Cyberpunk Rarely Imagines That Its Dystopian Futures Might End
'Observer' offers a grim view of the future, but fails to see it break.
All images courtesy Aspyr
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Spoilers for Observer (including its ending) ahead.
Observer is a game about the pessimistic future. As Danielle wrote earlier this year, the tone and shape of the setting of the game bets on totalitarian tendencies, cybernetics that wrap around and warp the body, and a corporate universe that has little to no interest in everyday humans. It’s a world of people who are used to being trapped in their own apartments while armed police roam and cleanse their apartment buildings. There’s no hope for changing your circumstances. It is, as appropriate for this column, a bleak affair.
Like most games that involve future technology, networked life, and cybernetics, Observer asks us to consider what it might mean to be human in some distant future that only resembles our own. It doesn’t interrogate what it means that many of the most powerful political regimes on this planet currently judge large sectors of their populations as outside of humanity already. This is, I’m afraid, a genre problem, but if we bracket the question that Observer wants to pose and instead focus on the question that it does pose, then I think it’s a game that delivers something worth thinking through. The question is this: Where does all of this end?
The “this” in the question is our contemporary way of imagining the world. The game is set in a future Poland, but the problems and concerns that motivate its setting are beyond the concept of nations. Observer gives us a world of infected vs healthy; cybernetic vs pure; enfranchised vs disempowered; normative vs mentally ill; shiny cyberpunk VR cathedrals vs worn down, decaying apartment buildings; safety vs freedom. All of these, in their various forms, are paradigms that affect us right now. They are ways of framing human interactions with the world, and they are ideas upon which political platforms are founded. Who deserves to benefit from the ruling order of politics? Who must be trampled over to achieve those benefits?
And so the work of extrapolation in the science fiction framework is mostly built on increasing intensity. All of those different “vs” that I listed above exist now, and Observer makes them ever-more-extreme in the future. This is the primary tool in the science fiction toolbox. You take our world, you make it a little strange by changing the setting and shape of things, and you make it clear that the contemporary way of doing things is wrong.
Observer doesn’t quite get there, though, because there is very little questioning about whether, say, excluding some people from full social life for having cybernetic implants is bad or not. The plot of Observer largely takes place in the various parts of a run-down apartment building, and during our traversal of that building we see two characters over and over again: a cleaning bot and a janitor.
While we get very little information on the cleaning bot, the janitor, named Janus, has a full backstory. During a war several years before, Janus was hit with some form of corrosive bomb that ate through his convoy vehicle, his armor, and his flesh. In a bid to save his life, doctors replaced a massive portion of the right side of his body with cybernetics and flesh-toned plastic.
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Now he’s a janitor, or maybe we might call him a super, and he manages a building. An hour or so into the game, we have the opportunity to read some of his emails. When he got back from the war, his wife and child abandoned him. He wasn’t the same person; he was more of a machine than a person, and the opportunity to read these emails is immediately followed up by a jumpscare where he is silently standing directly behind the player. You turn. You’re frightened. You wonder if you’re a little like his former wife.
Janus’s story is a familiar one of social exclusion and violence done to both his body and to the people around him. We might think about this as corporate overreach, or we might turn this into an allegory about veterans who return from war fundamentally changed. What I find interesting about Janus is that he continued. This is a cyberpunk world of corporate greed and violence. What is the value, the monetary value that is, in saving him as a cyborg? Is it for an easy PR win, a way of saying that the corporation cares about the little guy? From a narrative perspective, it re-grounds all of the things we know about this world; things are bad, and they get worse.
Where does all of this end? Where is the point at which all of this, all of the forces of violence that contemporary civilization has accrued up around itself, topples over into something different? How is it all so resilient?
The final act of Observer has a bifurcated choice. On one hand, you can choose to let a malevolent AI take over your body and live in the “real” world. On the other, you can fight against the AI and have your mind forcefully placed into the cleaning bot that I mentioned before. If you choose this second option, Janus soon walks into the frame, and you do the same operation on him. You take over his body, attack the AI who stole yours, and get gunned down by the police waiting outside. One of the cops says that the AI is still alive, and things go black. It’s hopeless all the way down.
There’s a familiar line about imagining the end of capitalism, but I wonder why our most creative and strange science fiction video games can’t imagine the end of anything. Observer gives us a world of continued oppression and total victories on the side of power. I don’t wonder why dystopian games can’t imagine a better future. I do wonder why they can’t imagine a future that is different, contains different modes of violence, or show a world of structures that can’t sustain themselves.
To be clear, I don’t think that the violence of our world must deliver a liberatory future; I have a dim view of things to come. It seems to me that the first step toward using our imagination to summon a world to come is to imagine ending. We have to think, hard, about the moment where power shifts. Fictions show possible paths, and all of those possible paths assume that things will either stay the same or transform in a significant way. That transformation requires thinking about an end, whether it is of corporate power, networked culture, or the way we dehumanize each other.
We have to think, hard, about the moment where power shifts.
So the truly future-oriented thought might not be focused on imaging what comes after the end. Rather, we could start with that ending itself, the moment where the systems that Observer grants as eternal structures fall apart. A starting point, the place where our games can intervene, could just be showing this moment where things stop. We could still have our nihilistic game that, nonetheless, shows the way things are grinding to a halt instead of continuing, unimpeded, forever into the hellish future.
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