The color of television, tuned to a dead channel
Heavy rain beats down on a dejected detective as he roams the city streets, a thick fog (or is it smog?) hovering below a permanent night sky. He passes a variety of colorful characters during his stroll - a humanoid robot walking several dogs; a punk kid with far too many piercings; several corporate goons shaking down a tenant a few months late on his implant payments; a grizzled war veteran with a laser-red ocular terminal inlaid on chrome where his eye should be. This is cyberpunk: the intersection between film noir and Reagan-era science-fiction, where the rich control the government and the poor attempt to eke out a living in cybernetic squalor. And of course, there's the dataverse, the world inside the computer, where intrepid hackers can make big money and pull one over on the mega-corporations that really rule the world - as long as they don't get caught.
Cyberpunk isn't just at home in movies or books - there are a wealth of video games that explore this neon-drenched cross-section of man and machine. Taking inspiration from other cyberpunk media like Blade Runner, Neuromancer, and Akira, these video games take established tropes and explore them in bold new ways. Find your neural pathway connector and jack in, runner - we're going on a ride into cyberspace.
In many ways, Invisible, Inc. evokes strains of the recent XCOM reboot, especially in how it makes all of your early, seemingly inconsequential choices at the beginning ripple outward, a butterfly effect that will determine whether or not your particular run through the game will end in victory or defeat. But instead of protecting Earth from a marauding alien force, Invisible, Inc. casts you as a plucky band of superspies who are attempting to infiltrate and bring down a world-wide corporate regime.
Invisible, Inc.'s missions play out in turns, and stealth is valued above all else. Enemy guards are liable to swiftly decimate your squad if you don't slink through enemy headquarters and complete your objectives without being detected, but you can't afford to be slow - time is your most valuable resource, and the longer you take to complete a mission, the more aware the enemy becomes of your presence, and the more difficult it becomes to survive. To make matters worse, your AI companion - which you need to hack the myriad enemies and terminals you come across - only has 72 hours of battery power left, and each mission you complete saps several precious hours from the timer. Every decision you make has benefits and consequences, and one wrong move can cause irreparable damage several missions later. No pressure or anything.
Shadowrun: Dragonfall Director's Cut
The pen-and-paper Neuromancer-meets-D&D RPG series Shadowrun made its triumphant return to relevance in 2013, re-introducing a world of cybernetic implants, street samurais, and computer-hacking elves and orcs to a whole new audience. And while Shadowrun Returns is a fun turn-based strategy RPG in its own right, it's the expansion, Dragonfall, that's really worth playing, thanks to the strength of its writing.
Here's the set-up: back in 2012, a massive dimensional rift opened, causing a flood of fantastical creatures and beasts to pour into our world - including the Great Dragon Feuerschwinge. It took four months to fell the mighty beast, and now, 40 years later, rumors of its return start surfacing in Berlin, a city teetering on the brink of anarchy. It's here that your story is told, as you join up with a variety of punks, thieves, and hackers (known as 'deckers') and take on jobs around the city. Dragonfall evokes strains of Mass Effect 2, as each of your party members comes with their own baggage, but Dragonfall ups the ante by revelling in the shades of gray that Mass Effect avoids. You don't even need to own Shadowrun Returns to play this expansion - the Director's Cut is a stand-alone experience that tells its own, self-contained tale in this fantastic world.
The rain-soaked planet of Barracus hides dangerous secrets, and as detective Azriel Odin, you arrive looking for any clues that will lead to your brother's whereabouts. Your investigation sends you on a collision course with the Boryokudan crime syndicate - a dangerous organization dealing in a deadly drug known as "juice". You also play as Delta Six, a man locked up in a "rehabilitation center", with no memory of who he once was and no contact with the outside world. The connection between these plotlines seems indistinct, until well, that's all you're getting out of me.
Gemini Rue looks like a point-and-click adventure made back in LucasArts' heyday at first glance, but spend five minutes with it and you'll see there's a lot more depth to it than many of its contemporaries. You'll actually have to do proper detective work, as you use your communicator to cross-reference the information you get from the people you talk to on a futuristic version of the internet. And the story's really good too, with some pretty decent voice acting considering it was developed by one guy. If you like your sci-fi served hardboiled with a whiskey chaser, Gemini Rue will fit the bill nicely.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution Director's Cut
In the near future, technology allows humans to live beyond the confines of their genetics. Augmentations give sight to the blind, repair broken limbs, and grant otherwise superhuman ability to those who can afford it - which, of course, creates a rift between those who can and those who can't. Black markets spring up, offering illegal modification work. Hostility brews between those who opt for augmentation and those who see it as a perversion of humanity. And in the middle of it all stands Adam Jensen, a man who would be dead if it weren't for a massive, experimental reconstruction that replaces most of his body with technological enhancements.
Deux Ex: Human Revolution is a fascinating exploration of a possible future where the very nature of what it means to be human is redefined by our technology. And as Jensen, you're able to experience this world through his eyes, speak with its people, and decide your own fate. It's a quasi-first-person-shooter/stealth-RPG where talking your way out of a situation is just as viable a solution as fighting your way through it or hacking your way around it. Just make sure you grab the director's cut, which enhances the graphics a bit, integrates the DLC mission directly into the story, and vastly improves the boss fights.
Final Fantasy 7
Final Fantasy 7 may seem like an odd entry on this list, but it has all the trappings of a compelling cyberpunk tale along with a heaping dose of Eastern mysticism. A small band of rebels attempt to dismantle Shinra, a monolithic megacorp sucking the very lifeforce out of the planet to power Midgar - a massive, dystopian pizza-shaped city where the haves live in sunlight and the have-nots live in fear of being literally crushed under the weight of those who live on the plate above.
This is a world where magic - extracted from the planet and compressed into tiny balls called materia - is just as commonplace as the technology and neon-lit neighborhoods that its citizens live with. There's a little more emphasis on the ethereal power of nature than you'd normally find in cyberpunk, especially when you finally start diving into its main story arc, but the bizarre combination of arm-grafted gatling guns, gigantic swords, and Chocobos is what makes Final Fantasy 7 such a memorable experience.
Most cyberpunk tales are dour affairs, as our heroes often try to affect change on an immovable object, whether that's a massive corporation, an authoritarian government, or society as a whole. But Transistor is downright tragic, as a single action sets an entire chain of events in motion that could spell doom for the remnants of human civilization.
The story opens as Red, an opera singer who has lost her voice, pulls a sword called the Transistor out of the body of an unknown man. That man's consciousness has become embedded inside, his voice booming from the blade (and, in a nice touch, from the PS4 controller's speaker). Together, they attempt to track down and defeat the Camerata, a group of aristocrats and government officers, all while a strange weapon known as the Process spreads across the city like a malignant tumor. Interestingly, combat works much like a computer program - each of Red's powers are named after programming functions, and in order to fend off the Process, you must pause time, set up a series of attacks and movement commands, and then watch everything play out in real-time. The closer you get to the end, and the more the line between the physical and the virtual world begins to blur, leaving you to question how "real" Transistor's world really is.
Life Is Strange developer Dontnod's first effort, Remember Me, is a classic case of ambition exceeding ability. Not everything in the game works as well as it should - combat is clunky and uninteresting, and the environments look breathtaking but ultimately feel hollow - but at its core is a gripping story of a future where memories are bought and sold, and can be manipulated at will.
Set in 2084 in the city of Neo-Paris (it's not a cyberpunk tale without the word 'Neo' in there somewhere), Remember Me follows Nilin, a memory hunter who had her own memories stripped from her by Memorize, a corporation that deals in memory implants. In her quest to regain her past, she finds herself working for the Errorists, an underground resistance attempting to bring down the mega-corporations that run Neo-Paris. Perhaps the most sinister thing about Remember Me is that you'll often have to hop inside the memories of the people you come across and 'remix' them, effectively editing their own perception of real-world events as easy as you would delete a file from a computer. Early in the game, you convince one of the memory hunters trying to track you down to become your ally by making her think that Memorize killed her husband, despite the fact that he's still alive, resting on a hospital bed inside the city. Remember Me's not a perfect game, but it's not afraid to go to some dark places.
So there are actually two games called Syndicate, and they're both pretty fantastic for completely different reasons. The first was released back in 1993, developed by Peter Moleyneux's Bullfrog Studios. It's an isometric real-time strategy game where you send your corporate agents out on missions to take down rival megacorps by abducting their scientists and assassinating their executives. As an older game, it has a steep learning curve, but its core gameplay still holds up, decades later.
The other Syndicate is a 2012 reboot of the franchise, developed by Starbreeze (the team behind the surprise hit The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay). Starbreeze took the corporate-run world presented in the old PC tactics game and turned it into a first-person shooter, making the action far more immediate and intimate than it's ever been. You're only controlling one dude this time around (with the hilariously cyberpunk name Miles Kilo), but you're bestowed with a variety of cybernetic hacks you can use to take over the enemy's neural implants. The campaign is pretty decent, but the real draw is its four player co-op mode. Each operative chooses a loadout with a variety of different powers, and everyone has to work together to complement each other's strengths as they take down a multitude of powerful enemies. It may not play the same as the 1993 original, but it captures its spirit while offering a ton of interesting ideas of its own.
Read Only Memories
Read Only Memories looks like a future as portrayed by 80s and 90s anime classics like Bubblegum Crisis and Macross Plus, with a bit of the detective work featured in Hideo Kojima's cult classic Sega CD adventure Snatcher thrown in for good measure. Set in Neo-San Francisco (there it is again) in 2064, Read Only memories is less a point-and-click adventure game and more of an investigatorial drama in the vein of Phoenix Wright with a cyberpunk twist. This is a future where issues regarding gender, sexuality, and even religion have largely been eradicated, though they've been replaced with a brand new prejudice toward those who opt to splice their DNA with animal genes or receive cybernetic enhancements
You're cast as a journalist living in this new, highly technological vision of the future, investigating the mysterious disappearance of your friend. Following you on your adventure is Turing, the world's first sentient robot. As you traverse the neon-lit city streets, you'll have deep, conflicted conversations with your new robot pal, all while trying to navigate a convoluted web of conspiracies and double-crosses. It's a slower burn than some, heavily focusing on dialog and investigation over action, but if you're looking for a captivating futuristic noir tale with a slick art style and killer tunes, Read Only Memories is an easy choice.
Anachronox is a game where an entire planet joins your party. Wait - let me back up a bit. Anachronox is a hilarious cyberpunk spoof. It was also designed by Ion Storm Dallas, the team behind the ill-fated Daikatana, and the studio shut down a mere month after its release in 2001. Don't let the pedigree fool you, though - while parts of it haven't aged terribly well, it's a hell of a game, and it hasn't lost an ounce of its wit or charm in the last 15 years.
You play as Sly Boots, a down-on-his-luck detective who finds himself embroiled in a mystery that sends him to the furthest reaches of the universe. There's a colorful cast of characters: your deceased secretary is converted into an artificial intelligence and lives inside your in-game mouse cursor; there's a femme fatale who goes by the name Stiletto Anyway; and yes, there's an entire planet named Democratus that shrinks itself down and follows you around on your travels. The game plays like a JRPG with some adventure game elements sprinkled throughout, and its script is consistently fun, playing off of its genre's many tropes without being obnoxious about it. It's a shame the story doesn't stick the landing as well as it should, as the ending teases a planned sequel that will most assuredly never happen. Even so, it's seven bucks on Steam, and it's worth every penny.
Binary Domain is actually a pretty lackluster third-person cover-based shooter, if you're looking at it strictly from a gameplay perspective. But if you can look past its flaws and let it into your heart, you'll find a game that will let you use your own voice to tell a French robot that you love him in the thick of combat - and he'll actually respond.
In the near future, much of the world's major cities are underwater (thanks, global warming), with humanity rebuilding on top the remnants of the water-logged buildings. Many menial tasks are carried out by robots now, with the Bergen Corporation controlling virtually all of the market. The game's plot follows Dan Marshall and his Rust Crew, as they attempt to bring in a rival CEO for questioning about a recent attack on Bergen headquarters. Binary Domain somehow simultaneously channels the wackiness of Metal Gear Solid with the serious undertones of the works of Isaac Asimov, producing a game that is equal parts earnest and completely ridiculous. Big Bo wouldn't have it any other way.
Rez's status as a cyberpunk game isn't obvious until you realize that you're traveling through a futuristic version of the internet as designed by someone with a severe case of synesthesia. The narrative as told by Rez is incredibly abstract, often relying on strange, shifting visuals, pulsating environments, and a virtually endless stream of computer code running down the side of the screen while you play to provide context. Eventually, you piece together the full story - you're playing as a computer hacker attempting to prevent the shutdown of a global "supernetwork".
EDEN, the AI who runs the supernetwork, has been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information on the network, which has caused the AI to question her very existence. As the hacker, it's your job to fly through a series of stages, fending off viruses and breaking through firewalls, and make your way to the core in order to prevent EDEN from taking the network offline. Rez plays like a rail shooter, but every action you take, whether you're locking onto enemies or firing digital missile salvos, shapes the sound of every stage's soundtrack. Rez is a strange game, and it doesn't exactly fit the typical cyberpunk mold, but this is a digital acid trip well worth taking.