Sometimes I fear for the state of storytelling in games. Every big AAA release fronts itself like a big deal, then company representation bends over backwards to deny political or social commentary. Serious thematic imagery ends up top-heavy, resolving to be barely more than window-dressing. Ideas are often just homage to more thoughtful or brave movies or novels. But you get to play with sick gunplay, so all ends up forgiven and the 8-10 review scores come rolling in. This brings me to Cyberpunk 2077, a game I think might be the most scared to play with respect to my issues here. The E3 2018 trailer is full of striking imagery and the demo reports are full of allusions to striking content, but will there be more to this game than “striking?” I sure hope so.
“Cyberpunk” is a loaded phrase that encapsulates decades of speculative fiction and harbors some of the most infamous works in that space. From Neuromancer and Blade Runner to Ghost in the Shell and beyond. Cyberpunk preyed on insecurities at the time, over both the intersection between humanity and technology, and the looming threat of corporate power. These are still insecurities to this day, and the genre couldn’t be more popular as a result. Turns out life imitates art, and we’re drawn to storytelling because of how we relate to it and how the socio-economic reality of a time period is reflected in the media we take in. Huh.
This stuff is important. So of course, during E3 2018 when the world gets its first look at Cyberpunk 2077 (which by the way is actually a license, an extension of a classic pen and paper RPG series called Cyberpunk 2020), one of the big headlines exiting the previews was, “Wow, golly, this game has full frontal nudity and one night stands!” It’s almost like someone was trying to rub two sticks together and start a discourse fire. But while people in comment sections navigate how they feel about edgy video game content, I find myself wondering if this can be worked into a springboard into the actual, core themes of cyberpunk as a genre.
Speaking of striking imagery as I did above, my favorite part of the Cyberpunk 2077 E3 2018 trailer is a shot of a woman applying makeup in front of a mirror. There’s a gaping hole where her mouth and jaw should be, and the lining of that hole is pure tech. She’s in the process of “putting her face on” in more ways than one. It’s easy to be distracted by all the neon lights and robot parts and think, “cool,” but this is where the subtext comes in. While a lot of cyberpunk likes to lean on what it means to be human or if robots should be treated like slaves or not, the real good stuff lies in juxtaposing unimaginable technological advancement with disastrous class division.
The corporate-run oligarchy we fear in the near distance is nice and settled in for these kinds of stories. The overarching vibe from there is the people on the ground indulging in extreme hedonism fueled by tech and eroded social pearl-clutching. People have cybernetic parts, dreamlike technology is mundane, and everyone indulges in next-level sex service and exploration. It’s all a means to cope with, despite all the Utopian-sounding buzzwords there, everyone still being sick, poor, and powerless.
Cyberpunk 2077 has a unique opportunity to turn that excess and boundary-pushing into something more than Dante yelling f-bombs in DmC: Devil May Cry or Ubisoft constantly trying and failing to be substantively provocative in its Far Cry and Division series. CD Projekt RED can lure people in with promises of sexy cyborg people and extreme violence, then introduce them into a horrifying reality that isn’t too far off from what we’re dealing with today. Just like the stuff the game is supposedly based on. But at this point it’s wishful thinking on my part, merely wondering what could be based on the title and the little bits and pieces from a show I’m covering from my home desk. It’s a ways off, and these questions will remain unanswered for years, most likely. I look forward to the journey, but remain wary of the destination.