On a holographic billboard a Japanese lady sips Spicy Metaverse flavor Mountain Dew and turns to smile, before abruptly glitching out to be replaced by anticorporate agitprop. In the street below a hardboiled detective sighs over a corpse with a grossly distorted head, the Funko Pop Killer’s latest victim, while above a drone repeatedly blares, “A new life awaits you in the off-world bitcoin mines!”
Cyberpunk is a sci-fi subgenre born in the 1980s that’s both an aesthetic, all neon light and rain-slick streets, and an ethos. A reaction to the kind of sci-fi more concerned with shiny spaceships than ordinary people, cyberpunk instead focuses on near-future urban nightmares where low-rent antiheroes twist technology to their own ends and fight to find space for themselves in the shadow of corporations who control everything.
In videogames, the recent boom of interest in the genre had Cyberpunk 2077 as a mascot—until its underwhelming release. Even ignoring the bugs, Cyberpunk 2077 turned out to be a narratively unambitious game full of promising storylines and character arcs that fizzled out.
Luckily for us, there are alternatives both old and new that explore what cyberpunk has been, and what it could mean for our times. From the classics of the 1990s and early 2000s through to the revivalist games of the 2010s, and the handful that kept hope alive during the dark times in-between, there’s a wealth of cyberpunk more interesting than Cyberpunk 2077 out there. Here are the best.
The Classic Era
Release date: 2000 | Developer: Ion Storm | Steam, GOG
Augmented government super-agent JC Denton gets tangled up in a conspiracy that threatens the future of the world, and takes it on himself to bring down the people responsible. Deus Ex gives you the freedom to play it as a series of stealth sandboxes, and an RPG, and a shooter. One of the first immersive sims, it can be clunky not because of its age but because it was made when the genre was still being formed. The Give Me Deus Ex mod, GMDX for short, helps smooth over some of the rough edges. Its direct sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War, is likewise improved by the Visible Upgrade mod.
Read more: Taking Liberties: a Deus Ex story
Release date: 1997 | Developer: Westwood Studios | GOG
Rookie cop Ray McCoy hunts rogue replicants on the rain-sodden streets of Los Angeles in this inventive point-and-click adventure. Though Blade Runner does riff a little heavily on the movie it’s based on, that’s kind of the appeal. What makes it worthwhile is the chance to explore a gorgeous recreation of Ridley Scott’s influential work while listening to Vangelis. Just walking out onto your balcony to look out over LA while the soundtrack soars is bliss. (An updated re-release from Nightdive is due sometime in 2022.)
Read more: Revisiting Westwood’s atmospheric Blade Runner adventure game
Release date: 1989 | Developer: Interplay Productions | Internet Archive
Unlike Blade Runner, the adventure-RPG based on William Gibson’s Neuromancer diverges from its source material. While its version of Chiba City shares some locations and descriptions with the novel, it’s also full of Interplay’s own weirdness. There’s the House of Pong, where Pong Monks have spent decades meditating on the mysteries of the One True Computer Game, and a body shop where you can hock your spleen for cash. Which you’ll need because you’re a hacker so down-and-out you’ve pawned your computer. You rebuild yourself by collecting warez and skill chips, then hit cyberspace, where you face AIs who can be defeated with your skills in Logic, Philosophy, Phenomenology, and Sophistry. Neuromancer’s vision of cyberspace is just as wacky as its Chiba City.
Read more: Neuromancer, a jump back to a time when a 56k modem would have made you a god among geeks
Release date: 1996 | Developer: Bullfrog Productions | GOG
Probably the best of Bullfrog’s darkly satirical Syndicate series, Syndicate Wars is a tactical RTS set in a bleak dystopia ruled by evil corporations. The totalitarian status quo is under threat from a virus, and as a EuroCorp Executive with a squad of cyborg agents and a budget of 50,000 EuroCorp credits, it’s up to you to keep the populace from rebelling. Or perhaps you’ll side with the Church of the New Epoch? Either way, you’ll have to resort to miniguns and mind control eventually.
Read more: Why Syndicate was ‘bad to the bone’
System Shock 2
Release date: 1999 | Developer: Looking Glass Studios | Steam, GOG
A horror/FPS/RPG hybrid set aboard a stricken starship that would go on to inspire the much more well-known yet not nearly as clever BioShock series. System Shock 2 is perhaps most famous for its sinister AI antagonist, Shodan. Artificial intelligences going rogue is a common element of cyberpunk, and Shodan is one of the finest examples of that on PC.
Read more: System Shock 2: How an underfunded and inexperienced team birthed a PC classic
The Dark Times
Release date: 2014 | Developer: Harebrained Schemes | Steam, GOG, Epic
Like the other Shadowrun games, which are based on a tabletop RPG first released in 1989, Dragonfall is an unlikely blend of cyberpunk and high fantasy that works surprisingly well. This tech-noir RPG features a rich urban setting to explore with its vision of 2054 Berlin and its Kreuzbasar hub, satisfyingly tactical turn-based combat, and an array of different ways to play—from elite ork hacker to elven street samurai.
Read more: Robbing homeless old men and other shady dealings in Shadowrun: Dragonfall
Release date: 2015 | Developer: Klei Entertainment | Steam
Invisible, Inc. combines stealth and turn-based tactics. It lets you live out the heist fantasy of pulling together a team of experts with all the right gadgets and having a plan that comes together—or falls apart then gets rewritten on the fly. When you’re looking at your crew of hackers from above you’ve got a perfect vision of the sight lines and hiding spots between you and the next cache of data or, well, cash. You plan your moves, strike another blow at the corps, and vanish into the datastream.
Read more: Best Design 2015 – Invisible, Inc.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Release date: 2011 | Developer: Eidos Montréal | Steam, GOG
The original Deus Ex carries a lot of nostalgia, making it a tough act for Eidos Montréal to follow. The studio’s take on Deus Ex packed its city hubs with missions and world-building, a conspiracy-laden plot, powerful augmentations (including the abilities to punch through walls and turn invisible), and that rare thing—a hacking minigame that wasn’t terrible. Deus Ex: Human Revolution managed to stake out an identity of its own in the shadow of the original, though its sequel, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, didn’t repeat the trick.
Read more: Deus Ex: Human Revolution diary – The Psychopath
Release date: 2015 | Developer: Minor Key Games | Steam, itch.io
Don’t let the minimalist graphics fool you: Neon Struct is one of the best systems-based stealth games, with a surprisingly well-told story of an ex-spy on the run in a surveillance state. Its big levels are filled to the brim with alternate routes and designed for ghosting, with plenty of vents to crawl through, espionage gadgets to play with, and a sprint-slide to get you into the shadows before you’re spotted. The omnipresent CCTV cameras reinforce the oppressive cyberpunk feel, even if your imagination has to do a little extra work.
Read more: Neon Struct review – An elegant, pared-down stealth game with echoes of the original Deus Ex
Release date: 2019 | Developer: Chance Agency | Steam
You’re a taxi driver working for a company that hires humans when everyone else has shifted to self-driving cars. Though Neo Cab keeps track of your income and fuel, it’s not about simulating that job. Who would hire a human to drive them around when an algorithm could do just as well? People who want someone to talk to on their trip, that’s who. Though there’s a larger missing person plot, Neo Cab is really an anthology of character-led short stories about weirdos. Fascinating weirdos like the pain cultist and the girl whose parents have trapped her in power armor for her own protection. Each of them return, night after night, to spill their guts in the back of your cab.
Read more: How the creators of Neo Cab want to make emotion ‘truly matter to gameplay’
The Red Strings Club
Release date: 2018 | Developer: Deconstructeam | Steam, GOG, itch.io
The Red Strings Club is a cyberpunk adventure game with multiple playable characters. Bartender Donovan teases information out of his patrons, hacker Brandeis tricks people over the phone with a voice-changer, and android Akara-184 manipulates emotions by crafting cybernetic implants. It’s got a heavy focus on dialogue and character interaction over puzzles and exploration. That dialogue is both deeply philosophical, and a love story with real punch to it.
Read more: The Red Strings Club is a cyberpunk game about underdogs and weirdos
Release date: 2017 | Developer: Reikon Games | Steam, GOG, Epic
It shouldn’t work. Ruiner embraces all the superficial elements of cyberpunk: neon, motorbikes, sexy cyberladies, themed gangs, orientalism. It works because beneath that there’s a tightly designed action game. Ruiner is a top-down shooter that plays just as well with mouse-and-keyboard as twin sticks (if not better). Time slows when you pick up a fallen weapon, adding rhythm to its frantic dance. You dash-and-bash with your metal pipe, grab someone’s chaingun, unload it on another ganger with a goofy mask, yoink their katana and go again—a constant kinetic push-pull of fast and slow that also happens to be stylish as heck.
Read more: The cyberpunk art of Benedykt Szneider gave Ruiner a brutal beauty
Release date: 2018 | Developer: Ludic Studios | Steam, itch.io
It’s just you, alone, in a square in the middle of Mega-Tokyo. Just you—and every single member of the yakuza, who all want you dead. Akane is a one-hit-kill arena battle where you’ve got a katana, a gun, and upgradeable cigarettes. A typical game lasts minutes, if you’re lucky, but you’ll keep trying again and again to see if you can survive just a little longer. The dash move where you draw a line across the screen to your destination and then everybody between you and that point drops dead is a real nice touch.
Read more: 17 games from 2018 you might’ve missed
Release date: 2020 | Developer: Origami Digital | Steam
A lot of the other games on this list rely on the aesthetics of a 1980s vision of the future, which once felt like a fresh rejection of golden age sci-fi clichés and has since calcified into something almost as stale. Umurangi Generation is a properly 21st century vision, a photography game about documenting Tauranga Aotearoa as a crisis looms. There are mechs on the horizon and riot cops on the streets, but you’re just a courier with a camera, watching it all unfold. Make sure to pick up the essential Macro DLC, which adds roller blades and a set of levels in the Tauranga Underground that make use of every lesson learned from the base game to create Umurangi Generation’s most interesting spaces.
Read more: Umurangi Generation is a stylish urban photography game set in a ‘shitty future’
Final Fantasy 7 Remake Intergrade
Release date: 2021 | Developer: Square Enix | Epic
Where the original Final Fantasy 7 was a sprawling JRPG with too much going on for its own good, Final Fantasy 7 Remake focuses on the best part: the grim futuristic city of Midgar, where the impoverished live in dingy slums below the wealthy above. Horrible as it would be to live in a city where the poor are forced to live in the literal shadow of the rich, whose high-rises are suspended above them on giant plates, there’s a lot of heart in its depiction of the slums, and its depiction of the ecoterrorists who become the slum-dwellers’ unlikely heroes.
Read more: Thanks to Final Fantasy 7 Remake I finally appreciate Final Fantasy 7
Release date: 2021 | Developer: Studio Pixel Punk | Steam, GOG
Unsighted is an anime-styled action game set in the aftermath of a war between humans and robots where you play one of the robots. It has the corpse runs of a soulslike and the back-tracking of a metroidvania, both of which can potentially waste your time, but it uses them smartly to feed into its theme of the value of our short lifespans. As a combat android on the losing side of the war, you’ve got limited time before the anima that gives you and all your robot friends sentience runs out, leaving you mindless shells. Every NPC you meet can live or die depending on your actions. Unsighted has plenty of accessibility options if you’d rather make it less tense, and with or without them it remains a powerful experience.
Read more: The constantly ticking death clock in Unsighted may be stressful, but I learned to love it
Release date: 2022 | Developer: Jump Over the Age | Steam, GOG, Epic
In the Blade Runner videogame you chase replicants. Citizen Sleeper flips that script. You’re a sleeper, an escaped indentured worker made of synthmeat hiding out in a space station city called Erlin’s Eye. Bounty hunters and AI security are out to get you, but between dodging them you’ve also got to eat and sleep and somehow get by. A pool of dice represents your ability to face each day-cycle, and can be spent to explore, work, and hack the station’s systems. Unlikely allies can be found among the mostly human population, and getting to know them is as important as your struggle to make it one more day in this unique but all-too-familiar capitalist hellscape.
Read more: Like most great sci-fi, Citizen Sleeper has something to say about the here and now