A staple of cyberpunk and other futuristic genres, it’s easier to name things that don’t use the neon aesthetic rather than ones that do. It is one thing to paint the world in bright and attractive colours. It is another way to use it effectively.
You can be in the middle of a colorful street, with people, and still feel lonely. Neon can be nostalgic and familiar just as easily as it can be futuristic and detached. It could be the fun and retro vibe reminiscent of simpler times, or the deceptively cheerful veil between you and the bleak reality barely hidden beneath. Sometimes, it can be both at once.
10 The notorious second son
Your powers in Infamous: Second Son are unconventional, to say the least. You’ll start with a more basic and fire-adjacent ability, but your true superpowers allow you to absorb other people’s powers. Soon, you’ll be introduced to Fetch, a woman with neon-based powers, and you’ll find yourself with an entirely new skill set.
The use of neon in Infamous speaks more about the strange and evolving powers of the channels rather than the overarching themes of excess or violence. More than anything else, it seems like a way to make city street travel visually appealing. There’s something troubling about it, a hue of sharp color of a bleak Seattle cityscape.
9 Horizon: Zero Dawn
Horizon: The world of Zero Dawn comes alive, with or without the robots you have to contend with. Your world is lit by the sun, the moon, and the fires that spread across the earth. However, below the surface, neon-lit vaults await for Aloy to explore.
These sections, or pots as they are called in-game, contrast with the natural lighting that you and Aloy are familiar with. They can be a cool blue or a vibrant purple – confirming their presence as relics from the past. They are the shortest glimpses of Earth as before, and memorable for how special they are in an organic world.
8 Final Fantasy 7: Remake
Midgar, the largest city in the Final Fantasy 7 universe, is built atop massive metal slabs, in a (rather bizarre) pizza-shaped structure. The rich live there on top, while the rest are forced to live in the slums below, robbed from heaven. The folks below do just that, with home lighting and the obvious conscious effort to not use too much electricity.
Until you come to the Wall Market, in Sector 6. The whole area is a homage to the surge, with countless lights so glowing that it looks like daytime. Compared to other slums, it’s clear that Walmarket doesn’t care much about how much energy you’re wasting.
More digital than physical, Cloudbank’s transistor is nothing but artificial light. You will travel through the city being devoured by a virus that endlessly spreads new technologies to fight you. In the end, the city may be completely colorless, devoid of anything white.
Transistor uses the green, blue, and purple of Cloudbank to contrast the ideal world that Red, the main character, ultimately seeks. This is a world of sprawling golden fields and blue skies – winds, trees, and weather that is not decided by voting, nor is it digitally controlled. She wants to be in that “real” place, with her boyfriend with the sword.
6 Deltarune Chapter 2
Welcome to the strange and wonderful world of Cyber City. The second chapter of Deltarune is expected to put you in the city of technology. Almost every color dot in this digital maze is striking, and a feast for the eyes, especially if you’re in the 90s.
Unfortunately, there’s no real-world warmth I came from, nor the more natural “landscapes” of Undertale before it. While it is busier and teeming with life and light, there is also emptiness. Cyber City explodes with chaotic colors, but feels cold, reflecting Kris’ growing detachment. It looks like a playground, and feels like one too, but there’s just something nibbling about how things feel a bit.
5 Hotline Miami
Hotline Miami is bleeding neon. Well, that’s not true – it’s a pretty violent game, after all, so it often bleeds red. Regardless, Hotline Miami embraces what neon brings to the minds of many: places where the city is awake while the rest of the city is sleeping peacefully. A disgusting belly for a lifestyle that actually feels some fun.
In Hotline Miami, neon is a tool that plays well with extreme violence; Neon often feels like a sign of excess, after all. It fits with the time period of the game, of course, nailing this pixel art style with ease.
4 Fallout: New Vegas
Cities aren’t entirely uncommon in the Fallout series, but we can all agree that no one does it quite like New Vegas. The desert can feel overwhelming when navigating, especially as a first-time player. But then, from afar, you might spot a waypoint: a glowing, post-apocalyptic city, inviting you to the safe haven. Or, as safely as the harbor he could get in Fallout, anyway.
You will be bombarded with the colour, noise and distinct impression of bygone glory days. Although, it can also feel like the promise of an easier existence. Excess flashes always attract people, and not even a nuclear apocalypse can stop that. Welcome to The Strip, really.
The fugue may be a cat, but the moment you fall from the bloated greenery of your home into the dark city below, any kind of light is hard to come by. Flickering neon signs guide you through the bustling and dead city, urging you to move on. For cats, this light may not be comfortable, especially when they are used to basking in the sun, but for you? Any sign of life is worth pursuing.
And what life will you find? The robots at Stray have created some beautiful and comfortable homes. However, there is still a basic cyberpunk element of neon lights on the streets of the settlements. Rather than feeling like a way to disguise the rotting of the city with colour, it is a sign of the beautiful and vibrant life. Follow the light in the dark city streets, and you will eventually find a home.
2 Katana Zero
Like Hotline Miami, its main inspiration, Katana Zero uses a pixel art style that embraces the vintage color palette. However, while you’ll find neon signs, or spotlights, all over the world, Katana Zero’s use of neon isn’t just about decoration.
The user interface and Zero attacks are displayed in bright neon, even in filthy mundane spaces. No matter where he goes, he contrasts with the ordinary enemies he’s tasked with eliminating. These bright, vibrant colors highlight how uncanny Zero’s abilities are, and how completely unnatural his proficiency in his bloody profession is. It’s a way of expressing that Zero is different and then letting you discover it throughout the rest of the game.
Cloudpunk’s got it all: a city built practically from neon and rain, shady dealings, and apparent class divisions. Located in Nevals, a city that stretches from ocean to clouds, the often underappreciated Cloudpunk puts you in control of a new delivery driver, Rania. Driving through Nivalis feels like you are driving through a sea of radioactive neon, silenced only by the rain falling on your head.
It’s hard to imagine the natural light in Nivalis, and it’s still hard to imagine the organic life found outside the city limits. Despite the vibrancy of the colors, the reality of the hyper-capitalist city is catching up with the infrastructure. All the brightness Nivalis offers can’t hide the decadence beneath.
Next: Why you shouldn’t sleep on Katana Zero