Exploited future workers of the world unite

Christopher Byrd

THE WASHINGTON POST – After spending several weeks preoccupied with cyberpunk fiction and playing through the recently released Cyberpunk 2077, I decided to check out Cloudpunk, a game about a young woman working to establish a foothold in an economically cutthroat metropolis. Like Rania, the gig worker at the centre of the story, I found myself initially disoriented by the multitiered sprawl of Nivalis – a city in the sky based around a flying car transit system. However, as the game wore on, I found myself increasingly looking forward to the end of Rania’s shift.

Unfolding over the course of one night, Cloudpunk follows Rania as she pilots her HOVA – a four-seater air vehicle – around the city, making the rounds for an illicit delivery service. Her life in the city is fraught with precarity. She moved to Nivalis after losing the home in which she grew up to debt collectors. Her newfound employer, Cloudpunk, is riddled with a high turnover rate and, in recent times, drivers were involved in numerous accidents all over the city due to wild fluctuations in its AI-controlled infrastructure.

As someone who harbours a fondness for the chunky graphics of the 16-bit era, I was charmed by Cloudpunk’s voxel graphics – think Blade Runner meets Lego. The core gameplay loop consists of picking up packages and delivering them, and occasionally ferrying passengers to and fro. Such basic activities might leave something to be desired for those looking for a bit of pizazz in terms of gameplay, but I had no issue with such a setup since I was looking for something restive during my holiday downtime. Rather, what propels Cloudpunk are the interactions Rania has with her fellow citizens.

Although I quickly formed an attachment to Rania, whose subdued observations of the world are delivered with aplomb by the voice actor Andrea Petrille, a number of the other voice actors ham it up too much for my taste. I never, for instance, felt any affinity for Rania’s AI companion Camus (pronounced “came us” as opposed to “cam-mu” – a winking distortion of the Algerian philosopher’s name) who longs to be placed in the body of a dog rather than serve as her co-pilot. And Rania’s encounters with the wealthy citizens of Nivalis, such as Mrs Octavius Butler, hew so much to a look at this conceited, out of touch, one-percentre template that they feel like futile exercises in orthodox posturing.

Still, there are splashes of good writing to be found. I chuckled the first time I heard a public broadcast warning that said: “Unlicenced jazz is punishable by death. Those who wish to experience or perform jazz must apply for a yearly permit.” I also appreciated some of the game’s morally ambiguous decisions that force Rania to choose between acting in her own best interest or helping someone who cannot return the favour. Cloudpunk can be completed in under 15 hours depending on how many side missions one engages in. Honestly, though, it could have clocked in at half that time and been better served by a more concentrated approach. As it stands, the game is too much of a flyover experience – beholden to the cyberpunk genre’s conceits and, as such, mired in an aesthetic rut.

Note: I played Cloudpunk on an Alienware PC with an Xbox controller. Initially, I noticed that Rania’s vehicle drifted to the side even when idle. Going into the Steam settings and selecting Xbox configuration support eliminated the issue.