The Road to Cyberpunk 2077 was a Transphobic Mess

by John Reeves

CD Projekt RED disregarded the trans community at every turn — and found success in doing so


Disclaimer: This article deals with material and comments focused around transphobia that some readers may find distressing.

Over the last couple of years, CD Projekt RED — and its parent company, CD Projekt — has shown itself to be repeatedly transphobic and has made little effort to apologise or make amends. This is a rundown of all the ways (so far) that CDPR has repeatedly failed the transgender community.

Whether you fully intend to buy and play CD Projekt RED’s games in the future, have no interest in them whatsoever or sit somewhere in between, Doublejump only asks that you be considerate, aware and as vocal as you can about CDPR’s issues, including any problematic or offensive content that may be found in Cyberpunk 2077 in the future.

This article has been written with contribution from members of Doublejump’s LGTBQIA+ staff and community.

Thanks to ResetEra member Kyuuji for their original post which outlined and informed the content of this article.


Offensive Posts from CDPR and GOG Twitter accounts

On 20 August 2018, the official Cyberpunk 2077 Twitter account replied to a user with the following response:

Cyberpunk 2077 Twitter

This response is a transphobic line that ridicules transgender people as both overly sensitive and actively looking to be offended. It frames transgender identities as unnecessary and frivolous, as a deliberate choice instead of an innate identity. The Cyberpunk 2077 Twitter account replied to the backlash soon after.

By responding with a “sorry to all those offended” non-apology, CD Projekt RED failed to recognise the original response as a transphobic remark, or even as something to apologise for. Instead, it follows the logic set by the original response by implying that those who were offended were actively looking to be — the studio essentially suggested that the tweet only happened to offend a set number of people instead of recognising their tweet as broadly offensive.

Two months later, GOG.com — an online storefront for PC games that’s also owned and operated by CD Projekt — sent the following Tweet from its official account:

GOG Twitter

The tweet made light of the hashtag #WontBeErased, which circulated on social media as part of a response to US President Donald Trump’s 2018 administration memo that threatened to roll back recognition and protections for trans people by proposing a strict definition of gender based on a person’s genitalia at birth, immediately sparking outrage across the US and around the world. The GOG Twitter account posted the reply a day later.

This response was arguably “better” than the previous one, but it also disregarded and reduced the hashtag, movement and community it represented down to an “ongoing social debate”. It suggested that such a movement was even worthy of “debate” and that GOG.com and parent company CD Projekt were supportive of such a debate. It also, again, lacked any sort of apology for the tweet itself and failed – or simply refused – to recognise the offense caused.

Explained by Kotaku’s Riley MacLeod (all emphasis mine):

GOG’s reference to Trump’s intended policies as an “ongoing social debate” position the company, whether intentionally or not, as people who believe my existence is a fact we can have differing opinions about. This turns games I like into another area where I have to think about how much I can overlook to enjoy something. These jokes, like many jokes about trans people, might not be intended to be hurtful; most people, I really believe, don’t wake up deciding to be cruel. But jokes about trans people, like so many jokes rooted in bigoted assumptions, tend to punch down. They draw lines between people; they rank people’s worth. You don’t have to do this to make good art, good games, or run a good company, and you certainly don’t have to do it over and over.

GOG’s lack of public support for #DontBeErased doesn’t mean that the company supports the opposite, just as another company’s support doesn’t mean that they are necessarily supportive of the trans community outside of the publicity gained from being so. Nevertheless, the company’s explicit neutrality on the movement speaks volumes.

While GOG ended up firing the person involved with the GOG tweets (who was later discovered to have connections to a website linked to GamerGate), the fact that CD Projekt’s subsidiaries were responsible for four separate social media posts that either dismissed, disregarded or outright insulted the trans community in the span of a couple of months prompts major concern around the cultures of CD Projekt, CD Projekt RED and GOG.


Transphobic In-Game Ads and Official Promotion

During one of the gameplay reveals for Cyberpunk 2077 in June 2019, we all saw the following poster:

Cyberpunk 2077

This image has several issues.

First, the character design fetishises transgender women. The entire point of the design is to highlight their “trans” nature and reduce trans people down to their genitals. Second, “Mix It Up” implies that being trans is a superficial choice, as if anyone (trans or not) could freely pick and choose their own gender identity.

Then there’s the name of the soda: “ChroManticore”. At best, the name combines “chrome” and “manticore”; at worst, it combines “chromosome” and “manticore”. While the first word is ambiguous, the second is inherently insulting: a manticore is a mythical beast whose parts are taken from different animals. On a subtle level, the word “manticore” translates literally to “man eater”, where the fear of men being “tricked” into falling for a trans woman resonates. More overtly, the image depicts an over-emphasised trans woman while relating her to a beast. Though this specific aspect of the image probably wasn’t so considered, it highlights that developers like CDPR needs more trans women working on products that aim to depict trans people. This way, these issues can be avoided and dealt with earlier in the development process.

CD Projekt RED — specifically, Kasia Redesiuk, the art director who created the advertisement — responded to the widespread criticism of the ad by saying (all emphasis mine):

“Personally, for me, this person is sexy,” Redesiuk said. “I like how this person looks. However, this model is used — their beautiful body is used — for corporate reasons. They are displayed there just as a thing, and that’s the terrible part of it.

“This is all to show that [much like in our modern world], hypersexualization in advertisements is just terrible,” Redesiuk continued. “It was a conscious choice on our end to show that in this world — a world where you are a cyberpunk, a person fighting against corporations. That [advertisement] is what you’re fighting against.

Redesiuk and the company as a whole have deliberately invoked and defended this imagery while attempting to promote the game and the company itself as diverse and inclusive. CDPR has also used this image in real-life events for set dressing and promo material, including drinks labelled “poison”:

Cyberpunk 2077

You can’t state that it’s terrible and something to fight against while positioning it front and centre for promotion, completely separate from its message. It just becomes a transphobic ad promoting a game that’s set to make a lot of money for a massive corporation.

You can forgive one tone-deaf incident, but when it happens several times — and each one of them is transphobic — you start to question whether CD Projekt RED is more motivated by articulating societal issues, or just by giving its game some extra “edge” in order to better appeal to a crowd that’s all too content to mock the trans community in the first place.

While the ChroManticore ad is the more notorious one, there’s also a second advertisement found within Cyberpunk 2077 that CD Projekt RED designed at the expense of trans bodies:

Cyberpunk 2077

CD Projekt RED hasn’t tried to explain the supposed nuance behind these artworks beyond the above quotes. As such, especially after the studio’s previous tweets and response, there’s no reason to trust that any of its intentions extend beyond “performative wokeness” — beyond claiming that Cyberpunk 2077 is a diverse and inclusive title without the effort that goes into really embodying these terms. Without following up on these concerns, CD Projekt RED has also neglected to explain just how much “intentional” transphobia is in the game for the trans people interested in playing it.

On this, CD Projekt RED has been needlessly cold and callous towards its trans playerbase. The fact that these images were used to promote the game, too, undermines the idea that they only existed for the sake of depicting the game’s dystopian setting. It objectifies and mocks trans bodies for the sake of painting a dystopian future – and then uses that to advertise the product in 2020.

Even if the point of the imagery was truly to elicit sympathy and fear in its dystopia, it still doesn’t make much sense. On top of fetishising trans bodies to provide a backdrop at trans people’s expense, there are so many less-than-caring players who wouldn’t exactly be “moved” by the message they mean to convey, or even recognise that these images are bad at all.


Cyberpunk 2077’s Character Creator

Cyberpunk 2077

There are two features of the character creation system in Cyberpunk 2077 that relate to the game’s depiction of transgender people: genital customisation and voice selection.

First, Cyberpunk 2077 lets players customise the genitals of main character V. From the outset, this should further trans representation by giving players more options to customise their character in ways that more accurately resemble themselves, or simply let them explicitly play as a trans person regardless of their own identity. It’s unclear right now whether this feature is genuinely respectful of trans identity but its portrayal and normalisation of trans bodies is worth recognising.

Second, Cyberpunk 2077 also lets players customise V’s voice as female or male, separate from body type. However, the voice you choose is also tied to your character’s choice of pronoun. As such, selecting a traditionally female body type with a deeper “male” voice means that V is referred to as “he” or “him” in-game and vice versa. In a 2019 interview with Metro, artist Marthe Jonkers explained that “you choose your body type and we have two voices, one that’s male sounding, one is female sounding. You can mix and match. You can just connect them any way you want.”

Cyberpunk 2077

For context, voice pitch is an important part of gender affirmation for many trans and gender diverse people. It signals one’s gender and can be a major part of “passing”; people will often associate a deeper voice with being a man and a higher voice with being a woman. Voice pitch can also be an issue of safety for trans people and can result in abuse for those who present femme while having a deeper voice. However, there are also trans people who prefer to use their natural voice instead of putting in the time and effort required to acquire a better “fitting” voice.

As a result, trans people can be particularly conscious of their voice and it’s a sensitive topic within the community. By tying the player character’s voice to their gender, while potentially well-intentioned overall, CDPR has disregarded the impactful nuances of the feature while potentially inviting misunderstandings and misinformation regarding transgender people around the world.

Being generous, it would be easier to understand (if not necessarily accept) that, having not planned for the feature as part of its already-lengthy development time, the logistics of changing the game to accommodate non-binary gender selection would add an unacceptable burden this late in the process. There may be severe limitations that prevent CDPR from making the seemingly-simple change of, at minimum, selecting your character’s pronouns – as in, whether other characters refer to V as he or she – separate from your preferred character model and voice… But that’s being very generous, and it doesn’t change the fact that CDPR could have at least tried to reassure or apologise to the trans community in the aftermath, especially this close to release when its marketing megaphones are at their loudest.


CDPR’s Official Cosplay Competition

Cyberpunk 2077 Twitter

Lastly, CDPR’s official cosplay competition conducted last year in December only reiterated the company’s dismissive stance towards the trans community.

A contestant, cis woman Yugoro, cosplayed as the transphobic ChroManticore model and was selected as a finalist of the competition, meaning that her cosplay was highlighted through the game’s social media channels and the official Night City Wire pre-presentation. The cosplay itself can be seen above.

As she implies in the tweet accompanying her image (and in an earlier tweet, too), the cosplayer herself is, at the very least, inconsiderate of the bodies and people they are presenting as. Having the character’s penis glow blue under their latex outfit draws overt attention to it and positions it as a centrepiece, as something to be stared at. It’s objectifying and dehumanising, even if the cosplayer didn’t intend to be hurtful.

Explained by Checkpoint’s Hailey McKay (all emphasis mine):

It’s a cis woman wearing a hypersexualised trans person as a costume. And when you go to the comment section, on the tweets or the video, the cosplayer is being called ‘hot’ and ‘sexy’ by more than some. Worse still, any trans person who even attempts to point out that this is wrong and gross becomes susceptible to a ton of abuse. Sadly, that’s pretty much mainstream trans representation in a nutshell. Cis people get to profit off our image and experience, while trans people are forced to absorb all the abuse in the noise.

When the community called the original ad out back in 2019, CD Projekt RED staff members justified it by saying that it’s “what you’re fighting against” in the game, and that its fetishisation of trans women is “the terrible part of it”. Ever since, however, the company has put considerable distance between the design and its supposedly-noble message… all for the sake of promoting the product.

At best, CD Projekt RED has a questionable understanding of the trans community’s perspective and the best way to represent them — at worst, the studio has blatantly fetishized and mocked trans bodies for the sake of its product’s “edgy” image and, ultimately, its financial success.


Cyberpunk 2077

Cyberpunk 2077 is the biggest video game release in years and it’s obvious why. It’s made by a developer with a solid track history that, for a lot of people, groups it with the most acclaimed developers in the industry. It’s a cyberpunk-themed first-person roleplaying game that looks to combine parts of Grand Theft Auto, open-world Bethesda titles, immersive sims like Deus Ex and Dishonored, and probably Yakuza too, made by the company that made The Witcher 3. In many ways, and for many people, it’s a dream game. Even all of the crunch stories evoke developers like Rockstar and Naughty Dog (for the exact wrong reasons).

For that reason especially, it’s disappointing that Cyberpunk 2077 — a game that so many people, trans or not, would enjoy on some level — is so lousy with problematic and offensive elements… and these were all discovered well before the game has even released; who knows what else is there to discover in-game?

Right now, there isn’t much reason to give CD Projekt RED the benefit of the doubt, especially after years of encouraging these attitudes itself. As explained by Polygon’s Stacey Henley:

Cyberpunk 2077’s advertising has been saying the quiet part loud. It has maintained the spiky, anti-SJW, anti-woke persona throughout its marketing campaign, careful to always pepper any diverse characters’ inclusion with stereotyping or humor designed to mock its own ideas. As such, it has earned an army of fans who will defend it from criticism, whether that be from accusations of transphobia, racism, or even crunch. With the specter of GamerGate still looming over gaming, the company may have even gained fans through this reactionary and edgy marketing style.

We’ll have to wait and see how the full game pans out and since it’s such a massive game, it could take a while before we know if Cyberpunk 2077 includes anything else transphobic or actually pulls off the nuanced hypersexual capitalist hellscape satire CD Projekt RED has claimed it will be.

Either way, if the studio genuinely wants to ever do right by trans players in the future, it needs to broaden its social research and community consultation to trans identities. It needs to diversify its staff with more trans and LGBTQIA+ voices in general and listen to those already working there, and implement community feedback after launch to fix or improve any (other) issues regarding trans identity, like choice of pronouns.

I’m not holding my breath, though.


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Also published on Medium.

5 comments

Omnishambles December 11, 2020 - 9:06 pm

“fetishisation of trans women” get a fucking grip. People have no control over what gives them gratification. You imply that because a company uses the image of a trans person, in an ad, in a video game that the world is now only going to “use” trans people as some kind of sub-human sex toy. This is simply dishonest.

Reply
Jake Colosimo December 12, 2020 - 12:30 am

If you don’t understand why this advertising campaign was problematic, then you’re part of the problem. Educate yourself — please.

Reply
Karoxis December 12, 2020 - 12:39 pm

Gonna be honest… I’m a trans woman, and I don’t see a problem here.

Reply
John Reeves December 12, 2020 - 3:50 pm

It’s nice that you aren’t bothered by any of it but plenty of other trans folk are, including those I quoted.

Reply
John’s Best of 2020 - Doublejump December 24, 2020 - 6:01 pm

[…] more information on the company’s transphobia, you can read up on our own article that breaks it all down. The long and short of it is that CD Projekt RED has routinely dismissed, disregarded or outright […]

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