
If the bear pits conversation happened in Dishonored it would be to foreshadow a level that culminates in choosing whether to assassinate a mechanical bear or free it from servitude to rampage through the Distillery District.
Thief: Deadly Shadows, the third game in the series, has a famous mission set in the Shalebridge Cradle, an abandoned building with a history of horrors that include periods where it was used as an orphanage, an insane asylum, and both at once. If that seems unlikely, Kew Asylum here in Melbourne housed both the mentally ill and wards of the state until the 19th century.
You might hear an optional conversation in the Stonemarket hub about Shalebridge Cradle if you visit the right shop between levels, but you're just as likely to become aware of Shalebridge Cradle in the Old Quarter hub, where it looms over the eastern streets. You've passed its frightening visage and wondered what's up with the world's creepiest building over there before the story's got to the point where you realise you'll need to jump the wall and explore it. You're already dreading the place.
While immersive sims tend to foreshadow both their stories and locations, there's something else they need to hint at as well. These are games defined by their freedom of choice with regard to styles of play, but worried about the possibility players might not notice solutions and try to brute force every problem, shooting their way through and not having a good time.
The first level in Thief to give you complete freedom in how you infiltrate a building is 'Assassins', in which you break into the mansion of a crime boss named Ramirez. The outer wall has an open entrance, but it's guarded, the walkway is well-lit and it's covered in crunchy gravel that makes a lot of noise when you cross it. It's doable, but there are better ways over that wall. Adjacent to a low section of it there's a Tudor-style protrusion with wooden windows, which make perfect targets for a rope arrow. It's also possible to go low-tech and stack crates until you're high enough, which you're clued into by two neatly stacked crates nearby.
Once past the outer wall there's the mansion itself to breach. There are two balconies that can be jumped to from guard towers, which your eyes are drawn to by tiled roof sections that happen to be bright red. A gap in the back of the building is noticeable from a distance because of the distinct shadow it casts.
These clues about entrance routes aren't repeated in later levels you can't trust red roofs and stacked crates forever but are there to make you realise how many options are available so that you start to hunt for them yourself.
Thief II ramps up the number of secrets within each level, but even with as many as a dozen hidden rooms and stashes to discover their placement is always just as subtle. A shooting range conceals a lever among the arrows embedded in the wall behind the targets, a bookshelf is slightly out of alignment, a glint of light pokes through the edge of a stone in a wall. Compare that to Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which sometimes hides one of the many ducts you can climb into behind a crate but more often plonks them into the corner of rooms beside a neon sculpture.
Even harder to notice is the Thief games' use of water as an element of level design. When you transition from the relatively safe streets of the city to the more dangerous interior of Bafford's Manor it's through a well, and when you travel from the empty utility station outside Thief II's Shoalgate Watch House to its well-guarded inside, that's also through water.
The haunted mines below Cragscleft Prison are entered through water, and so is The Lost City. A bridge has to be crossed before you arrive at the manor in 'Assassins', and though you don't have to swim out of the well in 'Precious Cargo' it starts raining once you exit.
In every case water marks a dividing line, emphasising that you've crossed into a high-risk area without the HUD needing to note it. Even if you're unaware of the motif, subconsciously the idea that things are about to get real as soon as you get wet seeps in as you play.
Compared to the original Thief trilogy, other immersive sims feel almost insecure and more obviously designed in the ways they lampshade upcoming twists in their story, later levels you'll explore, and the ways you can explore them once you reach them.
With their ubiquitous airduct entry points and audiologs scattered around incongruously to insure you don't miss a single nuance of backstory they rarely surprise us in ways that feel organic. The gun that goes off in act three was not only on the mantelpiece in act one, but two guards talked about the odds of it going off and then recorded the gunshot and left the tape in a nearby trashcan.
Thief lets you know what's possible but does so with subtlety. It's a game about hiding that hides its own possibilities in plain sight, and other immersive sims could learn from that.
Shower scenes seldom Make You Think, unless it’s about what exactly you’re getting for that Premium Netflix subscription, but if anything sticks out for me about the impressive yet oddly unexciting Deus Ex: Mankind Divided [official site], it’s the sight of Adam Jensen washing his hair. Eidos Montreal’s latest presentation begins in Jensen’s new Prague apartment – a casually affluent man-den where you can phone other characters, watch newscasts that track your decisions through the story, answer emails, tinker with crafting resources, and generally get acquainted with the sleek, cadaverous sort-of-human in your charge.
Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.>
Human Revolution has myriad faults, but they hardly matter to me. Square Enix Montreal’s first crack at replicating Deus Ex is a perfect example of how the right creative decisions can make up for any number of constraints.
Everything looked rosy when I traveled to Montreal to take a look at Deus Ex: Mankind Divided [official site] earlier this year. The areas I played improved on Human Revolution in every way that matters and Adam Jensen controlled better than ever. All was well and I was looking forward to playing the game in February, right around my birthday. Moments ago, word arrived of a six month delay – the game will now be coming out on August 23rd.
Disappointing endings are a staple of Deus Ex games, aren’t they? That’s fine, though, because almost everything leading up to those final two minutes when you choose which button to press is pretty great. Unsurprisingly, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided [official site] will be continuing the series’s sequel tradition of openings which kinda ignore which button you picked, but the ending this time will be more than a mere button-press. So its lead writer say, anyway.
I’ve played Deus Ex: Mankind Divided [official site] and I liked what I saw. A brief visit to just two areas suggested a more confident and open approach to first-person stealth-action. My preview focused on the level design because that’s where most of the improvements seemed to be but Eidos Montreal are also determined to improve player character Adam Jensen. That’s already evident in the improved control scheme, particularly as it relates to use of cover, but it’ll also be felt in his new augmented abilities. You can see some of those in the new trailer below.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided[official site] is already looking like a worthy follow-up to Human Revolution as well as an inventive prequel to Ion Storm’s original cyberpunk classic. When we visited the studio to play the game earlier this month, we also spent time talking to two of the brains behind the game about the inspirations and processes that go into this bleak vision of the future.
First up, here’s Jonathan Jacques-Bellet te, executive art director at the studio. We spoke to him about collaborative storytelling, fashion, architecture and graphic design. Along the way we learned about content cut from Human Revolution, the places that Deus Ex is going next and why Jacques-Bellet te believes that India could be a perfect cyberpunk setting.
Deus Ex: Revision [official site] is a project that overhauls “the environments and soundtrack” of Ion Storm’s classic, and it’s out now on Steam. The release has the backing of Deus Ex’s current publishers and developers (Square Enix and Eidos Montreal), and is designed to work exclusively with the Steam release of the original.
I m in the camp that thought Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a hell of a good starting point. The level design ran up against apparent technical limitations, chopped into distinct sections rather than flowing naturally from streets to interiors and back again, and the stealthy approach sometimes felt more difficult than it should have been thanks to sticky cover and too-rigid AI.
During a day of hands-on experience with follow-up Mankind Divided, it became apparent that Eidos Montreal felt similarly about their first stab at their cyberpunk revival. Moving from the tech renaissance of Human Revolution, the sequel steps into a fractured world of corporate feudalism. It s looking superb.