A “Triple-A Cyberpunk Game” tastes funny to me.
Our own B.J. put it in his own words on a recent episode of the podcast: “Cyberpunk is a warning genre”. At its core, it’s critical of large systems that betray individuals. And, for a lot of people, having the conversation about the genre dominated by one big, central monolith is more than a little dissonant.
For some, that’s not the drawback. Hype cycles are exhausting, and maybe you’ve just had enough of this one. Maybe you just can’t play it now for budget reasons, or because you’d ironically need to upgrade your hardware, or some other aspect is keeping you away. Or it’s whetted your appetite for some cyberpunk game, but maybe one a bit smaller in scope.
Of course, some people will inevitably get excited about the big hits anyway. Whatever floats your neon-trimmed boat; you have to find joy where you can, and I can’t take that away from you.
Plus, y’know, Keanu Reeves.
But there are still plenty of other, independent voices in that space that deserve your ear.
The easiest place to start, obviously, is the aesthetic. Cyberpunk is defined almost entirely in the mainstream eye by gungy cityscapes lit by neon advertisements, a mix of old junk and tech that’s constantly just ten years away.
So what suits cyberpunk games better than pixel art, something that independent game artists are so often celebrated for doing so well?
It plays almost naturally into so many things about the roots of the genre. The early-’80s works that solidified the genre – our displays couldn’t manage much more back then, anyway. Low-resolution assets in general being visual shorthand for “digital” content. Even the idea that, in a world of plenty, some people make do with what little power they can scrape together.
But at the same time, it’s clean and beautiful in a way that fully-rendered 3D so often isn’t. Katana Zero and the yet-to-be-released ANNO: Mutationem look absolutely gorgeous despite their worlds being full of trash. They’re also fluid and sharp and responsive despite their main characters being absolute wrecks due to their supervisors’ neglect.
And that’s perfectly fine; your game doesn’t need to feel as clunky as the world it’s in, because that just wouldn’t be fun. Sometimes you just need an experience to go down nice and smooth.
But that’s a double-edge. Katana Zero and even award-winning cyberpunk games like Transistor can lay into the action, and make for fantastic play sessions. But much of cyberpunk really pulls its distinct appeal from a dour moodiness. Dystopias really feel properly dystopian when you’re wallowing in them. Angst is core to Punk; without it, you’ve just got Cyber-Pop.
And what better place to vent that angst than a dive.
Red Strings Club starts there, and operates from there. You literally pour out anxiety, fear, and regret to your clientele, and bolster them to go back out into a failing city. Under the counter and even by exerting control over others’ bodies, you bite back at the powerful suits that just don’t like the idea of your freedoms. You’re at the bottom, but not powerless.
And hey, you’ve already got this cyberpunk game (and Katana Zero) if you subscribe to The Microsoft Corporation’s content collective, known as GamePass™.
On the other hand, Va-11 Hall-A feels more back-alley, but isn’t relentlessly depressing in the same way. It’s got its chipper, comedic moments and charming characters. It reminds us that people actually live their lives in these places, for better or for worse. You empathize with characters when you see their bright spots next to their struggles.
But hey, I’m not going to talk your ear off about it a second time. Suffice it to say, and with the prequel 2064: Read Only Memories to back it up: you don’t have to be humorless to be dark.
And cyberpunk is dark, metaphorically and literally.
Cyberpunk has almost always been paired up with noir fiction. Both have a sort of melancholic pessimism to them, doubting that anything could ever work in so broken a world.
And some people end up bent on that lens, like the lead of Synergia. You can still get out, maybe. But dystopia isn’t called a dystopia because it looks damp and poorly lit by billboard ads. It lays low all its participants below – and even up to – a certain pay grade, to the point of a visual novel that bears a mature content warning. And one of the kinder opportunities the genre gives us is to explore how it takes work – and help – to get out of the bottom of the barrel.
But Chinatown Detective Agency lives more specifically in the genre crossover between noir and cyberpunk. And, most importantly, it’s information-driven in a way that few other cyberpunk games are. As in, the expectation is that a player will encounter a puzzle, then tab away to web browser and look up real-world history and geography in order to get what they need to proceed. Even if the short section available now can only begin to explore the game’s themes, it’s fascinating in how it gives you that “tiny person working through a massive system” feel using external tools.
Not all investigation is hard-nosed, though. Sometimes it’s non-violent and exploratory, trying to capture the essence of a world that’s breaking down. While I have yet to fully explore Umurangi Generation, its sense of style and expression is clear from minute one. It defies even adhering to any of the major genres, unless “photo mode” counts, and I can think of nothing more punk than refusing common labels.
Be A Better Cyberpunk
If you haven’t noticed, every link so far has been to one of the handful of mega-storefronts that serve the supermajority of digital games now. It feeds into the idea that a few entities can wield tech-derived power over us to do exactly what they want. And the individual people already, naturally play into that.
It’s not a great situation, and one that I myself can do better at combatting. In some cases, that means finding more direct ways to offer support.
Itch.io has absolutely knocked it out of the park with reacting to real-world problems through, of all things, game bundles. Look no further than the Bundle for Racial Equality, which raised over eight million dollars for social advocacy and response groups earlier this year. And its offerings were so broad we could scarcely begin to sample them when we hit our personal highlights.
Naturally, they’ve done it again.
The Be A Better Cyberpunk bundle runs a bit steeper than their “$5 for 1700 games” showstopper, but it’s hard to keep it under that lens when these are, after all, about statements over consumer convenience. And this one is packed with a still-hefty twenty-nine cyberpunk games, magazines, and other fiction.
Best of all? Each work has an independent creative team behind it from backgrounds less represented in big-name releases. So, for your part, you’re feeding back into the same underdog groups that the cyberpunk genre champions. That’s an easy sell.
And hey, if you got that five-dollar bundle back in May? You already own a piece of it in Can Androids Pray (as well as the previously-mentioned 2064). If you haven’t looked at it yet, pull it off the virtual shelf. It’s short and to-the-point; all you have to lose is twenty minutes.
Keep the Roots
Of course, Cyberpunk isn’t something that can or should only be viewed through video games. It was forged in science fiction novels, lifted up by film, and now exists in every medium.
And it can be claimed by anyone. A non-zero part of the prevalence of Japanese and Chinese influences in cyberpunk cityscapes isn’t flattering; it originally came from a fear that megacities like Hong Kong would define a globalized future. But arguably one of the genre’s most seminal works is in anime, and ANNO: Mutationem is a cyberpunk game enthusiastically imported from a Chinese studio.
There’s always work to do, but we’re getting there.
Just like there’s still work to do on raising smaller voices despite others’ much larger megaphones, just like the genre ordered.
So get outside the current talking point.
Discover all the nooks and crannies of a subculture that grabs the imagination.
And briefly live in a world we all should work against ever seeing.
Indie Cyberpunk Games: The Rundown
For those who want a recap of every cyberpunk game mentioned in this article – or those who just skipped to the bottom – here are all the hits mentioned in the article, one more time:
- Katana Zero
- ANNO: Mutationem *
- Red Strings Club
- Va-11 Hall-A
- 2064: Read Only Memories *
- Chinatown Detective Agency *
- Synergia *
- Umurangi Generation *
- Be A Better Cyberpunk
- Can Androids Pray
Games marked with a * have a free demo available on Steam.
If you have a favorite cyberpunk game that didn’t make the list: Good. That makes it even more perfect as a cyberpunk work: doing good work despite its obscurity. Let us know about it in the comments.
And if you’d like to see what these games look like in action, go check out the time I joined CapsuleJay on his Twitch Channel! We broadcast playthroughs of three of the titles covered in this article – it made for a great time!