Can Video Game Cyberpunk Ever Be As Good As Blade Runner?

It's been nearly two years since the release of Cyberpunk 2077. Despite some strong reviews, the game's reputation was quickly scrapped for spare parts once it was out in the wild, when players on last-gen consoles witnessed the game's sheer brokenness on older hardware. As someone who was looking forward to Cyberpunk 2077, and as a huge fan of the cyberpunk genre more broadly, I've worried that its disastrous launch might lead publishers and developers to conclude that no one wants to play more cyberpunk-themed games.

If 2022 is any indication — and given how long games take to develop, it may not be — cyberpunk doesn't appear to be in trouble. Stray, a double-A game repeatedly featured by Sony in press conferences, stars a cat padding and pouncing its way through a futuristic city inhabited entirely by robots. Citizen Sleeper, one of this year's breakout indie titles, stars an android attempting to scratch out a living on a massive space station. Norco, a small-scale point-and-click, is set in an alternate Louisiana, that is mostly southern gothic with a little bit of cyberpunk.

Thousands of games are released every year, though, and three standouts aren't enough to make an argument one way or another. But, it would be disappointing to see cyberpunk become a taboo genre in games. Despite plenty of games set in the genre, it hasn't reached its full potential yet.

That's interesting because, in film, cyberpunk was basically fully realized from its first outing. Some might consider Blade Runner proto-cyberpunk given that it doesn't include some of the genre's hallmarks, like a focus on hackers or any representation of an anti-authoritarian rebellion. But, that's missing the oil fields for the flame. Ridley Scott's 1982 sci-fi masterpiece established an aesthetic blueprint for cyberpunk that is still followed by much of the art made in the genre today.

Blade Runner had a clarity of vision and an attention to detail that is hard for video game cyberpunk to replicate. Cyberpunk 2077 gives us free reign to explore a massive map, establishing a world through expansive, explorable space. Blade Runner, though, is a movie. It can suggest that Los Angeles is a sprawling technologically advanced urban wasteland without showing us much of that space at all. When Ridley Scott's camera glides over the flames of the oil fields as a flying car whooshes by or when a blimp passes by above the city streets advertising a new life in the offworld colonies, those details provide a glimpse of what the world is; a suggestion of the boundless visions left unseen just outside of frame.

For this reason, Final Fantasy 7 remains my personal high water mark for cyberpunk in games. Though I prefer Final Fantasy 7 Remake as a complete package, with more fully realized characters and deeper, more interesting combat, the original's evocative art is unmatched. Sure, its pre-rendered backgrounds look dated by today's standards, but that doesn't mean they don't perfectly capture the vibe of a futuristic city that retains a vibrant personality despite being hollowed out and impoverished by capitalism. Like other games of the PS1 era, like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, Final Fantasy 7 is able to present precise shot compositions because the player doesn't have control of the camera. Cloud walks into an area where a giant mechanical hand is jutting out of the ground, but has no way to look at it more closely. Rather than being a three-dimensional object which we can study the most minute details of, the robot hand functions as a sketch; a suggestion of a history we cannot fully know.

The challenge Cyberpunk 2077 faced (and, largely, failed) was allowing the player to explore a neon-drenched cityscape while still retaining the wonder Blade Runner infused into its indelible frames. Moviemaking is always a process of misdirection, of capturing untamed wilderness by hiding a telephone pole just out of the shot. But the promise of an open-world video game, like Cyberpunk 2077, is that if you can see a location, you can go there. By reducing its futuristic city down to only the necessary frames, Final Fantasy 7 was able to build a world that suggested far more than it realized.

Cyberpunk is a genre freighted with themes. It's concerned with what it means to be human, and how messy flesh can coexist with rigid metal. It's concerned with the structures of power and how capitalism, left unchecked, destroys most of the people living under it for the enrichment of a few. Fantasy and sci-fi are big tents. Cyberpunk is defined by specific fixations.

But, equally important to this fan of the subgenre, it is defined by vibes. It is defined by tall, imposing buildings, rusting metal, streets covered in rain puddles and litter, flying cars, black wires plugged into human bodies, cramped hackers' apartments, and yes, neon. In Final Fantasy 7, the vibes are immaculate. But, give me control of the camera and they become defined by what I want to see and my will to get close enough to see it. Take away control, and I feel a sense of wonder at the sheer immenseness of the world beyond my peripheral vision.

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