What really is Cyberpunk?

by Noah Thompson

Whether or not you have the most recent game console or the newest PC hardware, Cyberpunk 2077 has dealt drama across all platforms; even if you have experienced minimal issues, one could suggest that everyone has been deceived by the developers, CD Projekt Red. Crashes, glitches, and missing content are some of the main points of criticism surrounding the new release, not to mention the many delays the game has went through during the past year. For many, Cyberpunk 2077 is considered “unplayable”, “disappointing”, and “irredeemable”, however, others will look at it with optimism and hope. No matter how long it will take to fix, Cyberpunk 2077 is far from dead (especially thanks to the modding community), but little do most people know about the game’s history and foundations that have constructed such an iconic genre of art and media.

Characterized by bright neon megacities and by cybernetic implants for example, the cyberpunk genre boomed between the 1970’s and 1980’s after technology (specifically artificially intelligence) began to flirt with psychology and drug culture. Science fiction novels that spread this vision quickly inspired filmmakers to share their interpretations of this grim dystopic era. Books such as Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and George Orwell’s 1984 contributed heavily to the tech-noir film subgenre, inspiring series that would spread the code behind cyberpunk’s technological renaissance. 

The most well-known examples of cyberpunk-like visual media includes Blade Runner, Akira, and Ghost in the Shell for example. However, behind Cyberpunk 2077 were the tabletop games which expanded upon earlier cyberpunk material. Two years after the theatrical release of Blade Runner in 1982, science fiction writer William Gibson wrote the book Neuromancer, which is regarded as one of the best, most influential sources for expanding and solidifying the genre, even having been published after the release of Blade Runner. Gibson is often credited with coining the term “cyberspace” in Neuromancer, giving the abstract word meaning in a fictitious sense in order to evoke his readers. The premise of the novel, which eventually turned into a book series called the Sprawl trilogy, is about a computer hacker named Henry Dorsett Case who is caught stealing from his employer and gets disabled by a chemical toxin as punishment. Case is then saved by a mercenary whose employer offers to remove the toxin in exchange for his abilities.

Gibson’s vision is very similar to that of Mike Pondsmith’s, the founder and lead game designer of R. Talsorian Games, who is also considered one of cyberpunk’s founding fathers alongside William Gibson. His version of cyberpunk is focused on the division between large corporations and the street life that are cybernetically empowered enough to rebel and fight back against the corporations, weapon manufacturers, and rampant gangs. In 1988, Cyberpunk was published as the first version of R. Talsorian Games’ cyberpunk roleplaying tabletop games but is now more commonly referred to as Cyberpunk 2013 (for taking place in the year 2013) when the first version was updated shortly in 1990. This edition of Cyberpunk was replaced by Cyberpunk 2020 which updated 2013’s rules, storyline, and improved many intricate game mechanics including combat, netrunning, and character creation. This is by far the most popular edition of Cyberpunk and can still be purchased today. Although Cyberpunk V3.0 was later published in 2005 after the huge success of 2020, it quickly received negativity for major changes to storyline, artwork, rules, and mechanics. This is why it has been forgotten about by the community and retconned by the fourth and newest edition of Cyberpunk tabletop games after V3.0 was deemed non-canon by Pondsmith.

In November 2020, R. Talsorian Games released Cyberpunk Red, the fourth and most recent edition of the lineup acting as a sequel to Cyberpunk 2020 and a prequel to Cyberpunk 2077. Finally, after several decades the Cyberpunk community got a game that would force them to set aside 2020. This edition takes place after a massive corporate war and leaves players to decide what happens next in the aftermath during the year 2045; what started as an independent project for Mike Pondsmith and R. Talsorian Games quickly turned into a collaboration with CD Projekt Red after hearing about the new Cyberpunk tabletop being developed. Both games were closely interwoven and characters from the old reference books would now come to life in the new roleplaying game of the dark future.

No one can accurately describe the cyberpunk genre until stepping into Night City in one way or another, whether through the D&D-like Cyberpunk 2020/Red or the GTA styled Cyberpunk 2077. Not even Blade Runner can put into perspective the active fight between mega-corporations and street life. Overall, it’s the message of why and how these themes have come to be that push the boundaries of what makes this dystopic vision of the future so thought-provoking, instead of focusing on the marveling cities and the chilling cybernetic enhancements themselves. Cyberpunk isn’t just another subgenre of art like steampunk or vaporwave- it’s the marriage of science fiction with philosophy as ethics are cast aside during the waging war of corporate colonialism. There is much to learn from this grim future, but we can roll the dice together and take our chances.

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