The cyberpunk genre is well known for its setting: an urban, dystopian future—distant or not that far off. Perhaps there are flying cars. Holographic techno-interfaces. Augmentations.
But yet, what does the setting or environment tell us without using words? How can the game’s visuals tell us how it all came about? Was it an alien invasion, a corrupt government, an extreme technological advance? Is it a different dimension? Or was it a combination of all of these?
Sure, we can sit there at the intro of the game and listen to the backstory for five minutes, but wouldn’t it be better to experience it? One way to do this is through the use of architecture. Unfortunately, we are not quite there yet when it comes to incorporating the way we interact with space in video games (though we are kinda taking the first step with virtual reality); however, we can do amazing things with how we represent our virtual landscapes, or the spaces we house our missions/important item/big bad Illuminati stronghold in. So much can be done to drive home the point of a dystopian future setting. Let’s take a look at some examples of what the use of architecture has achieved in building virtual worlds, all without the use of dialogue.
Let’s talk about Half-Life 2. More importantly, let’s talk about City 17, the city that the Combine have taken over and now serves as their headquarters on Earth. What does this information tell us? Was the takeover pleasant? Have they put money into the city’s infrastructure? Are people more than happy where they are? It’s not very evident from your arrival, at first glance. You arrive in a regular-looking train car, typical of any major city. You then get out onto your everyday train platform. It’s as if nothing has changed. However, if you ignore the obviously alien authority personnel dotting every corner, you start noticing all the chain-link fences dividing the station in an organizational fashion not envisioned in the original design.
You take notice of the lack of any maintenance, janitorial or infrastructural. It’s as if the station was closed for ten years and is now being used again. And then you notice—in every space you walk through and always talking to you—a giant, way-too-ahead-of-its-time flat screen with big baddie Dr. Wallace Breen watching over everyone and telling them to play along with the new overlords. It is this disparity of rundown human architecture and highly advanced Combine technology that sets the scene in which the G-Man has dropped you. This is present throughout the entire game. City 17 is always presented as a city that not long ago was taken by brute force and is now treated as a hostage. Its inhabitants live in decrepit dwellings that we can legitimately call slums. This dilapidation is always contrasted with the advanced technology the Combine use to maintain it. Shiny metal and chrome, always oppressive. This dichotomy propels the setting forward and allows the story to fit comfortably in its surroundings and also earn it its cyberpunk title.
Another scenario that is pretty much a cyberpunk standard is when technology has advanced so far that it has become detrimental to humanity. The way you show that is by exploiting the clash between vast technological advancement and poverty. A game like Deus Ex: Human Revolution executes this brilliantly. In the earlier scenes of the game, you are shown a vast sea of breathtaking spaces. You see offices decorated in a type of Neo-Renaissance art style, with spectacular views of the skyline—all a celebration of how far civilization has come in the year 2027. And then, once you come down to the street level, you start to notice the sad underbelly of this reality: the people living in the turn-of-the-century buildings. The typical brick-and-mortar buildings that we are familiar with today are home to those not fortunate enough to live in the skyscrapers with the ultra-advanced anamorphic façades.
Public spaces, or hubs, are interesting because they mix the two styles of architecture. Post-postmodern design and urban furniture are paired with drum barrels alight with fire and cardboard beds littering the vicinity. You can really feel the disparity between the social groups here.
A better example of this design concept in Deus Ex: HR is the city of Hengsha in China. The city is physically divided into two halves: Lower Hengsha and Upper Hengsha. And yes, it is actually built that way, with one city on top of the other. Lower Hengsha is composed of our everyday architecture, with futuristic touches here and there. It is where the poor live, where you find the brothels, and where the cybergangs rule. It is made abundantly clear how hard life is in Lower Hengsha.
It is also implied that overpopulation drove the rich and powerful to build Upper Hengsha. A massive engineering marvel, Upper Hengsha shrouds Lower Hengsha in perpetual darkness because it covers the lower city from all sunlight. The people of Lower Hengsha only ever dream of reaching the Post-postmodern Upper Hengsha; it is viewed as a safe haven, where residents seem immune to the powers that be. You understand this just by seeing the sunlight glimmer on the polished metal panels covering every inch of Upper Hengsha, screaming “futuristic utopia.” Hengsha is by far one of my favorite cyberpunk cities. It tells its story with its form—a story of how we have become divided by our advancements in society.
We have spoken about how high-tech architecture and low-tech architecture form a dichotomy that represents the current state of the game’s setting. However, there is another way cyberpunk games do this—by going fully futuristic but bringing the quality down. Two such games come to mind: System Shock 2 and SOMA. These games are set in the far future, so they naturally are composed of very highly advanced locales. That really tells us only one thing: it’s the future.
But when you start conveying disarray—exposed wires, panels, and pools of blood—then you really start telling the player something. In System Shock, you encounter a ton of clean corridors and rooms, but a hint of graffiti here and a bit of blood there makes you ask questions. SOMA cranks this to eleven and really shows total destruction of the facility, making you completely unnerved with what’s around the corner—flickering lights, or lack thereof, weird tubes coming out of walls encrusted with lights and barnacles. These games really trigger the imagination with their environments, invoking the player to try and envision what drove this place to this condition. Yes, we are in the future, and it sucks!
Video games have a responsibility to both gameplay and storytelling. Cyberpunk is just one genre that typically addresses visual storytelling well. It is important to acknowledge how, with just environment and architecture, you can really impact and captivate the player, and how these elements can drive or, even better, propel a story forward.