There are few things as satisfying in this world as coming out of character creation wholeheartedly in love with the avatar you’d formed out of disparate parts. In its aesthetic excellence, Cyberpunk 2077 achieves this singular sense of satisfaction with spikes, dyed hair and tattoos added on.
Despite the lingering doubts of reviews and discourse on the game, I left the character creation screen in Cyberpunk 2077 excited. My version of V was all I would’ve imagined her to be: space-bun wearing, eyeliner wielding, scowl-holding opulence. Adding the brightest blush I could atop a spattering of freckles, I felt a rush of aesthetic fulfillment that had long since been missing since I grew up and out of the browser dress-up games of the early 2000s. I was enraptured, but therein lay the trap.
Cyberpunk 2077 wears its cyberpunk legacy like an expensive, well-tailored suit but the body that lays beneath those layers is withering, decaying and crumbling at the joints. Far from innovation, Cyberpunk 2077 quickly falls victim to the narrative mediocrity that its aesthetics try to hide.
Since its inception, cyberpunk has been a genre informed by and steeped in counterculture. Cyberware implants, grime beneath the fingernails and anti-establishment, gravity-defying hair are hallmarks of its outward aesthetics. Renowned essayist William Gibson defines the “punk” aspect of the genre as “the detonation of some slow-fused projectile buried deep in society’s flank a decade earlier”, echoing the anti-capitalist and anarchistic politics of British punk bands. Spikes and vibrant colours are more than mere accessories in punk ideology: they are active signs of rebellion against that which is traditional, conservative and corporate.
On the “cyber” front, sci-fi author Bruce Sterling described cyberpunk as “pervasive” and “utterly intimate”, both “under our skin” and “inside our minds.” In conjunction with punk’s revulsion against the establishment, cyberpunk imagines technology that has been subsumed into our actual bodies: implants, limb replacements, neural interfacing with the net. To Sterling and many others, technology in cyberpunk narratives is wholeheartedly “visceral” as tech begins to swim amongst our blood, flesh and viscera.
CD Projekt Red pays homage to cyberpunk’s aesthetic legacy in every corner of Cyberpunk 2077’s visual design. Echoing both the neon, techno-grime of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and the “Night City” of Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, CD Projekt Red’s Night City is bubbling with anarchistic charm that draws attention to itself regardless of the graphics card that’s been forced to render its greatness. The slick minimalism of the City Center; graying dust plains and cobbled together vehicles of the Badlands; and the neon vibrancy and faux opulence of Heywood coalesce to form a city that is both defined and crippled by the technology it’s merged with its own foundations. A hybrid of 1980s Shibuya and modern Los Angeles, Night City is fundamentally cyberpunk.
Not only does Cyberpunk 2077 offer a detailed vision of a future in which technology irrevocably changed our systems of government, consumerist market and cityscapes but also our own methods of acceptable self-expression. A shard in game celebrating the “75 Years of Cyberware” bemoans employers from a century ago that “could impose specific dress codes, hairstyle regulations, and piercing and tattoo bans”. This echo of our own modern life has been completely abandoned by the time we enter Night City. Citizens on the street wear their hair in all colours of the rainbow, dress with leather and studded jackets and remain perpetually young due the rejuvenation of their implants.
For all intents and purposes, Cyberpunk 2077 looks and plays the part of a cyberpunk game. But, much like the spotless spires in the City Centre, it’s a facade for a faulty core.
At a deeper, ideological level, cyberpunk is science-fiction turned nihilistic and feral. It is a sub-genre designed not just to make its audience consider technology’s societal implications but to continually question and rebel against the ways that technology may be used to exploit us. We see this continually in cyberpunk’s seminal works, from Blade Runner’s questions on how we understand humanity in the face of advanced robotics to Neuromancer’s worries about the swirling vortex of human consciousness interfacing with the internet.
Every cyberpunk story has something to say, a message to put forward. In this regard, Cyberpunk 2077 is painfully mute, stunted and, at times, actively regressive.
The most obvious failing of CD Projekt Red’s narrative is the blatant Orientalism that not only informs its aesthetics but also overburdens its central conflict with racist stereotypes. George Yang writes on how the “techno-orientalism” inherent to Cyberpunk 2077 is simply another form of othering to Asian-Americans, ignoring the “real-world multi-ethnic Asian communities with long histories and roots in the United States today”, Asian characters within the game are “defined by their foreignness”, a relic of cyberpunk’s inception that we should have long since moved past.
No more is this blatant than in the characterisation of the Tyger Claws, a gang that seems built on dusty stereotypes of “generic ‘Asian’ accents and old-school katanas.” When you hide from them in a fight, they cajole you about your lack of “honour” for your cowardly behaviour, echoing sentiments about Japanese people that best belong in a WWII propaganda film. Though they appear aesthetically interesting with Yakuza-style tattoos and ‘80s-inspired puffer jackets, their personalities are reduced down to centuries-old generalisations about East Asian culture.
Even worse than this, the central antagonist for the game plays into a WII-era, American understanding of Japanese people. Arasaka, the game’s metaconglomerate responsible for dozens of shading dealings and the imprinting of Johnny Silverhand’s consciousness into the Relic, is named after a Japanese company that served as a major manufacturer for Japan’s Imperial Army in WWII. Far from an honest mistake, the developer worsens this connection by placing a traditionalist family at its head, cementing its overreliance on outdated assumptions stereotypes surrounding Japanese businesses and family life.
CD Projekt Red combines a “representation of a hyper-traditionalist Japanese culture…with high technology and corporate deviousness” to form a narrative conflict that is fundamentally formed out of tired, racist ideas. This exhaustion is felt throughout the narrative, dragging what could’ve been an interesting discussion on misuse of corporate power into a mere replication of 1940s “yellow peril”.
All this might be even just a little forgivable if the game actually managed to critique the ideas it purports to be about. But, in an equally insulting manner, the game fundamentally fails to say anything about the perils of capitalism, the climate crisis or technology’s strangle-hold on our modern lives. These themes, far from injecting meaning, are mere accessories for the glittering aesthetic.
Nothing in Cyberpunk 2077 represents this failing as intensely as Johnny Silverhand. Beyond Keanu Reeves’ inherent charisma and legacy in sci-fi, Silverhand is an empty, vapid attempt at establishment critique that perpetually began to feel like an annoyance the more I played the game. Serving as the more slightly organised and yet ultimately aimless Jim Morrison of Night City, Silverhand’s character purports to be anti-capitalist without doing anything to really change the system as it stands. Of course, this criticism of his personality is in the game but CD Projekt Red lacks direction with his character, confusing players as to what his self-idolising is meant to be covering up.
There are ghosts of complexity to Silverhand’s politics – his commentary on side jobs and gigs highlights his potential as a politically motivated character – but they remain ghosts right up until the game reaches its conclusion.
While not every game needs to have some grand political narrative in order to achieve its function, Cyberpunk 2077 is built on a legacy of moral, societal and political critique that it willfully ignores. As a genre, cyberpunk is designed to disquiet and unsettle its viewers into action. But what really is there to be disquieted about in Cyberpunk 2077? The state of the Internet? The oncoming climate crisis? Corporate corruption translating to political power? The decay of rock and roll?
Even more than this, what are we meant to do with the ideas that are brought up? If the game is anti-capitalist, who are we supposed to be targeting with our ire? If the game is cautious toward technology, what technology must we beware and what must we allow?
Using cyberpunk as mere aesthetic set-dressing fundamentally misses the point of the entire genre and for a game that’s meant to be the pinnacle of that genre, Cyberpunk 2077 tried to do everything and ends up saying absolutely nothing. No amount of dazzling scenery and quirky clothing can cover for a vapid, empty narrative.
If all it wanted to make was a fun sci-fi game with glowing swords and tattooed protagonists, CD Projekt Red should have taken Night City elsewhere.
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