Friday 10 October 2014

A Discussion of Cyber Punk in Video Games

'Any sufficiently advanced form of technology is indistinguishable from magic...' (Arthur C. Clarke)

'Cyberpunk' emerged as a sub-genre of sci-fi, and can be traced back to the early 1980s. Author William Gibson penned a series of novels (including Neuromancer) which narratively placed individuals in a new world of technology; where information became the new currency.

Thematically, the international settings of Japan, Los Angeles, London and Paris were linked through a hidden network of computers. With period films such as Tron, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and Videodrome, the cyberpunk ethos was complete.Within such fertile space - be it novels, films or games - we are often presented with things that are not commonplace to us. These sometimes take the form of advanced mechanical devices, or different realms in which to explore and live. Humans themselves can even reach a higher stage of evolution - possibly developing new skills and abilities in the process - and thus be classified as 'cyberpunk'. It is these aspects that appeal to a global audience, but can also isolate them: because cyberpunk generally looks at the isolation of individuals in worlds where they do not seem to blend seamlessly with society.

As with texts which deal in pure fantasy, containing characters that may well be able to cast 'real magic' (or mythological creatures of enormous power such as dragons, vampires and demons etc.), cyberpunk can also be read in terms of theorist Todorov's idea of the "marvellous, uncanny and fantastic". This suggests that the two are more closely linked than would initially seem the case. For instance, when confronted by a flying car or hoverbike in Flashback or bionic implant in Deus Ex, it can be said that these create or instil such feelings of the "fantastic" as a flying carpet would. Because these things do not exist in our 'real' world, we may therefore question the reality on a literal level; indeed we may "marvel" at the depiction of something so obviously outside our frame of reference.

Games dealing with cyberpunk themes may well offer up mythological creatures within their narratives; however they are normally shown to us in terms of some form of technological monstrosity - as opposed to more traditional fantasy-themed or magically-endowed creatures. This can be called, as Todorov puts it, the "scientific marvellous": where the supernatural is explained in a rational manner but according to laws which contemporary science does not acknowledge - thus taking us away from the established repertoire of fantasy games where the 'marvellous' is characterised by the mere presence of supernatural events.Therefore, if such a close link exists between what we perceive as 'classic' fantasy (Zelda et al, swords 'n' sorcery, a distinct lack of guns), sci-fi and cyberpunk, why is it that cyberpunk has all but disappeared from the gaming world (notwithstanding a small surge of interest in the '90s - as evidenced by Flashback and Shadowrun)? Indeed, it appears that the sub-genre never fully realised its potential.

When we look back upon gaming's past we can pinpoint specific moments where cyberpunk was ushered forth as an 'alternative' - and somewhat ironically where the sub-genre met its match. One game, or perhaps more accurately, one series which was sublimated by Final Fantasy VII, hit the western market quite unexpectedly - and was filled with the decay and feel that runs central to the core dynamic of any cyberpunk-themed adventure; fusing 'real' elemental magic with the heavy overtones of industrial-strength monsters, leaking reactors and extracted energy (which also compressed into 'magical materia'). The problem with cyberpunk is that it is always a subdivision of two main genres - ie, fantasy and sci-fi - and when marketing a title it needs to be securely 'pigeon-holed' (or at least the games industry supposes it should be). One could thus imagine a conflict of interest when trying to 'sell' a game on the basis of its neo-magical theme - where commercially it is far easier to frame such games in more recognisable or traditional settings.

With Final Fantasy VII proving a runaway success, Squaresoft could either consolidate the genre or attempt to break from it. They gambled upon the latter, providing an almost 'Utopian' world for the character-driven sequel. By moving away from the dark and gloomy undertones so prevalent in films such as Blade Runner, and opting for a clean and sanitised aesthetic for the futuristic cities and environs (perhaps more reminiscent of Minority Report), Squaresoft effectively killed off - or forever shifted the focus from - the cyberpunk influence in mainstream culture. And then a final, devastating blow: FFVIII was not accepted in the same way as its predecessors - while it has a fanbase, it is notably the most despised Final Fantasy title on the market; criticised for (among other things), straying too far from the 'feel' of the series... What irony then, that this sterile 'real' world should cause a public outcry.From this point on there was only one way to proceed; the masses had spoken and realism was not on the agenda.

Unsurprisingly the next Final Fantasy title reverted to its classic fantasy-themed roots and was once again hailed by the public. It seemed there was no available niche in the gaming market where sci-fi and fantasy could happily coalesce and/or foster longevity, as the audience for both genres wanted different things. Sci-fi fans wanted more realistic-looking environments, bigger weapons, aliens, robots etc. and the fantasy fans wanted swords 'n' sorcery et al. So the inevitable happened, and developers decided to play it safe (perhaps nestling in their preferred pigeon-holes).

The moral of our tale: with any predominantly-themed 'Cyberpunk' game you are never really sure what you are getting; and if there is one thing publishers and developers do not like it's uncertainty from the buying public. Hence the reason the sub-genre has never really established itself - apart from Final Fantasy VII and Deus Ex, there are very few 'successful' cyberpunk titles. Why bother trying to unite two seemingly disparate genres in the hopes of an underground hit, when you can safely 'secure' your title in either of the alternate markets and almost guarantee success with a corresponding chunk of the public? Perhaps someday someone will take another chance with cyberpunk... let's hope so, because the brief history of the sub-genre has historically been responsible for some of gaming's - and contemporary culture's - best moments.

References: Butler, Andrew M, (2000) Cyberpunk (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials), Springer, Claudia (1999) Psycho-Cybernetics in the Films of the 1990s, Alien Zone II (London and New York: Verso), Landsberg, Alison (1995) Prosthetic Memory: Total Recall and Blade Runner (Body and Society Volume 1), Todorov, T. (1975) The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre

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