DECEMBER 31, 2020
“THE SKY ABOVE the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” The opening sentence of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the most prototypical cyberpunk novel and the seed of the genre’s cultural proliferation, encapsulates the issues of contemporary cyberpunk fiction on several interpretative levels. This holds especially true for Cyberpunk 2077, a video game by Polish developer CD Projekt Red that has been in the making for more than seven years and has become infamous for its continual delays, clumsy handling of identity politics, and conscious catering to a somewhat toxic gaming fandom.
Just like Gibson’s hacker-protagonist Case, in Cyberpunk 2077 the player takes on the role of V, a hired hand in the underworld of Night City, and soon becomes entangled in the shadowy conspiracies of evil corporations, corrupt governments, and criminal organizations. And like most of its 1980s ancestors, the game is fascinated by its own visuality, its surface shine, its chrome and neon glitter — a sheer wonder of next generation game design to dazzle its mass audience. And dazzle it does. Marketing itself as the most anticipated game of the year, if not years to come, Cyberpunk 2077’s innovation lies in the depth of its game world, the density of its space, and the sublime awe that its glorious cityscape vistas and detailed citizenry of the future inspire. In terms of thematic innovation and cyberpunk’s radical potential to imagine posthuman scenarios of technologically saturated societies, though, the game is falling short, instead becoming what I would call — echoing Mark Fisher and Jacques Derrida — a hauntological game, full of nostalgia for a future promised but never fulfilled.
Gibson’s prose could pass off the stylish and poetic twist of comparing the television medium to a natural phenomenon as an ambivalent statement about how technology might save us or doom us from a distant ecological catastrophe. Cyberpunk 2077 can claim no such innocence. Cyberpunks have never been too invested in placing ecocriticism front and center, but looming global warming and an uninhabitable earth have featured in such genre hits as Blade Runner, The Matrix, Frontera, and He, She and It. Considering that almost 40 years have passed since Neuromancer’s publication, and the climate crisis is upon us, it seems somewhat myopic of a contemporary cyberpunk vision such as CP77 not to address full-on the impact of climate migration, rising temperatures and sea levels, reduction of crop production, extreme weather conditions, and much more. Night City, the game’s main locale, is surrounded by desert for miles, littered with the refuse of the city, but ecological concerns do not feature. V and all the mercs, gangs, and corpos are too busy consuming their techno-fantasy to comment on the exploitation of natural resources or the consequential pollution.
This techno-fantasy signals — just as Gibson’s television sky does — a nostalgic mediality. Just like the neon signs and the individual motorized vehicles that dominate the cityscape, the mechanical cyborgian implants are retrofuturist emblems of eras past. Where are the direct-to-brain advertisements, the mini-hover-unicycles, the invisible nanotechs, and the CRISPR-splices that should be pervasive in 2077? Where is the innovation? There are no social media, for instance, and no court of public opinion. There is no genetic engineering. Instead, the game’s very mechanical prosthetics (see, for example, the Mantis Blade) are a visual reminder of technologies that populated our futures in the 1980s, from Robocop to Alita. The game is haunted by progress that feels obsolete; it is a refusal to give up the ghosts of cyberpunk. When paying for illicit services, the funds are transferred via credit sticks. Similarly, sharing data works not via Bluetooth or some other net connection but via biochips that are slotted. Connecting to net functions involves “jacking in” via a cable. Technology feels very material in CP77. When untraceably paying for illicit services, the funds are transferred via credit sticks. Similarly, sharing certain data works not via some net connection but often biochips need to be slotted. Connecting to net functions or hacking data vaults involves “jacking in” via a cable.
Further, we can see ghosts of cyberpunk lurking in the details of the game, in the postmodern citation and the visual reference. There is the iconic bike from Akira, the cute tattoo of a little apparition emerging from a seashell (yes, a Ghost in the Shell), the three seashells in V’s bathroom (calling out to Demolition Man), the braindance technology reminiscent of Strange Days’s squid recordings, and so on, and so on. The game is brimful of these references — cultural capital for the initiated and much less obvious than in Ready Player One — but they are mere quotations, lacking any substance: specters of cyberpunk’s glory days, a calculated gesture to appeal to fans of the old and make CP77 a franchise monster like Star Wars. Enter Keanu Reeves, whose role as Johnny Silverhand is a postmodern bricolage of his Johnny Mnemonic, John Wick, and Neo. But Silverhand’s story lacks Mnemonic’s satirical desire for a privilege lost, Wick’s hesitant revenge fueled by personal tragedy, or Neo’s grand vision of fate and sacrifice. In Johnny Silverhand, the loner-antihero type of early cyberpunk gets its revival. A gun-for-hire, Silverhand has no principles, acts opportunistically most of the time, and is bent on a vendetta against those who wronged him. The player’s character V is glorified for a similar view on life. Criticizing or challenging the status quo in Night City is merely a side effect on their individual path to a better life. This stands in stark contrast to what cyberpunk is capable of, in the hands of the more politically aware.
Lastly, when Gibson writes about tuning the TV to a dead channel, a historical dissonance happens. Readers today have no relation to the gray antlike creepiness of an analog channel that feels both alive in its constant movement and dead in its loss of signal. Instead they envision the bright digital blue of a channel left open, a potentiality of something to come. The effect of this reference’s technological uncanniness is lost. A similar dissonance happens when one transports the genre’s political stance into the 21st century. Early cyberpunk’s politics are ambivalent; the critique of capitalism and corporate takeover are present but take a backseat when read against the chromium shine, the florid prose style, the fascination for technology and cyberpunk’s promise of individual betterment. A large portion of fans view cyberpunk futures as enviable: a reminder of a past when technology held a promise for a better life, when who you were did not matter, and you did not have to think about things such as race and gender — or so it seemed to a white, male-dominated readership that argues that once you can implant tech into your skin, that skin’s color is irrelevant. But it isn’t now, is it, when access to clinics and tech is still limited to those with money (read: white people)? Further, cyberpunk, back then, has been described as a “boy’s club” (by Nicola Nixon), and clichés of lonesome noir detectives; hard-hitting, big-muscled soldiers; and down on their luck hacker geniuses still persist to this day, as Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs can attest. Misogyny, transphobia, and sexual violence are very much part of the genre — and they need to be addressed.
And this is where Cyberpunk 2077 fails to deliver on its implicit promise. It could be a better version of cyberpunk, one that is timely for societies in which #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and Fridays for Future are the tip of the iceberg of social revolution. It has the potential to do away with categories of social power and discrimination. And indeed, the game has that intention. But what do they say about good intentions? The ability for players to decouple sex and gender options is there, but these options still link to a binary and essentialist view (in the connection of gender to voice) when it comes to how the game addresses the player. Depictions of trans-characters are sexualized — which is true for all depictions of bodies in the game, yet specifically hurtful here. Nowhere in the game is this commodification addressed, or contextualized. Similarly, there are characters of different ethnicities, and yet, they are haunted by racist stereotypes of the 1980s, as the Japanese corporation Arasaka takes over the city (echoing the Asian scare and Reagan’s “buy American” campaign), as sly comments on Japanese whaling boats make the news (and allow for player outrage), and as the representation of Asians in the game is flattened to Yakuza-Triads-types. Similar issues arise with other ethnic communities: the Voodoo Boys consist of voodoo priests and black thugs, the Tyger Claws are martial arts and katana fighters, and so on. The specters of cyberpunk, shaped by 1980s binary views of the world and ossified in a genre that is revered for its “form over substance” credo, come back to haunt this game. While the option to create trans characters, as well as the discussion it has generated about representation in video games, is laudable and beyond what any other AAA title is currently doing, its ultimate application in the game is flawed. And so, CP77 is no more and no less than a large franchise-oriented product of nostalgia, in line to become a next Marvel or Star Wars, but ultimately not the innovation that cyberpunk could be.