‘Cyberpunk 2077’: The Books That Built Night City

Love Cyberpunk 2077 but can’t wait for the new DLC? Check out these three classic novels that inspired the game.

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a screenshot from the game Cyberpunk of a city skyline

Game developer CD Projekt Red has seen a major turnaround in consumer opinion of their best-selling title, Cyberpunk 2077. Released in early 2020, the massively hyped action RPG received heavy criticism for not delivering on its many promises. For the past year, consistent improvements have helped cool some of that ire. With the announcement of the game’s first DLC in 2023 and positive reviews for the spinoff anime Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, CDPR has made it clear that they’re motivated to continue fleshing out the Cyberpunk universe.

Screenshot from the videogame Cyberpunk 2077. A girl alters her facial augmentations.
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The game’s titular subgenre of science-fiction fantasy has been thrust back into the limelight. CP2077 is often praised for the designers’ dedication to player immersion. From history to fashion, architecture, and dialect, the utterly complex fictional future finds its roots in 20th-century literature. The political and cultural trends that gripped America in this era mesh to inspire the hyper-capitalist neon city Cyberpunk 2077 players love.

Hardwired

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Mike Pondsmith, the creator of the tabletop RPG on which the video game is based, names Hardwired as his literary inspiration. It isn’t difficult to see why, as the novel is a masterpiece of visual storytelling and worldbuilding. The near-future reality is brought close to home with the familiar presence of societal entropy. The two protagonists embody common archetypes often paired in fiction. Cowboy is the son of a farmer in New Mexico and an ace delta pilot. Sarah is the elder of two orphaned siblings who support her addict brother by working as a prostitute in the city. All struggle to recover from the lingering scars of nationwide obliteration, brought about by the conquest of the Orbital corporations. 

The tangible evidence of a society redefined by corporate war lies at the core of what makes Hardwired great. The reader might notice some familiar designs: optic implants scrolling endless adverts, fluid gender, and sexuality. The juxtaposition of rural versus metropolitan culture, both with the same problem but differing ideations. Williams’ eloquent prose and rich inner monologues create distinct characters with believable chemistry. As any Cyberpunk 2077 fan may tell you, the story of headstrong survivors battling the odds to burn down a global conglomerate never gets old.

Damnation Alley

Cover of the Damnation Alley book. The main character stands in darkness.
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 Hardwired pulls its concept of tone and setting from the 1969 post-apocalyptic odyssey, Damnation Alley. The novel’s world is a familiar one, with devastation multiplied to the extreme, similar to how Cyberpunk 2077’s world could devolve. America has been split into nation-states, with each pocket of civilization protected from the uninhabitable world by a massive dome. Nuclear war has ravaged the country into a nightmarish wasteland, which can only be traversed in enormous, heavily-armored vehicles.

Hell Tanner, the novel’s protagonist, is a ruthless criminal who’s finally been caught and is destined for a life behind bars. But after receiving a distress signal from the president of Boston, California authorities plan to send a convoy there with a desperately-needed vaccine. They tell Tanner to put his experience as a driver to good use by leading the convoy; if he succeeds, he’ll receive full pardon for his crimes.

Tanner is the poster boy for apocalyptic anti-heroes: a stoic, lonely degenerate with a soft spot for his companions and a rebellious pride in his bad reputation. His talents and bravery are put to the test during this action-packed journey through a horrible hellscape. Zelazny’s descriptions of the land and its many dangers are vivid, with green sunsets, purple skies, and massive animals lurking in the dark. While the heavily-armed cars racing through a barren land are perhaps more reminiscent of Mad Max, the seeds Damnation Alley has planted in apocalyptic fiction are many.

Neuromancer

Cover of the Neuromancer book. I figure made of wires wearing goggles.
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Neuromancer is known as one of the preeminent pieces of media responsible for igniting much of what defines the cyberpunk genre. The near-future dystopia of Chiba City, which protagonist Case refers to as Night City, sits on the Tokyo Bay and is choked by the smog of industry. Case is a former “Matrix cowboy,” his skill in hacking corporate info legendary until it lands him in hot water. When some irate victims cripple his nervous system to the point where he can no longer jack into the Matrix, Case is listless, bordering on suicidal.

At his lowest, Case is snatched by Molly, a “razorchick” working for a mysterious benefactor named Armitage. Armitage reveals that Case is the product of a Russian experiment in biotechnology once thought to be destroyed. Lured by the promise of recovering his netrunner abilities, Case works with them to take down a superpowered AI.

William Gibson’s 1984 novel hits all the right notes, telling a story CP2077 fans would find shockingly familiar. The atmosphere that defines the mundane moments of the game finds its origins here. The protagonist leads a mercenary lifestyle, on the edge of an edged-out society where enemies are close, and friends are enemies. All life is delicate and brutal, death comes swiftly, and comfort can only be found in a warm body. Gibson’s dedication to describing every minute detail of life in Night City creates a truly immersive experience.

Every key component of the cyberpunk genre is here: stinking slums, jittering neon, loud arcades, rusted prosthetics. Nikon eyes and addictive stimulants. The oppressive corporate entity and the ruthless social hierarchy. For those who’ve found a new obsession in the world of Cyberpunk 2077, Neuromancer is a must-read.

Screenshot from the videogame Cyberpunk 2077. The player character stands before the city skyline.
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Chip Into the World of Cyberpunk

These titles are by no means outliers of the cyberpunk genre, with its influences sprinkled in all manner of modern fiction. The Diamond Age, A Scanner Darkly, and Snow Crash are just a few worth checking out. The latter of the three is unique for using cyberpunk influences to philosophize on the advancements in computer technology in the early 90s.

Cyberpunk has become an umbrella term for media wherein the magic of near-future fiction lies less in the advanced tech and more in mankind’s continued desire for sovereignty. A point can be and has been made for the relevancy of these stories in modern culture; the concept of nuclear war, corporate governance, and class disparity is as relevant today as it was in the 80s. But for those of us who simply find chrome skin and neon holograms cool as hell, and want more stories set in this world, these books are an excellent place to start.


Dive into more book-worthy video games in this Bookstr article!


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