If I had to pick any genre that's going to sum up the 21st century, it's going to be cyberpunk.
Not because we'll all be melancholy cyborgs in the future. Every generation we live out the same story--we're not getting any better or any worse, I mean. Material gains ebb and flow, technology improves, but on the inside we're still telling stories about right and wrong and looking for something to worship and struggling against death. Heavy stuff, right?
I'm not picking cyberpunk based on advances in AI or robotics or building infrastructure or pollution or non-pollution or nuclear warheads. I'm not picking based on a grimdark or neonbright look at the future. I'm picking cyberpunk because it's a genre that does its best to blend the past and the future, and it does it remarkably well.
Cyberpunk is an atmosphere: shots of synthwave, a candy-colored spectrum cutting through a stormy night, cityscapes full of crowded loneliness.
Color Theory's 2018 album actually sums it up quite nicely: "The Majesty of Our Broken Past."
See, cyberpunk is a nostalgic look at the future.
What distinguishes human beings from every other living thing in the Milky Way?
Our ability to remember the past and anticipate the future.
We can even feel something about pasts and futures that never were. Being both in and out of time; a Godlike characteristic. Explains why our word is important--what's the point of a vow if you don't remember it, or if you can't even value tomorrow?
Lately, people like to say man is just an animal. An animal has no concept of marriage or investments, hobbies or glory days. When people get sick of money, or the lack of it, they usually start lumping all other obligations and responsibilities with it. That's why marriages and vows and the draft and nostalgia all get a bad rep: they are all tied up with this same thing that makes money such a bother. They matter in the grand long narrative of things. But of course, material gains ebb and flow, but certain things remain. Right? Or do we experience pangs of nostalgia because it feels like good things have an expiration date?
Well, that's up to you. Cyberpunk encompasses any worldview; it's all hypothetical, after all.
What I like about cyberpunk, regardless, is how it can't help but confirm that man is uniquely man. Stories wrapped in cyberpunk cloth are about man's inevitable forwardness; you can't have the cyberpunk genre and make it about neo-future cavemen or the loss of the power grid. Cyberpunk isn't the apocalyptic or survival genre (sure, it can be dystopian, but that's still distinctive). Cyberpunk: this is about how technology is uniquely human, how cities are uniquely human, how loneliness in a crowd is uniquely human. It needs electricity and machine language and things that are much bigger than us in order to point out what makes us, again, uniquely human.
It even questions what makes us human. In this way, its also this past and current century's most spiritual genre. One of the more common threads in cyberpunk literature is, at what point are we no longer human? Is it our bodies--is that all we are? What happens when we break those, augment those, replace kneecaps and hands and skin? What happens to our souls? Do robots dream of electric sheep?
Cyberpunk 2077 is an adaptation of the pen-and-paper Cyberpunk 2020 (you gotta admit, even writing down 2020 these days still feels like role-playing the future rather than living in the actual current year). There's something very evocative about 2020. But, of course, we're living in 2020 and we've still got clean air and bake sales, so Mike Pondsmith's vision is still just that: a role-playing game about the majesty of our broken future.
Well, CD Projekt Red's game fast-forwards us to 2077 and gives us Keanu Reeves.
Now, I'm the kind of person who spent $10 on Black Desert Online mostly so I could mess around with the character creator. So, already, a AAA release with extensive character creation has convinced me to shell out money. But, more than that, I haven't played a good and original RPG with a fully customizable PC since Dragon Age: Inquisition (and "good" is still stretching the word--but I'll save my thoughts on Bioware for a later date).
You can tell from the screenshot below that Cyberpunk 2077 also allows your character (I always think of it as "the character," I never could do the whole "I chose this in Mass Effect" or "When I took down the Reapers I felt...", dunno that just always felt wrong--the PC to me is someone I authored, not me, yeah?) to have a past.
I wrote a few entries back about how little patience I have for the "blank slate" character trend. Is it harder to meaningfully integrate backstories into a big RPG like this? Certainly. But a character without a past, or at least an implied one, doesn't drive nearly as much empathy or momentum.
And here's the other thing. Most custom-PC RPGs are lying to you. RPG. Role Playing Game. Custom Player Character. Oh, except your player character will always use force (and maybe some charm) to smooth things over.
There are very few ways that RPGs can appeal to the mass market or come up with enough content without resorting to "Clear Bad Guy Base" or "Hit 12 Bears Over the Head And Take Their Pelts." Now, before we go further, I'm not one of those anti-violence or games-cause-violence advocates. My very first video game experience was my dad beating the crap out of me on Ready2Rumble. Nobody really wants a bloodless story. Bloodless would imply that nothing is at stake, that there is no force or passion or momentum in your story or your game.
And don't get me wrong. People play these games for the cool factor. It's like being the hero in your own action movie. Thankfully, 2077 has got you covered in way more cool factors than just kill la kill: hacking, racing, boxing, martial arts, stealth, etc., etc.
But here's what I like about Cyberpunk 2077 right off the bat: the game can be completed without taking a life.
That tells me this game is going to have real options, which is what I really care about in a role playing game. I want to have a somewhat-finite story with enough sandbox elements to let me bend and shape the narrative around my character and their experiences, so that when I remember it, I'll remember how me and the game told the story together. And, also, so I have replay value if I ever get around to playing it a second time.
Here's another thing in Cyberpunk 2077: you're allowed to fail quests. Failure is just a different ending, not a fake ending.
Often, there's no incentive to fail in a game. And you might be thinking, well, why should there be an incentive to fail? I think of it from a narrative standpoint: in a story, we are always rooting for the hero to win, but we instinctively know that in order to win he has to fail. Are you interested in a walking simulator of Frodo and Sam heading to Mt. Doom, or did you get caught up in the war, the old loyalties, the deaths of countless good characters? What would Lord of the Rings be without the spiritual death and renewal of Frodo at the end? Not Lord of the Rings, anyway.
Besides, who hasn't rooted for the underdog?
Video games have almost always played out as power fantasies. I'm not saying Cyberpunk 2077 won't be that, and I'm not saying power fantasies are a bad thing. But I love seeing different stories told in my favorite medium. Failure often doesn't get any interactivity, and I'd love to see how failure plays out in 2077.
Also, there's going to be a motorbike from Akira.
But you know, more than anything, I'd be impressed with an RPG which could give us the equivalent of Blade Runner's "Tears in Rain" scene.
I think that's what we really want when we say we want games to be "cinematographic". It's in producing, not just a power fantasy, or a dynamic world, or a custom character, though all of these are exciting and unique to the medium. But the creation of moments is infinitely more difficult, more fragile, more tender.
It's the moments of tenderness in cyberpunk that get me the most: all that soft fleshiness beneath the wires and plating, the soul music still present in synth-wave, the tears in rain.
If You Just Wanted The Gist Of Things, Here It Is
Alright, there's a lot to love in cyberpunk and Cyberpunk 2077, so let's try to sum up everything before this turns into a book:
10 Other Beauties To Release This Year
13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim - Hand-painted nostalgia-laden mech/school simulator
Humankind: 4x strategy with unlimited combination of cultural influences
Yes, Your Grace: a Kickstarter-funded management-RPG about being The King
Eastward: a dual-character action-RPG w/ puzzles, dungeons, quirky locals, and stunning art direction
Crusader Kings III: Medieval Dynasty & Game of Thrones Simulator, Upgraded
Across the Grooves: an interactive graphic novel with an emphasis on music, set in a magic-realism universe
The Last Night: your cyberpunk fix, but in pixels
Rune Factory 5: The Comeback Kid of Cute Fantasy Farming Life Simulators
Haven: A Non-Cheesy Video Game Romance In Space
Persona 5 Royal: Ok, Ok, You Still Can't Play As A Female Joker, But There's A Ton of New Stuff
Spiritfarer: A Light & Lively Take On Being Death's Ferryman
In short, cheers all around for 2020.
Thanks for stopping by. Glad you were here!
In Excelsis Deo.
K.W. writes novels, short stories, the occasional ode, game scripts, and (with actual evidence!), this here blog.