7 Cyberpunk City Tropes for Writers and Gamemasters
Your cyberpunk city becomes more “real” to your audience when it includes a handful of these elements.
Wikipedia tells us ‘Cyberpunk is often set in urbanized, artificial landscapes, and “city lights, receding” was used by Gibson as one of the genre’s first metaphors for cyberspace and virtual reality.’
From the moment Blade Runner offered us a look at the film’s Los Angeles of 2019 we have lived with a set of strong expectations that influence our thoughts when anyone says “cyberpunk city.” From neon lights to flying cars, all of the elements listed below scream cyberpunk to an audience, and while one or two alone work in many different city designs, once you get four or five in one place it’s tough to look at your creation as anything but cyberpunk.
In the dystopian city of most cyberpunk worlds there is rain. From a steady drizzle to a horrific downpour, rain permeates the city and washes away the hope and cheer of the population. Rain in the cyberpunk city is not a cleansing agent.
Rain doesn’t remove filth. Rain doesn’t banish dust. Rain doesn’t remove the grime and despair from the streets and alleys. Instead, rain in our cyberpunk city comes down as a dark, disgusting wave of tainted waters that has collected the dirt and pollution from the skies and buildings and pours another layer of surrender over the “man on the street” common folk.
Rain represents the hopelessness of the cyberpunk city and instills in the people a depression that can never be shaken.
2. Aerial Traffic
Whether it is space ships traveling to and from the world, flying cars hovering over the skyscrapers, or even drones and robots following orders as they maneuver through the skyways, the skies of our cyberpunk city are rarely free of movement. A never-ending buzz of machinery at flight, the aerial traffic of a cyberpunk city is so ubiquitous that it fades into the background and is soon forgotten.
In the cyberpunk city the traffic extends skyward, reaching to the highest towers and in some cities — such as we see in The Fifth Element — allowing the wealthy to move throughout the world without ever setting foot in the slums below.
3. Multicultural Architecture
The cyberpunk city rarely comes from a single cultural viewpoint. It is most common for the city to be an architectural “melting pot,” designs lifted from all corners of the world . . . or, in the case of tales in which mankind has touched the stars, architectural designs taken from every nook and crany of the galaxy. Western and eastern designs sit across from each other or, at times, smash and blur together to form buildings that appear both familiar and otherworldly all at once.
This blending of architectural styles mirrors the population of the city, with the city’s predominant architectural style coming straight from its dominant culture. The city is located in Southeast Asia? It will look more like a futuristic variant of Tokyo or Hong Kong than if the city straddles the ruins of Chicago.
4. Advertising Everywhere
You cannot escape the advertisers in the cyberpunk city. Walls are covered in billboards, screens, and holographic advertisements that blanket most of your field of vision with demands for your attention, brand loyalty, and cash. And straight from Minority Report, many times these advertisements recognize you and target you directly, tapping into your purchasing history, public records, and private digital trail in order to tailor the message directly to you.
You cannot escape the advertisers of this future world. If the world’s inhabitants use Google Glass-like shades then a steady stream of commercials run in the corner or your eye. Your web browser is always flashing ads at you. Even your car is a tool for the advertisers, broadcasting your location at all times so that the advertisements remain just a few seconds ahead of your needs.
This constant barrage of advertising numbs the population, making it tougher each year to reach people with a message. As the people become immune to the advertising methods of yesterday, the corporations improve on their techniques for tomorrow.
5. Police and Corporate Security
Whereas our other cyberpunk city tropes are inanimate atmospheric devices and completely location-specific, the police and corporate security forces of the cyberpunk city are so ingrained in the landscape that they may as well be another building or landmark of the world. The police marching in The Fifth Element, CJ Cherryh’s protagonist in the “Mech” short story (found in Altered States), and even Douglas Quaid’s pursuers in Total Recall are all examples of this trope in action.
In the cyberpunk city, police and corporate security are everywhere . . . and they likely are totalitarian fascists who exist only to serve their superiors. The welfare and security of the people are often so far from the authority’s purpose that citizens are enslaved, murdered, and crushed as the forces in control maneuver to complete their goals.
Like the rain, the police and corporate security are an unrelenting force of nature that simply makes life miserable for the common population of the city.
6. Stretching to the Sky
The buildings of our cyberpunk city often stretch on seemingly forever. In some instances the cities even include a space elevator, a “beanstalk” that connects the surface of the world with an orbital station hanging high over the planet. In Free Fall, the first novel set in Fantasy Flight Games’ Android world, a large city surrounds the beanstalk, leaving us to wonder how many of the wealthy have private hangars that allow them access to the space elevator without descending to the base of the constuct.
Every city design is different, and every skyscraper design is unique to its corporate or governmental masters, but when hundreds of these buildings cluster together to blot out the natural sky the result is a dark landscape that is illuminated only by the neon and flashing screens that batter the people beneath an onslaught of messages.
7. Pedestrian Walkways
Bridges reaching, connecting skyscraper to skyscraper, nothing below except the street which is dozens of floors down, these walkways criss-cross the city and grant people mobility without descending to the streets or forcing them to rely on aerial transport.
Unlike the sky-bridges of our modern world, these futuristic walkways of the cyberpunk city are as packed and crowded as the streets below and skies above.
What makes these walkways especially fun for stories is that these bridges create a way for aerial traffic to interact with pedestrian traffic . . . and all tens of stories above the filthy streets. You can never tell who — or what! — will be on one of these walkways; is it a robotic enforcer, a beat cop, or a street merchant selling stale food and warm drinks?
Only A Start
These seven cyberpunk city tropes are simply a starting point for your imagination. There are easily dozens of other elements you can draw from to build your city — whether for a roleplaying session, short story, comic, or other work of art — and I suspect your mind is already dropping ideas on you, digging sparks of inspiration from your subconscious and feeding your creative mind.
Take inspiration where you can find it, and as you review these seven cyberpunk city tropes over and over in your mind do not miss the “Write a Cyberpunk Story” post at tvtropes.org. By combining the ideas presented here, the suggestions from that article, your own experiences with the cyberpunk genre, and your imagination there’s nothing stopping you from creating the greatest cyberpunk city the world has ever seen.
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