The Origins of Cyberpunk Documentary: Neuromancer, Blade Runner, Akira

The Origins of Cyberpunk Documentary: Neuromancer, Blade Runner, Akira

We’ve all heard of cyberpunk. But what IS cyberpunk? A casual explanation might end up in a ramble
about cyborgs, laser guns, neon lights and rainy city nights. But behind that facade of neon and chrome
lies a cultural movement. It masks a seedy underbelly of crime, corruption,
corporate authoritarianism, and the dangers of rampant technological progress. Skyscrapers extend as far as the eye can see,
and for every brightly lit ramen shop or tech emporium offering the latest in bleeding edge
gadgets, you’re just as likely to find yourself in a dingy alley surrounded by poverty and
addiction. The overabundance of technological wonders
and indulgences punctuate the decrepit slums of the megacities and sprawling metropolises
of a dystopian future — which encapsulates cyberpunk’s most fundamental definition:
High tech, low life. It’s easy to see why these themes are so
popular: it seems like every day we take a step closer to “The Future” we saw on
television : robotic arms, self-driving cars, smart homes, killer drones, and an economy
driven by our unquenchable thirst for the newest, sleekest machine. These themes are prevalent in all forms of
art, from novels to film, from television to video games — and in this documentary
series, we’ll explore the decades-long history of the genre, its origins, its many influences,
and how these ideas inspired neo-futurism, both in entertainment, and many of the technologies
we use today. So let’s jack in to one of the most fascinating
movements in recent history: Cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is an offshoot of science fiction,
though it explores a starkly different vision of the future than its forebears. The genre embraces the punk and early hacker
subcultures, bringing to light the dichotomy of a high-technology world inhabited by denizens
deprived of most of these luxuries, despite the advancement of society as a whole. This worldview paralleled the growing pessimism
in the late 1960’s and 70’s. After the moral unshackling of the Free Love
era and the emergence of modern drug culture, America was torn apart politically by the
tumultuous Vietnam War, a controversial presidency ending in resignation, and a festering mistrust
of authority. The conflict between the haves and have-nots
also feeds into another major theme of cyberpunk. Often depicting future dystopias where megacorporations
wield more power than governments, and rule the world from lofty skyscrapers, overlooking
the streets where cyberpunk heroes try to make ends meet doing illicit jobs, either
for these corporations, or against them. Some may be able to afford cybernetic augmentations,
swapping organic body parts with machine replacements that make them stronger, faster, or more in-tune
with the endless expanse of cyberspace at their fingertips. But are these cybernetically-enhanced people
still human? Or are they the next phase of human evolution? At what point does the line between man and
machine blur? These are the questions and themes that drive
cyberpunk. Unlike its more optimistic science fiction
predecessors, cyberpunk showed us the dark side, revealing the dangerous side effects
of the drug of futurism. The world was sweeping up the still-warm ashes
of World War II, when mathematicians and philosophers noted the rise of cybernetic technology in
modern living. New inventions became more prominent in day-to-day
life, and the embrace of these new mechanical marvels inspired visions of the future, and
what such a life would hold for mankind. This mode of thinking inspired a new wave
of writers and artists, many of whom used these advancements to predict what our lives
would be like in the far future. One such author was the influential sci-fi
icon, Philip K. Dick, who made a startling discovery while researching his post-World
War II alternate history novel, Man in the High Castle. Philip read a German officer’s journal,
in which the soldier complained that the screams of starving children kept him awake at night,
not out of guilt, but more as a nuisance. These startling revelations inspired PKD’s
concept of the “android,” a machine that resembled a real person, but with one critical
difference: the absence of empathy. Among a myriad of inspired work, his most
famous was 1968’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In it, he explored the question of what it
truly means to be an authentic human being, and not an unfeeling, uncaring machine devoid
of emotions and empathy. In the novel’s setting, entire subcultures
emerged, where citizens would prove their humanity by caring for animals, and the presence
of dangerous androids would be sniffed out through rigorous empathy testing, and enforced
through state-funded bounty hunters. “Do Androids Dream?” also explored the
concept of a shared virtual reality experience, nearly three decades before it hit the mainstream. This revolutionary novel helped sow the seeds
of what would become the cyberpunk genre as we know it. Even though home electronics were still primitive,
the concept of artificial intelligence was brewing in the zeitgeist of the 1970s. One of the first films to capture this growing
idea with a fearful eye was Colossus: The Forbin Project. The movie follows a brilliant American computer
scientist who creates an all-powerful computer program designed to solve the world’s problems:
hunger, politics, war and disease. The end result is a cautionary tale of what
would happen if the world was given to a benevolent AI that decided human judgment was too flawed
to retain their dominion over the planet. In a terrifying turn of events where a creation
outgrew its creator, Colossus learns from and fuses with another AI developed in Russia. This new supercomputer then decides to take
global matters into its own hands as it conquers the world in the name of the unflinching march
of progress. One of the most famous films to capture this
technological anxiety was Westworld, the first theatrical movie by science fiction author
Michael Crichton — perhaps best known for penning Jurassic Park, the highest-grossing
film released worldwide at its time. Unlike that movie, however, Crichton wrote
and directed Westworld himself. Westworld vividly imagines a near-future where
theme parks are filled with lifelike androids subservient to the whims of their mortal masters. These constructs are used for target practice,
role-playing props, and even pursuits of pleasure. It’s a grotesque look at the moral indifference
shown to those who are deemed less than human. Unsuspecting customers enjoy the park’s
many attractions across Medieval, Roman, and Wild West settings, all without regard for
the harmless androids who have safety measures put in place so that no danger can befall
the humans. But when a glitch that goes unnoticed disables
this safeguard, all three parks become slaughterhouses. The previously helpless androids become the
hunters, and their abusers, the hunted. In a chilling pursuit, one of the last remaining
park guests runs from an android gunslinger, played by screen legend Yul Brynner (in a
sort of satirical play on his role in The Magnificent Seven). He is an unforgiving and seemingly indestructible
machine with just one purpose: to kill. The scenes that showed the world through the
Gunslinger’s electronic eyes were the very first time computer graphics were used in
a movie. The unstoppable cyborg archetype on display
here was obviously a big inspiration for James Cameron’s science fiction thriller, The
Terminator, a decade later. Westworld was followed by Futureworld, a strong
but less iconic sequel, and a TV show spin-off in 1980, and was rebooted again in 2016 as
an acclaimed TV series. Westworld was one of the earliest and most
chilling visualizations of cybernetic beings, that doubtlessly had an influence on future
cyberpunk works as they were developed. French artist Moebius teamed up with American
author Dan O’Bannon for The Long Tomorrow, a short story in a 1976 issue of Metal Hurlant
(a French comic series known in the States as ‘Heavy Metal magazine’). It was a visceral exploration of a depraved
future, filled with flying cars, megacities, murder and mystery. The technology-glazed neo-noir realized in
The Long Tomorrow consumed other writers and artists, and acted as a visual foundation
for many works to come. The gloomy outlook people had at the time
no doubt influenced 2000 AD’s dystopian worldview of America — a toxic wasteland,
punctuated by colossal Mega-Cities spanning the size of multiple states. This 1977 British comic series was deeply
influential, and one of its leading figures, Judge Dredd, is one of the most iconic characters
ever designed. The Judge himself was a brutal depiction of
law enforcement, totalitarian government and a fallible court system all rolled into one:
Judge, Jury and Executioner. These were the early literary influences that
would lay down the groundwork for cyberpunk as a self-contained genre, distinct from science
fiction. A small band of beatnik authors would draw
from these sources to create a new wave of futuristic narrative. One that would paint worlds of technologically-augmented
societies and the underdogs and antiheroes that lived there. Names like Bruce Sterling, Walter Jon Williams,
and William Gibson were seminal in the development of early cyberpunk literature, such as the
tech-themed short stories published in Omni magazine in the early eighties, like Johnny
Mnemonic and Burning Chrome. These stories were some of the earliest examples
of raw “cyberpunk” — tackling themes of the increasingly tightening grip of computerization
on our day-to-day lives. Though mostly featuring stylish technobabble
and evocative imagery rather than hard science, these stories more than made up for their
factual embellishments with a chilling prescience of what our future could hold. These ideas were different and bizarre, and
while not entirely new, had a raw edge to them. Their purveyors were collectively referred
to as “cyberpunks” by Gardner Dozois, a science fiction magazine editor who borrowed
the term from a Bruce Bethke short story of the same name. It became a brand of non-conformity and anti-establishment
thinking, and that distanced it from the science fiction status quo. And thus, the term “cyberpunk” was sealed
into pop culture. “…the purveyors of bizarre hard-edged,
high-tech stuff, who have on occasion been referred to as ‘cyberpunks’…” After a death in the family, and a rough falling
out of the troubled movie adaptation based on Frank Herbert’s Dune, director Ridley
Scott focused his attention on work to keep his mind off of things. With some convincing by its producer, after
over a decade of development hell, Scott was compelled towards Philip K. Dick’s proto-cyberpunk
novel, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’, and got to work on a cinematic vision of the
film. It’s an inherently philosophical story about
humanity following World War Terminus, and the remaining civilization’s dogmatic adherence
to empathy as a human ideal. During the film’s development, Scott purchased
another, unrelated adaptation’s title, simply because he liked the name better, and so the
most iconic cyberpunk film ever made, Blade Runner, was born. It’s an edgier, more materialistic interpretation
of PKD’s novel, forgoing the more on-the-nose themes of piety and social obligation — and
laser-focusing on the core story of a bounty hunter tracking down human-like androids — in
this adaptation, known as “replicants”. The infusion of 1940’s post-war imagery
and motifs was palpable, in the unusually retro fashion in the film. Blade Runner took the more pious protagonist
of Rick Deckard and reimagined him as a rugged, jaded detective like in the noir classics:
another Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade — trench coat, grim attitude and all. The movie’s setting is the character in
the film that speaks the loudest. With a stirring soundtrack by legendary Greek
composer Vangelis, and one of the most memorable openings in cinematic history. Foreboding spires of metal and neon pierce
the blackened skyline of future Los Angeles. The whole city looks like something from a
dream, or perhaps a nightmare, that hasn’t quite made its mind up yet. So much of the backstory and worldbuilding
is communicated visually. It’s like the mile-high skyscrapers and
urban infrastructure are in slow-motion destruction, with pillars of fire spouting from the tops,
as if the entire city is one big, churning factory in itself. Flying cars, searing neon lights, and giant
electronic billboards haunt the seemingly bottomless depths of the city. Always night, always damp or rainy. It was a city that never slept, yet never
saw the light of day. Everything in Blade Runner takes on a sort
of timeless feeling, with decades-old fashion, anachronistic architecture, and vehicles with
advanced propulsion technology, but stylized after automobiles the 40’s and 50’s. It all felt so real. Painstaking detail went into the film’s
visual effects, which included handcrafting an entire miniature city. After a visual feast of an opening, the stage
is set: in a future Earth with off-world colonies in need of an advanced and expendable workforce,
cybernetic humanoids called replicants are created. At first they are a perfect solution, but
eventually a design flaw manifests, and the replicants develop emotions and become dangerously
unstable. A four-year lifespan is put into place as
a safety measure to circumvent renegade replicants. But in the latest outbreak, a crew of advanced
Nexus-6 models are reported to have escaped the off-world colonies and come back to Earth. And the only solution for this problem is
to send Blade Runners, specialized hunters to “retire” these dangerous replicants. The iconic Voight-Kampff testing machine is
the only reliable way to differentiate a replicant from a human. It’s an interesting parallel to the real-life
test that computer scientist Alan Turing proposed back in the 1950’s, designed to estimate
an artificial intelligence’s capability of human-like cognizance. The film’s Voight-Kampff test is sort of
an anti-Turing Test, where a suspected replicant is asked highly calculated non-sequiturs in
order to eventually trigger an emotional response. Our very first dialogue is between a blade
runner screening a new worker. The testee, Leon, seems nervous and awkward. The questions are abstract hypotheticals with
some sort of empathetic tone. “Why wouldn’t you help a struggling tortoise?”,
“What are some good things that come into your mind about your mother?”, and the like. Presumably, a human would brush it off, or
reject the premise. But for a replicant, they have to compute
the solution, for which there is no logic. It’s like putting a nonsense formula into
a calculator, then sitting on the Equals key. Spinning and spinning until Leon suddenly
snaps into a murderous rage, and sets the stage for everything to come. Blade Runner takes the themes that manifested
in the early cyberpunk short stories and boldly runs with them. The film, like the novel it was based on,
asks the question: Do the androids that walk among us have hopes and fears? Dreams and desires? What differentiates man and machine, or even
further, “can a machine become human”? Or are they merely programmed, soulless, constructed
labour, whose presumed sentience is a glitch that needs to be corrected in the code, and
nothing more? This question is echoed in the tragic character
of Rachael, a replicant imprinted with false memories, with the goal of making her more
human-like. But when she discovers that she isn’t “real,”
she undergoes a slow and heartbreaking acceptance, all the while Deckard begins to question his
own humanity while trying to help Rachael find hers. In another subplot, the replicant ringleader,
Roy Batty, is a renegade on a quest to meet his maker, literally. Upon climbing the chain of command, from an
optics engineer, to a genetic designer, all the way up to Eldon Tyrell, the founder of
the replicant-creating megacorporation. When Batty meets both his father and his Creator
in the same person, he is filled with both love and hatred. For the one thing he desires: elongated life,
is the one thing that Tyrell cannot grant him. “You were made as well as we could make
you.” “But not to last.” “The light that burns twice as bright burns
half as long, and you have burned so very very brightly, Roy.” Both Batty and Deckard are outsiders, rubbing
shoulders with the powers that be, but their destinies are not scribed by themselves. At the beginning of the film, Deckard is trying
to get out of the killing business, but is drawn back into taking down replicants, despite
his best efforts. In that time, he wonders if he has become
as cold and unempathetic as the very machines he hunts. “Can I ask you a personal question?” “Sure.” “Have you ever retired a human by mistake?” “No.” “But in your position, that is a risk.” On the other hand, Batty seeks a future for
himself and his friends, but is bound by an irreversible four-year lifespan. He feels robbed of the greatest gift that
one could have, and he struggles for a way to grasp it. In this way, neither character can escape
their fate, and ultimately, that’s what leads to their mutual respect at the end:
they are both cogs in a great machine, of which they have no power to change. Blade Runner shows off some intriguing technology. The most famous example is the photo “enhancement”
scene, which shows Deckard panning, zooming and moving the camera position of a photograph,
AFTER it was taken. Video phone calls, and the chilling realism
of a future where all animals in the world are now barcoded counterfeit products, due
to the apocalyptic events preceding the story. Many of the cityscapes, buildings and machinery
in Blade Runner were imagined by the highly respected concept artist, futurist and designer:
Syd Mead. His work spans decades and has either sculpted
or highly influenced countless icons of futurist media. Mead once called science fiction “reality
ahead of schedule,” an attitude that is abundantly present in numerous films, video
games, and media that bears his mark. From Blade Runner to Aliens, from Star Trek
to Elysium, his concept art feels lived-in, visionary, but most of all, real. Though this future-noir exploration of humanity
wasn’t exactly what 1982’s audiences were expecting, this box office bomb became an
absolute cult classic as time went on, in no small part due to Ridley Scott’s invention
of the “Director’s Cut”, specifically to address the undesirable edits to the film,
due to studio intervention. Blade Runner remains one of the most celebrated
cinematic masterpieces of all time, and has been imitated by countless cyberpunk media
to this day. Two short weeks after Blade Runner hit the
silver screen, another film released, which also featured Syd Mead’s creative influence. Tron wowed the world with some of the earliest
computer graphics imagery ever developed for a Hollywood film. Starring Jeff Bridges as a computer programmer
who, in a freak accident, gets sucked into his company’s mainframe. He is spawned into a virtual world as a User,
and computer processes and programs are represented as towers, tanks and other humans. As a family-friendly Disney film, Tron was
an unlikely influence on the cyberpunk genre. If for no other reason than its vivid portrayal
of cyberspace. Brightly coloured grids set in an expansive
void. These visuals set the stage for what circuits,
software and computer processes might look like from within, with a heavy dose of creative
license, of course. Tron would set the standard for the cyberspace
aesthetic for generations to come. William Gibson, an aspiring writer working
on his debut novel, Neuromancer, cited Tron as one of his inspirations for the visualization
of cyberspace in his own work, saying that the movie *was* the bleeding-edge digital
aesthetic. Sadly, many early cyberpunk and cyberspace
films were box office flops. Blade Runner and Tron — both released within
2 weeks of each other, and in a strange twist of fate, both brought in a paltry $33 million
each, with expensive visual effects budgets. “The sky above the port was the color of
television, tuned to a dead channel.” In the summer of 1982, William Gibson had
finished about a third of Neuromancer, when Blade Runner hit the cinemas. By the time he saw the first 20 minutes of
the film, Gibson was sure that his fledgling novel was doomed, and that everyone would
assume that he copied the film’s style. Panicking, Gibson re-wrote the first two-thirds
of the book 12 times, out of a fear that he would be permanently shamed, and yet, when
Neuromancer was published in 1984, it quickly became an underground hit, spreading through
pop culture like circuits on a motherboard. Neuromancer follows the former hacker, Case,
in a downward spiral after his body is permanently damaged, and he’s no longer able to do the
one thing he was good at: jacking in to the Matrix — the cyberspace that connects all
the world’s computers, citizens, hackers and corporations. It’s this stark vision of the future that
permanently outlined the tenets of cyberpunk. Set in The Sprawl. A grungy metropolitan zone that blankets half
the eastern coast, filled with low-lives, organized crime, hedonism and the cybernetically
augmented. Case’s luck turns for the better when he
meets the hauntingly beautiful Molly — a razergirl, fitted with retractable claws and
augmented eyes covered by lifeless mirrored lenses. She saves him from a self-destructive path
and imminent danger, then presents an offer to Case, on behalf of the powerful and mysterious
benefactor, Armitage. They fix Case up, make him able to hack again,
and give him a new lease on life… with the caveat that he takes on a very dangerous mission. He reluctantly agrees, half-deciding to ditch
the operation and run for his life, but he soon discovers their contingency plan: a slowly
degrading poison sac inserted into his body during the surgery, that if he leaves untreated,
will cripple his hacking ability and bring him back to square one, a broken man, just
like before. In indentured servitude, they span the globe,
hiring for a big-time cyberheist, and preparing for the mission of their lives, all the while
Case is being contacted and manipulated by an artificial intelligence with its own agenda. Gibson’s grisly vision of the future would
establish many tropes and themes often replicated by cyberpunk media. Things such as decking, street samurai, cyberspace,
and Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics (also known as ICE) all owe their origins
to Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy, composed of the books Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona
Lisa Overdrive. Neuromancer became the first science fiction
“triple crown” winner, scoring both Nebula and Hugo awards as the year’s best novel,
and incidentally, earned the Philip K. Dick Award as the best paperback original. It would eventually go on to sell more than
6.5 million copies worldwide. Part neo-noir, part heist story, Neuromancer
crystalized how a cyberpunk setting looks, feels and reads for decades to come. With ultraslick lingo, breathtaking imagery,
and a classy stream of consciousness, it was a peek into our dark and high-tech future,
through a hyper-stylized lens. “People do forget that there was no state-of-the-art
in personal computing when I wrote Neuromancer, and that’s why I was using a typewriter.” “Neuromancer and the first Macintosh were
released in the same year, and someone told me recently, in the same MONTH. That’s difficult for young people to imagine,
I know.” The mid 1980’s saw a virtual explosion of
cyberpunk media across all spectrums of entertainment. From Japanese animation to tabletop games,
from film to television. Case in point: Cyberpunk, the tabletop role-playing
game by Mike Pondsmith – which was directly inspired by Hardwired, the futuristic corporate
warfare novel by Walter Jon Williams. Cyberpunk and its second edition, Cyberpunk
2020 frolicked with the “rule of cool”, and even had style over substance as one of
the core guidelines in creating a character. The game puts players in the bloodied shoes
of hackers, mercenaries and company men all struggling for money and power in the seedy
playground of Night City. And though the game didn’t pick up as big
of an audience as best-sellers like Dungeons & Dragons, it settled comfortably as an underdog
RPG, and further expanded on the collective cyberpunk lore. The popular card game Netrunner would later
spawn out of Cyberpunk 2020’s fertile setting as well. A year later, another pen and paper game hit
the shelves. Shadowrun blended urban fantasy – with the
rise of elves, dwarves, and other fantasy denizens — into a futuristic, dystopian world
where megacorporations reign supreme. At its core, Shadowrun took familiar fantasy
role-playing like Dungeons & Dragons and merged it with William Gibson’s Neuromancer — cyberpunk
with a dash of Tolkien. Megacorporations, exploitation and inequality
are all themes that drive Shadowrun’s world. But in this alternate history, magic and metahuman
races emerge mysteriously into our modern society, creating new kinds of prejudice,
conflict and dangers overnight. Shadowrun’s hybrid of fantasy and dark futurism
made so many wild scenarios possible: a dragon’s the CEO of a German megacorporation. You can walk the streets and see cyborg samurai,
mages, trolls, elves and orcs alike. Shamans can summon spirits to battle their
enemies, while deckers hack their way through the Matrix and riggers remotely control drones
and slice electronic security systems. Such a rich, vibrant world of neon-soaked
slums, old-school superstitions and new-school transhumanism, all backed up by a colorful
vocabulary: like calling eachother chummers, people drink the ever-popular soykaf, and
of course, have dealings with the notorious mercenaries known as shadowrunners. There’s just something addictive about the
wholesale augmentation of limbs, bones and nerves with flashy cyberware. You could spec out your character with massive
claws, conceal shotguns embedded in your forearms, or implant datajacks to communicate with electronics
directly through your mind. The meshing of flesh, circuit and steel, all
in one. As you might surmise, Shadowrun owes a massive
debt to not only to Blade Runner, but especially to Gibson’s work on the Sprawl series. Many of its most popular ideas were lifted
wholecloth: the virtual cyberspace known as the matrix, street samurai, razergirls, the
nuyen currency, and plenty of other references all exist in Shadowrun. Gibson has spoken about FASA Corporation’s
zealous borrowing from his source material, but other than a dismissing eye and a complete
denouncement of Shadowrun, he hasn’t gone further than that, once saying “I’ve never
earned a nickel, but I wouldn’t sue them. It’s a fair cop. I’m sure there are people who could sue me,
if they were so inclined…” Shadowrun may have steered cyberpunk toward
urban fantasy, rather than the attempted hard science fiction of its predecessors, but it
was one of the most popular tabletop RPGs of all time, and acted as a major “gateway
drug” to cyberpunk in the 80’s and 90’s. As time went on, the genre was gaining momentum. Other films began to adapt many cyberpunk
themes while maintaining proven plot structures — popcorn films with a cyberpunk twist. As computers began to proliferate into the
consumer industry, Hollywood eventually caught on, and got to work with new down-to-earth
sci-fi concepts. One of the earliest and most popular movies
to tackle computer and hacker culture was the summer blockbuster “Boy Hacks World”
movie, WarGames. Where a young Matthew Broderick accidentally
hacks into a military artificial intelligence, and starts playing what he thinks is just
a strategy game, but in reality is threatening the world with real thermonuclear war. Another sleeper hit was Trancers, where a
detective from the 23rd century goes back to the 1980’s to stop a hypnotic death cult
bent on ruining the world. It nails all the hallmarks: hi-tech gadgets,
skid row, noir references and even a punk rocker sidekick. A cult classic that launched several sequels,
Trancers is a fun flick, but not a particularly deep analysis of the human condition. More action movies started to take notice
of these themes. Heavily inspired by the works of Harlan Ellison,
The Terminator hit movie theatres with a shotgun blast. While not a cyberpunk film per se, there is
a lot of strong thematic imagery woven into the movie. It depicts an apocalyptic future where the
dregs of mankind struggle to overthrow the cyborg stranglehold of the world. In response to the growing strength of the
resistance, a “terminator” — a robotic soldier disguised in human flesh — is sent
back in time with one mission: to eliminate the mother of the future savior of mankind. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most iconic role
as an unstoppable cybernetic killing machine would be seared into our memory for decades,
with the help of fantastic special effects, and a tight-knit sci-fi slasher flick premise. The movie has been solidified in pop culture
as having the most famous of cyborg designs, an intimidating steel skeleton with glowing
red eyes. And in turn, it has inspired many future depictions
of cybernetic body augmentation. Video games were far behind what movies could
do narratively in the 1980’s, but the attempt at adapting Blade Runner to an interactive
format was met with dismal reaction, likely due to technical limitations. Another complication was that the publisher
wasn’t able to get the rights to the book or the movie, instead having to jump through
an odd legal loophole and license the movie’s soundtrack. In what is the most literal interpretation
of a story possible, it essentially boils down to a basic runner game where you have
to hunt down so-called “replidroids”, dodging cars and crowds before gunning them
down. Between runs, you navigate the city in a maze-like
world, where you locate potential suspects as blips on your map, which you can land your
spinner down to, with the intent to pursue. Simple and repetitive. Even so, the Blade Runner game had some potential,
especially had it been on more powerful hardware and offered more variety in terms of action
gameplay or storyline. But despite the recognizable brand name, it
made only a minor blip in the industry at the time, a forgotten game releasing at the
tail-end of the video game crash. As cyberpunk further steeped into pop culture,
so did we experience the short-lived but beloved “mascot” of cyberspace. American actor, Matt Frewer, starred in a
BBC-made TV movie, Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future, where he played a cocky,
star journalist named Edison Carter. The relentless Carter nearly exposes a conspiracy
involving “blipverts,” TV ads that can kill. The powerful media executives behind the plot
manage to trigger a traffic barrier to kill Carter as he tries to escape the building. Panicking after the attempted murder of a
celebrity reporter, the media corporations’ computer genius proposes a plan: preserve
the mind of the severely wounded Carter, and convert him into a computer generated character. Thus, they hope to cover up his supposed murder. Through a bunch of greedy mishaps, the AI
lands in the hands of a couple of scavengers, who decide to broadcast it on a whim. The AI quickly develops a wisecracking personality,
and names itself “Max Headroom,” after the warning label on the object that nearly
killed its human host. Ironically, its original and unpredictable
show soars in the ratings, and proves to be a formidable competitor to the media execs
who tried to have Carter killed. Watching this movie over three decades later,
there is a chilling prescience to it. Max regularly checks his viewer count in real
time, and reacts to his audience like he was a livestreamer on Twitch or YouTube. Max quickly became a cultural icon of the
1980’s, and has appeared in numerous commercials, cameos and even an infamous television broadcast
hijacking. Rapper Eminem would later parody Max Headroom
in his music video for ‘Rap God’, now sitting at over a billion views. “Ma-Ma-Ma-Ma-Max. What I wanna know is, why are the only funny
lines on this show, the ones behind me?” Films like RoboCop, set in the desolate hellscape
of Detroit, embrace many themes of cyberpunk, such as transhumanism and class struggle. Despite the title sounding like a bog-standard
action movie, RoboCop was set in a satirical near-future setting, where society’s moral
fibre has broken down. Soaked in a comical cynicism brought to life
by director Paul Verhoeven, the story follows Alex Murphy, a straight-laced cop whose life
is destroyed by a sadistic crime lord, only to be involuntarily revived as a cyborg as
a last-ditch experiment. Now a husk of a man, living in a cybernetic
armored shell, the movie is actually a tragic tale of Murphy’s loss of humanity, as he
devolves further into an unthinking justice-dealing machine. Haunted by fragments of memories of his former
life and family, his torment is crystallized in one horrible moment… “I can feel them… but I can’t remember
them.” RoboCop, like many future Verhoeven movies,
features a deeper movie underneath the shallow Hollywood veneer. The crime lord who “kills” Murphy is an
unconventional, spectacled villain named Clarence Boddicker, a smart guy, rather than your typical
thug boss. Boddicker is secretly working with one of
the executives at the megacorporation, OCP — the designer of police tech such as the
menacing ED-209 robot, and RoboCop himself. This parallels the arms dealers who profit
from both sides of a war. RoboCop cleverly criticized the unchecked
and growing crime presence in urban America, as well as the increasingly militarized police
force, all while showing that heroes do still exist. OCP’s indifference after watching one of
their directors get shot into a million pieces at a ED-209 product demonstration, bordered
on the ridiculous — it was like selling a driverless tank as a replacement for a beat
cop! RoboCop was met with huge success, and launched
a comic series, multiple sequels, a TV show, eventually a reboot movie and even a crowdfunded
statue in its adopted setting of Detroit. The film remains today an icon of cinema,
and a true-to-form cyberpunk story, as told from the so-called authority, rather than
from the underdog’s perspective. “Thank you for your cooperation.” The movie’s success also launched various
iterations of video games for the arcade and consoles. It didn’t try to do anything deep or thought-provoking,
instead serving as a visceral, beat-em-up/shoot-em-up hybrid. Like Double Dragon meets Contra, with a robotic
kickass hero. The game enjoyed modest success and would
be followed by sequels as the movie franchise continued. The Running Man follows a similar suit. This 1987 Stephen King adaptation features
another dystopian future, with megacorporations reigning supreme. After a grisly prison breakout, the escapees
find themselves in a desperate fight for survival, with only one last chance at freedom: to win
the death gauntlet known as the Running Man. It’s brilliant satire of the gluttonous
game show media, pro wrestling and boxing promoters, as well as the public’s growing
desensitization toward violence. Not to mention predating the reality show
craze that would seize the attention of audiences for decades. The movie directly inspired the hit competition
TV series, American Gladiators, which a producer purportedly got the show greenlit, using clips
from Running Man, explaining, “we’re doing exactly this — except the murdering part.” On the other side of the world, Japan took
to the Blade Runner aesthetic, and the 80’s and 90’s were chock full of classic anime
with strong cyberpunk themes. Bubblegum Crisis was a stark depiction of
wealth inequality, with megacorporations treating the world like its their own personal chess
board, and powerful cyborgs being used for both good and evil deeds. Despite its questionable name and deceivingly
bright aesthetic, the show and its spin-offs explored the bureaucratic shielding of corruption
and the potential dangers of unchecked capitalism. The 1988 anime film, Akira, embraced cyberpunk
to a T. It follows a biker vigilante and his friend who are caught up in a clandestine
plot — when an accident lands one of them with horrific psychic powers. There are a ton of cyberpunk tropes here:
uber-stylized motorcycles, laboratory experiments gone wrong, and the rise of Neo-Tokyo from
the ashes of a cataclysmic event — paralleling the cities lost during World War Terminus
in Blade Runner. Akira is set against a city rebuilt, one that
is being torn apart by terrorism, anti-authority protests and corruption. Through high-octane action and an ever-deepening
plot, Akira managed to wow audiences around the world with gorgeous animation and brutal
body horror. Its unforgettable imagery would kickstart
many other cyberpunk anime series, and is considered one of the greatest animated sci-fi
works of all time. With the rise in technology, video games would
become sophisticated enough to properly wrestle with the themes of cyberpunk. Most notably, Snatcher, a gritty, futuristic
detective game, designed by Hideo Kojima, now famous for his smash hit series, Metal
Gear, first releasing a year earlier. Snatcher is set in a tumultuous future, where
there is an imminent menace of cyborgs who “snatch” the body and roles of humans
and hide among the populace. They may perfectly resemble people on the
outside, but are robotic with superior strength and high-tech weaponry underneath. You play a gumshoe/bounty hunter who must
piece together evidence at grisly murder scenes, to track down suspected Snatchers. It’s been said, “Good artists copy, great
artists steal.” If that’s true, then by that logic, Kojima
is the greatest artist in the world. Snatcher’s protagonist was traced from Blade
Runner’s Rick Deckard, and even the department calls the cyborg bounty hunters, “runners”. One bounty hunter, Random Hajile is a carbon
copy of pop musician Sting’s character in the 1984 adaptation of DUNE — and entire
shots were traced from Blade Runner and its concept art. Despite treading dangerously close to plagiarism
at times, Snatcher was one of the first and most engaging simulators of cyberpunk noir
we’ve experienced to date. A surprisingly modern take on the adventure
game formula, the game was presented from a cinematic and graphical point of view, often
taking a first person perspective view of the city, its inhabitants and the sometimes
macabre visuals in front of you. The cyberpunk setting and presentation carry
the gameplay, which is familiar to pre-point-and-click adventures, with various commands like talk,
look, and basic item usage — as do many games in the genre. But learning the specifics, guessing at the
many story twists, and enjoying the quaint details Konami put into the game is still
captivating, decades on. Snatcher hits all the right beats: high-tech
cyborgs, low-lives and punks abound, and a neo-noir aesthetic, though it does so in a
heightened way and is tonally inconsistent. Sometimes coming off as incredibly cartoony,
despite other scenes of legitimate horror and thematic depth. Nevertheless, it remains one of the shining
early examples of cyberpunk interactive media — and has been remade with better visuals
multiple times for various platforms, namely the Sega CD and Dreamcast. “One of the things that the so-called cyberpunk
writers have done, either consciously or unconsciously, is to look around the world outside, look
at the fine arts as well, and import whatever they could use into the literary ghetto of
science fiction.” In the late 80’s, William Gibson’s Neuromancer
was advocated for other media adaptations, primarily by a renegade psychologist Timothy
Leary, a friend of Gibson, who had purchased the rights to a video game, and even helped
shop a movie pitch to Hollywood for years. The book also got a gorgeous, yet sadly incomplete
graphic novel adaptation, and Interplay picked up the video game interpretation. Brian Fargo led the development, known for
making Wasteland, which heavily inspired the Fallout series, years later. “Neuromancer: The Game” was an early point
and click adventure, in the style of Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island. The game has a charming look to it. But it doesn’t quite capture the desolate
and cynical cyberpunk “feel” the novel purported. However, underneath the primitive presentation,
is a fascinating exploration into the Sprawl. The writing is a combination of situations
and dialogue explicitly written by Interplay, but also contains quotes plucked directly
from the novel. The most interesting situations are probably
the optional scenarios you can get stuck in, like in the very first scene. You are at a diner after a pricey meal. You can either withdraw money from the bank
and pay the bill, or you can dine and dash, and get arrested and tried for your crimes. It’s these peeks behind the linear storyline
that make the game most engaging. Neuromancer comes into its own during its
brief cyberspace sequences, where Case navigates the matrix, represented by surreal, geometric
forms. Though short-lived and obtuse, it inspired
the imagination, and this cyberspace frontier would be even further explored by future video
games such as the Shadowrun series. More and more, the 1980’s were filled with
cyberpunk spreading out across a number of different mediums, and more importantly, it
was beginning to become a distinct genre independent of its science fiction origins. The genre as a whole came to a head in June,
1989. Essays written by various literary critics,
scientists, and scholars were presented at a conference hosted by the Universities of
Leeds and California, Riverside. It was at this symposium that academics, media
experts, and fiction writers debated the central points of cyberpunk and the future of fiction. The question of where cyberpunk came from,
what it is, and where it was going were points that were hotly contested. “I really don’t think of myself as a predictive,
extrapolative science fiction writer.” “I think I think of myself as almost as
a surrealist. I think that what I’m what I’m doing, is taking
a sort of hallucinatory, very impressionistic take on contemporary reality, and presenting
it as science fiction.” “Science fiction is my excuse for what I
do, rather than what I do. It’s a flag of
convenience.” The term “cyberpunk” itself seemed to
provoke an emotional response from many of the participants. For example, although none would deny the
importance of writers such as Gibson, Sterling, and Williams, many “hard” science fiction
writers criticized the genre for relying too heavily on style over substance, claiming
their works didn’t use enough researched extrapolation. That is to say, educated guesses about the
future, rather than stylized fantasy. In response, the genre’s proponents assigned
their creation an identity that separated it from both science fiction and mainstream
fiction. It had its own literary canon, as well as
criteria for determining what was and wasn’t considered part of the genre. That meant that cyberpunk was free to exhibit
whatever literary styles it wanted to, because it was much more than simply being a facet
of science fiction. It was its own thing, and while it shared
much of the same foundation as the house of Asimov, Herbert, Dick, and Clarke, it was
not beholden to the same principles as the genres that preceded it were. The 80’s may have given cyberpunk its birth,
but it would be the 1990’s that would further augment it, and shape it into something both
recognizable and even fashionable. There was a veritable boom of movies, TV shows
and video games on the horizon, and not only obscure media or cult classics, some of the
most successful blockbusters ever made! The end of the decade wasn’t the end of
the genre, it was only the beginning. Thanks for watching this introduction to cyberpunk,
it’s been a long time coming, and we’re incredibly happy with the final product. A shout out to Shalashaskka for his help in
writing and researching this project, and my deepest appreciation goes out to my Patrons
for helping make this level of production possible! Stay tuned for parts 2, 3 and 4 of this series,
and thank you for watching!


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    Indigo Gaming

    Thanks so much for watching! This has taken several months to put together, and I'm so happy to share my work with you all!
    Please consider becoming a Patron if you enjoyed this video ►
    …and check out my collaborator, Shalashaskka's channel, he does great work ►

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    Donut Sandwich

    “So let’s jack in to one of the most fascinating movements in recent history”
    Mega Man Battle Network Theme plays in head

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    Lucky Fucker

    Let's be honest Indigo.
    We all came here to Burn a City.
    P.s. if you didn't get the reference then shame on you.

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    Ghost in the Shell is also very interesting take on the cyberpunk genre going more in-depth into the cyberization of humans it also has a follow-up referred to as Appleseed.

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    Can't wait to sit down and watch this. Already love your documentaries and have been trying to find in depth look at the history of cyberpunk.

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    Komandant Data

    It's night outside, also raining, and I just woke up and am drinking black tea. Then I also see Indigo uploading a video about Cyberpunk and am like "fuck yeah!". Quality stuff as always.

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    Mixed Martial Anime

    Thanks for the very informative video.

    Wonder how long itll take society to get to this. Feel like this lifetime or the next.

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    Jaime Delfín

    This looks sharp, sounds fantastic, and tells a thrilling story. You may have a knack for writing cyber-punk yourself, if you ever try it out in earnest.
    -A mind-bender of a watch.

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    Just wonderful. One aspect of Blade Runner is how much of a pioneering music-video it was in some ways. The film has sequences each with their own Vangelis pieces, fitting in perfectly with the editing and visuals, which I believe is key to how it is so endlessly re-watchable. I recall getting out of the train station in Ginza, Tokyo for the first time and realising that no photograph could capture the sensory overload, and especially the roar surrounding me. But music video gives that sense of transportation.

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    azadeh zarakhani

    Excellent watch – I've been a devotee of cyberpunk art in all its forms for many years. The one thing I feel that may have been missed, though, is the very obvious representation of class divide in most cyberpunk world design. Tall cities where the rich live up high, outside of smog and pollution (sometimes on a different platform, as in DXHR), and the poor occupying dirty streets below.

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    You're pronouncing Vangelis wrong. Its Van-jah-less I believe, like evangelist. Your likely a younger fan looking back so it might be easy to miss details like this. Broke me out of the classic cyberpunk vibes when you said it wrong.

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    Mental Gear

    Aw. Just where it was getting into the 90s. GITS has played really important part of the prolifiration of the genre.

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    Jeffmetal 42

    Wow, this was REALLY well done! Always been a huge fan of your content, but this may be my favorite thing you have released. I can't wait to see what the rest of this series has in store for us! Thank you so much for this! Cheers!

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