Technolust began in cyberspace, an all green-and-black-grid galley towards a computer console, my eyes swarmed with windows and scanners. Then I unplugged myself and returned to the game’s “real world”: a hacker’s den in an unspecified dystopian city, cluttered with monitors, appliances, smoke, and cords. Outside the window were flying cars, arcades, and cycling screens. The desk I sat at in Blair Renaud’s cyberpunk game was an awful lot like the desk I was sitting at inside his home. A Guy Fawkes mask hung above both. In the real world there were two Bruce Lee figurines and in the game was Lee’s signature Wing Chun dummy. Robocop toys sat on a shelf to the left in Renaud’s apartment, and near the end of my demo a machine that moved and squealed similarly to that movie’s ED-209 burst in, as if the toys had sprung to life and marched into the monitor.
“I cleaned up a little before you came over,” said Renaud, explaining why empty ramen bowls and crushed Jolt Cola cans only existed in the simulation. “Maybe the game is more personal than I believed.”
It wouldn’t be hard to make a list of Renaud’s favorite films just by simply playing Technolust. Throughout it are the sights and sounds of Ghostbusters (1984), Blade Runner (1982), Tron (1982) and Total Recall (1990). He told me I was the first person to notice frames from The Twilight Zone (1959-64) hidden in celluloid reels hanging from the shelves. You’d even know what Renaud looks like from playing the game because of a bobblehead he modeled after himself, with wraparound shades and a q-ball shaved head, standing in front of the in-game stereo.
Technolust is not a modernized version of cyberpunk. It is the neon and steaming sewer drains that we recognize as cyberpunk’s rawest form. As much as cyberpunk is a collection of dystopian themes, it is just as much a collection of very specific images we can’t bring ourselves to divide from. We’re sentimental about nightmares, it turns out, and as far as aesthetic collections go, cyberpunk is pretty awesome. Anything else, updates and modernizations, can feel in your gut like cyberpunk-lite, or cyberpunk with omissions.
Virtual reality has become one of the aesthetic’s must-include touchpoints, along with things like a world overrun with androids and tech-savvy syndicates. VR is usually a tool, a paradise and an opiate, and with its advent you’d expect that it’d be the very first vacation many would want to jack into. Somehow there hasn’t been much action on that front; Blade Runner sets have been recreated, and some games nod at Neuromancer (1984), but Renaud was impatient from the start.
“I was going back through my posts on the official Oculus forums, and the very first post I put up was, “Where’s all the cyberpunk love?”” said Renaud. “Why aren’t these things crazier?” When he played through the Tuscany demo, one of the first popular sims for the Oculus Rift, he couldn’t help but wonder why it wasn’t being attacked by a UFO.
Virtual reality has become one of the aesthetic’s must-include touchpoints
Renaud believes that, in Oculus’ initial steps, people were hesitant to build full-blown techno-nightmares, or that perhaps playing tribute to a genre that has so often painted VR as a shitty idea would be poor form. But it’s also something of an obvious, if not destined, direction. Renaud didn’t want to wait for the VR he wanted to see, instead using his own abilities to make a game that housed all of his favourite things.
“It’s also a good hook for people,” said Renaud. “There’s something in there is going to hook everyone.” Renaud mentioned a Polygon article on the game in which the author’s focal point was the part of the game inspired by the infamous Max Headroom signal intrusion, a real-world moment when someone in a rubber mask interrupted a 1987 Chicago Bears game. It makes an unmissable cameo in Technolust. And while making your genre epic something of an uninterrupted dweeby mood board is something I’ve ridden against in the past, that in a book or film it’s just shallow and self-serving, I also believe there’s a good case for it in VR.
The cyberpunk scenario dreamed up by William Gibson while watching kids in a noisy arcade is outdated. It is not a future we’re likely heading towards, given the present we find ourselves in. We’re developing body augmentations, we are musing about artificial intelligence, we have hackers conquering cyberspace, and we’re even eyeing a Mars colony. But it’s turned out far more elegant and pedestrian in practice than the LSD soaked bric-a-brac fantasy that was 80s retrofuturism. We live in an era where powerful computers look like designer door stops instead of heaving lockers with wires spilling out like spaghetti from a can. We live in an era where robotic drones are used to fight wars and make vacation videos with few uses in between. We live in an era where hoverboards don’t fly. So what better way to resurrect that mean, dead future than with one of the very cornerstones of that mean, dead future: simulation. Why be abashed if we want to go to dreamland?
“It could still go this way,” said Renaud. “In the 80s it was all stories about capitalism run amok, what things will look like under that nightmare. It could still do that, depending how elections turn out. A Trump future could look a lot like Blade Runner.”