Cyberpunk 2077 Doesn't Have To Be Progressive, But It's When the Genre Is Most Exciting

When I saw Cyberpunk 2077 at Gamescom, shortly before a 48 minute video went up online for the public, it blew me away. One of the things that stuck with me after the presentation, however, wasn't the game itself but a statement from level designer Miles Tost, who told us "being a Cyberpunk is all about being your authentic self, no matter who that is."

It's a sentiment that feels true to the spirit of what good cyberpunk narratives are. Some may argue this isn't reflected in the earliest progenitors of the genre, but this spirit has become a key part of what makes cyberpunk interesting as a contemporary genre. The clue's in the name: cyberpunk narratives have always embodied the idea of 'punk' as an ideological subculture.

To be a punk has always meant to fight against the establishment, and be one of those looked down upon by those in power. Punk is about being loud and proud, about opposing how the rich oppress the rest, and standing up for free thought and non-conformity: whether that means sexual rights, disability rights or gender rights.

Being a punk means standing up to those with cultural power and, as Tost said, being your authentic self no matter what the world thinks.

Early cyberpunk narratives focused more on the economic aspects of their universes, a great example being the classic Neuromancer. This novel begins with a character who is struggling economically being punished for theft, and denied access to what is essentially the internet as punishment.

The punishment further denies him a chance at escaping the poverty that drove him to theft in the first place. It's a narrative that saw the economic disparity of its times, and cast it as a problem to be overcome by the punks of the world.

As the years change, what is considered punk shifts, and I think it's fair to say that over the past few decades, LGBT rights and disability rights movements have more and more frequently been considered punk movements, a class stuck fighting to have the same respect and rights as the rest of the world. Some of the most successful contemporary cyberpunk stories reflect this.

Consider The Matrix, a film written and directed by two trans women, and probably the most famous cyberpunk anything of the last few decades.

This features a protagonist living in a virtual world, casting aside the name they were given at birth despite authority figures insisting on using it ("Mr Anderson..."), and ultimately casting aside the limits of who they once were by embracing a new identity.

Neo: “I can’t go back, can I?”

Morpheus: “No. But if you could, would you really want to?”

Another aspect of The Matrix that feels in-keeping with this cyberpunk feel is the character Switch, at least in their original form. Until Warner Bros intervened the original script for the movie had the character Switch being portrayed by two actors of different birth-assigned genders, a male actor in the real-world scenes and a female actor within the Matrix, explicitly presenting technology as a means for trans people to more fully realise their identity, and be perceived and treated by the world the way they wish to be seen.

The Matrix even ends with a scene where Neo is on train tracks about to die, mirroring a suicidal moment relating to transition from Lana Wachowski's life, before making a defiant speech about the importance of change, growth and becoming who you are.

"I know that you’re afraid. You’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. … I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see… A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries."

The Matrix is not a story that's often read as a trans allegory, but when viewed through that lens and with the knowledge of its creators' trans status, certain parallels feel inescapable.

It's a story that embraces the ideals Cyberpunk 2077 wants to have, and an example of modern cyberpunk exploring tech as a lens through which to explore identity.

This was all whirling through my head because, while I was trying to think about how Cyberpunk 2077 may realise this theme of identity, I was also thinking about the game's Twitter account making a 'joke' at the expense of transgender people. The original tweet referenced a meme, "Did you just assume my gender", which is commonly used online to imply transgender people are oversensitive or easy to anger if incorrect assumptions are made about their gender.

It's not a joke based in reality, it's explicitly used to mock a group trying to be their authentic selves. If nothing else, this hardly fits with the idea of a game that champions people trying to be their authentic selves.

The studio quickly apologised, and that tweet almost certainly came from a social media manager rather than anyone on the development team. So so I wouldn't claim it necessarily says anything about what we can expect from Cyberpunk 2077 as a finished game. But it did make me consider more deeply what I had seen of the game, its relation to progressive ideals, and cyberpunk as a contemporary genre.

There are certainly some interesting arguments to chew over. Game director Adam Badowski said at E3 that:

This is cyberpunk, so people augment their body. So the body is no longer sacrum [sacred]; it’s profanum [profane]. Because people modify everything, they are losing their connection to the body, to the meat

This might seem a fairly cut-and-dried argument, but I personally have a problem with this kind of blanket statement on body augmentation and transhumanism, because it overlooks so much of where the real world already is in that regard: whether we're talking transhumanism, body modification, gender transition or disability.

We already live in a world where prosthetic arms can be controlled via use of the brain and existing nerves, there are headsets which can convert colours to audio tones in order to allow colourblind individuals to parse colour in the world, belts that can detect seizures and notify next of kin, internal devices that monitor blood sugar in real time, and medications that allow trans women to grow breasts.

We have real world technology that allows people to live their lives more easily, or more comfortably, or with fewer risks to their health. But Badowski's point at E3 is that body augmentation disconnects humans from reality.

He doesn't draw a line about where he views the body as no longer being sacred. Is someone less human because they have a prosthetic, or an implant, or wear a headset?

This kind of idea goes back further than an E3 talk, and in fact to the tabletop game Cyberpunk 2020 on which Cyberpunk 2077 is based. 2020's ruleset gives a much clearer picture of this world's view of body modification, and often doesn't distinguish between real world body modification and hypothetical sci-fi technology.

In Cyberpunk 2020, 2nd Edition, players are prone to a condition called cyberpsychosis, a condition where adding plastic or metal to humans in any way causes them to lose empathy for humanity, then lose humanity itself, before ultimately growing to see humans as weak pointless watery meat sacks.

If you get too many of these modifications, you'll be offered two choices by the government: either face being murdered as a pre-emptive crime prevention measure; or submit to basically be on parole, sent to therapy and fitted with a government tracking chip to constantly monitor you.

And you'll be fitted with a small explosive, which will detonate if you step out of line.

Getting a muscle graft, getting improved antibodies if yours are struggling, getting your damaged hearing improved, getting a bionic leg, getting fake skin to cover that bionic leg, doing all of these things in the Cyberpunk universe will impact your humanity.

When it starts mixing in augmentations that help people in the real world, and suggests these make them dangerous and less empathetic to the rest of humanity, it's hard not to feel this is a clunky and outdated perspective. At one point it comes tantalisingly close to examining this, then backs off.

The book asks if your grandmother's metal hip makes her less human, but stops short of actively confirming that no, her metal hip doesn't make her less human.

It mentions harmless disability and mobility aids, then simply leaves them in a nebulous space for individual players to make their own calls.

So here we have a world where biomonitors, which monitor the health of people with high blood pressure and diabetes, explicitly lower your humanity.

Trans women in 2020 who might want surgery to change their vocal tone can get it, but it'll make them a little less human. Even contraceptive implants lower your humanity in 2020, a device already available in many forms in the real world, and seen by most people as allowing us to take control of our own reproductive rights and body autonomy.

Trans people have the option to get appearance altering surgery, but it's highly expensive and (bizarrely) leaves you with a 10% chance of skin cancer, a downside that doesn't exist in real world surgery today.

I emphasise that these aspects of Cyberpunk's world are from Cyberpunk 2020, which is where the series began, rather than reflecting Cyberpunk 2077. In the context of Badowski's E3 statement, however, it does feel like this general view of body modification — that it's dangerous, or makes you less human — has persisted in some form.

We have seen a few aspects of how Cyberpunk 2077 handles identity and, while the full game is a ways off, I've been thinking more on these scenes and how they present certain characters.

In the demo shown at Gamescom, as well as the gameplay footage online, the player only has a choice of playing a cisgender male or female character, with no options for characters to be trans or non-binary.

The game is played entirely in first person, and as such including non-binary character options would have simply required characters to address you as with the gender-neutral pronoun 'they', but apparently folk like this don't exist in the future.

You select between two naked characters and your gender selection is specifically labelled as your birth record, shutting off any room for players to headcanon that their character is trans. The game goes out of its way to emphasise that your character was born the same gender as they are now.

The demo also defaults to your character appearing to be coded heterosexual, as we soon see them in what is presented as a casual sexual encounter with the opposite sex without the player having any input. It's possibly your character might be bisexual, but the option to be explicitly homosexual was not on offer.

We do in the demo see a man using a mobility scooter to get around, and in the streets there is a reasonable amount of racial and body type diversity on show.

A lot of this is surface visuals however, and there are no indicators of how this world thinks: has it overcome our current world's discrimination against minority groups, or have things got worse? In a world where appearance is flawlessly modifiable, and bodies are endlessly editable, is a mobility scooter a defiantly human choice, or an indicator of someone so poor they can't afford new legs?

Cyberpunk 2077's gameplay demo doesn't give us much of an idea about whether the full game will live up to Tost's words, whereby "being a Cyberpunk is all about being your authentic self, no matter who that is." Or if it will more closely follow the tabletop game and the idea that people are ultimately distancing itself from human emotions like empathy anytime they alter themselves in any way.

This may be a cyberpunk story where the idea of body modification as a means for becoming more authentically yourself is explored, but thinking about certain tweets and statements alongside the series' fictional origins I'm not feeling optimistic.

The game is undeniably gorgeous, and I've previously gushed about how amazing it looks in action, but to me a contemporary cyberpunk narrative is one where augmentations are not simply 'futureshock' gimmicks, but exist in the context of where the world is now. I want a Cyberpunk story that feels punk in the 21st century.

If 'better' biomechanical arms become easily available for able-bodied people, and swapping out your limbs became somewhat normalised, what impact would that have on disabled access rights, or the perception of disabled people with functional prosthetics?

If you can change parts of your body at will, and people are frequently not the same person at birth as they are later in life physically, what does that mean for transgender people, who've been engaging in body modification for their own comfort longer than most? These are the kinds of questions about identity cyberpunk as a genre has addressed in recent decades.

For all the problems I had with Ready Player One, a cyberpunk novel with undeniable transphobic content, the recent movie adaptation realised this crossover between tech and identity in a neat manner. The character Art3mis, who initially excludes a large face-covering birthmark from her virtual avatar, later accepts that part of herself and incorporates it into her avatar. It suggests what it means to use virtual spaces to explore oneself, the fear of how the world might treat your true self, and ultimately the positivity of embracing who you are.

I'd never say Ready Player One is progressive in all its forms, or even overall a good film, but that plotline at least felt like it was embracing the punk aspect of cyberpunk.

I'm looking forward to Cyberpunk 2077, but I wonder whether it really will allow us to be our authentic selves — or whether CD Projekt's punk ethos is only skin deep.


This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.


Comments

    If punk is about non-conformity, doesn't pushing progressive change mean that eventually you'll be conforming to the new social norm, thus you'll no longer be punk?.

    So is punk ideology just a vehicle for people to use to push changes they want in society, then get off when it reaches their own comfort point?

      Would depend on what part of the spectrum, right? Punk ideology covers the whole gamut from hare krishnas to socialism to nihilism to neo-Nazism and so on. I don't think it can be boiled down that simply, at least from my understanding.

        In the early days at least, a lot of the best Punk music etc was decidedly against Nazism and fascism. Admittedly it's broadened, but listening to stuff like the clash and there's a fairly leftist bent

          Yeah London Calling is about the most socialist album you can listen to from the time without going the full Billy Bragg.

    Really interesting piece.

    My main fear for 2077 is that it's too bound to the 1980s and 90s in outlook and feel- that it becomes a pretty world from a Gibson novel, but not from a Gibson novel from the last 25 years. The genre has moved on a lot, and I feel it's very easy to sacrifice the genre themes for the visual look

      To be fair, the last trilogy of Gibson's novels (the ones prior to The Peripheral) were set in the *present day* and still managed to be cyberpunk as hell.

      The future is now, I guess.

      I really should go back and re-read the Bridge Trilogy at some point.

        That's kinda my point- the genre has moved on from the 1980s.

      Hi, I love to read me some Sci-fi, Would you care to point me in the direction os these Gibson novels and which you would recommend as my first read?

        The original trilogy begins with Neuromancer, which is about as seminal a cyberpunk text as any.

        Since then, he's written 2 other trilogies- the "bridge" trilogy, beginning with virtual light, which is a slightly more modern cyberpunk take with some different preoccupations, and the 3 2000s era novels beginning with pattern recognition.

        Try Neuromancer for that classic take, but honestly most of his stuff stands alone, even in the trilogies. Or jump to his latest, The Peripheral, which stands alone atm

    Stretching an entire rambling ideological presumption from a sentence - Cyberpunk is about future problems, the punk in its name refers to the organised street gangs, and rebelling against capitalism and corporations not identity politics, particularly when said corps. own such body modification technology.

    It is not hard to grasp that the dangerous modifications CP refers to is connected to a system in the hosts body that has replaced a significant amount that makes them human, directly manipulating DNA and brain matter, where an A.I is in control of your key bodily functions.

    Additionally Cyberpunk is not the direct future, it is an alternative fictional world that by no means has to conform to contemporary perspectives on sex, gender and other-ness, nor should it be confined to such limited thinking as it is a fictional game with a very established world view.

    This might seem a fairly cut-and-dried argument, but I personally have a problem with this kind of blanket statement on body augmentation and transhumanism, because it overlooks so much of where the real world already is in that regard: whether we're talking transhumanism, body modification, gender transition or disability.

    As you directly quoted above... this is Cyberpunk, it is not the real world...

      Identity has been a central theme of cyberpunk for as long as I can remember. Concepts of transhumanism, the notion of a soul or ghost and its connection to the physical representation of a person, and the unprecedented ability for self-customisation are, I would argue, essential concepts. The punk in the name cyberpunk refers to the attitude and concept of punks - misfits, rebels, discontent with society and with the capability, if not the power, to protest that society through radical individualism and self-expression.

    Remember when people used to play games because they were fun?

      Remember when gamers spent years clamouring for games to be considered art?

      Remember when you could just close the tab in your browser?

      there is a world of games out there that you can still play for fun, but it you want to play a game that doesnt cater to 'close minds' and makes you think about greater things beyond fun there are those as well. I am not sure why people have to get upset that there are others in world who want to think, not just 'consume'

        People get upset because they want to play a fun game instead of have weirdos complain about wanting more politics in their games which leads to woke game developers changing their vision and eventually going broke.

          What, you don't think a dominant cultural medium deserves interrogation?

          They may have a vision. Doesn't mean it shouldn't be questioned

            Right... And I suppose we should just ignore that in a lot of cases it quite clearly is not just being questioned, but being pushed for the vision to be altered.

            A lot of the so-called 'interrogations' don't care about doing anything but pushing their own views and ideals into spaces they don't even actually care about, so please don't give them credit for being genuine and meaningful.

          you can still play fun games, the world is full of them. People who are willing to challenge long standing world views on gender, race and everything in between are not weirdos, they are the future, and sure some people take that too far (the same can be said about any topic or group in the world). If you take the views of extremists as normal, of course you can prove you above point. Because they are extremists in their beliefs.

          Woke, is such a stupid term. Why are game developers going broke because they are reflecting world views in their games? Which ones?

            Other point I'd add to this- you can find a game fun, and still criticise it or place it in a cultural context. Those things are not exclusionary

              And adding to that - I criticise what I like. When I don't like something, I don't tend to engage with it at all.

          You could easily flip your statement around to say "people get upset because they want to play a fun game that delves into complex topics instead of have weirdos complain that games should be completely devoid of any connection to real world issues". What constitutes fun comes down to personal taste, I personally love complex stories that draw on relatable human issues.

          It's not like there isn't precedent in other art forms. Pretty much all of Shakespeare's plays are political allegories, which is arguably why they're as successful and renowned as they still are today. Undoubtedly there were people who didn't like that he made political statements and just wanted to watch some actors mock the aristocracy and royalty, but then there were other plays they could watch that did that.

            Nah mate.

            You and people like you are the vocal minority.

              If you have a source on that made-up figure, I'd love to read it.

          What is the problem with wanting to accurately reflect society at large?

          Transgender people exist
          Homosexual people exist

          Why shouldn't they be in video games?

          Why is it pushing politics by having them in video games
          But not when its straight heterosexuals?

          If your fun is ruined by the mere presence of something different to your worldview you need a reality check.

            Why should the developer have to add things they don't plan to for the sake of such a small minority? Why can't someone play as a man but pretend in their head they are a women? Seems more realistic than everyone just magically knowing they are a meant to be the opposite gender than they look like.

              Why should the developer have to add things they don't plan to for the sake of such a small minority?

              So because there is a transgender person in a game its because they were forced to and not because they wanted to include them? God forbid they include people in a game that actually exists.

              If its such a small minority, What's the big deal in them being in a video game? Or is the mere presence of someone different too confronting for you?

              Why can't someone play as a man but pretend in their head they are women?

              How about this amazing idea? People playing video games how they want? Amazing idea huh?

              Heres another idea, Developers give players the freedom to play how they want? Oh jeez im on a roll!

              What is your actual issue with their people being represented in video games? Give me your honest opinion and not useless jargon. What is your issue with for example transgender people being in video games?

                I have no issue with trans or whatever in games. I just roll my eyes when it is always made to be a big deal by people who want to push an agenda (ie. Kotaku) when it shouldn't even be acknowledged as an issue because it really isn't an issue. Just cheap controversy to get clicks.

                  I just roll my eyes when it is always made to be a big deal by people who want to push an agenda (ie. Kotaku) when it shouldn't even be acknowledged as an issue because it really isn't an issue. Just cheap controversy to get clicks

                  This believe it or not is something i agree with you on. I greatly dislike the polygon type articles. Thankfully most of the them come from the US writers and not the Aussies ones we have. I just wish we could have an option to not see any of the US articles.

                  This is an article about a cyberpunk game, talking about cyberpunk ideas and ethics. It's not like anyone is shoehorning transgender commentary into the conversation - it is literally the sort of thing cyberpunk is about.

                  If it's so "eye rolling" coming to Kotaku, then why are you here? Clearly it's not enjoyable for you as you always seem to have an axe to grind. Or is this some kind of semi-trolling? I don't agree with everything they publish, but you seem to have a thorough dislike of anything left-leaning or progressive. Why not set up a site of your own and cater for other like minded individuals? I'm not mocking you, btw, these are legit questions.

                Would be great if the US site didn't automatically divert to the AUS site so if you wanted to read rubbish you could choose to go on the US site. Honestly I don't really care about this stuff in games, I just get bored when no one is doing illegal stuff when I'm at work so I come here.

      I had so much fun with Deus Ex on the PS2 back in the day specifically because of how political and ponderous it got, and I'm really hoping this game goes for a similar vibe. Maybe you just have to realise that Cyberpunk 2077 might end up being a game that's just not for you. And that's fine. I don't like the Senren Kangura games but I don't berate their existence.

    So this week the creator isn't the one who decides a game's content?

      When you're calling a game "cyberpunk" it seems logical to ask how it relates to... Cyberpunk, as a genre

      This article isn't demanding anything be put in, just offering an opinion. The creators always have freedom over content. Whether that content they make ends up being engaging will always fall to individual preference. If you disagree with this article's opinion perhaps provide some counter points rather than just an offhand straw-man objection?

      Last edited 25/09/18 8:03 pm

      The author isn’t “deciding the content” of the games at all. Merely discussing the how they perceive the views in 2020 are outdated and problematic, commenting on how the 2077 demo explores them and hoping that the full version of 2077 explores them differently.

      This is no different in hoping the game has a certain gun play mechanic like bullet time, only it’s relating to the more cerebral gameplay aspects of RPGs

    As a guy who absolutely would go full transgender chromed-the-hell-out Molly Millions-style cybernetic body the moment it becomes possible to do so, the fact there's no real way to do that in Cyberpunk absolutely bums me out.

    Give me mirrorshade eyes or give me death.

    It mentions harmless disability and mobility aids, then simply leaves them in a nebulous space for individual players to make their own calls.

    It reads like making your own call on something is a bad thing. Why does everything have to be spelled out for us?

    @the Author, you are making an awful lot of assumptions about the game in this, based solely on a demo which concentrates on action gameplay. Assumptions that sometimes don't make sense, why is the character selection cisgender? The character selection is only about the 'meat', what you look like. How you play and interact in the game will determine if you are cisgender or not. Why does there need to be a LGBTQ tag in the character selection, that really does not make sense.

    Further the gameplay demo is not obviously the start of the game, we can't be sure where it appears. Therefore any sexual encounters we can't be sure how they are approached or interacted with.

    You seem to be implying with this entire article that you don't actually want a game that let's you be what you want to be. You want a game that conforms very strictly to your own ideas on gender and transhumanism. This is an interactive game, it gives you options to play how you like, think how you like, make your own calls. Why do I want to play a game that very specifically conforms to you? No thanks.

    Last edited 26/09/18 8:32 am

    Am I the only one having trouble parsing the title of this article? Is the meaning "Cyberpunk 2077 doesn't have to be played or understood as progressive, but when it is, it represents the genre at its best?"

    I'll say it again for the cheap seats- people can make whatever game they want. If it doesn't fit your worldview just take the mature approach and don't buy it or play it. Stop forcing Devs to fit your agenda, regardless of what camp you're in.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now