Cyberpunk, as a genre, is a cautionary tale, a warning against a possible future. It's not an aspirational aesthetic. 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. *cough* Cyberpunk 2077 *cough cough*
Of course, it's hard not to avoid excitement over it, especially now that many bugs have been squashed and performance issues have been fixed. The game is quite good now, even if it still carries with it the Triple-A corporate ID badge. Whatever. If it floats your neon-trimmed boat, rock it. You have to find joy where you can, and nobody should take that away from you.
Plus, y'know, it has Keanu Reeves. And we love Keanu.
That said, there are still plenty of other, independent cyberpunk games that we want to direct you to. Instead of a
Indie Cyberpunk Games: The Rundown
For this post, I've decided to break down the titles into different kinds of cyberpunk games because, like a good ocular implant, one size does not fit all.
For those who just want the list, here's every cyberpunk game mentioned in this article. (Games marked with a * have a free demo available on Steam.)
- 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
EDITOR'S NOTE: The “Be a Better Cyberpunk” Bundle is no longer available at itch.io, but we are keeping the link here so that you can check out the bundle page to support its games individually.
If you have a favorite cyberpunk game that didn't make the list: Great! That makes it even more perfect as a cyberpunk work: doing good work despite obscurity. Let us know about it in the comments!
The easiest place to start, obviously, is the aesthetic. Cyberpunk is defined almost entirely in the mainstream eye by grungy cityscapes aglow with 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 solidified the genre – our displays couldn't manage much more back then, anyway. Low-resolution assets as 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 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 neglect, both physical and psychological.
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 feel properly dystopian when you're wallowing in them. Angst is core to Punk; without it, you've just got Cyber-Pop.
The After-Hours Crowd
And what better place to vent that angst than a dive bar?
Red Strings Club starts there and operates almost entirely from that strike zone. You literally pour out anxiety, fear, and regret to your clientele, and bolster them to go back out and face a failing city. Under the counter and even by overt bodily control, you bite back at the suits that just don't like the idea of you walking free. You're at the bottom, but not powerless.
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 and for worse. You empathize with characters when you see their bright spots shine right next to their muddy struggles ad imperfections.
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.
The Cyberpunk Gumshoe
Cyberpunk has been paired up with noir fiction almost since the former got its very start. 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 anyone 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 claw out from 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 their web browser and reference 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 at the time of this writing, 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 handfuls 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 individual people already, naturally play into that.
It's not a great situation and one that I myself can do better at combating. In some cases, that means finding more direct ways to offer support.
Itch.io has absolutely done right by reacting to real-world problems through, of all things, selling video games on the cheap. We could scarcely begin to sample them when we hit our personal highlights.
Best really, the best thing about Itch is that 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 if you're one of the lucky few who was able to get a mega-bundle on Itch over the past few years, you may 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.
Stay True To Your 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 prevalent Japanese and Chinese influences in cyberpunk cityscapes isn't pure flattery; it originally came from 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.
We always need to be paying attention, to hear smaller voices despite others' much larger megaphones, just like the genre ordered.
So get outside the current talking points. 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.
And if you'd like to see what these games look like in action, go check out our showcase on Capsulejay's Twitch Channel! We broadcast playthroughs of three of the titles covered in this article – it made for a great time!