Cyberpunk 2077 (‘s 2013 Teaser): Reviewed
Can you feel it? Once again, Gamers across the world prepare for battle…
As the Twitter throngs, Reddit riots, and Youtube yellers grow louder, the din now forms a sort of concert B-flat. All the instruments of the great Internet information orchestra prepare in unison, waiting for the marketing maestros in Poland to finally flick their batons, signalling the inevitable tsunami of capital-D Discourse to blast even those understandably isolating themselves from this particular corporate entertainment product. Once it releases, nobody will be able to escape the force of nature that Cyberpunk 2077 represents.
As this Metacritic monstrosity awakens, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own relationship to this game. In 2013, Cyberpunk 2077 represented something much different to us — or, at least, to me. The teaser which formally announced the game disguised its compelling mini-fiction as a hype-piece, a promise made to the hearts of twenty-one million people that this world — this fantasy — would be delivered unto them “when it’s ready”. What, exactly, did they promise us, and how does that promise feel now, nearly eight years later?
Immediately, it puts us in the perspective of this woman, as the lyrics plead for human contact.
Eyes come straight from the textbook of cyberpunk symbolism. In a world painfully devoid of sincere human contact, where our bodies are no longer our own, the eyes remain the windows to the soul, the last bastion of visible humanity in a world violently stripped of it. In this first moment, we sense desperation, which leads into a threat of uncontrollable violence.
This woman, according to the description, is a “Psycho”, someone who augmented themselves severely enough that they lost control and became violent. This doesn’t feel so much like a threat as a warning — the protagonist here can no longer control what lies within, but they feel its power, and know what it can do. A bullet shatters into shimmering dust against her cheek, and our image of her shatters with it. The warning becomes more urgent. Whatever hides inside this woman compels the outside world to enact violence against her. Maybe this warning came too late.
Our own world, viewed broadly enough, becomes confusing and scary. Anything that helps us “make sense” of it seems necessary. We all have our ways of coping with our own modern dread — maybe for you, in a way, watching/reading this is one of them. Part of the appeal of cyberpunk is that it understands certain societal horrors and externalizes them: this world is messed up and miserable, and tragically, how these characters “make sense” of it plays into its own vicious cycle. To deal with an augmented world, we have to augment ourselves.
I imagine the mods on a Psycho’s body feel like black holes. To receive a bionic arm, for example, you first have to remove your current one. I hear this line and I think of the woman in the 2018 trailer casually detached from most of her face. Many characters in later trailers seem to have some metal bit, or wire trace, or something, on their own face. Too much, and these mods might start to feel as if they’re eating you. The nature of a black hole is that it will never be filled.
We build intensity with more grim imagery. This visceral image of being trapped in razor wire evokes helplessness — you are bleeding out, yet you cannot move without cutting yourself further.
The trailer indulges us with more slick slow-mo gunshots. The “beautiful violence” contradiction is an easy shortcut to gravitas, but it makes sense here. When you’re in danger all the time, you either suffer, or learn to enjoy the fear. This world is doomed. Eventually, the city will eat itself alive, and there will be nothing left. How else could this story end? Even within this melodramatic nihilism, we find beauty: this sweeping shot of the city from below still takes my breath away. The “blistering sky” here reveals itself as just more architecture. From below, the scale feels overwhelming. When I saw this shot for the first time in 2013, I knew that CDPR understood, at least in that moment, a core part of what cyberpunk is. Back then, I was a high schooler in a quiet suburban town who’d lived in a single-story house for nearly seventeen years. I didn’t know this then, but I would end up spending the majority of the time between then and now living in a literal megacity. I loved, and still love, being around huge buildings, so I surrounded myself with living, manmade, created space. Like many others, I had enough of the empty quiet of suburban nature, and I needed the closeness of urban life. Eventually, for many, the scale tips back in the other direction, and you realize that you can’t really escape, only turn the volume down a little.
Faint lines cross through this woman’s skin, and then begin to split, opening into harsh, bloody metal. The now-iconic blades emerge, dripping with the blood of the bodies scattered around her, as the song chants:
Who is responsible? Well, clearly, these murderers are the responsibility of the person with the blood all over them. Right? But in this world, the side effects of her own implants compelled her to. She may have had a good reason to take those implants, or at some point, maybe she became addicted or dependent on them, to keep up with the times or to stay relevant — most people in this world probably feel a strong need for self-defense. It’s not too much of a reach to suggest that external forces put this woman in a position where she didn’t have much of a choice. Even now, we’re asked to take new technologies into our life at a pace that not everyone can reasonably keep up with. Those who cannot follow get left behind. Is that a matter of their own responsibility, their own fault? I don’t know. In such a tightly connected society, I’d more quickly blame the circumstances that put them there.
Cyberpunk stories criticize several political systems which value individual responsibility — these are generalizations, but neoliberals value the free market; libertarians, the non-aggression principle. The individual is always held responsible for making the best choices for themselves, freedom for the lucky and capable coming at the expense of a societal safety net for those unable to meet an arbitrary standard. You are free and responsible, thus, you can choose whatever path you want, in theory. In practice, forces greater than ourselves affect us in ways we cannot face individually, and succeeding in this kind of society requires some level of hypocrisy. Ambrose Bierce, author of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, once defined a corporation as “an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility”. That sounds pretty cyberpunk to me.
To stretch this even further, personal responsibility sits at the core of the game design for most open worlds and role-playing games. These games construct themselves around player agency, so many decisions yours to make, so many binaries decided by button press. In nearly every open world game, it falls to you specifically — the player — to free the world in question from something. There are others who you might not be able to do it without, sure, but these games tell us that nobody but us could have done what we did. We are responsible for clearing the outposts, felling Ganon, freeing our hometown from Nazi occupation. Nobody else is going to solve these sidequests. They’re just going to sit there until we deign to bless them with our superior ability. When I raid in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, the rest of my band of twenty raiders never take the initiative, leaving me to progress the encounter at my own pace. I am not a psychic, but I imagine many people love these games for this feeling, not in spite of it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The scale of your achievements in these games can be staggering. I don’t expect Cyberpunk 2077 to somehow flout this trend, or to subvert open-world design in revolutionary ways, but I wonder how much responsibility the player actually has.
Back to the teaser — this woman’s ultimate fate is to become a new member of the “Psycho Squad” — obviously, she didn’t have much of a choice. Even the same song playing in the transport at the end speaks of a gun to her head. The cycle threatens to repeat itself — systems designed to exploit people at the cost of their humanity create cyborgs who violently lash out at the world that created them, until captured and repurposed as a policing tool of the very state that made them who they are.
For me, cyberpunk is tragic, introspective, lonesome, sometimes horrifying; its characters victims of circumstance learning to cope with an unfeeling world grown too large to comprehend. And this trailer understood that.
The irony of praising a massive corporation’s marketing choices for its knowledge of the cyberpunk genre is not lost on me, don’t worry. I’m not so obsessed with my own imaginary version of a quote-unquote “dream game” that I willfully ignore the reality of its production. CDPR generously gifted its doubters with a waterfall of gaffes and google-translated soundbites, painting a poor portrait of a studio which flatly refuses to apologize for the human cost of its practices while doubling down on ham-fistedly provocative imagery.
The fate of all punk subculture is to inevitably be consumed and digested by whatever it rebelled against. Punk-rockers Refused, once responsible for defining “The Shape of Punk to Come”, find themselves lamely hollering over stilted chords on this game’s very soundtrack. Cyberpunk worlds are archaeologically rich with appropriated culture, layered deep into decades past, rebellious collective idealism molded into individualist pandering. In the 2018 trailer, the game’s protagonist tells us “I’m a big dreamer” — which gets the viewer thinking about what their dream is, what they want out of this warped, manifested ideal of a video game. These open worlds tie responsibility to self-expression, freedom to individualism — self-actualization on your own terms.
You are responsible for playing the game your way, Nobody else! Don’t let them tie you down! Don’t let the SJWs tell you how you can or can’t play your games! Anyway, come hang out at our Twitter event and check out our collaboration with Porsche. Don’t you love Keanu Reeves? Look at Killer Mike! He’s anti-establishment, right?
We were introduced to Cyberpunk through a hopeless, cyclical portrait of a doomed world upheld by contradictions. In the newer trailers, we see this world still, eating itself alive. How will the characters of the game respond to this hopeless cycle? How do the different factions and characters see their responsibility? Do they actually have any? How do they use it? I can’t help but wonder what lies at the end of Cyberpunk. Will we be offered, as we are in so many other epic role-playing-games, a big, world-shifting choice? Will it actually feel like a meaningful solution? Or will it not, and will that be the point? Will our final choices instead directly impact only the lives of the characters we know? In an early video on the official game’s channel, Mike Pondsmith (who wrote the tabletop game) says that “Cyberpunk isn’t about saving humanity, it’s about saving yourself.” Well, there you have it. I hope.
Thank you so much for reading. This piece also appeared on my YouTube channel as a video essay, check it out and leave a like!