There was a trend in the things displayed at PAX East this year, and it’s one I’m happy is making its way into the mainstream. That’s right, folks, we’re getting cyberpunk, and it’s not stopping anytime soon. Welcome to the world of neon lighting, driving synth-based music, and themes of grappling with the big bads in charge of corporations. Buckle up.
To understand why the aesthetic is popular now, it’s best to understand the underlying themes it conveys. I’m not going to launch into a full-on rant about aestheticism, but I will admit that there are certain things going on that are a precursor to the times that cyberpunk fits in. In short, corporations are gaining more and more power and becoming even more corrupt. Protests do virtually nothing to stop the displacement of peoples, halt the rise of corruption to offices of power, or to defend their right to essentials such as clean water.
At the same time, we’re in a time where technology is evolving more rapidly than we can keep up with. If it wasn’t clear by the abundance of RGB components in the computers on the show floor, things are getting flashier. VR is accessible to virtually anyone who wants it, and it won’t be long before we have fully immersive VR rigs.
The combination of these things: a growing sense of despair for the world around us and an upshot in technological advancement, echo the fear of technology and socioeconomics that the cyberpunk aesthetic reflects.
Now that that’s out of the way, I want to admit that it really doesn’t matter to most of the games on this list. The aesthetic looks cool. These games emulate that. There may be a sense of the themes listed above in some of the games, but for now, it’s mostly about the music and the killer visuals. I’m only going to detail three games as I feel like this is going to be a longer article already. If you’ve come here for more of a PAX roundup, I can take you to that too. But for now, the games.
To be clear, I recommend you at least check out all these games. I played them all and I enjoyed myself, so if you feel like taking a trip into our neon-dipped, pre-apocalyptic future, go on ahead.
First up, we have Gridd. An on-rails shooter based around hacking your way past someone who doesn’t want you in their system. There’s a lot going on flying through the levels: dodging bullets and lasers that threaten to destroy the ship, a prominent face taunts through the level and doing its best to dissuade you from hacking your way further. Playing the game was rather intuitive. It featured a lock-on system for aiming, making it necessary to move the ship around to lock on to different targets. As the demo progressed, the player faced more challenging opponents.
The thing that drew me in initially about Gridd was the music coming from its booth on the show floor. It was typically something I’d listen to on any given day: a synth-heavy, driving soundtrack that would be found in other games like Hotline Miami or, more recently, Desync.
Next is Distance. If you’ve listened to our podcast at all, I’ve recently picked up a little game called Redout. A combination of F-Zero and Burnout, it boasts satisfying, high speed gameplay. Distance is different in that it doesn’t tout its speed, but the variety of its level design. The levels in the demo centered around a story that was to get to the center of something. As you drew closer, it became more menacing and gnarled.
One feature stood out to me the most. If your car is cut in half by a laser, it kept going. It regenerated seconds later. Not only was it cool to watch, but it didn’t count you out of the race immediately. The car was really the most interesting part about the game. Instead of a cluttered UI in the corners of the screen, speed and other essential meters are on the roof and back window. It gave the game a clean look that I feel is missing from other car-based games. Also, you car flies.
Another thing that Distance promised in its trailers was the possibility to search for an infinite number of levels. Based on keywords, you could search for a twisty level or a fast level, and the game would generate it. This feature wasn’t on demo at PAX. I’m excited to see how it gets implemented and if the tracks are accurate to the keywords.
Third is Thumper. Pitched to me as a “rhythm violence” game, you played as a beetle cruising down a fixed track. Beat pads and turns come down the track and you react accordingly.
I didn’t enjoy the game at PAX, I’ll be upfront about that. I was standing, facing a TV, playing a rhythm game I couldn’t hear. Two other setups at the booth were in use, both with headphones. However, I bought the game later on and I’m happy I did. It causes such a delightful anxiety that I play it when I get stressed. That stress goes somewhere. The soundtrack and audio effects are mixed incredibly well.
Finally, we have Ruiner. Now, this is a game from Devolver Digital that I’ve been following for just short of three weeks now. Everything about this game has an aesthetic, much like other games that Devolver publishes. Otherwise desaturated, the game uses intense splashes of red and hints of other colors. As you progressed through the demo, a figure instructing you to “Kill Boss” kept flashing across the screen. The key part of the game, which I didn’t quite get the hang of, is chaining together the abilities you acquire to maximize your efficiency when dealing with enemies. Some of these required creative solutions, and others were straightforward. The gameplay, at least standing up at a kiosk, was challenging yet satisfying. It’s a die-and-retry game, so being bad at it, at first, is par for the course.
What else can I say about Ruiner, other than that I’m incredibly excited for it? I could tell you that it fits The Aesthetic and its themes perfectly. Could tell you that its soundtrack is great. I could tell you that the gameplay was the best I saw on the show floor this year. Only some of these things are true—the soundtrack, while good, was pretty forgettable, though its sound mixing from other things like weapon fire and miscellaneous voices was actually great. The gameplay was a bit too hard for me to enjoy comfortable at a standing kiosk, and seemed like it would’ve worked better on a controller as opposed to a mouse and keyboard. I kept getting stuck on corners and couldn’t quite figure out how the shield deactivated and how to use it effectively until I left the demo. Overall, though, it was my favorite game on the show floor.
So, if you’ve got a craving for games that feel like they belong to a part of the Shadowrun universe, want to start listening to some of that sweet synthwave music, or are just looking for a few good games from PAX East this year, there you have it: four recommendations from me that are either out right now or coming out later this year. Currently, no game in this list has a release date later than 2017. (Pretty sure we’ve had enough delays to last a while.)