The upcoming release of Cyberpunk 2077 by CD Projekt Red has brought the spotlight back to pop culture’s obsession with the cyberpunk aesthetic. But what is cyberpunk, and where did the movement come from?
For those of you new to cyberpunk as a genre, and those looking to re-adorn your mirrorshades and leather jackets, we’ve assembled a list of cyberpunk classics, covering everything from its origins in 80s ‘zines, to satirical offshoots and Japanese influences, to the changing literary landscape of a post-cyberpunk future.
If you ever needed a breakneck introduction to the world of cyberpunk, this is it. There’s a lot to see, so keep up, chummer.
1. ‘Neuromancer’ by William Gibson
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”
Will Gibson’s Neuromancer is heralded as the defining literary work of the cyberpunk genre. Published in 1984, it went on to revolutionize science-fiction writing, and to set the style-guide for cyberpunk writers to come. Its freestyle, bleeding-edge prose dumps us into a world of cyber enhancements and faceless corporations, and burnt-out street dwellers doing what they can do get by, and bring down the powers that be. In Neuromancer the drug-culture, sexual revolution, and technological advancements of the 60s are sped up to high frequency in a dystopia that pulses with change, but the little guy is just as exploitable as ever.
Neuromancer follows the story of Case, a down-and-out hacker on the streets of Japan who makes a deal with a mysterious benefactor after the state fried his central nervous system with a mycotoxin, leaving him unable to access the Matrix. Together with Molly, an augmented street samurai, Riviera, a cybered up illusionist, and Armitage, their elusive employer, Case follows the trail of a rogue AI, and catches a glimpse of the corporate world’s struggle for power.
Neuromancer is our first reference point for words and concepts such as ‘cyberspace’ ‘ICE’ and even the ‘Matrix’, this classic is required reading for the cyberpunk genre, and paints a darkened future not so far from the world we know today.
2. ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ by Phillip K Dick
The book that inspired Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep looks at what it means to be human, and where the reaches of technology could take us if we aren’t careful. Far different from the film’s action-focus, Philip K Dick’s masterwork is far more concerned with Rick Deckard’s internal struggle over metahumanity, the mad hopelessness of middle-class experience, and the importance of rearing an android sheep. Dick is a master of the symbolic, and threads his work with enigmas and quandaries that have forced readers to return to it, again and again, for decades to come.
Set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, the story follows Deckard as he hunts down Nexus-6 replicants: a malfunctioning batch of androids whose quest for freedom is threatening to destroy what little life on Earth remains. Tasked with catching the replicants and putting them through the Voigt-Kampff test, the difference between human and android begins to blur, along with the question of their right to survive.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep moves slowly, but runs deep. Its philosophical musings have left audiences captivated, and inspired generations of cyberpunk writers to question the line where blood meets metal.
3. ‘Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology’ by Bruce Sterling
Mirrorshades is a cyberpunk anthology straight out of the 80s. The shiny chrome, pixel-art, and rainbow cover is enough reason alone to buy it, but it also brings together a broad array of sci-fi authors into a collection that serves as the perfect analog for 80s cyberpunk obsessions. Including short stories from William Gibson, Greg Bear, and Pat Cadigan, the anthology features a history of cyberpunk alongside its chaotic origins in rebellious, philosophical, and aesthetic niche fiction.
The result is a mix of stories that vary widely in their themes and seriousness, but give a sincere picture of cyberpunk’s splintered beginnings. The anthology is tied together with a fascinating introduction from Bruce Sterling on the emerging subculture of cyberpunk, and the zine writers who helped define a genre, then decried its absorption into the mainstream.
If cyberpunk sold its soul in the 90s, this anthology is as authentic as it gets for those seeking an honest overview of the cyberpunk movement.
4. ‘Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology’ by James Kelly and John Kessel
Cyberpunk is dead. Long live cyberpunk. Rewired, the confidently named Post-Cyberpunk Anthology is an unofficial sequel to Mirrorshades. It examines the fall of cyberpunk, its transition into the status-quo, and rebellion as a sell-out aesthetic. It also asks where the genre is today, showcasing short stories from authors such as Paolo Bacigalupi and Cory Doctorow, as well as experimental pieces from cyberpunk giants Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, and Pat Cadigan.
“Cyberpunk is dead. The revolution has been co-opted by half-assed heroes, overclocked CGI, and tricked-out sunglasses. Once radical, cyberpunk is nothing more than a brand.”
Rewired asks us: what happened to the punks after they grew up? Where did the revolution lead us? What’s happening beyond the streets? These post-cyberpunk stories exhibit how writers may have ditched the chrome shades, but continues to interrogate the friction between society and its technology. The entire anthology is underpinned by extracts from letters between Bruce Sterling and John Kessel as they unpick what the cyberpunk movement was about, and question the future of science fiction. It makes for a truly fascinating academic reflection on the cyberpunk genre, alongside a mix of new fiction that thrums with new ideas and building anxieties. If nothing else, Rewired gives a nod to the authors you might be reading tomorrow.
5. ‘Snow Crash’ by Neal Stephenson
“Exploring linguistics, religion, computer science, politics, philosophy, cryptography and the future of pizza delivery, Snow Crash is a riveting, breakneck adventure into the fast-approaching future.”
Neal Stephenson crashed the cyberpunk scene in 1992 with his merciless genre satire: Snow Crash. It’s a joyously unapologetic rip-ride through a cyberpunk future, but its smart-mouth commentary fronts for a truly thoughtful experimentation with sci-fi tropes. Stephenson hops from one idea to the next with spit-ball prose that riddles the pages like bullets, and you’re invited along for the ride.
Our hero, Hiro Protagonist, works as a pizza delivery guy, but in the Metaverse he’s a master swordfighter and computer hacker. When a new cyberdrug, Snow Crash, hits the streets, it begins to infect virtual reality and bleed into the real world itself – and only one man has the power to stop it. Snow Crash refuses to slow down, it’s cyberpunk that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and in doing so deconstructs the zany madness of our everyday life.
6. ‘Ghost in the Shell’ by Shirow Masamune
Ghost in the Shell is one of the most famous manga series of all time, adapted into anime and live-action movies, Major’s naked body, riddled with wires and electric circuits, is iconic to the cyberpunk genre.
In Ghost in the Shell’s post-cyberpunk setting technology has progressed to the point where the brain itself can be cyber-enhanced to connect with networks around the world. Major is a serving member of Public Security Section 9, and a fully prosthetic cyborg following the destruction of her body as a child. Her team are responsible for hunting down ghost hackers: cybercriminals who hack and take control of cyborg’s minds and bodies, turning them into cyberenhanced puppets. Major’s journey takes her to the underbelly of Niihama, a city of soaring skyscrapers and hidden depths, but on the way there she begins to question where her humanity lies. Is there a ghost in the machine, or is it just an empty shell?
Masamune’s work has an over-emphasis on cryptic philosophical exchanges, a common feature across many Japanese manga that occasionally leaves western audiences confused. But for those willing to read closely Ghost in the Shell offers real depth and complexity, a myriad of unreliable narrators, and competing worldviews. The manga is cyberpunk to the core, occasionally taking style over substance with its ultra-violent and sexualized aesthetic, but in amongst its action sequences are philosophical quandaries worth exploring.
7. ‘AKIRA’ by Katsuhiro Otomo
AKIRA is a critically acclaimed manga and anime series, imagining an urban future where Japan has been torn apart by war and government corruption. Otomo’s masterwork was one of the first complete manga series to be published in English, and its handling of complex subject matter and detailed art style revolutionized manga at the time, let alone the cyberpunk genre.
We follow characters from all walks of life, from gang members, to military leaders, to psychic ‘Espers’, as they try to stop the awakening of Akira: a being with telekinetic powers that could raise Neo-Tokyo to the ground. Through Akira and Tetsuo, a child torn apart by his own psychic powers, the manga explores not only the fear of atomic warfare that sprang from the post-war experience but also the risks of isolation and alienation in an urbanized world overflowing with lost souls.
AKIRA is inseparable from the history and cultural anxieties of Japan, but its fears speak universally, and its warnings stand clear for us all to take note.
8. ‘The Windup Girl’ by Paolo Bacigalupi
Breaking out of the 80s classics, if you want to see where post-cyberpunk sci-fi has come to today you could do no better than to check out Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. Bacigalupi takes ‘cyber’ anxieties and replaces them with those of biology. Examining the waiting catastrophes of pollution, crop-devastation, and biological warfare. And his ideas also reach beyond the worldview of the ‘punk’, stretching beyond the chrome horizons and glamorous technology of Japan and America to find ourselves on the dusty sun-sweltering streets of Bangkok, Thailand. Bacigalupi descends into the culture of the Thai, Malaysians, Chinese, and farang businessmen who are forced to rub shoulders in a world that is overcrowded and underfed.
Bacigalupi’s setting is rich with wonder, the streets brim with the scent of flowers and the burning incense of street shrines, orange-robed monks bless algae factories in the hopes of hastening electricity production, calorie men prey along the market stalls, and merchants whisper of a new outbreak of cibiscosis. In the chaos of it all, Emiko, one of the New People designed by the Japanese as a model slave, finds herself adrift in a world her body was not built to endure. The forces at work in Bangkok are set to come to a head, and Emiko risks being caught up in the center of it all.
The Windup Girl won the 2010 Hugo Award and is a perfect read for those who might be tired of cyberpunk’s frenzied concepts and stylised aesthetic, but who still feel fascinated by explorations into the transhuman, and the future that awaits our isolation and corporate greed.
9. ‘Shadowrun’ by Catalyst Game Labs
A spiritual successor to Cyberpunk 2020, Shadowrun is one of the best cyberpunk tabletop roleplaying games still being updated today. While it’s not, strictly speaking, a ‘book’, the Shadowrun 5th Edition Core Rulebook is a kitten-squishing 476 pages long, filled with flash fiction, gorgeous art, and lengthy item tables for you to spend your credsticks on. If you’ve had your fill of cyberpunk media, Shadowrun is a master encyclopedia of all the information and tools you could possibly need to start crafting your own stories.
As a roleplaying game, Shadowrun lets you play as a team of shadowrunners: professional guns for hire, assassins, infiltrators, and procurers of information. Players choose from a pool of different roles: Deckers, Street Samurai, Spellcasters, Technomancers, Riggers, and Faces. The game takes place in 2070, though the setting is your decision: from the Imperial State of Japan, to the Kingdom of Hawai’i. But you’re not just limited to the geographical limitations of meatspace, the Matrix network has grown vast, conquered by megacorporations yet still prey to the whims of talented deckers.
Magic, too, has bled into the world since the Awakening, revealing spirits, blood magic, and powerful spells of persuasion to those with the gift of sight. Others were changed by magics arrival in the sixth world, and across the world humans were goblinized into Orks, Trolls, Elves, and Dwarves, each heaving with their own supplies of guns, drugs, and cyber enhancements. Shadowrun is full of ideas to play with, and though its item lists and combat systems can be hell to deal with, its vivid worldbuilding and core system have inspired thousands of players to dig deep into cyberpunk and see where their own stories can take them.
10. ‘Cyberpunk 2020’ by Mike Pondsmith and R. Talsorian Games
Last, but not least, the original cyberpunk roleplaying game: Cyberpunk 2020, is cited as Cyberpunk 2077’s main inspiration. Mike Pondsmith, the tabletop game’s lead designer has been confirmed as an advisor on the CD Projekt Red team, so we can be sure that there will be a lot of crossover with this gorgeous 1980s title and the coming Cyberpunk 2077 first-person role-playing game. Cyberpunk 2020 centers around Night City, a west coast city thrown into dystopic chaos and ruled by megacorporations:
“The Corporations control the world from their skyscraper fortresses, enforcing their rule with armies of cyborg assassins. On the Street, Boostergangs roam a shattered urban wilderness, killing and looting. The rest of the world is a perpetual party, as fashion-model beautiful techies rub biosculpt jobs with battle armored roadwarriors in the hottest clubs, sleaziest bars and meanest streets this side of the Postholocaust. The Future never looked so bad.”
Cyberpunk 2020 has a much broader range of player roles compared to Shadowrun, branching into social and class descriptors, ranging from Netrunners and Solos (hackers and hired guns), to Corporate businessmen, Rockerboy rebels, Fixers, Cops, and even Media sleuths out to bring down The Man.
If you want to start Cyberpunk 2077 early, this is the next best thing. Just grab your dice, a group of friends, and make sure you aren’t scammed a couple hundred bucks for your copy. We could be waiting a year or two for Cyberpunk 2077’s release, so grab your cyberdeck, jack in, and we’ll see you on the flipside after our crash course in the works that defined the cyberpunk genre.
Did we miss a critical title? Do you have a favorite piece of cyberpunk media to recommend? Cyberpunk has a habit of transcending mediums: from books, to film, to video games, so let us know in the comments below what works you think readers should be checking out next.
Interview with John Staats, First-Level Designer for ‘World of Warcraft’
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with John Staats, first-level designer for the launch version of World of Warcraft.
The first iteration of World of Warcraft, often called “Vanilla WoW,” has a strong pull of nostalgia for many fans. From inspiring countless other MMOs, to imbuing an entire generation of players with memories that they will never forget, to inspiring Blizzard to re-release it earlier this year, Vanilla’s footprint is undeniable.
Recently, I had the chance to talk to John Staats, a first-level designer on World of Warcraft‘s initial launch, to discuss his recent book, The Wow Diary: A Journal of Computer Game Development, which chronicles his own personal experience with developing WoW‘s initial release.
In a lot of ways, The WoW Diary reminds me of Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Kotaku’s Jason Schreier. Both books address the challenges of game development, including the incredible amount of hours that game developers work and the dreaded “crunch” when a project has to be delivered on time. Your section on how your colleagues described their work on StarCraft was particularly interesting. What do you think is the public’s biggest misconception about how developers work?
The biggest misconception is how expensive developers are! Most publishers and studio heads are always portrayed as the bad guys, but the truth is there’s so much risk in game development, it’s just insane. If a company is upfront about long hours, then I see no problem with longer hours to some point. Unfortunately, the law isn’t so flexible. After WoW shipped, we dropped to capped 40-hour weeks (mandatory) and it sucked. Everything was so schedule-conscious that we stopped experimenting.
Studios are all different. Some people asked if unions were the answer, and they might help in some cases, but they would make other situations worse. There would certainly be fewer games out there without crunches. I dunno. I’m from Akron, Ohio. I’m just happy to have worked in the entertainment industry!
As a developer, even at somewhere like Blizzard, fan feedback seems like it’s able to affect team morale. In the book, you mention a few cases of this. What was it like to work under the pressure of fan expectations?
World of Warcraft feedback wasn’t nearly as bad as Warcraft III, because the company was too quick to promote their first 3D title. Making a 3D game has such a sharp, painful learning curve that engine re-writes caused long delays. The fans were unfamiliar with the long waits associated in making 3D games, so they were especially angry.
The class designers definitely had it bad on World of Warcraft. People never post when they’re happy, the forums are usually very negative. And there’s strange “voodoo” where people report glitches or errors that aren’t really there. There’s a LOT of voodoo reports that designers need to verify, and that eats up their schedule.
Kevin Jordan once joked that he was going to claim to be a character artist at the launch party signing table, just to avoid being drawn into discussions about rogues versus shaman duels. For the most part, WoW was so much better looking, better playing, better running than the competition, we had it easy. Still, we put pressure on ourselves: for the most part, the fans were pretty cool.
You state in the book that you got your start in modding computer games on the PC. Did you have any prior experience with other game systems, or was your only experience with the PC?
PC only. I was actually a Macintosh user exclusively because I was in advertising in NYC. I bought my first PC in the mid-1990s. As a Mac person, there weren’t many games available (thank you, Steve Jobs), so I only played a few titles on my roommate’s machines. They always had to kick me off whenever they came home. When I got my own, I relentlessly played FPS and strategy games.
One of the more interesting comments that you make in the book, and one that I was curious about while reading, was the following: “Writing stories is so easy it seems nearly half the people in the industry want to do it[…] it’s unreasonable to expect players to follow a storyline, detailed or subtle.” Do you think games are ever capable of delivering complex and subtle stories, or is it beyond the medium’s scope?
I honestly doubt stories will become more subtle for most genres. Most games pull the player’s attention to non-story elements like socialization, user interface, goals, and combat tactics. Looking for things is rarely fun. It’s just too hard to expect the average player to follow nuanced stories… and you never want to risk players becoming confused with your plot.
You use the phrase “computer games” throughout the book instead of the more commonly used “games.” Was there a semantic reason for this?
Ranchers and farmers are in the agricultural industry, they have a completely different set of concerns.
There’s a huge difference in developing computer games versus console games. It’s so much easier to make games for a console. They’re far more predictable, and optimized for specific types of games. Developers are influenced by all kinds of games; pen-and-paper RPGs, tabletop board games, card games, handheld devices… and all of them are very different to produce. I didn’t want to lump everything into the “games industry.”
You mention early on that you’ve suffered “a neurological problem in [your] hands that hinders [you] from using a computer for significant lengths of time.” Given the increasingly interconnected nature of modern society and how much time you spent on computers during your career in the games industry, how hard was it to adjust?
I played FPS games before I became a level designer. I played up to 14-16 hours a day when I had the time. That’s without stopping, BTW. I would eat leftovers between matches. I was nuts.
Blizzard and Nintendo have always seemed like analogous companies to the outside public. Both spend large amounts of time and money crafting games that have long-standing appeal and excellent quality. Both don’t worry about winning the public relations war and, instead, depend on the endemic quality of their games to do the talking for them. Did anyone ever make that comparison inside of Blizzard?
It was a very conscious effort to avoid distractions. There’s so much temptation for some people to jump into every conversation, there was a company-wide mandate to keep your mouth shut. We had Bill Roper for our spokesperson, and if the public thought he personally made all our games, that was fine with the developers (he wasn’t even a dev!). This lets every member of the company, as a whole, take credit for the collective products. Other industry developers will weigh in on every conversation, and journalists will seek out the same developers for opinions. On top of the risk of crossing wires with the company’s official opinion, so much exposure could create jealousy.
At one point in the book, you mention that an acquaintance of yours, Scott Hartin, had worked making console games in Japan and hated it. Was this a common complaint among those who had worked in Japan?
He’s the only person I know who’s worked there, and it was something he said in passing. I thought it such an interested idea, that different cultures tend to work in different ways. Who knows? Perhaps it might have just been the studio he was in, that made them work that way.
Ragnaros and the Molten Core raid have emerged as a large part of the lore surrounding the vanilla release of World of Warcraft. It’s also something that you mention receiving compliments from fans about. What part of Molten Core are you the most proud of?
I’m proud that we ninja’d it into the shipping game without the producers having it on our to-do list! It was a passion project Jeff Kaplan rallied people around. I’m glad he did. We were working on so many bugs after we shipped, there’s no telling how long it would have taken to update the live servers with a content update like MC.
As a historian, having an oral history of one of gaming’s largest and most influential games is an incredible resource. In the beginning of the book, you say that you struggled with compiling your development diary because, to a large degree, you were afraid of underrepresenting some of your hardest co-workers. In the end, why do you think more oral histories, such as your book, aren’t published?
I can absolutely tell you it’s because the author needs to take notes. I can’t do a sequel to The WoW Diary because I stopped taking notes after we shipped. There’s just no way, I’d get everything wrong, or release a bland, broad-strokes version of how things went down. That’s where my book stands out, the details make the story vivid.
Blizzard released WoW Classic back in August. What are your thoughts on it?
I’m surprised they did. No one has ever done something like this before. Redoing someone else’s work doesn’t sound like a fun project for developers, who are in nature, creative people. It just isn’t fun to walk in someone else’s footsteps. I’m also keenly interested to see how it plays out. Do they relaunch expansions? Does it affect the retail version? I honestly don’t know, but my popcorn is ready!
Blizzard has been criticized recently for their communication with players. How different does it feel when you are on the corporate side of that relationship?
No one is criticized when your games stink. LOL! Seriously though, complaints never stop, so it’s never a big deal. Whether it’s about lawsuits or controversy, Blizzard usually takes the high road, and disengages from distractions; it lets them focus on what they want to be known for… making good games. I’m glad to see they’re still doing this.
Final question. As something of a hardware nerd, I’ve got to ask, how did developers handle the rapidly progressing technology of the late 90s and early 2000s, when Moore’s Law was in full effect?
Blizzard games sell well because they target low-end systems. Most studios weren’t, and aren’t, smart enough to realize this. Most studios want to be the first kid on the block to have a shiny new feature. While the industry chased after expensive features that narrowed their audience to customers who had top-end computers, the savvy companies focused on the low-end machines. To answer your question, Blizzard avoided the Moore’s Law trap.
A big thank you to John Laats for agreeing to be interviewed and providing us with a review copy of his book. If you’re interesting in learning more about John Laats, his work, you can find him at his website.
Indie Games Spotlight – Looking Ahead to 2020
The year is coming to an end. The holidays are just around the corner. We’ve already published our list of the best indie games of 2019 and now it is time to start looking forward to 2020. In what is sure to be our last Indie Games Spotlight of 2019, we take a look at some of the indies set for release next year. This issue includes a student project that led to the creation of an indie studio; a story-rich and fully narrated puzzle game; and a comedic occult adventure game that takes place during World War II. All this and more!
Imagine, “if Limbo and Portal had a weird baby.”
Aspyr and Tunnel Vision Games announced that their long-awaited, award-winning puzzle game, Lightmatter, arrives on Steam on January 15, 2020.
Lightmatter is an atmospheric, first-person puzzle game set inside a mysterious experimental facility where the shadows will kill you. The game tells a sci-fi story about a maniac inventor who has created the ultimate power source called Lightmatter. Players must explore the facility in an attempt to discover the hidden plot while facing challenging puzzles that require mastering different light sources to survive.
Not only does the game look great but what’s even more impressive is that Lightmatter originally started out as a university project where a group of Medialogy students wanted to explore lights and shadows as the primary gameplay mechanic in a puzzle game. After creating a 15-minute prototype, the team offered it as a free download on Reddit. To their surprise, the game became an overnight success with thousands of downloads and multiple accolades from game conferences around the world. It didn’t take long before they created Tunnel Vision Games with the mission to take the light/shadow concept further and turn it into a fully-fledged game. The rest, as they say, is history.
Nine Witches: Family Disruption
Investigate the Occult
Nine Witches: Family Disruption is the comedic occult adventure game you’ve been waiting for. From Blowfish Studios and Indiesruption, the game takes place in a rustic Norwegian village on the fringe of World War II, where a supernatural scholar investigates the Nazi’s plan to conjure a dark ancient power and strike a devastating blow to the Allied powers. Players must investigate their plots by communing with a variety of eccentric characters from the realms of both the living and the dead. It’s your job to unravel a mystical mystery and put a stop to the Okkulte-SS’s evil schemes before it’s too late.
“Nine Witches: Family Disruption was born from my desire to blend world history with magic and my personal sense of humor,” said Diego Cánepa, designer, Indiesruption. “I’m grateful Blowfish Studios are using their powers to help me bring the game to consoles and PC so this story can be enjoyed by players across the world.” If you like indie games with beautiful, retro-inspired pixel art and a comical story dripping with gleefully absurd, dark humor, you’ll want to check this out. Nine Witches: Family Disruption summons supernatural hi-jinks to Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Steam for Windows PC in Q2 2020.
Explore a mysterious ship.
Ahead of next year’s anticipated release of Filament, Kasedo Games & Beard Envy have revealed an exclusive look into the making of the upcoming puzzle game with the first in a series of short dev featurettes. Developed by three friends in the front room of their shared house, Filament is a story-rich and fully narrated puzzle game centered around solving sets of cable-based puzzles whilst exploring a seemingly abandoned spaceship. According to the press release, Filament lets you freely explore the mysterious ship, solving over 300 challenging and varied puzzles in (almost) any order you like.
If you’d like to learn more, we recommend checking out the short episode series which explains the complexity and variety of puzzles and offers an insight into how the game was made. Filament will release for PC and consoles next year.
West of the Dead
The Wild West has never been this dark.
Announced at X019 in London, West of Dead is a fast-paced twin-stick shooter developed by UK-based studio Upstream Arcade. The game stars Ron Perlman (Hellboy, Sons of Anarchy) as the voice of the main protagonist William Mason, a dead man awakened with only the memory of a figure in black. His existence sets into motion a chain of events that have truly mythic consequences.
Thrown into the unknown procedurally generated hunting grounds of Purgatory, your skills will be put to the test as you shoot and dodge your way through the grime and grit of the underworld. No one said dying would be easy and West of the Dead will surely test your skills. The battle for your soul will take place on Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC in 2020.
The Red Lantern
Survive the Alaskan wilderness in this dog sledding, story-driven, rogue-lite game
We first took notice of The Red Lantern during a Nintendo Direct earlier this year and ever since we’ve been impatiently awaiting its release. The Red Lantern is a resource management game where you and your team of five sled dogs must survive the wilderness and find your way home. Set in Nome, Alaska, you play as The Musher, voiced by Ashly Burch (Horizon: Zero Dawn, Life is Strange), as she sets out to train for the grueling Iditarod race.
The game combines rogue-lite elements into this story-driven adventure game, where hundreds of different events can occur—like fending off bears, resisting frostbite, attending your dogs, or receiving a signature moose-licking. This might be the first and last dog-sledding survival game we will ever play but that’s fine by us because judging by the screenshots and trailer, the game looks terrific. The Red Lantern is Timberline Studio’s debut game and is funded by Kowloon Nights. The game will be releasing on Xbox One and Nintendo Switch in 2020.
The Best Games of the 2010s
The 2010s have spoiled us with an abundance of amazing games released year after year, and with the decade quickly drawing to a close, some would argue it is the best decade for video games yet. The choice of AAA titles, MMOs, indies and even mobile games is simply overwhelming. In no other decade have we had so much variety and so much to choose from making it extremely hard to pinpoint what our favourites are. Truth be told, many of us still have some catching up to do. Not everyone has played every game nominated below, and how could we considering some of these games require hundreds of hours of our time to complete? Thankfully we have enough writers on staff to be able to cover it all, and as expected, none of us seem to agree on every winner. It wasn’t easy to choose from our many favourites but we narrowed it down to one winner and five special mentions for each year. At last, here are the best games released in the 2010s.
Best Games of the Decade
2010) Mass Effect 2
Bioware’s Mass Effect announced itself as a different kind of game. The natural evolution of games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect offered gamers a whole universe of possibilities. Depending on their choices, their protagonist could be a cocksure rogue or an unrepentant optimist, a cold pragmatist or a warm confidante. Regardless of your choices though, what Mass Effect really offered was the chance to enter a world and experience it in your own individual manner.
Mass Effect 2 doubled down on this prospect in a way that was almost inconceivable. Giving players a bigger galaxy to explore, more characters to journey through it with, and more refined gameplay with which to devour it, Mass Effect 2 arrived as the sequel that fans never even dreamed was possible. A game with so many different possibilities for outcomes that there was an ending designed as if the player had died in his quest, there was literally no wrong way to play Mass Effect 2.
While the sequel ended up having to pull back on these ambitions, Mass Effect 2 still remains a game that made players believe that literally anything was possible, and for that reason alone, it remains a one of a kind, unforgettable experience. (Mike Worby)
Runners-Up: Call of Duty: Black Ops, God of War III, Red Dead Redemption, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, Super Meat Boy
2011) Dark Souls
Like Mass Effect 2, Dark Souls is less an original prospect in and of itself, and more the perfectly refined version of a very good idea. Hidetaka Miyazaki may have hit upon a gold rush with his experimental action-RPG Demon’s Souls, but it was Dark Souls that really hit paydirt. Transporting the hybrid single-player/multiplayer experience into an ever-growing open world that devoured itself like an ouroboros, Dark Souls didn’t just perfect the experience that its predecessor had plotted out, it laid the groundwork for an entire genre.
Players still relentlessly speed run, troll, experiment with and redefine what Dark Souls is, and what it means to them, nearly a decade after its initial release. Check Twitch or YouTube on any given day, and you’re likely to find dozens of gamers re-exploring the world of Lordran, and seeing what it might offer them in this reincarnation of its virtues and faults, concepts and confines. Such is the result of a game so endlessly replayable that it doesn’t even ask before plonking you back at the beginning after those end credits. After all, why not spend a little more time in this world? (Mike Worby)
Runners-Up: Batman: Arkham City, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Minecraft, Portal 2, Rayman Origins
2012) Xenoblade Chronicles
It’s hard to find a game as niche as Xenoblade Chronicles. A JRPG, published in North America two years after its initial 2010 release on the already-sunsetting Wii, it seemed an unlikely prospect for success. After all, the Wii was perhaps Nintendo’s most family-friendly console, a system designed around casual audiences and motion controls; its successor, the Wii U, was just around the corner. It made little sense to release a JRPG, of all things, when the system was on its last legs.
Despite launching at the tail end of one generation and the beginning of the other, Xenoblade Chronicles delivered one of the best JRPG experiences in decades. Xenoblade creator Tetsuya Takahashi, with a checkered history of ambitious games that failed to fully deliver on their promises, finally perfected his craft. A gripping narrative, a spectacular score, and an innovative focus on blending the best of both Western and Japanese RPGs made Xenoblade Chronicles a stunning achievement and the best JRPG to ever come from Nintendo.
Seven years, and two critically praised sequels, later, and Takahashi has yet to recapture the magic in the original Xenoblade and rekindle the pure, unadulterated sense of exploration and adventure that made it such an enjoyable experience, a testament to how unique and incredible this JRPG truly is. (Iszak Barnette)
Runners-Up: Diablo III, Far Cry 3, Hotline Miami, Journey, The Walking Dead
2013) The Last of Us
With The Last of Us, the cinematic-loving geniuses at Naughty Dog proved themselves once again as one of the most accomplished development teams in the world. The confident and handsome survival thriller was instantly hailed as the new bar for what gaming could and should be moving forward. The Last of Us is Hollywood stuff, of course, and it borrows from dozens of carefully chosen inspirations, among them George A. Romero’s original Dead trilogy, The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. While the game’s cynical portrayal of survivors turning on each other is a very familiar premise – The Last of Us is also the rare video game that follows a traditional storyline and then improves upon it. Set twenty years after a pandemic radically transformed civilization – The Last of Us follows Joel, a salty survivor, who is hired to smuggle a fourteen-year-old girl, Ellie, out of a rough military quarantine. What begins as a straightforward, albeit risky job, quickly turns into a highly emotional, palm-sweating journey that you won’t ever forget.
The Last of Us mixes traditional adventure, survival, action, stealth, and constant exploration. Amidst the action, the horror and the many layers of modern mythology at work here (all quintessentially American), the game succeeds simply as a parable of what it means to live versus surviving. By the time you get to the last act, you understand why The Last of Us is the stuff of legends. The ending is simply amazing and not because it ends with a bang, but instead, because it ends with a simple line of dialogue. It’s intense and, yes, depressing – and it earns every minute of it.
Exhausting to play but oddly exhilarating to experience, The Last of Us works its way under our skin to unnerve, reside and haunt us. From the rich, complex combat system to the sublime sound design, this game immerses the player from start to finish. The Last of Us proves how far the craftsmanship of making video games has come from the outstanding engineering and art and sound design to the fine direction and performances, and the touching relationship of the two leads. It shouldn’t be a surprise that The Last of Us is our favourite game of 2013 because it works on every level: as a violent chase thriller, a fantastic cautionary tale, a coming of age story, and a sophisticated drama about the best and worst qualities of humanity. There’s something for everyone here to appreciate! (Ricky D)
Runners-Up: Bioshock Infinite, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, DOTA 2, Gone Home, Grand Theft Auto V
2014) Mario Kart 8
Nintendo was so confident about Mario Kart 8 that they implied it could turn the tides of both sales and public consciousness on the Wii U. Of course, Mario Kart 8 didn’t end up doing that, but it did handily exceed the expectations of its legion of naysayers, such as the infamous Polygon pie charts. Five years later and it has not only gone down in the record books as the highest-selling game on that fateful console, but is also the highest-selling game on Nintendo’s renaissance console, the Switch.
While the appeal of Mario Kart remains perennial, Mario Kart 8 is an especially special Mario Kart. Its controls are the most fluid and refined, its visuals the most lush and detailed, and its courses the most vibrant and fully-realized. Moreover, its breakneck 200cc mode, wealth of fantastic DLC courses, and Deluxe-specific battle mode have given Mario Kart 8 incredible replay value, depth, and variety despite lacking an adventure mode. At launch, Mario Kart 8 was the peak of the series, the best modern kart racer, and a game of the year contender. Now, with tons of extra content, over thirty million copies sold, and the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Mario Kart 8 may become known as the greatest and most popular racing game of all time, kart or otherwise. (Kyle Rentschler)
Runners-Up: Bayonetta 2, Divinity: Original Sin, Hearthstone, Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare, Valiant Hearts: The Great War
FromSoftware pioneered a new genre and difficulty standard with their Souls series, but Bloodborne’s their magnum opus. The sordid streets of Yharnam teem with monsters, and hacking through the bloody lot of them is a visceral (and challenging) delight.
I made it through Bloodborne with minimal trouble, felling most bosses in two or three tries. But the last boss, the dude whose name starts with G (no spoilers), kicked my ass to the moon and back. I fought him for a whole weekend, dying upwards of fifty times. I thought I couldn’t do it, that I’d have to throw in the towel, for this was a mountain I couldn’t scale. But then something unexpected happened: I won! I flawlessly dodged his attacks, steadily chipping away at his lofty life bar until he kicked the bucket. The sensation of elation I experienced upon victory was a high that lasted for hours, and that’s when it clicked for me “This is why there’s no easy mode”. (Harry Morris)
Runners-Up: Life is Strange, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Rocket League, Undertale, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
2016) Persona 5
When it comes to JRPGs, there’s no shortage of turn-based level grind-y time sinkers on offer, but Persona 5 is something different. It’s both unabashedly inspired by its genre brethren, yet wholly unique. Where countless JRPG stories crumble under the weight of “That’s flippin’ nonsense”, Persona 5 serves up a rewarding narrative driven by a wildly loveable band of misfits. Its relationship-building mechanics (that inspired Fire Emblem: Three Houses) are addictive, and its user interface is award-worthy. Every facet of this genre masterpiece is meticulously honed to perfection, and its bigger and better iteration (Persona 5 Royal) can’t come soon enough. (Harry Morris)
Runners-Up: Final Fantasy XV, Inside, Overwatch, Pokemon Sun and Moon, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
2017) The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
What’s perhaps most remarkable about Breath of the Wild is just how familiar yet simultaneously refreshing it feels. Breath of the Wild may be the biggest Zelda game to date, but it still feels like a Zelda adventure — in spirit, story, tone and in gameplay. You play as the young courageous Link, the hero of Hyrule, who awakens from a cryogenic sleep chamber inside of a small cave and teams up with the eponymous princess (so to speak) and sets out on an adventure to destroy the horrible fanged, boar-faced Calamity Ganon, a megalomaniac holding Princess Zelda hostage and bent on destroying Hyrule. The narrative setup is more or less standard for a Zelda game, but Breath of the Wild has something that was missing from the series for far too long — perhaps since the original title was released back in 1986.
Much like that original, Breath of the Wild is a game that begs you to keep exploring and it does this right from the start, immediately instilling a real sense of mystery, no matter how familiar you are with the series. As soon as you emerge from that opening cave, you’ll find yourself on a vista, looking out at the beautiful mountains and ruins of a post-apocalyptic, techno-plagued world. And from that moment on, the world is your oyster.
Since its arrival in 1986, the Zelda series has always pushed the technical boundaries of whatever console it has graced and Breath of the Wild continues this tradition (times two). Epic, mythic, simply terrific, Breath of the Wild brought a new kind of experience to fans across the globe. In return, it demands your attention. It’s such a landmark in video games that labeling it a masterpiece almost seems inevitable. Though in the end, most of what makes Breath of the Wild so beloved is Nintendo’s determination to constantly challenge themselves while crafting an unforgettable experience that also doubles as a commentary on the freedom of playing on the Switch. That a game of this magnitude can be playable anywhere you go, is a remarkable feat. (Ricky D)
Runners-Up: Cuphead, Hollow Knight, Horizon Zero Dawn, Resident Evil VII, Super Mario Odyssey
2018) God of War
To take their beloved franchise, turn it on its head, and deliver an experience that surpasses its acclaimed predecessors was no easy task for Sony’s Santa Monica Studio, yet they smashed it! God of War pays homage to its roots, whilst simultaneously bounding headlong into uncharted waters. It embraces modern conventions but utilizes them in a way that feels fantastically fresh.
Kratos’s journey with Atreus through the universe of Norse mythology is a masterclass in both character study and organic world-building, and a far cry from the one dimensional “Kratos angry, Kratos kill things” fare of old. Combat strikes a balance between strategic nuance and gory glee, and the Leviathan Axe feels badass to swing around. Discussing this game is more often than not an exercise in rattling off cool qualities, because there’s just that many things to dig about it. (Harry Morris)
Runners-Up: Celeste, Monster Hunter World, Red Dead Redemption 2, Spider-Man, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
2019 ) Fire Emblem: Three Houses
With three stories that can change depending on the choices taken, Fire Emblem: Three Houses really does allow the player to choose the path they wish. Much like previous Fire Emblem games, what the player does and chooses is at the heart of the game, with benefits and consequences for each action taken. With three different houses to discover, Fire Emblem: Three Houses can be replayed countless times while never feeling like the same game.
It’s easy to get enchanted by all the personality, charisma, and cheesiness the game has outside of battles, that it’s even easier to miss the tactical ingenuity within battles. Fire Emblem: Three Houses has shaken up much of the battle formula from previous Fire Emblem games, creating a much more fragile web, requiring a balancing of personalities and classes that can develop constructively for the rest of the game. This means every brick you place from the start of the game will affect how well your house stands by the end of the game. It’s a clever design that can catch even the most ardent Fire Emblem veterans out there.
But most importantly of all, each story doesn’t feel rushed or out of place. That isn’t just the three main stories but every characters’ own personal story. Some of the characters are a little overly cloy for my personal tastes, but that isn’t to say they didn’t fit the narrative. Their story was woven into the main story without a slip or a bump. It is that Fire Emblem: Three Houses is more than just how the player develops, but how each character develops around them. (James Baker)
Runner-Up: The Outer Wilds, Disco Elysium, Control, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Resident Evil 2
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