This piece carries a content warning for suicide. You know how cyberpunk, as a genre, is about dark dystopias? In so many cyberpunk worlds, corporations have taken over, technology has been co-opted by the powerful to control the masses, and the entire planet is an environmental disaster zone—which is basically where we find ourselves in 2017. So where does cyberpunk go now that its dark vision of the future is everyday reality? Somewhere even darker, more grim, more sinister.
This is not to say we don't also need utopian science fiction that points a positive way forward, as well—Star Trek's many forms remain a useful idealist text. But speculative fiction that imagines a perfect world, with near-perfect people, runs the risk of losing us in increasingly troubled and ugly times. We can't hand-wave away the trends that we see in our own world with "it'll be better someday!" nor can we ignore the naive tech-fetishism of early cyberpunk, which was dark, and sometimes sad, but always cool. What we need is cyberpunk that takes us by the throat and shows us just how bad things can get.
That's precisely where Observer—the new first person exploration game and detective sim from Bloober Team—takes us. In the game, you play as Lazarski (voiced by Rutger Hauer), a cybernetically-enhanced detective who lives in a Krakow ripe with decaying infrastructure and gleaming advertisements, complete with corporate "cleaners" who kill with abandon, extreme social stratification, and lots of death. So much death.
It feels uncomfortably real in 2017. While its visual touchstones are classic cyberpunk—neon lights and chunky, 80s-inspired technology—its subject matter is close at hand. It explores how the poor are treated in a future with no checks and balances for corporate greed; how veterans are used and mistreated; how prisoners are abused; where the line is (and isn't) drawn for cops and private security forces. It's a vision of a future that shouldn't feel realistic in any respect—but it does. Nightmarishly so.
The entire game is predicated on the dominance of the Chiron Corporation. They run the military, they have the money, they control the implants that everyone needs in order to function in this near-future society. They have a pretty grim view of human life, treating employees as chattel and other citizens as expendable. A Blade Runner-esque text scroll at the top that underlines this. "The rich get richer," it reads, "while the poor rot away in their hovels, desperately seeking to escape reality."
The jobs available to "class C" citizens are awful, dangerous or menial: exterminators, sewer workers, or low-level couriers. There is risk of bodily harm with nearly everything, and the "best" available positions—in customer service—are paid in "protein stamps," not real currency. For those who aspire to reach a bit higher, there are soul-sucking office jobs to be had. If you can prove you'll be a good fit with corporate culture, of course.
Unlike some cyberpunk games—which just use this sense of disparity as backdrop, but set you above the fray as a chromed-out badass— Observer dives into the muck.
Our inciting incident comes when Lazarski gets a troubled call from his son. You travel to the 'class C district' and try to piece together what happened to the younger Lazarski, searching his apartment after finding a brutalized corpse by the window. You have two modes of detective vision here—one for biological material, the other for finding tech—and you need to use both filters to find clues, piece things together, and make sense of this awful world. The gameplay is thematically appropriate—showing, rather than telling—how Lazarski has been "modified" by technology to do his job, which is always nasty, nauseating work.
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You see a lot of bodies in Observer—mainly dead ones—mangled and thoroughly messed up. There's a graphic allusion to a terrible disease and suicide very early on that sets the tone, and things only get worse from there. Those still among the living aren't really doing much better: Everyone has cybernetic implants in various states of disrepair, and you learn from looking on computer terminals that many veterans have been cut off from the benefits that'd allow them to stay functional.
Observer also leverages 80s Cronenberg-style body horror, extrapolating just how bad an idea it could be to mix old and new flesh, especially with no regard for anything but corporate profit margins. Sometimes, you have to "hack" a person's memory implant, and live through their entirely fucked up, glitched-out memories. These sequences draw on the team's previous experience, with Layers of Fear (which consequently took a page from P.T.).
In one brain hack, I kept living through a former prisoner's hellish, drug-addled experiences. I ran through the same rooms, heard the same screams. The same visual: an industrial shower head, dripping. Another had me wandering mazes in a corporate office so anonymous and hellish that it'd make Mr. Robot blush.
It's feverish, nightmarish stuff, and packs a heavy punch.
Observer takes a lot of visual cues from Blade Runner (neon cityscapes, 80s computer screens, pigeons fluttering in the slums, rain everywhere), but mixed with this much darker, horror-tinged vision, it becomes something else, something far more powerful: Observer is an indictment of the techno-fetishism that movie inspired. Glittering cities are replaced with disgusting bathrooms, cyberpunk fashion swapped out for battered corpses and fucked-up cybernetics. Where pigeons fluttered above Blade Runner's L.A. sprawl, dead pigeons fall through holes in the roofs Observer's Krakow. There's a touch of Soma here, both in its scariest visuals and its nauseating view of what human-machine marriage could look like and mean. (And considering how successful Soma was at examining that topic, that's a huge compliment.)
Observer is an indictment of the techno-fetishism that movie inspired.
Maybe it's a sad, pessimistic indictment of the times we live in to say this, but it feels as if seminal cyberpunk works like Blade Runner and early William Gibson novels were too optimistic about the future of humanity. Those works warned of corporate malfeasance and irresponsibility, of environmental disaster, of technology offering as many burdens as releases. They warned about cops and "little people," and they were right to do so. But there were options in those worlds. Other paths. An escape from the fever dream. Blade Runner imagines a future that's uncomfortable, but Observer offers a technologically-induced migraine with no way out.
Given where we are today, with the epidemic of police killings of people of color, of widening wage gaps, the destruction of social safety nets, of the gig economy that promises freedom and delivers very little, and of obscene environmental irresponsibility from the highest office… it feels like those 80s warnings were naive or even childish.
There was beauty in those worlds. A fondness for the technology that enabled all the bad and the good—after all, there were promises of a new life offworld (even if you or I could never afford to go). There were cool bars and fun parties and life to be lived in the same stinking metropolis that imprisoned our favorite characters. Miracle medical technology. Even Blade Runner had flying cars. But Observer's own cop cruisers only look like Deckard's classic "spinner." They never lift off the ground. They never fly anywhere. Observer isn't that sort of cyberpunk.
This is a thoroughly shitty future, but like the cyberpunk of the 1980s, it's also built on the foundations of our own world, on our own social stratification and increasing corporate cronyism. In Observer, these is no escape from the city. There are no dreams of unicorns, and the memories we share in our cybernetic brains are almost entirely unpleasant. The message is clear: technology will not save you. It is nothing but a tool, and those in power will wield it against you.
In other words, bet on the house every time.
That's what we need in 2017. A warning that fits the times.