Cloudpunk and the Illusion of Choice

In a world dominated by capitalism to such an extent that an alternative is hard enough to imagine let alone make a reality, the illusion of choice is something that we encounter on a daily basis, whether we notice it or not. Standing in the supermarket we look at a wall of copycat products, many of them owned by the same companies and thus lining the same pockets of the same impossibly rich billionaires, and have to decide which one will actually perform the simple task we need it for, and yet what other choice do we have? To survive in this world, one has to reluctantly bend to the wills of capitalism at least a little.

The illusion of choice is not a concept unique to capitalism, but it is especially pervasive under a capitalist society, where the lie that it is an economic structure that promotes innovation is repeated over and over to the extent that some people are convinced enough to actually believe it. The fact that corporations follow trends, imitate competitors and stifle new advancements (just look at the lack of renewable energy even in the face of the impending collapse of our environment) in the pursuit of wealth can be seen in all industries, and the world of video games is far from innocent.

New games now cost around £60-£70, largely only because the wealthy corporations that dictate the market decided that’s what they should cost, and whilst for that money you’re likely to encounter a wealth of creativity and hours of entertainment, you’re just as likely to come up against predatory microtransactions, unfinished games full of bugs and huge open worlds with fuck all to do in them. Look at any Ubisoft game and you’ll find a massive game to explore, and potentially a gorgeous one with some brilliant content within it, but there’s almost certain to also be copy-pasted missions and box-ticking endeavours that essentially boil down to “go to X and pick up Y for a reason that’s barely even related to the core plot or gameplay”.

The industry even has the gall to assert that that’s just what fans want, with one writer citing “the dramatic increase in the fidelity of game assets and systems that consumers demand now” as a reason for the price hike, before going on to cite Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Watch Dogs: Legion as examples, two of the blandest games I’ve ever had the displeasure of playing. To an extent, the notion that gamers want bigger games does have some weight. All of us have marvelled at some huge game world in the past and been excited at the prospect of spending hours within it, and the way that many RPGs can offer you the chance to create a character, choose your playstyle and perhaps even affect the outcome of the story gives you a degree of agency that no other storytelling medium can really offer. But if that’s the case, why is it that smaller titles like A Night In The Woods, Oxenfree and Spiritfarer have in recent years given me far more rewarding experiences than almost anything from the AAA developers?

Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods.

These days shopping for a video game feels more like selecting a world you’re willing to explore. Do you want fantasy creatures and a dark narrative? Try The Witcher 3. Or are you after historical exploration? Maybe pick up one of the recent Assassin’s Creeds. Maybe you’re after a modern setting with contemporary weapons? Give one of the Far Cry games a go. I’ve played multiple games in all these series and haven’t completed a single one since Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag back in 2013. That’s not to say they aren’t all good. I enjoyed my time in some of them and have positive things to say about them all. But not only do I simply not have 40-60 hours to spend on these games due to, you know, needing money to live and time to sleep, but I also don’t have the motivation.

A lot of this comes down to repetition. There are only so many bases I can clear out, fights I can get into and backtracking down the same paths I can undertake until I get bored out of my mind. But in truth I think the problem runs deeper than this. AAA titles these days often put an emphasis on player control. They want you to access as much of the game as possible from an early stage, and then set forth to choose your own path. This is emphasised by character creation, different play styles and even surface-level cosmetic changes, but in a more scripted game it’s also offered simply by open worlds with multiple motivators, be it levelling up, progressing the main story, finding all the collectibles or just simple exploration. The problem with this formula is that in a world under neoliberal capitalism’s thumb (and especially during a worldwide pandemic), having a lot of freedom doesn’t necessarily make a player-character feel more realistic or relatable.

It’s under these parameters that I think ION Lands’ 2020 cyberpunk adventure game Cloudpunk is so effective. The game’s protagonist is Rania, a newly hired driver for the titular illicit delivery company, forced to try and make a new life in the megacity of Nivalis after fleeing from debt collectors. Like many in the modern day, Rania is forced into her current situation – renting a tiny flat in a huge city she despises – because of economic hardships. She is only working this job because she needs to make ends meet. The game gives the player a number of complex moral decisions, ultimately deciding the fate of the entire city in the game’s finale, but most of these choices are useless in the grand scheme of things and impact the plot little if at all. Whilst some reviewers have called attention to this as an issue with the game’s writing, it is in fact in keeping with Cloudpunk’s themes. Rania is a relative nobody in this city, why should the choices she makes matter any more than the ones I make on a daily basis? Just like many of us on any given day at work, one of the only moments she gets to herself in the entire game is stopping for a disappointing cup of coffee.

A game centered around delivery and escort missions might sound like a drag, but it excels due to some excellent writing, shot through with a much-needed dose of black comedy (a regular tannoy announcement reminding civilians that “unlicensed jazz is punishable by death” made me chuckle every damn time). It’s also set in a gameworld that’s just marvelous to behold. From minute one it’s plainly obvious that one of the main characters here is Nivalis itself. Its staggering size and vivid omnipresence hammer home the game’s overarching feeling of tragedy, of a city in which nothing seems to be going right save for a select few rich fucks.

Cloudpunk’s first person view, added freely after release.

Nivalis is a wondrous sight, a sprawling metropolis built upon rising seas, with neon-draped skyscrapers towering overhead and a constant dizzying flow of flying “HOVAS” racing around in all directions. From the massive buildings down to the details on the street, the city is beautifully well-realised, making excellent use of retro art styles and voxels. Lights strobe as you pass clubs, vendors sell food on every corner, robots clean stains on the streets and everywhere you look there are glowing adverts thrust into the citizens’ faces. The sound design is impeccable, from the almost unending patter of rainfall and the HOVAS whooshing overhead to the music blaring out of seedy bars and the intermittent announcements over loud tannoys. Despite not boasting the graphics of a AAA title, the suspension of disbelief comes much easier here than it does in any number of the game’s bigger budget contemporaries.

The wonder you feel when first seeing Nivalis never fully wears off. Though it is divided into various blocks, the labyrinthian mess of structures makes the city itself feel almost incomprehensibly huge when you’re navigating it in your HOVA. When on foot, the default third-person camera draws way back, making you feel insignificant amongst all the chaos. And this is fitting, because whilst we’re aware of a far off and comparatively rural “Eastern Peninsula” from which Rania originates, Nivalis begins to feel like all there is in this dystopian future. There are even hints in dialogue which suggest that characters believe Nivalis to be the only city left in the world. This is later confirmed to be untrue but if people in the city believe it to be fact, then they’re essentially trapped there, with no real alternative. In one section we even meet people who live off the grid in massively dangerous, long abandoned areas of the city that have long since fallen into disrepair, because a life of hardships and loneliness is worth it to them if it means freedom. Eventually, though, these people must be rescued and brought to the safety of the city – even those who shun Nivalis end up there eventually.

Whilst titles like Cyberpunk 2077 use the imagery of the cyberpunk genre without the critiques of capitalism that make it so frighteningly real, instead turning the aesthetics of anti-capitalism themselves into a capitalist product, Cloudpunk uses all the genre’s tropes but does so in a way that works much more often than not. Nivalis is at the heart of this. It’s a consumerist hellscape that you cannot escape from, a dystopia brought on not by some apocalyptic event but simply by things being allowed to continue as they are today. The sea levels have risen, the corporations have more power than ever, prejudice and bigotry are rife and the divide between rich and poor is even greater – all of these things will come to pass in some form should the world continue on its current trajectory.

Nivalis itself is the perfect embodiment of a future that didn’t so much turn to shit as it did gradually sink deeper into the already existing shit in which we’re already knee-deep. It’s a disorientating, joyless place in which to exist but it’s also all the residents have, the only home they know. Nevertheless, it’s a decaying city slowly crumbling under the weight of its own overwhelming scope. Citizens exist under a constant ominous cloud of smog, never seeing the sunlight, with only the richest among them (who quite literally operate above the rest, at the top of towering skyscrapers) ever setting eyes on the stars above. Even more pressing is the abundance of traffic collisions and the buildings crumbling into the sea in some of the city’s poorer areas. We’re informed early on that a job with Cloudpunk is so easy to attain because the mortality rate is unusually high. The AI that controls the city is fluctuating and failing, and no one seems to understand why.

Just as the countries in which most of us exist are knowingly built upon inherently harmful systems that fuel inequality, produce poverty and contribute to the rapid decline of the environment but feel so ubiquitous that envisioning an alternative is almost impossible, the foundations of Nivalis’ infrastructure just don’t work anymore, and yet there’s seemingly no other way. A city seemingly falling apart at the seams is surely the sort of threat that should be triggering a mass evacuation, but instead the humdrum of the city continues. Nobody with any power to enact change cares enough to do anything, and even if they did, what is there to be done, and where else is there to go?

On the street (where the game is admittedly at its most monotonous in terms of gameplay) the city is even more imposing, and it’s also where some of the game’s best writing is to be found. Members of a street gang brag about their scary illegal activities, which turn out to be building children’s playgrounds and green spaces in a city without any. An engineer desperately tries in vain to get to the bottom of the traffic issues, telling you to warn him if you see blinking red traffic lights, or blue, or purple… or any colour, really. These NPC encounters feature the game’s most explicit exploration of its themes – as much as we can learn from the city’s environmental design alone, the people on the street reveal even more of its grimy underbelly. One character, in a delivery made as part of the main storyline, gives you all of his possessions before taking the one-way trip to the top of the city’s tallest building, The Spire, just to see the sky a single time.

These encounters range from gloomy and poignant to lighthearted and funny, and they’re often a mix of both. The city’s androids are often used as profound trans allegories, such as the android whose human appearance is deteriorating, so he seeks your help in acquiring the expensive drug he needs to sustain it. If he goes out in public he is ridiculed and even attacked, with people suggesting he’s a child predator. But despite needing this drug, he’s not allowed to buy it, despite the fact that people who don’t need it, such as Rania, are.

ION Lands’ upcoming Cloudpunk spin-off Nivalis.

These encounters can be intense, but for the most part the game keeps a fairly light-hearted tone and the general sense of friendliness between characters (at least between anyone who isn’t either a gang lord, a cop or just rich as fuck) does lend it a sense of hope. Regardless, Nivalis never becomes less claustrophobic. It’s not meant to be a desirable future, and it isn’t. It may have awe-inspiring visuals, but part of that impact comes from the pervasive sense of just how stifling and omnipresent the city is.

Outside Rania’s apartment is a bustling highway and a floating billboard reminding you of the post-late stage capitalist hellscape you’re in. To really hammer home that particular theme, you can even buy cosmetic upgrades for both your HOVA and your apartment that are utterly useless, as well as items from merchants that just sit in your inventory until you decide to sell them on. You can make extra money through this, but at a certain point you have no real need for that money. In other games, such a mechanism would feel like an unfinished appendage, but the pointlessness of such purchases seems entirely intentional here. It’s even referenced in the item descriptions – you can buy a photo frame for your flat despite Rania noting that she has nothing to put in it, and lo and behold it will sit on the side empty for the entirety of the game.

When the game comes to a close, Rania’s story is complete, but the story of Nivalis is far from over, and hers is just one of many lives in this bustling metropolis. Thus, ION Lands recently announced a life sim named after the city, and it’s intriguing to wonder how this game might explore the failing systems of the city further. In Rania we play as a character forced into a tight situation, a relative nobody in a city full of nobodies. She is relatable precisely because she has no agency in a world built upon all the worst aspects of our own. This new game promises to allow you to “start small and eventually own all the nightlife in Nivalis”, and it will be interesting to see the ways in which the game makes you engage with a (probably) exploitative system in order to rise to the top.

Cloudpunk deals with a lot of issues, some of them in brief lines of dialogue and some through in-depth chunks of the main story, and yet I’m sure it scarcely scrapes the surface of what there is to learn about Nivalis. The next game set in this universe is sure to once again outshine its more richly financed and resourced competitors in terms of both narrative and worldbuilding.

Words: George Parr

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