Of all the things CD Projekt Red could do after The Witcher 3, Cyberpunk 2077 is probably the coolest.
A lot of that has to do with the subgenre Cyberpunk 2077 finds itself within, cyberpunk itself. The genre has existed for years as an amorphous collection of ideas before coalescing into William Gibson’s seminal classic, Neuromancer. We all know the genre’s various cultural touchstones: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, and the original pen and paper Cyberpunk 2020 games themselves. Yet, it’s Cyberpunk 2077 that caught the most eyes after finally revealing itself at E3 this past week.
You could say that the recent resurgence of interest in the genre is partly due to how fashionable the era in which it was created has become. After all, early cyberpunk is nothing if not a reflection of its era. Wet, rainy streets and neon-lit signs evoke a combination of futurism and neo-noir sensibilities that are firmly rooted in the counterculture movements of the 1980s. The literary aspects of the genre portray a future where the progression of technology also signals growing social, economic, and political divides.
It’s from this perspective that Cyberpunk 2077 arrives, viewing the core ethos of cyberpunk as more than just a hodge-podge of nostalgic aesthetics. It’s a vision of the future where the advancement of technology furthers problems we already face in our current reality. I remember watching the game’s first announcement trailer, expecting the same sort of visual styling but unsure of where it would land. Police officers staring down the sights of their weapons, firing onto an augmented woman drenched in the blood of a fresh kill. A trendy techno/prog rock song, plenty of neon lights, and a Robo Cop-esque Max Tac agent – it was all style. It wasn’t until its unveiling at this year’s E3 that CD Projekt finally showed its substance. At this point it seems rather obvious to say, but thank God. CD Projekt gets it.
Night City isn’t a place you’d want to live
“Sky high rate of violence and more people living under the poverty line than anywhere else.” Those first few words at the beginning of Cyberpunk 2077’s E3 2018 trailer feel perfectly representative of what cyberpunk is all about – both the franchise and the genre itself, at least at first glance. How lucky are we that the trailer only gets better from there. It’s slick, violent, and carries all the themes that the original pen and paper games trades so frequently and effortlessly. It’s not often that a game feels like it’s in such good hands.
The original games, created by Mike Pondsmith, are an interesting breed of tabletop RPG. Originally created in 1988, they were some of the first to try and take the ideas found in books like William Gibson’s aforementioned Neuromancer and transcribe them into a wholly new world. Night City, which Pondsmith himself has described as much of a character to the world of his games as any individual, is at the centre of it all. Social and economic inequality pushing people to the brink of society, it’s a place filled with crime, just as Cyberpunk 2077’s trailer states. Existing within this world in and of itself is difficult, even without the fact that control is so often taken away from the underprivileged by those in power. It’s often on the streets where people try to regain some semblance of control, usually ending up at the wrong end of a loaded gun in the process.
If it feels oddly out of time, its because it in some ways is. The genre of cyberpunk came about at a time when these issues were at the forefront of many minds. Crime waves in the United States pushed the murder rate to its peak in the 1980s and 1990s – arguably a response to the anti-drug policies put in place at the time. The rise in crime became a fixation for mainstream entertainment with movies like John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, envisioning a future where pockets of the country become nearly post-apocalyptic. Cyberpunk is no different.
A response to these woes, Mike Pondsmith also weaved other elements into his fictional world while integrating other ideas into his vision, both looking into the future and taking inspiration from the present. A militarised police force, a gentrified city that’s pushed the poor out onto the edges of society, and giant mega-corporations with the power of global superpowers. This is the world of the Cyberpunk games, just as it seems to be for Cyberpunk 2077.
Why the philosophy of cyberpunk matters
It’s so refreshing to see CD Projekt going so boldly into this direction with Cyberpunk 2077. Not just because it’s cool to see a project revolving around the ideas that make cyberpunk so compelling; but because the very core of the genre has faded away in recent memory. Instead of tackling these sorts of issues, many modern cyberpunk projects like the disappointing Altered Carbon adaptation on Netflix miss the mark, treating the subgenre more like standard hard science fiction. So much so that a growing sect of the genre’s fans have begun questioning if cyberpunk even exists anymore outside of the well-trodden visuals we so often see in similar projects.
It’s not a radical opinion, after all, or even a new one. Even the recent Blade Runner 2049 seemed to be disinterested in what makes cyberpunk what it is. Despite how much I loved the movie and what it had to say about the original film’s legacy, it’s equally drenched in a misogynistic vision of the future that’s far removed from the sociological roots of the genre aside from a passing glance. Instead, it’s only interest was in adding more question marks onto the ambiguous ending of the original film, a meditation on what it means to be human. More a work of posthuman science fiction than cyberpunk, really. From an artistic standpoint, I can’t fault it, but it does play into the idea that the philosophy of cyberpunk has slowly been forgotten as modern stories seem to adapt it’s visuals wholesale without dealing with any of the baggage that comes with it.
In Cyberpunk 2077, it seems to be the complete opposite. There are the hallmarks of a solid CD Projekt game in there, of course, which probably shine the brightest to most players. Branching narratives, incredibly detailed environments, and believable characters. Beyond this, though, is a sense of what makes something truly “cyberpunk”. As we’ve heard from the game’s behind closed doors demo at E3 earlier this month, there are plenty of moments that directly allude to this core ethos. During conversations, for instance, there’s almost always the option to pull out a gun – one of the few ways someone in the protagonist’s position can regain a semblance of control. Or in a moment of peril, when you’re trying to save a woman’s life, you first have to check to see if their insurance can cover the costs of an ambulance before you call it. It’s these small details that fill out the world of Cyberpunk 2077 as more than just an aesthetic, but as a real world that’s sometimes horrifyingly similar to our own.
First person cyberpunk
Perhaps one of the strongest ways Cyberpunk 2077 does this, however, is in its most divisive idea, going first-person. I can sort of understand the shock when news first made the rounds, some fans going so far as to boycott the release because of it. The Witcher 3 is in third-person, after all, and it fits that game to a tee. Walking around as Geralt, it only makes sense that you’d be able to see him. Unlike The Elder Scrolls games, you’re not playing as a character you create; you’re playing as someone who already exists. In Cyberpunk 2077, however, you create your character from the ground-up, but the reasons for making it first-person go far beyond just that.
According to IGN, CD Projekt explained that the perspective is to let players “see things happening up close”. The experience isn’t just an analogue for a player insert, but a way to experience the events of the game first-hand. Surrounded by people that want you dead, that see you as a threat, the palpability of that experience changes drastically when you take it from third-person to first. No longer are you simply controlling an in-game avatar. Instead, things happen directly to you. The world of Night City dwarfs your perspective, your vision is funnelled down the barrels of enemies’ guns, and when the world of the game removes your agency as a character, you feel it as a player. You’re no longer a passive character, outside the reaches of oppression. Now, you’re in it.
Cyberpunk has always been about how the oppressed fight back against their own oppression. Whether it’s the lonely detectives just trying to make it another day, or the criminals themselves who fight to regain some semblance of power. It’s a vision of the world that may seem cynical, dark and, in a different timeline maybe even a bit over-the-top. But in this one, it’s more than just a style co-opted to tell a cool science fiction story. It’s a space of self-liberation, where you can define who you are on your own terms. It’s punk rock, it’s progressive, and it’s rife for the RPG genre. It’s why it matters that CD Projekt believes in Cyberpunk 2077. It’s worth it.