Step out onto the streets of Night City, Cyberpunk 2077’s futuristic vision of a dystopian Californian metropolis, and very little looks immediately familiar. The city’s buildings have been replaced with squat brutalist apartment blocks, hologram-coated concrete towers, and neon-lit side streets where people with metal computer implants stare at strangers with glowing eyes or clench high-tech guns with gleaming cybernetic hands. Still, Night City, despite how alien its strange technology and architecture may appear, represents a future very much in touch with the concerns of our present day.
Cyberpunk follows V, a character created by the player who ends up entangled in the politics of Night City’s most powerful megacorporation, Arasaka, and fighting for their life after a heist gone wrong. Like the genre it’s named for, the game is rooted in the 1980s futurism—in a time when the rise of home computers and rapid technological innovation butted up against increasing economic disparity caused by privatization-happy political leadership in America and abroad. So many cyberpunk staples appear quaint in hindsight. But, even as the genre’s depictions of flying cars, artificial intelligence-powered robots, and a pseudo-internet accessed by plugging cables into human body implants misses the mark of actual 21st-century life, the 1980s sociopolitical landscape that led to cyberpunk’s creation has moved from predicted nightmare to mundane reality.
V lives in a city where the United States government has fractured, its control of society largely replaced by corporations that operate with impunity. Health care is prohibitively expensive; legitimate income is available only to those willing to work under the crushing, unregulated labor practices of a few enormous conglomerates; the environment is devastated; and the rich live in glittering skyscrapers above countless slums, whose communities are organized around the violent whims of warring gangs. Aside from the cybernetic mobsters, this prediction of the near future seems—to the pessimist at least—an all-too-likely endpoint of many wealthy nations’ current trajectories.
William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer—a pioneering work of cyberpunk from which the Cyberpunk tabletop game liberally lifted terms and concepts—said, in a (hilariously presented) 1990 documentary on the genre, that he considered important aspects of the cyberpunk “future” to have already arrived. Gibson references how wealth inequality determines access to life-or-death procedures such as organ transplants, his example showing one way in which an imagined technological future of medicine had already become, 30 years ago, commonplace. “The future has already happened,” he continued. Its arrival, as banal as it might seem to those of us living through it, has given us the kind of grim future that the creators of cyberpunk imagined in books, films, and games.
“With each set of … books, I’ve commenced with a sort of deep reading of the fuckedness quotient of the day,” Gibson said in a New Yorker profile. “I then have to adjust my fiction in relation to how fucked and how far out the present actually is … It isn’t an intellectual process, and it’s not prescient—it’s about what I can bring myself to believe.”
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This is a large reason why, beyond its fantastical depictions of the internet, cybernetic implants, or advanced AI, cyberpunk fiction like Neuromancer endure as frighteningly relatable stories. Mike Pondsmith, creator of the Cyberpunk tabletop game that 2077’s based on, made a similar comment about how the wonders and horrors of the cyberpunk future have manifested in a recent profile from WIRED. “We have orange palls all over the street from firestorms. There’s global warming and a pandemic. Yet we can be sitting here in the middle of this plague, and you and I are talking across the country face to face,” he said. “Gods didn’t have that kind of capability in myths and legends.”
The ease with which Cyberpunk 2077 depicts this sort of duality helps it avoid feeling like a shallow exercise in ’80s nostalgia. There’s a real, indifferent cruelty to its world that comes across as all too apt when encountered in a year where so many real-world governments have responded to a historic pandemic by forcing its poorest, most vulnerable demographics to absorb the brunt of a global crisis while companies like Amazon thrive. V’s desperation—for money, at the beginning of the game, and later the ability to survive under the deadly products of powerful corporate interests—illustrates the callousness not just of the era that birthed cyberpunk but of the present day, too.
This embrace of genre convention doesn’t keep the game from resonating with a modern audience in many ways, but its devotion to convention and its generally misanthropic tone ends up presenting racial and gendered stereotypes that ought to have been left in the past. Even though it was created decades after the development of a genre that, as other writers have detailed, channeled Western anxieties over East Asia’s increasing economic, political, and cultural power, Cyberpunk 2077 ignores the benefit of hindsight and portrays its most prominent Asian characters through the same two-dimensional, stereotyped lens. The Arasaka Corporation, the heartless business that controls much of Night City, is run by a long-lived Japanese CEO who employs foreign workers to perpetuate its grip on the American city. His children and top aide, Goro Takemura, are shallowly portrayed as stoic, uncompromising, or ruthless—exotic Others whose dispassion and boundless influence over Night City seem to have sprung from the sweat-soaked nightmares of a 1980s Wall Street trader.
It’s a shame that these kinds of depictions are present in Cyberpunk when so many other aspects of the game manage to prove the merits of the genre as a modern framework for dystopian storytelling. Looking back at science fiction created more than a few years in the past can lead to a kind of bemused detachment from the concerns of those who came before us, but Cyberpunk 2077 demonstrates just how painfully relevant its genre remains for an audience who fears many of the same issues as those which preoccupied people like Gibson or Pondsmith decades ago. If the game’s makers had been willing to reconsider the origins of the worries that led to cyberpunk’s xenophobia, it would make a much stronger case for itself as a revival that knows the only way to fight for our common humanity is to understand that its concerns apply to the entire world.
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