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Coined

How a 1960s literary movement inspired the biggest game of 2020

“Cyberpunk”

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On December 10, video game fans will finally get to experience something they’ve been anticipating for over seven years: Cyberpunk 2077.

Polish developer CD Projekt Red’s long-awaited launch isn’t going to reinvent the role-playing game. Cyberpunk 2077 will lean into tried and true concepts that have elevated open-world titles for years. Instead, it’s the title’s unique dystopian metropolis — Night City — that’s held gamers’ rapt attention for most of a decade.

Cyberpunk” science fiction stories that unravel in places like Night City have existed since long before the first video game consoles. Cyberpunk 2077, however, has managed to kick up excitement for the genre unlike any other piece of media in recent history.

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Cyberpunk science fiction has long been popular in the smaller circles, but now it's gone mainstream.CD Projekt Red

The style of sci-fi is unmistakable in its presentation: high-tech and low-life. Cyberpunk media almost always includes a mix of super-intelligence A.I., cybernetic attachments to the human body, brain-connected computers, and far too much neon. All of that is juxtaposed with a crumbling society plagued by tribalist fighting, oppressive mega-corporations, and general horrid living conditions. Sound familiar?

Movies like Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (1982) might come to mind first, but it’s not a stretch of the imagination to see similarities in films like these in today’s tech-centric world. Cyberpunk first became popular because it played off people’s tangible anxieties about modern society. Today, companies like Amazon and Apple have become de facto parts of our daily lives while tech billionaires toy with the idea of brain chips.

Cyberpunk has been popular as long as people have been scared about the growing influence of technology and unchained capitalism.Shutterstock

Cyberpunk 2077 will let gamers explore these real fears in a more lifelike manner than any other medium before it. It will tap into the same deep-rooted curiosity and fears science fiction writers of the 1960s used to serendipitously spawn the cyberpunk genre.

The origin of cyberpunk

Cyberpunk was created before it was defined. The first clear example of the sci-fi subgenre was Phillip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was set in post-apocalyptic San Francisco after the Earth was devastated by nuclear war.

Dick's novel was effectively a prototype of what cyberpunk would evolve into. Philip K. Dick

At the same time Dick’s book was published, the 1960s and 1970s literary movement, New Wave science fiction, was taking root. This style of writing shifted away from scientific accuracy and space operas, letting authors experiment with more modern interests and issues, like drug subcultures, sexual liberation, and environmentalism. Think less chrome spaceships and more gritty cyborgs.

Dick’s post-apocalyptic novel became the basic formula for the cyberpunk subgenre that the New Wave movement created in the 1980s. By then, Dick was an acclaimed writer with multiple accolades and was even called the “Shakespeare of science fiction.” But he would die in 1982, only two years after the term “cyberpunk” was coined.

Science fiction author Bruce Bethke coined the term in 1980.Bruce Bethke

Writer Bruce Bethke created the term in 1980 by combining the words “cybernetic” and “punk.” He used it as the title to a short story as a way to wow his editor when he submitted it for revisions.

“In calling it that, I was actively trying to invent a new term that grokked the juxtaposition of punk attitudes and high technology,” he wrote in a 1997 blog post. “My reasons for doing so were purely selfish and market-driven: I wanted to give my story a snappy, one-word title that editors would remember. Offhand, I'd say I succeeded.”

'Neuromancer' would be the novel that added hacker culture into cyberpunk and created a style of sci-fi that would be recreated across countless mediums.William Gibson

Succeed he did. The subgenre quickly exploded in popularity, and in 1984, author William Gibson published Neuromancer, a novel that follows a retired hacker who takes to cyberspace one last time for a final heist. Gibson’s work would infuse hacker culture into cyberpunk and even predicted how the modern-day internet would interconnect people and data — plus all the problems that come with it — before the modern web was ever conceived.

From the mid-1980s onward, cyberpunk transcended literature and made its way into live action and animated films that would influence countless modern movies and shows. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is an adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Other movies like Tron (1982), Akira (1988), RoboCop (1987), Hackers (1995), The Fifth Element (1997), and The Matrix (1999) all grappled with the mystique and dangers of modern technologies and malevolent corporations.

By then, cyberpunk had bled into games, too.

'Akira' (1988)

Cyberpunk games

Game designer Mike Pondsmith created the tabletop RPG Cyberpunk 2020 in 1990 that replaced Dungeons & Dragons’ wizards and monsters with androids and street gangs. The board game would actually serve as the prequel to Cyberpunk 2077 and helped guide CDPR’s design of the upcoming release.

Similar dice-and-paper titles like GURPS Cyberpunk followed, but Shadowrun (1989) would be what propelled cyberpunk into video games. It was adapted into eight different titles between 1993 and 2015, the first one being an action RPG that was released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

Tabletop game 'Cyberpunk 2020' is 'Cyberpunk 2077's biggest influence.Mike Pondsmith

This inspired LookingGlass Technologies’ System Shock in 1994. That seminal game wasn’t a blockbuster from the get-go, selling only 170,000 units after its launch, but other developers looked to the game for its pioneering storytelling technique through the first-person shooter medium.

System Shock single-handedly inspired the creation of legendary sci-fi titles like Half-Life (1998) and Metal Gear Solid (1998). It also had cross-genre influence, helping establish a gameplay loop and shooter narrative techniques that would be used in franchises like Resident Evil and Bioshock further down the line.

The 'System Shock' cover.LookingGlass Technologies

Cyberpunk had gone fully mainstream at this point, and even games that aren’t immediately categorized as the genre have borrowed heavily from it. Final Fantasy 7 (1997) is a prime example, with themes of eco-activism and evil mega corporations mixed into its Japanese RPG style.

The brand of sci-fi has had incredible staying power since its inception because it constantly asks, “What makes us human?” in a time when people seem willing to concede more and more of their lives to technology. Cyberpunk 2077 will let new and veteran gamers explore that question firsthand as they quite literally render themselves inside a techno-dystopia called Night City.

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