When the world's a cyberpunk dystopia, where does the genre go next?
Cyberpunk 2077, by CD Projekt Red, based on the tabletop role-playing game by Mike Pondsmith, CD Projekt (2020)
Devs, by DNA TV and FXP, written and directed by Alex Garland, Hulu (2020)
Machine’s Last Testament, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Prime Books (2020)
“Remember how we said there was no future? Well, this is it!”
Remember cyberpunk? It’s fine if you don’t – just open up today’s newspaper and pretend it’s a 1980s sci-fi novel. Independently invented by around a dozen people on multiple continents in the mid-1980s, cyberpunk was a subgenre of science fiction that imagined dystopian futures where corporations were more powerful than governments, digital technology transformed the world in all sorts of ways, the edges of reality and identity blurred, and, crucially, absolutely none of this made even the slightest change to the basic injustices of the world. Think Blade Runner, Neuromancer, Ghost in the Shell, or, if you want to skip ahead to the end of the genre’s heyday, The Matrix.
It’s probably a cliche to note that cyberpunk marked the point when science fiction finally looked up from its imperialist spaceship fantasies and realized the tech that would actually change the world was the computers running the spaceships. But like most cliches, this isn’t wrong so much as obvious and oversimplified. One might object, of course. It’s possible to get bogged down in the fine details of how, say, Neuromancer’s famous opening description of a sky “the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” framed its vision of the future in analog technology that would soon be obsolete. Getting “cyberpunk was right” to fit reality rigorously involves no small amount of judicious editing to the minor trappings of cyberpunk and material reality alike. But honestly, a lot of that kind of thinking is pedantry at best and vulgar materialism at worst. The basic observation – that cyberpunk got the future right where Asimov and Star Trek didn’t — doesn’t have to be perfect to be incisively true. It frames a way of understanding the world in which we live and its relationship with the worlds that we imagined.
But cyberpunk was never simply a set of predictions and fantasies about the future. It was a genre, and like any genre existed to be imitated and sold. Which meant in turn that it could be packaged as nostalgia, remade, and returned to. Which is to say that cyberpunk is still a living genre; a successful prediction of the future that continues to be made long after it’s come true. This is both weird and interesting—an opportunity to probe the imaginative dimension of the current dystopian moment from a perspective idiosyncratic enough to provide new insight.
The obvious starting point for this is Cyberpunk 2077 (CD Projekt Red, 2020), a game whose title makes an implicit claim to be a definitive take on the genre. On one level this is an accidental burden; in practice, the game is called that because it’s a video game adaptation of Mike Pondsmith’s iconic Cyberpunk roleplaying game, first released in 1988 but best known under the title of its 1990 second edition Cyberpunk 2020. But Pondsmith’s game, as the first attempt at a cyberpunk RPG, was itself a stab at definitiveness—a (largely very successful) attempt at systematizing the genre and creating a means by which players could generate an arbitrarily large number of cyberpunk stories, and more to the point a framework into which any given cyberpunk story could be implanted with minimal changes.
There is a Faustian bargain at the heart of this sort of systemazation, which necessarily represents the domestication of a once wild genre Pondsmith’s game worked in part by narrowing the scope of cyberpunk, siphoning off the common tropes of individual artworks and sanding off some of the rougher edges to create something tamer than the genre had actually been as it emerged over the couple of years previous. And these tendencies are exacerbated in Cyberpunk 2077, which finds itself in the unenviable position of working from a thirty-year-old playbook. The game may be called Cyberpunk 2077, but at the end of the day it’s working with source material that originally described the futuristic world of 2013.
This presents obvious challenges, to which Cyberpunk 2077 responds with total and unequivocal surrender, committing completely to the idea that every decision it makes should be as cliched as possible. If there’s a standard issue cyberpunk trope, Cyberpunk 2077 will go for it. This includes obvious genre mainstays—a series of heists against terrifying megacorporations, virtual reality sequences recording people’s experiences (used primarily for porn and violence of course), and a plot involving a mysterious and legendary AI that manages simultaneously to refer to iconic bits of Cyberpunk lore and rip off Neuromancer. But it also includes a bevy of significantly dodgier ideas. Cyberpunk’s long standing fetishization of Japanese culture is imported wholesale, its problematic aspects wholly intact even as the 1980s obsession with the idea of Japan’s inevitable economic domination of the world had long since been dashed on the rocks of the Lost Decade. Black people are constrained almost entirely to stereotypes previously seen within the genre: gang bosses and a (largely dishonest) hacker gang called the Voodoo Boys. And then of course there’s the sex workers, who exist purely to be exploited by their cruel (and usually non-white) gang bosses and then murdered.
Much of the attention around the game’s clearly dodgy politics of representation has focused on its handling of trans people, which is in fact a solid encapsulation of these inadequacies. On one level the game is profoundly inclusive: its character generator allows the player to independently set voice, body type, and genitalia, making it the first game I’ve ever seriously played that let me play as an explicitly trans woman. And yet this exists within a framework that imposes rigid gender binaries on your character: NPCs gender you based entirely on your voice, and your romance options are delineated wholly by your gender, with all of the options strictly either gay or straight. Given that the choice of genitals never actually contributes to the game – even in sex scenes, your genitals are tastefully elided – the strong suspicion is that the genitalia settings (three different sizes of penises, which come in circumcised and uncircumscised form, along with a vagina with no further customization) exist purely to be edgy and transgressive, and trans bodies are only included because they are seen as furthering this goal. This sense is only heightened by the ubiquitous presence of an in-game advertisement for soda featuring a woman with an engorged dick visible under her tight clothing and the slogan “mix it up.”
It’s fitting, then, that the most laceratingly accurate early review, Carolyn Petit’s “Cyberpunk 2077 is Dad Rock, Not New Wave,” was written by a trans woman. As Petit succinctly puts it, “there’s nothing revolutionary on offer here. Instead, it’s a game obsessed with the past.” And nowhere is this more obvious than the character of Johnny Silverhand, a virtual reconstruction of a legendary rock singer who was killed by the villainous Arasaka Corporation (Japanese, of course, and full of executives and security guards who babble endlessly about honor – just like real samurai, right guys?) who, after a heist gone terribly wrong, takes up residence in the main character’s head. Played by Keanu Reeves, Silverhand offers two distinct forms of nostalgia. On the one hand, he’s a clear reference to Cyberpunk lore—Silverhand is the main character of the sample adventure “Never Fade Away,” which is fairly directly adapted into a flashback mission within Cyberpunk 2077. (Cheekily, it’s set in 2013 just like it was in the original Cyberpunk sourcebook, a choice that makes it clear that nostalgic references a tiny fraction of the audience will understand are a higher priority than actually connecting the world it depicts to the present day.) But Silverhand also represents a painfully narrow set of cultural values. He’s an ageing white dude rocker who smashes guitars, feuds with bandmates, and bemoans the idea of selling out—the sort of figure that hasn’t actually been culturally relevant in decades. This is a game that views boomer music as the zenith of punk rebellion, an aesthetic that’s obvious in the game’s choice of mission titles. I Walk the Line, Where is My Mind, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, (Don’t Fear) The Reaper, Big in Japan, Killing in the Name, Rebel Rebel, Imagine, Stairway to Heaven, There is a Light that Never Goes Out, Both Sides Now… it’s as if your dad’s record collection decided to start creepily fetishizing trans women.
As with everything in Cyberpunk 2077, at the end of the day this is simply a return to the original sins of the genre. Johnny Silverhand was an example of Mike Pondsmith’s character class of the rockerboy, pitched in the original sourcebook as “Rebel rockers who use music and revolt to fight authority.” This was one of the handful of ideas within Cyberpunk to feel slightly odd or idiosyncratic – Pondsmith was likely drawing on figures like Rick Rickenharp from John Shirley’s these days largely overlooked A Song Called Youth trilogy, but it marks a point where he grabbed a thread that didn’t end up being an integral part of the genre as it went forward, and then made it central to his game in a way that would forever mark it with a bit of individual character. For a thirty year old roleplaying game, this is a sweet touch—a reminder that the living, breathing, and ruthlessly cool thing that was 1980s cyberpunk was always more complex than the genre tropes it got reduced to. But in an already questionably conceived video game adaptation firmly within the actual cyberpunk future, it feels almost as reactionary as the choice to name a mission after a Morrissey song.
At the heart of this—ironically given that Mike Pondsmith was cyberpunk’s first major Black creator—is a valorization of white egomaniacal geniuses. And this is a questionable decision within a world in which white egomaniacal geniuses have fucked a whole lot of things up for everyone else. In many ways this is the defining horror of the cyberpunk future we actually got. The grim truth is that the people who fucked the world up were mostly white geeks who really liked Neuromancer. This insight is at the heart of Alex Garland’s TV miniseries Devs (FX on Hulu, 2020), an example of the endearing trend of contemporary works that end up being cyberpunk not by diligently aping the conventions of decades old genre literature but by simply being science fiction stories about the tech industry.
Devs is a thriller centered around the goings on at a tech company called Amaya that has cracked quantum computing, and the secretive “Devs” department where they use these abilities to pursue an initially mysterious project. As in Garland’s previous tech industry work, the film Ex Machina,1To which Devs is a cheekily secret companion piece—a late reveal is that the department is actually called Deus, with the V being a Latin U. this is done with a lot of wry and savvy insight into the tech industry. Amaya’s lush campus is dominated by a giant and marvelously creepy statue of its founder’s dead daughter, with numerous panning shots of the skyline in which it towers over the trees—an absolutely spot-on parody of the sort of bizarre branding shit tech companies actually pull. Grimmer is Pete, a homeless man living on the main character’s front doorstep, an eminently believable feature of Silicon Valley deftly employed in the context of a thriller via a late reveal that he’s a Russian agent. It’s equal parts incisive portrayal and macabre parody, and just as deft at either.
Nowhere is this clearer than Amaya’s CEO and founder, Forrest, who combines a sort of baffling weirdness (we meet him eating a salad by hand) with a practiced veneer of the avuncular everyman, driving a beat-up Subaru and tossing around a frisbee. This, however, is the approachable, well-branded surface of a man with a pathological obsession with reuniting with his dead daughter, and who has indeed devised an entire metaphysics and system of ethics oriented purely around this goal. Played, in an inspired bit of casting, by a shaggy-haired and bearded Nick Offerman, Forrest is at once magnetic, dangerous, and a remarkable depiction of the way in which Silicon Valley technocrats embrace ideologies that are in turns monstrous and absurd in pursuit of bizarre and hubristic goals. (Consider, for instance, any of the countless tech billionaires to mistake Eliezer Yudkowsky, a crank AI blogger whose entire belief system revolves around his desire to be reincarnated on a computer, for a serious thinker.)
The actual philosophical debate that drives Devs is something of a letdown; Forrest has embraced determinism, and Devs is a massive system for extrapolating the whole of reality such that it can vividly depict any moment, past or future. The resolution comes when the main character, Lily, whose life is turned upside down at the outset when Forrest has her boyfriend murdered for industrial espionage, defies the machine and acts contrary to its prediction, proving that many worlds theory and free will exist after all, a move that only serves to throw most of the show’s more unusual ideas away in favor of standard issue pop culture morality.
But while the show’s philosophical pretenses are largely ho-hum, this does not detract from its larger aesthetic. Its flirtation with determinism, despite being abandoned, allows the show to ride on the same sort of austere and almost crystalline feeling as comics writer Alan Moore’s determinist masterpieces like Watchmen and From Hell. Its eventual embrace of free will is in no way able to counterbalance this; even as it begins to move in the direction of many-worlds theory, the Devs system continues to predict events perfectly until the very end. In one haunting sequence an engineer fired by Forrest for challenging his belief in determinism begs for their job back and is told that they can have it if they attempt to balance dangerously atop a ledge, demonstrating their faith in many worlds theory by accepting that they will get their job back only in the universes where they do not fall. Not only do they perish in the timeline Devs follows, but we see a spectral procession of alternative outcomes, all falling to their deaths one by one; none survive. Garland embraces free will as a mechanism to resolve his plot, but this sits awkwardly balanced against seven and a half episodes worth of stifling determinism, unfolding at a staid and methodical pace.
The centerpiece of this aesthetic – and indeed of the entire show – is the complex out of which Devs operates. In rigidly straight lines and square angles lit wholly in yellows and golds, the Devs complex is at once lush and stark, a cubic workspace magnetically suspended within a vacuum, accessible only by a maglev elevator. Vast quantities of budget have clearly gone into this set, and Garland’s camera fawns on it, filling no end of screen time with slow pans across its facade or around the gleaming quantum computer at its heart. (“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” gasps one character upon seeing it for the first time.) This is a temple, indeed a cathedral to determinism, an opulent monument to Forrest’s ego and ideology from which all of his moral horrors emanate.
It’s a good central metaphor – a depiction of capitalist excess that retains cyberpunk’s long fascination with coolness while being rigorously grounded in the material reality of the tech industry as it is. But the overall aesthetic it embodies has another word that can be used to describe it: boring. Not, to be clear, boring in the sense of being played out and trite; Devs is a striking and original work that stood out as one of the television highlights of 2020. Rather, it is boring in the sense of being a slow-paced, brooding, and claustrophobic piece of art – a sort of boring that has much to say about the world it depicts, which is exactly as J.G. Ballard predicted when he said, “I could sum up the future in one word, and that word is boring. The future is going to be boring.” Failing to grasp this is at the heart of Cyberpunk 2077’s inadequacies—the way in which it desperately, passionately insists that the white dude future it imagines is going to be supremely awesome. While one need only look outside one’s window to know that no, the cyberpunk future is fucking terrible.
To quote Mark Fisher, then, is there no alternative? Is contemporary cyberpunk stuck in the choice between tone deaf glorification of the future or steely-eyed documentation of its horrors? True, cyberpunk was never the most optimistic of genres, but has it truly been reduced to either stating the obvious or missing it? Well, this is called the Triple and I’ve only talked about two things, so obviously not.
The way out of the trap, I would suggest, is to do what science fiction does and imagine the future. Obviously every attempt to imagine the future is in no small part a comment on the present, but there are still possibilities beyond reheating the moldy leftovers of a thirty-year-old idea and depicting the present day with slightly weirder technology. When cyberpunk first emerged, after all, what stood out about it was the stark radicalness of its vision. If one is to do cyberpunk now, perhaps that would be a good note to hit.
Which brings us to the works of Benjanun Sriduangkaew. Sriduangkaew is something of an enfant terrible of the sci-fi/fantasy scene – a longtime critic of the genre’s shitty racial politics who managed to piss off enough people that George R.R. Martin successfully advocated for giving a Hugo award to a poorly documented and heavily misleading callout post about her. But those exploits sit backed up by an impressive literary career in her own right, most recently as the author of the Machine Mandate series, currently consisting of a novel and two novellas, with a third novella on the way. These books encompass a wide swath of a future timeline – the prequel novel Machine’s Last Testament (Prime Books, 2020) takes place thousands of years before the novel and five novellas. All are clearly cyberpunk, but appreciably different flavors thereof, with Machine’s Last Testament being a dystopian novel about a totalitarian AI regime while the two novellas end up somewhere closer to Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, with curiously named AIs such as Benzaiten in Autumn engaged in vast manipulations in a galaxy full of Dyson spheres and living spaceships.
It’s tempting to describe this, especially in the novellas, as a return to some of the abandoned traditions of cyberpunk—the obvious comparison is to Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix, an absolutely iconic piece of cyberpunk when it came out in 1985 that’s largely faded from discussion as its spacefaring radical transhumanism became a road not taken in favor of the endless parade of mirrorshades-clad antiheroes with murderous sex worker sidekicks. But comparing Sriduangkaew, who wears the fact that she’s never read Neuromancer as a badge of honor, to the American sci-fi tradition is a fundamentally mistaken approach. A Thai writer, she is far more influenced by the independently originating Japanese tradition of cyberpunk, citing Gen Uorobuchi, Naoyoshi Shiotani, and Katsuyuki Motohiro’s Psycho-Pass as a primary influence on Machine’s Last Testament. Although cultural cross-pollination between Japanese and American cyberpunk is longstanding and bidirectional, there are clear differences between the traditions. Perhaps most notably, Japanese cyberpunk tends to be interested in larger social systems and their fragility or sense of alienation, as opposed to in malcontented loner rebels.
This is very much the tradition Sriduangkaew is engaged in in Machine’s Last Testament, which opens with a chapter in which the reader follows the internal life of Suzhen, an immigration agent on Anatta, the one habitable planet in the galaxy, as she denies a war refugee asylum on the grounds that he is insufficiently likely to become a productive citizen. Run by a nominally benevolent AI, Samsara, Anatta is a planet of pitiless precision. Its dystopian nature is never unclear, but it is not a dystopia in the borderline camp sense of 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, to pick two nominal classics. Instead this is a dystopia in which it is never for a moment unclear how people within it convince themselves that their world is a good place, or at least as good a place as can be managed. A key description in the first chapter notes, “It is a perfect evening, crisp and filigreed, the building in which she stands and the building across a marvel of Mobius arches, honeycombed windows, curlicue balconies and inverted hanging gardens. On Anatta everything, every moment, is full of grace.”
It soon becomes clear that Suzhen is herself a refugee, and took this job in the tragically mistaken belief that she could make some difference from within the system. Instead she finds herself to be little more than a powerless cog within a vast surveillance state defined by vicious structural inequalities. This miserable but stable social position is suddenly thrown into doubt by a new refugee that Suzhen takes under her wing, Ovuha, whose arrival on Anatta eventually leads to the whole system crashing down. The novel switches between the two women’s viewpoints, and Ovuha is just as understatedly singular a creation as Suzhen; a woman whose past is a shrouded mystery, at times even to herself, marked by trauma and fanatical to the point of self-destructiveness about not letting herself be defined by it.
Sriduangkaew is a keen observer of dystopian alienation, capturing the quiet exhaustion of an oppressive system in a way that cishet white men have simply failed to imagine. Anatta is above all else a sad and demoralizing place. “If there is anything she has learned on Anatta,” Suzhen reflects at one point, “it is to take what she’s given and ask for no more.” Sriduangkaew is not always this subtle; in the novella And Shall Machines Surrender (Prime Books, 2019) there is palpable glee in her descriptions of the Pax Americana, which thinks
gestating tanks are Satan’s technology and that gay couples can’t reproduce – recognize just two genders, you see, and even then under strict definitions. Breeding camps run by nuns, if you can credit the thought. They hand out little Bibles to every new intake.
And there’s something wonderfully cathartic in having this sort of blunt invective turned against American literary hegemony; it’s liberating in the same way as the first time a teenager implies that you’re old and out of touch. But in Machine’s Last Testament she remains quieter and more restrained, offering a novel in which the world is more heartbreaking than outrageous. In either case, however, it is a desperately refreshing perspective for cyberpunk to offer.
Although the novel builds to a suitably explosive denouement with dueling AIs and mecha combat, much of it is spent dealing with backstory, something which Sriduangkaew allows to unfold slowly. Major reveals about both Suzhen and Ovuha’s backgrounds are strangely underplayed, coming up not in dramatic and high-stakes confrontations but in quiet moments of reflection, usually emerging not in some moment of terrible crisis, but organically because they color the perceptions and reactions of whichever of the characters is serving as viewpoint character. This results in a novel that is both quiet and heavily focused on events that have already happened when the book begins, which gives it some of the same sense of clockwork and fated precision as Devs. But Sriduangkaew’s novel maps not an external universe but an internal one, shaped by fears, traumas, and intergenerational wounds, both on the part of Ovuha, who turns out to be the true heir of a defeated warlord who snuck into Anatta to destroy it, and Suzhen, who turns out to be the daughter of a different defeated warlord. By the end the inciting moment of Sunzen looking upon the supplicating Ovuha and deciding on compassion becomes imbued with vast depths that were not and could not possibly have been apparent on page thirteen of the book.
Central to the reparative arc Sriduangkaew traces over Machine’s Last Testament is the notion of queer and specifically sapphic love as a healing force. For all that the novel is a dystopia, it ends with Suzhen in a contented polyamorous relationship, with a clear thesis that the antidote to stifling techno-dystopia is love. This is a common thread in Sriduangkaew’s work, which is defined as much by her perspective as a lesbian as it is by her position outside the American literary tradition. This manifests across all of her works as a sort of endearing horniness – a constant focus on lesbian relationships as a transformative element in the worlds she conjures. As with any horniness there’s a certain repetitiveness to this, which with Sriduangkaew can manifest itself in endearingly bizarre ways; for instance, practically every single book ends up with some version of the Ovuha reveal, with a character who is secretly a ruthless warlord living under an assumed identity, to the point where spotting her becomes a fun diversion. (Clue: it’s usually the butch.) But it’s worth stressing how novel it is to find one’s self complaining that an author is putting too many sexy lesbian warlords into her books. What’s being offered here is a genuinely singular vision, and Sriduangkaew’s explorations of technologically augmented sex and its possibilities are unfathomably refreshing in the context of cyberpunk’s long and tedious history of blandly objectified femme fatales. The novella Now Will Machines Hollow the Beast (Prime Books, 2020), for instance, has a sizeable sequence exploring the idea of cybernetically augmented people with disassembly fetishes, and while I’m not nearly naive enough to believe this is unprecedented, it still stands out as an impressively novel engagement with cyberpunk tropes – a demonstration that cyberpunk is not bound to the idea of the present moment as its telos, and that it can still look to the future.
I’d be lying if I said that part of me did not want to move to a conclusion here, with queer desire as a solution both to the stagnation of cyberpunk and potentially to the world at large. It would be a fine place to end, with radical perversity and no end of possibilities. The simple fact is that there is deep revolutionary potential to the simple acts of making the world queerer, hornier, and less anglocentric. Diversity is not a magic wand to fix all ills, but it’s impossible to overstate just how often “look at something not by a white dude” works to escape from aesthetic and intellectual ruts.
Two things prevent this tidy denouement. First, I’ve not hit my minimum word count. But more importantly, it simply feels like cheating to end a meditation on cyberpunk with such a hopeful note. Eroticism is a fundamentally utopian urge and as such an awkward fit for cyberpunk, a genre that has such a fundamental commitment to cynicism. It’s true that cyberpunk, like everything else, is clearly improved by being queer and horny. But as tiresome as sociopathic antiheroes are, it’s fair to suggest that transitioning from them to queer utopianism involves losses as well as gains. Not everything grimdark about cyberpunk is stupid or adolescent. Surely the resolute cynicism of this genre has something to tell us about a real-world future it’s near impossible not to be cynical about.
Instead of the hopeful tidiness of a bad-better-good structure across our three texts, then, let us return to where we began and, in the spirit of cyberpunk, look for something of value in a cynical dystopia.
After all, while I’ve talked a fair bit about the aesthetics and narrative of Cyberpunk 2077, I have not really addressed it as a game – and it’s as a game that its dystopian qualities truly shine. On the surface this might strike one as puzzling. Cyberpunk 2077 is not, at the end of the day, a game that is primarily focused on its gameplay. It is not a game that goes into increasing depth with a play mechanic, creating variations and complications in a progressive exploration of how a given interaction can work. Instead it is a game that embraces a wide spread of mechanics. Its selling point is its vast open world, and part of that is having an equally vast number of things to do. At times Cyberpunk 2077 is a car-driving game, a rails shooter, a first person shooter, a stealth game, a platformer, an exploration game, a virtual novel, and a point and click adventure. This heterogenous set of mechanics gives it a certain jack of all trades, master of none feel – most of the mechanics are fine, but the game does not excel at any of them.
This is a common enough malady among big-ticket AAA games, which are often so defined by their scope and ostentatious “this is a major release” hype cycle that refining game mechanics becomes a secondary consideration. Indeed, one of their biggest aesthetic concerns ends up to simply be length; any AAA game that doesn’t take upwards of forty hours to complete will be pilloried for it, and really that should just be the main quest, with another 30-40 hours of side quests available for completionists. The problem with this is that length is not generally achieved through the addition of actual gameplay. The startling thing that one notices when one pays attention to what playing Cyberpunk 2077 actually entails is how much of the game you spend doing things that cannot meaningfully be described as playing a game. I’m not even talking about lengthy cut scenes or the amount of time you spend ping-ponging across the vast virtual landscape of Night City—there are, after all, people who enjoy mechanics like that. I’m talking about the amount of time one spends on tasks like “follow this person,” where one simply walks along at a snail’s pace behind an NPC as they get from point A to point B. I’m talking about the amount of the game that consists of things like “OK, now run across the room and hit this switch.” I’m talking about the hours of fetch quests or the lengthy sequences where you’re just a passenger in a car. Truly staggering amounts of time in this game are spent fulfilling a bunch of tedious requirements so you can earn your way to the actual fun bits.
It would be unfair to suggest that this is a problem unique to Cyberpunk 2077, although it’s certainly a particularly egregious example of the tendency. But it’s worth highlighting exactly how this dynamic ends up working. At one point in the game, further progress is gated behind a need to pay someone a moderately large sum of money. How do you get this money? By completing side quests. Indeed, even the main quest is basically a series of small jobs, often with the structure that someone you need help from demands you do a job for them first.
What we have in Cyberpunk 2077, then, is an elaborate simulation of what it’s like to be a gig worker. As the tech industry would put it, it’s like Uber for being a video game character, a description that grimly mirrors the toxic and abusive labor conditions under which it (and, to be fair, most AAA video games) were made.
It is at this point worth mentioning the issues that plagued the game at launch. Essentially, the PC version – which had extremely high system requirements such that you basically need a $1500 gaming rig to play it under its optimal settings – was the only version provided for reviewers for the fairly simple reason that it was the only version that was remotely playable. Next generation consoles – which is to say the at the time functionally impossible to get Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X – were okay-ish, but the Playstation 4 and Xbox One versions, which in December of 2020 were the versions that were accessible to the vast majority of players, were, to put it mildly, complete trainwrecks with countless game-breaking glitches and barely functioning graphics (the game has since lurched to bare functionality).
The obvious joke to make here is that paying $60 for a simulation of the cyberpunk future we were promised that only actually works for the wealthy in the first place is in fact extremely cyberpunk. But within that joke is in fact a useful framework for understanding cyberpunk as a genre, which was always both a way of thinking about the future and an aesthetic attitude. Cyberpunk 2077, taken purely on its own terms, has the latter. Devs has the former. Machine’s Last Testament has both, although its aesthetics are from the parallel evolution of Japanese cyberpunk.
But once we have this distinction in mind, the possibility of another approach emerges. If the future predicted by cyberpunk has arrived then perhaps the thing to do is to engage with that future as cyberpunk. Take the tropes of the genre and apply them to a world in which people pay money for shitty and abusive simulations of the cooler dystopia we were promised. Use the cliches of a broken future against the people who’ve trapped us in it. Cyberpunk predicted the world, and has proven itself capable of saying things about it, so why not use it to describe, understand, and subvert that world?
What might this look like? Certainly we could all get ourselves impressively badass leather jackets and mirrorshades and stride out into the dark neon-lit streets; any excuse to buy a badass leather jacket is a good one. That said, the last thing the world needs is more Johnny Silverhands, so some caution is probably advisable. We might take a page from Sriduangkaew and embrace the reality of what is punk and subversive today instead of what William Gibson thought was punk forty years ago. Leather and mirrorshades are as much Tom of Finland as they are cyberpunk, after all. Let’s be cyberpunks, yes, but let’s be queer cyberpunks, cyberpunks of color, disabled cyberpunks, and a host of other sorts of cyberpunks beyond what a straight white dude in the 1980s could imagine, and beyond what even the best quantum computer could predict.
None of this fixes Cyberpunk 2077. A bitterly ironic reading of a bad game does not make it into a good game, and its lukewarm revival of Gen X rockstar fantasies remains banal. But cyberpunk is not about fixing the world, and what I propose here is not a utopian project. The fantasy of cyberpunk was never to fix the world; its heroes were no revolutionaries, just a bunch of shabby thieves and hackers who robbed their shitty future blind. Cyberpunk wasn’t about people fixing the future; it was about how to survive it, and there’s much to gain in solving that problem for more people than the white dudes who posed the question.
And if nothing else, cyberpunk offered an attitude toward the future that was brashly, anarchically refreshing. As Mike Pondsmith put it back in the original rulebook for Cyberpunk when articulating the basic principles of a cyberpunk story, “Attitude is everything… Never walk into a room when you can stride in, Never look at someone unless you can make it your best ‘killer’ look. Use your best ‘I’m bad and you aren’t’ smile. Don’t sit around the flat or cube waiting for the next job. Get on out and hit the clubs and hangouts. Make sure you’re where the party starts.” The cyberpunk dystopia that is the twenty-first century may be boring, but we don’t have to be. The central lesson of cyberpunk was that dystopias could be fun; let’s have some.
And who knows — if we do it right, there might even turn out to be a future.~