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How do you know if a cyberpunk video game is good?

Thinking about cyberpunk and video games and cyberpunk video games is something I do too much, and lately what’s been on my mind is to develop a critical framework for discussing cyberpunk video games. I can’t help but have some kind of method. I studied history and taught middle school English, structure and templates is how I think.

The obvious first step is to separate each element and discuss them individually. When we want to think critically about a cyberpunk video game, there are two questions that we have to answer: Is this a good video game? And, is this a good work of cyberpunk fiction? Then, we can combine these two analyses and make some sort of conclusion.

Why does this matter? Well it probably doesn’t to most people. But cyberpunk, and video games, and cyberpunk video games are dear to me. I want to understand them the best that I can.

I’m not going to write here about how to criticize video games or how to criticize fiction. My head isn’t that far up my own ass. That work has certainly been done somewhere else and better. Rather, I will use a few brief examples and hopefully illustrate specifically what the fuck I’m currently on about.

A great video game

Akane is a great video game. It’s an arcade slash-em-up where you kill waves of enemies by combining sword, ranged, and special attacks. A system of achievements allows you to unlock new items for your character. Some of them (cigarettes) are aesthetic, but most of them change the gameplay in meaningful ways. You can even strategically use your upgrades to make completing other achievements easier.

It’s a relatively short game. It has a low barrier to entry with a medium-high skill ceiling. Progression is satisfying. The pixel graphics even look pretty good. The thumping soundtrack fits the game’s mood and movements.

Like I said, great video game.

But it is not a great work of cyberpunk fiction. It smacks of “high tech, low class” by combining future gadgets with the Yakuza. The game’s one boss is a Shutterstock cyberninja. There’s nothing else to see here.

For the record, I think this is ok. I think many games are in the same boat. We could even have a Twitter slapfight about whether or not games should be like this. Game design should come before appeasing snowcrash double underscores anyway, right?

(wrong 😡)

Other great video games with a cyberpunk veneer: Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon, Nex Machina, Metal Gear Rising, Refrain ~prism memories~

A great work of cyberpunk fiction

Gods Will Be Watching is a point-and-click game set in the distant future where, as a corporation shill, you infiltrate a terrorist cell and have to lead them through a variety of sticky situations.

I like this because too many “cyberpunk” video games do not make you think or question characters’ intents and actions, or anything about the world/society they inhabit. Gods Will Be Watching puts these at the forefront, and it’s particularly striking that the way you behave within each scenario has far-reaching consequences that you might not even anticipate in later events.

As a video game, however, it is fucking terrible. It’s billed as a “minimalistic point-and-click thriller” and it is minimalistic to a fault. It’s the bad parts of the most tedious resource management simulator combined with a gacha game. It’s cruel and repetitive. A fucking unmitigated technical disaster.

But god damn it the story is a real kick in the genitals and your choices actually matter. I love you, you flawed little caltrop of a game.

Other bad video games that tell great cyberpunk stories: Until I Have You, The Red Strings Club, Orwell

Awful everything

Re-Legion is a RTS game where you expand and manage a high tech cult because reasons.

It looks bad. It controls bad. The pseudo-drone perspective cutscene cam makes my favorite Twitch viewer nauseous. The dialogue, especially from the main player character “Prophet”, is cringeworthy.

Instead of enhancing the experience, the cyberpunk elements of the game obscure what are actually some solid fundamentals of modern RTS games. Examples: your resource gatherers are “Hackers”, and instead of mining minerals they mine Bitcoin. I had to play two or three scenarios before this became clear. It took about the same amount of time for me to understand that you are essentially the Zerg; you convert normies into larva followers that you mutate annoint to become other, more useful idiots.

It’s a thinly developed Matrix fanfic that gets in the way of what might have been an at least playable game in a tragically neglected genre.

Other complete pieces of shit: Binary Domain, Project Eden, The Surge, ROOT

Good cyberpunk video games

That brings us to the following - examples of good video games that are also good works of cyberpunk fiction:

EXAPUNKS expands the zachlike formula in meaningful ways while telling a compelling story about life under late stage capitalism in a retro-futuristic world.

2064: Read Only Memories contains the most adorable cast of characters that may have ever graced a point-and-click adventure game while still being reminiscent of gritty classics like Snatcher.

Brigador is a twin-stick shooter that rewards situational awareness and tactical gameplay, while subtly reminding you of the human cost of piloting a giant mech in a residential area.

Shadowrun: Dragonfall is the second and more worthy campaign of the modern CRPG adaptations of the Shadowrun role-playing game system, with a cyberpunk (+ dragons) story that is just complex enough that the twists are satisfying but not so complex that you end up with no idea what the fuck is going on.

I want it all

Sometimes a developer puts the game above the cyberpunk. Sometimes a developer puts the cyberpunk ahead of the game.

I need both. When I play and write about these games, I’m looking for both. And when I try to convey to you why I think a cyberpunk video game is bad - when I say some dumb shit like most of them are bad - it’s because I think they’ve missed one or both of those marks.