I was recently invited to explore my reasons for liking cyberpunk – that particularly dystopic blend of sci-fi which deals with a near-future dominated by cybernetic technology. I’ve studied it before in projects dealing with visual design, but I’d not looked upon it as an idea this deeply before. Doing so led me to some startling discoveries, and also shed some light on why I enjoy games design so.
The genre we’re actually dealing with when talking cyberpunk is a cross between ‘gothic’ and ‘science fiction’:
- Sci-fi is a genre in which stories are heavily influenced by realistic-sounding scientific advancements: humanity touches the cosmos with warp engines; society communicates with electronic cyberbrains; and so on.
- Gothic is a genre which holds a distorted mirror up to what we perceive as normal, in order to shock or otherwise provoke: wealthy aristocrats who emerge only during the night; men who transform into terrible beasts; and so on.
Cyberpunk combines these two by showing us quite alien worlds, of cyborg implants and widespread drug abuse which echo the fears of a modern age. Viruses and hackers are the folk devils of a gothic genre, just as demons and bloodthirsty killers were in more religious times.
I don’t enjoy all cyberpunk though. As futuristic genres go, I far prefer retro-futurism – hence naming my website “Raygun Gothic” – but cyberpunk did give rise to the likes of Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix and other such tales of virtual worlds in which identity is questioned and appearances may be deceiving. People become something other than themselves, and often face struggles in a world which is hostile to them. Those themes speak to me on a personal level, and doubtless play a huge part in my calling to design video games.
The problem I have with cyberpunk is that it is innately depressing. Sci-fi’s purpose is to ask “what if?”, and cyberpunk is one of science fiction’s bleakest answers. It tells us that human nature will doom us all, and its stories uniquely feature anti-heroes for the odds are stacked so high that it takes a rebel to even try for resolution. Often the end is not a happy one.
But is retro-futurism any better? Raygun gothic is a genre in which technology grants humanity its prosperity: ships transport us across the cosmos, robots attend to our every whim and magical energies grant us control over the elements. It’s also an incredibly dated genre, very worthy of the term “retro-futurism”. ‘Raypunk’ (as I call it) is a vision of a future that never was: the year 2000 as envisioned from the 1930s and 40s.
Cyberpunk and raypunk are two sides of the same coin. Both allow us to imagine a future supported by technology, but one is dystopic, one is utopic. The sad thing is that while cyberpunk is a “what if”, raypunk is an “if only”. The fact that we don’t have jetpacks and lycra space suits puts us far closer to embracing a cyberpunk world, and while I long for worlds and identities to escape to, raypunk serves as a reminder of what we don’t have.
I have no conclusion to add to such thoughts; they are what they are. Comparing genres like this does highlight where my moods may take me, though. I can fool myself into thinking that raypunk can work, or I can look upon cyberpunk as a lesson in things to avoid. I can also see raypunk as a missed opportunity, or embrace the integrated sea of information within cyberpunk as something glorious to aim for.