I'm looking to make a social and alternate reality game that will be heavily cyberpunk themed. Like a significant portion of computer programmers my age, I was influenced heavily by "The Matrix" when I was younger. More recently I discovered William Gibson's "Neuromancer" and I absolutely loved it.

I want to inspire emotions in my game that are also inspired by cyberpunk works, like the thrill of dodging the law (or mafia) combined with the joy of winning with your own intellect against all odds against you.

So I ask you, as hopefully you're a cyberpunk fan, what are the most influential works (music, book, computer game or movie) that you think do the best job of distilling the essence of cyberpunk and more importantly, how should I go about incorporating their essence into my game?


In other words, what are the core themes that appeal to cyberpunk fans and how could they be used effectively in creating a computer game?

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    We normally do not welcome open-ended list questions like this one, due to a history of very poor such question. You have a well-defined goal in mind, though, so I'd like to keep your questionm but it has raised concerns. I've done a few minor edits hoping to make the question more acceptable. @potential closers: please explain why you're closing in a comment, it would be very helpful to figure out the limits of acceptable questions on the site.
    – user56
    Mar 11, 2011 at 22:29
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    Voted to close because the question is too open-ended. The responses will be the same as any list question, many people's favorite works, with all of them being equally valid.
    – user1027
    Mar 11, 2011 at 22:45
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    As it happens, there is a better site for this question: literature.stackexchange.com. For instance, they just had an excellent Q/A about What do the Istari represent in LOTR? Then again, they might also close this question for being a list... :)
    – John C
    Sep 6, 2011 at 15:38
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    @JohnC Given that this question is clearly about SF, has been accepted by the community, and hasn't attracted the kind of useless answers that we were objecting to, I don't see any reason to migrate the question.
    – user56
    Sep 6, 2011 at 19:50
  • @JohnC, also literature.sx wasn't around when I originally posted this question. =)
    – Ken
    Sep 10, 2011 at 23:59

7 Answers 7


Cyberpunk as a genre is rather hard to pin down. It emerged as a twist on other forms of sci-fi, and then was it self-twisted and changed so quickly that many feel cyberpunk is already a dead form. It doesn't help that it's tied into "punk", already a difficult and much debated genre of its own.

At the core, you can get a decent but pithy understanding of the genre with any of numerous little phrases, some already mentioned. Cyberpunk can be "a science fiction genre noted for its focus on 'high tech and low life.'" Or it's film noir with emphasis on information science. Or it's sci-fi twisted so that technology is a tool of classist oppression rather than an enabler of new developments. The atmosphere of paranoia and surveillance from Orwell's 1984 are often used in cyberpunk, but not many would classify that novel as being particularly cyberpunk.

Neal Stephenson's books are themselves odd contenders in this regard. Snow Crash is clearly cyberpunk, but compare Hiro to Neuromancer protagonist Henry Case. Despite both being hackers, Case is much closer to the "nerdy lowlife" we might expect in such a novel, while Hiro sets the standard for future protagonists like Neo in the Matrix: swordfighter, sunglasses, always cool and collected. The Diamond Age presents many cyberpunk themes — technology, computers, classism, unlikely heroes — but focuses on nanotech rather than cybertech. So much so that many consider it one of the first post-cyberpunk novels. Even his later books, like Cryptonomicon, hit many of the cyberpunk tropes without ever veering close enough to earn that genre — prompting some to dub it "cypherpunk."

Sadly, not even games are safe. Released in 1994, System Shock is the seminal cyberpunk game, and is true to its genre. But by 1999 and System Shock 2, we're already diverting into new territory with the increased emphasis on biological modification and the nature of intelligence. SS2 can easily be seen as a battleground between the ideas of two genres, the aging cyberpunk and the emerging biopunk. This culminates when many of the original Looking Glass team go on to make Bioshock, a game so similar in structure to System Shock 2 it could be called a remake wearing a new theme. Same story, new metaphors.

So at last maybe we can get at the root of what cyber-punk really is. On the one hand, you need punk. The surface visuals of this add much of the "street lowlife" element: mohawks, leather jackets, and invasive body mods (remember, cyberarms are just an extreme form of tattoos and piercings). The thematic underlying elements of punk are rebellion, classism, class uprising, and "grassroots movement." Stephenson used open-source software and hackers for this. In Deus Ex, note that the hero starts out working for "the man" but is eventually swayed to the rebellion. The same basic story is played out in Johnny Mnemonic as well.

On the other hand, you need cyber. The way that technology empowers rebellion, enables communication, breaks censorship, and changes people are big themes here. "Jacking into cyberspace" and bodymods are visceral ways to show that the people take technology (traditionally a tool of the empowered class) and turn it around, merge with it, and make it work for them. They subvert the system from inside it. If you subvert the cyber and replace it with some other metaphor, you get some other kind of *-punk (biopunk, nanopunk, but oddly steampunk seems to have gain enough momentum to morph into something else entirely its own).

All the other elements commonly attributed are taken from the "parent genre" that the author is working the cyberpunk into. Gibson wrote noir, the Matrix is an action movie, and System Shock is an RPG. It's easy to mix up the cyberpunk and the other stuff. Especially when multiple examples exist. If your primary exposure to cyberpunk is Blade Runner and Neuromancer, the idea that noir detective stories are bound to cyberpunk is easy to walk away with. But I think I've managed to separate out the core themes for you and provide a few examples along the way. Hopefully, that's a start.

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    I really didn't touch on cyberpunk in pen and paper RPGs much. The front-runner is Shadowrun, a mix of Tolkien-esque fantasy with cyberpunk, but its mired in the 1980's idea of punk: everyone has mohawks and piercings and anarchy jackets. The game Cyberpunk 2020 is about as bad. More recent games like Shadowrun 4th edition (which adds a heavy dose of wireless internet) and Ex Machina do a somewhat better job of capturing the genre as it exists today. Mar 14, 2011 at 19:39
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    PERFECT! "The thematic underlying elements of punk are rebellion, classism, class uprising, and "grassroots movement." Stephenson used open source software and hackers for this."
    – Ken
    Mar 15, 2011 at 15:40
  • I think an interesting twist on cyberpunk would be to look at where both cyberspace and punks have gone since the 70/80's. Punk, like most genres, split into numerous sub groups, today most visibly emo, pop-punk, and maybe ska. Cybertech ideas have moved away from desktop computers and hardware towards cell phones and bioware. I'm left to wonder if a story about socially-networked emo kids texting about rebellion and fighting the power with their genetic enhancements is still "cyberpunk" or if it evolves past that genre into something new. Mar 15, 2011 at 16:05
  • I was inspired reading a description of Anonymous as literally anybody and even sometimes people who you wouldn't expect, where the counter culture of "cyberpunk" has moved past the visible signs of the leather and spiked hair into a complete underground network. It's like Mr Anderson vs Neo in the Matrix, and, since my game will have elements of an ARG and a MMORPG, you will feel like you're living two lives. One is your "normal" life and the other is your cyberpunk/game life. That's where I think "modern" cyberpunk lies, and the popularity of "Anon" shows that.
    – Ken
    Mar 15, 2011 at 16:50
  • Magnificent answer! I had the same problems as @KortPleco had, so this answer was as useful for me as it was for him. Aug 31, 2013 at 23:34

William Gibson's Neuromancer, hands down is the most influential. I've heard high praise for Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash as well, but haven't read it myself.

Thinking more about your question, you may want to read up on Syndicate. It's a classic game that's very cyberpunky (cyberpunkish?). Wikipedia page. There's also the fantastic Deus Ex 1, which you can get off Steam I think. There's a sequel coming soon for that, you may want to try that once it comes out to get some ideas. On the console side, there's the classic Rez which has a great 'inside a computer' aesthetic. You can pick it up on Xbox Live Arcade, if you've got an Xbox360. Those are the titles I've played that I think you should research and if possible play to see what others have done in this space.

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    You will have to buy/order Snow Crash immediately, or I'll send Uncle Enzo over to you to deliver a Pizza in person. (Yes, it's that good.)
    – sbi
    Mar 12, 2011 at 2:38
  • I also want to recommend Snow Crash. The Diamond Age might be an interesting read too, even though it is described as 'postcyberpunk'.
    – liewl
    Mar 12, 2011 at 4:16
  • Damn, I'd forgotten about Syndicate.
    – Amos
    Mar 12, 2011 at 13:46

To me, SF has always been somewhat boring where it presents a shiny and incredibly advanced science as the central story element. Adding advanced, detached, superhuman people to this makes it even worse.
SF becomes interesting when that science is just a means to an end, and that end is to tell about real human beings and their interacting with each other in their society. Many of the old good SF (Asimov, Heinlein, Lem) does exactly that and so does many of the most successful new stuff.

Cyberpunk goes even further and makes that science (and the society which employs it) having cracks and flaws, dirty corners, places you wouldn't want to look, let alone be, at, adding run-down, shady characters to that, and exploiting the possibilities such a setting provides for analyzing the characters acting in this society. This is not exactly something revolutionary new. For example, crime has had such settings for ages. But Cyberpunk takes it to a new level by transferring it into a SF world.

  • " science (and the society which employs it) having cracks and flaws, dirty corners, places you wouldn't want to look it, let alone be at,"... I LIKE this. =)
    – Ken
    Mar 12, 2011 at 3:54

Wikipedia says it best

Cyberpunk is a science fiction genre noted for its focus on "high tech and low life."

For excellent examples of exactly that, see Richard Morgans Altered Carbon


To have a different look at it, you might read Jennifer Government, by Max Barry. It is peculiar because it has a society very similar to the cyberpunk one (world ruled by corporations), but more or less the same technology level as we do.


It may be a bit late now, but cyberpunk in my opinion is a sort of underground, Tech/noir world, in a scifi setting, where everything that can go wrong has, society has been flipped on its top, governments are nonexistent for the most part and those that do exist are under the watchful eye of the corporations who control them through the power to totally dismantle them at will.

It focuses on the lives of the people in that world, the majority of which are low income/on the streets people subservient to or fighting those who have the power to keep them there.

Many of these people do things that we would consider distasteful, for instance, let's take Max Headroom's world as an example; the corporations in control are the media people and the ever-present Zik Zak corporation (kinda like a scary version of McDonald's only it controls lots more).

It is shown that in this society "body banks" are common, as is black market organ theft, bodies are easily disposed of and parted out rather than buried.

And technology is everywhere, allowing those in power to see what everyone does.

Similar things are shown in Neuromancer, where on Earth everything has gone to hell while people like the Teshier Ash-Pool group sit in orbit on a space habitat living the good life, or so it appears.

Examples of this are everywhere but the main theme remains, high tech low life, in a very dark and dystopian, near-future world.


Dan Simmons' "Hyperion Cantos" series may count as cyberpunk. I suppose Ilium/Olympos may count as cyberpunk too. I doubt Simmons is the most influential cyberpunk author, but his books are excellent.

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    I wouldn't consider the Hyperion Cantos or Ilium cyberpunk. They're both set in the far future; they involve AI but not particularly how AI changes society (AIs are political factions, not societal factors); I don't see any punk elements. Could you elaborate on why you consider them cyberpunk?
    – user56
    Mar 12, 2011 at 14:01
  • @Gilles According to wikipedia, cyberpunk "features advanced science, such as information technology and cybernetics, coupled with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order" In Hyperion Cantos we have the technocore and the stuff they have created, such as the farcasters, cybrids, etc., which have caused radical changes in the social order. Also, google search of "Dan Simmons cyberpunk" returns 70,300 results.
    – Dima
    Mar 13, 2011 at 14:31
  • @Gilles Let me try to clarify a bit more. The AIs themselves may not be societal factors, but things they create, influence, or control are. For example, having the ability to instantaneously travel to distant planets has dramatically change human society. So has taking away that ability.
    – Dima
    Mar 13, 2011 at 14:36
  • @paan got anything to say about my other arguments?
    – Dima
    Mar 16, 2011 at 14:30

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