I think Austin Walker’s A(s)century came at an appropriate time for me. I’ve just started re-reading Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, you see, and I’ve been thinking quite a bit about its influence on pop culture. Granted Ridley Scott probably has more than a little to do with the book’s impact, but Dick’s oeuvre laid a lot of the groundwork for contemporary science fiction. I won’t bother listing the influence Dick has had on Hollywood because that means forty years of backtracking and, unsurprisingly, games have also followed his legacy pretty closely.
Games love the Philip K. Dick aesthetic. Smokestacks, a haze of fallout, identity crises, artificiality, the surveillance state, aliens and alienation, neon advertisements blazing through rain, the urban planet, ennui and apathy, corporatocracy, horrifyingly friendly company names. Perhaps it’s because the amorphous boundary between artificial and authentic is so structurally significant to them1 but games are deeply interested in mimicking Dick’s style, if not always his substance.
Returning to A(s)century, what struck me was how much the game didn’t just check off a laundry list of Dick’s brand of sci-fi, it carries its aesthetic choices with a purpose. Yes, the gradually revealed artwork of Steve Kim‘s bleak urban night blazing one-word ads is beautifully appropriate for the game’s Blade Runner-esque tone and Scott Halam‘s soundtrack really pounds home the technological dystopia the fiction communicates; but every stylistic choice has a purpose in reinforcing its central point.
Science fiction in games (and, let’s be fair, science fiction outside of them as well) tends to treat Dick’s devices as just cool things to riff off of—they make a great excuse to set up an action scene—while ignoring the metaphysics that he’s really interested in. As a result cyberpunk, as a subgenre, is more easily recognized by its mask than by its face, so to speak. I happened to be a fly on the wall for a twitter conversation between Walker and Porpentine—another indie dev who’s own work is concerned with identity and class in and out of the cyberpunk genre2—about this very subject.3 The two of them expressed some catharsis regarding the trends in the genre, specifically about how most cyberpunk adopts revolutionary language while endorsing the status quo.
A(s)century calls attention to that very trap. It puts the initially downtrodden player-character in a situation where they have instant leverage over their unjust world, only to move them up the established hierarchy in that world instead of rebelling against it. Playing through it, I inwardly found myself abusing the power the game gave me. I knew that the program my character discovered would eventually turn on them but it felt appropriate to continue exploiting it. The game’s plot starts with a player’s lucky scavenge and follows their rise to absolute power. The more power I had, the more appropriate it felt to use that power to get more power. No matter how my character started out, he was not a countercultural force to wield against the machine: he was an operator of it until he was a piece in it.
The articles of world building that filled out every new page wove together a confused and despairing sense of inevitability: as if the world could only ever be what the images and music and words say it is. The PC has every opportunity to save the day, but they never do. It isn’t that the world is stuck the way that it is; it’s that given the chance nobody will overthrow the system when they can benefit from it instead. Very Philip Dick. But unlike Dick’s more existential interests, Walker’s game is far more rooted in the politics of cyberpunk. More in the vein of later writers like Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler, Walker’s techno-dystopia is overtly invested in the class warfare that emerges from a top-heavy society with a guarded control over opportunity.
The real-world quotes punctuating the fiction point to the cyberpunk dystopia that the game’s real life players live in and—for me anyway—the hopelessness felt all the more profound for it. So, to go back to Walker’s conversation with Porpentine, A(s)century is not cheaply designed. You’ll notice a number of screenshots in this article that come from other games that lean pretty heavily on the Blade Runner aesthetic that’s been so copiously recycled since Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Dick’s opus. It’s not that I think that these games are bad, or even that they don’t grasp the subtext underneath the cyberpunk gloss and smog (I’d even go so far as to make the case that many of them do, to varying extents, “get it”) but it has dawned on me just how replete the style is. And it’s significant that A(s)century goes out of its way to politicize a genre that’s been diluted after so many repeated uses.
I liked A(s)century. I thought it was alienating and chilling. It presented me with a world that needed to be gutted before it could be fixed and then it gave no logical path but to preserve it. It took out the “punk” and showed the genre and the act of writing it as a means of endorsing the status quo. It’s a game about capital controlling people, bloodless revolutions that change nothing and boring labour atrocities. It isn’t just an environment. Consider Netrunner, a card game that was introduced to me as William Gibson’s Neuromancer except in game form: granted there are considerably thoughtful responses to the game,4 but how much of the power dynamics between corporation and insurgent is central to the game’s play?
So when I say that my starting to read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? just as I play A(s)century is a spark of serendipity I don’t think I’m saying much at all. Two thirds of all games that I could pick up when starting to read that book would feel like an appropriate match. I guess what I’m saying is that science fiction can say many things in many ways and, as much as I like Dick’s work, he’s omnipresent in pop culture. So much that I wonder if the volume of his voice has overshadowed its content.
1 Jaffries, L.B. “Philip K. Dick’s Defense of Video Games.” PopMatters. Dec 6 2009.
2 Swain, Eric. “Porpentine of the Twine.” PopMatters. Jul 8 2013.
3 Filipowich, Mark. On A(s)century.” Storify. Mar 12 2014. Tweets
4 Albor, Jorge. “Asymmetry and Netrunner;” “The Politics of Netrunner.” PopMatters. Nov 21 2013; Feb 13 2014
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Further reading: Bernstein, Joseph. “The Problem With Cyberpunk Games.” Buzzfeed. Jun 4 2013.
Forest, Adrian. “Why Video Game Cyborgs Suck: Cyberpunk Myth vs. Reality.” Microtransactions. Jun 8 2013.
Walker, Austin. “The Flickering of a Starship Graveyard.” Clockwork Worlds. Feb 1 2014.