What Cyberpunk 2077 Gets Wrong About the Genre
As an avid fan of the Cyberpunk genre, Motoko stan, and writer who wields transhumanist topics in novel form, we need to talk about this.
Though this is a blog for media critiques, side stories for CONSTELIS VOSS, news, art posts, etc, I feel like the only place this article can live is here.
Not on Medium. Not on LinkedIn. Here, in a space centered on a sci-fi trilogy about robots, corruption, tropes, and what it means to be a person.
Cyberpunk 2077 was initially framed as an ambitious stab at a genre often overlooked in popular media; this was a promise.
Sadly, Cyberpunk 2077 misses the mark, despite being an overall very enjoyable game. CD Projekt Red's treatment of the genre is worse than the buggy launch, and I'm going to explain how and why.
First, let's explore two IPs that do it right. Then, we'll compare Cyberpunk 2077 against their core messaging.
How Ghost in the Shell Tackles Cyberpunk
All barriers are moot
Wikipedia's explanation of the Cyberpunk genre:
Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction in a dystopian futuristic setting that tends to focus on a "combination of low-life and high tech" featuring advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as artificial intelligence and cybernetics, juxtaposed with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order.
But it's so much more than that. Look no further than Ghost in the Shell for a deeper examination.
Ghost in the Shell is about a lot of things, but what makes it a great overview of the genre itself is that Motoko Kusanagi—the protagonist—isn't limited by her physical body.
The body is a tool. The soul (Ghost) is what matters, and even that can be reconfigured, if one chooses.
Motoko moves through cyberspace, breaks her body to fight her opponents, and exists as a tour de force in a landscape of corruption.
As the IP has multiple iterations, different topics take the forefront in different mediums. However, Motoko is always the through-line; a cybernetic warrior who uses a canonically pleasure-district shell, augmented to beat the crap out of her opponents, regardless of the physical costs.
Furthermore, in the 90s movie, she meets a sentient AI who she merges with to yet again break human barriers (and touch on sentiency).
Barriers are no object, and choices are fathomless, despite being in a world of corruption. Cyberpunk technology affords this.
That is the backbone of the Cyberpunk genre, as explained by Ghost in the Shell.
How Blade Runner tackles Cyberpunk
What is sentiency? What is agency?
The original Blade Runner film centers around synthetic beings (replicants) going rogue. Harrison Ford's Deckard is on a mission to reel-in misbehaving androids; that's the low media literacy baby-shit-brain reading.
You could also read Deckard as possibly being a synth himself. Or, you could read Deckard's attraction to Rachael—a replicant—as a question about love. Can androids truly love?
You could also read it as a commentary on sentiency via Pris and Roy's (both replicants) existential crises.
In the new film, Blade Runner 2049, you could read Gosling's K—another replicant—as experiencing true personhood through the juxtaposition of who he isn't.
By questioning his place in the narrative when he realizes his memories are fake, he explodes with emotion, and dies with the knowledge that he's challenged what he even is. That's sentiency, baby.
There are many concepts in the Blade Runner movies, and the novel they're based on, but all of them grapple with these topics:
Who gets to be a person, who gets to be free, who gets to feel, who gets to live, and who doesn't.
The backbone of the Blade Runner IP exists to question these aspects of sentiency and agency.
So what does Cyberpunk 2077 do with GiTS' and Blade Runner's hot-takes?
Cyberpunk 2077 fumbles "barriers are moot"
The body is not sacred, game director Adam Badowski
"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. And that's why we need to use the nudity in many situations."
The Cyberpunk genre is about the philosophy of personhood and human existence as juxtaposed to and twisted against technology, set upon a backdrop of corporate dystopia.
Not only are Badowski's statements ignorant of the genre, but the way Cyberpunk 2077 handles these topics is, too.
You cannot augment your character within an inch of their life. You cannot even cut their hair after the initial character generation screen.
You cannot become a 9 foot chrome-lacquered war-machine with a car engine for a crotch. You can't swap your consciousness into something else.
Because we know other characters can, Cyberpunk 2077 offers the illusion of choice by showing it exists, but barely gives it to the player.
Speaking of barely; though you can swap voice/junk gender, this doesn't break down gender barriers meaningfully.
You cannot blur the lines of sexuality, because your romance options are very limited. Have a male voice but a female body? Many routes are off the table. However, the problem isn't so much that characters [to reflect IRL people] have certain 'equipment' preferences. That's valid.
The problem is that players should be able to have a car engine for a crotch and see how that shakes things up, for example. If it does at all.
This is the one genre that most benefits from a predominantly bisexual romance roster, or at the very least, it benefits from having the balls to tackle the transhumanism topic.
When corporations plaster ads inside of your eyeballs, the only thing left is the ability to transform yourself beyond limits. One of those limits is the self.
The other is grappling with what the self means when you replace it with cyberware, and what flavor of human other people see you as.
Cyberpunk 2077 does make a stance on this, and it's not as expected; too much self-reconfiguration makes you a Cyberpsycho. NPCs lose their mind if they replace too many parts.
This shows us that the "flesh as sacrum" aspect is unavoidable.
Because of all this, Cyberpunk 2077 smacks into the "barriers are moot" genre-point like V's car barrels down roads with the finesse of a bull in a china shop.
It's nothing but barriers, with the veneer of choice.
Cyberpunk 2077 mishandles "the sentiency/agency question"
Despite the attention paid to Johnny invading your shell
Does Cyberpunk 2077 address "the sentiency/agency question"? Keanu's Johnny Silverhands invades your shell, which suggests it does, but there's a problem.
In order to analyze this, we have to talk about the results. There are 5 endings, and all of them are a flavor of "you die because your body is beyond saving", "Johnny takes over" or "go to cyberjail while Arasaka figures out how to ya yeet you."
Only two routes shake things up, and one is "commit suicide" while the other is "fuck off somewhere to solve the problem, off-screen."
The issue? There are in-game lore "outs" to suggest personhood doesn't stop at meat suits. Lizzy Wizzy's download into a synth body comes to mind; is she not a person? The game thinks so, yet Johnny robs you of agency histrionically.
What of Alt, Johnny's past love-interest and now-sentient-AI? A missed opportunity to smash barriers, and also tackle the sentiency question. Alt has lost her "soul".
There are repercussions to digitization, even if Judy's route later explains she figured out how to dabble in recorded/shared emotions, via BD devices. Even if Arasaka already upgraded the engram system.
It's almost as though the cast's skills/game lore never applies breakthrough tech to your problem, until it's too late.
Can players invade the darkweb and chill with the rogue AIs? Yes, but we can't do it to save our own Ghost, because "the flesh is sacrum".
What of Delamain's rogue AI "children"? Surprisingly, you get to tackle the sentiency angle if you complete the Epistrophy side quests. You can honor the rogue AIs' wishes and merge them with Delamain's main personality.
Cyberpunk 2077 pretends all this technology is in its infancy to stop the player from questioning narrative choices. What it actually does is show what's possible, but not for you.
Why can't players live in the internet? Why can't they hop into a car? Why can't they download into a synth? Why can't they merge personalities with Johnny in a truly blended version, like Motoko in the GiTS 90s film?
Cyberpunk 2077 punishes players for the very concepts the Cyberpunk genre grapples with, and the game lore suggests it can tackle.
Who gets to be a person even if they're inside a fucking toaster? Cars, Lizzy Wizzy, and Johnny. Not the player.
And what of the Punk aspect of Cyberpunk?
Well, it's lip-service, is the thing
As stated: in the genre you have body augmentation, boundary scuttling, and transhumanism as rebellion options. Another is fighting the corporatization of the self and others. That's where the Punk aspect comes in.
Though Johnny invading your shell is a nice thematic touch, he's mostly concerned with Big Corp Arasaka. He judges your character harshly if they care about plenty of other rebellions.
For instance, sentient AI cars get more sympathy from Johnny than the dolls of The Clouds (who are human sex workers). That's not very Punk, Johnny.
Somehow, Takemura's plot is more on-point here, as an examination of Arasaka as child-soldier creators, and yet I don't see him staging some mass "free the kids" rebellion.
To make matters worse, you can't defy the cops; killing criminals helps the police, as a feature not a bug. In order to get the gear/money you need to progress, this is basically unavoidable. If you do try to avoid it, this cuts a shitload of content out.
River Ward's side quest examines this, as the one good cop in Night City. However, his quest doesn't let you stage a rebellion against the corrupt police force. His plot-line is ripe for this aspect of Punk.
Even the 3 initial 'camps' you choose don't tango with the Punk aspect. After the first 20 minutes, all you get are dialog options. There should've been a way to join gangs and push the 'camp' aspect that moved the needle. There isn't.
It seems like the Punk aspect is most meaningfully addressed in optional content. Content that doesn't impact player outcomes nearly enough, because the outcomes are conceptually ignorant of the world's own lore-rules.
With Johnny in your skull, his modus operandi takes precedence, as though the writers couldn't apply Punk to your plight outside of his specific brand.
Is Cyberpunk 2077 a bad game?
No, it's a fun game that mishandles the genre
The Cyberpunk genre is inherently political. It is inherently anti-authoritarian political, anti-corporate political, pro-self-actualization political, transhumanism political, and more.
Cyberpunk 2077 pretends it understands these things by showing you what other characters can do, and what the lore could offer, then gives your character none of that flexibility.
There is no rebellion for your flesh, no sentiency for your Ghost, no meaningful Punk except Johnny's. That's my main issue with an otherwise really (extremely) enjoyable game. And it is very enjoyable, despite the bugs and genre botching.
Instead of a Cyberpunk genre open-world game as promised, we got Keanu self-insert fanfic of a book by writers who couldn't grapple with the genre if held at Power Pistol gunpoint.
Or, to be generous, were possibly stymied by their own Big Corp from making the conceptual stances required of the genre in the main storyline. Who knows?
All I know is that we got the illusion of choice in a genre that is nothing but choice.
And I will never not be pissed off about it, even as I speed around Night City in Wakako's tiny car (nicknamed Baby Beans), clad in 80s shorts and a bustier, being a sad The Cure cover-band gay doing conceptually unsatisfying crimes.
K. Leigh is an ex-freelancer, full-time author, and weirdo artist. Read their lgbt+ sci-fi books, connect on Twitter, visit their site, or send them an email if you’d like to work together. 🌈 🏳️⚧️