Cyberpunk 2077 Doesn't Have To Be Progressive, But It's When the Genre is Most Exciting

By Laura Kate Dale on at

When I saw Cyberpunk 2077 at Gamescom, shortly before a 48 minute video went up online for the public, it blew me away. One of the things that stuck with me after the presentation, however, wasn't the game itself but a statement from level designer Miles Tost, who told us "being a Cyberpunk is all about being your authentic self, no matter who that is."

It's a sentiment that feels true to the spirit of what good cyberpunk narratives are. Some may argue this isn't reflected in the earliest progenitors of the genre, but this spirit has become a key part of what makes cyberpunk interesting as a contemporary genre. The clue's in the name: cyberpunk narratives have always embodied the idea of 'punk' as an ideological subculture. To be a punk has always meant to fight against the establishment, and be one of those looked down upon by those in power. Punk is about being loud and proud, about opposing how the rich oppress the rest, and standing up for free thought and non-conformity: whether that means sexual rights, disability rights or gender rights. Being a punk means standing up to those with cultural power and, as Tost said, being your authentic self no matter what the world thinks.

Early cyberpunk narratives focused more on the economic aspects of their universes, a great example being the classic Neuromancer. This novel begins with a character who is struggling economically being punished for theft, and denied access to what is essentially the internet as punishment. This punishment further denies him a chance at escaping the poverty that drove him to theft in the first place. It's a narrative that saw the economic disparity of its times, and cast it as a problem to be overcome by the punks of the world.

As the years change, what is considered punk shifts, and I think it's fair to say that over the past few decades, LGBT rights and disability rights movements have more and more frequently been considered punk movements, a class stuck fighting to have the same respect and rights as the rest of the world. Some of the most successful contemporary cyberpunk stories reflect this.

Consider The Matrix, a film written and directed by two trans women, and probably the most famous cyberpunk anything of the last few decades.

This features a protagonist living in a virtual world, casting aside the name they were given at birth despite authority figures insisting on using it ("Mr Anderson..."), and ultimately casting aside the limits of who they once were by embracing a new identity.

Neo: “I can’t go back, can I?”

Morpheus: “No. But if you could, would you really want to?”

Another aspect of The Matrix that feels in-keeping with this cyberpunk feel is the character Switch, at least in their original form. Until Warner Bros intervened the original script for the movie had the character Switch being portrayed by two actors of different birth-assigned genders, a male actor in the real-world scenes and a female actor within the Matrix, explicitly presenting technology as a means for trans people to more fully realise their identity, and be perceived and treated by the world the way they wish to be seen.

The Matrix even ends with a scene where Neo is on train tracks about to die, mirroring a suicidal moment relating to transition from Lana Wachowski's life, before making a defiant speech about the importance of change, growth and becoming who you are.

"I know that you’re afraid. You’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. … I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see… A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries."

The Matrix is not a story that's often read as a trans allegory, but when viewed through that lens and with the knowledge of its creators' trans status, certain parallels feel inescapable. It's a story that embraces the ideals Cyberpunk 2077 wants to have, and an example of modern cyberpunk exploring tech as a lens through which to explore identity.

This was all whirling through my head because, while I was trying to think about how Cyberpunk 2077 may realise this theme of identity, I was also thinking about the game's twitter account making a 'joke' at the expense of transgender people. The original tweet referenced a meme, "Did you just assume my gender", which is commonly used online to imply transgender people are oversensitive or easy to anger if incorrect assumptions are made about their gender. It's not a joke based in reality, it's explicitly used to mock a group trying to be their authentic selves.

If nothing else, this hardly fits with the idea of a game that champions people trying to be their authentic selves. The studio quickly apologised, not the first time CD Projekt has had to do so.

That tweet almost certainly came from a social media manager rather than anyone on the development team, so I wouldn't claim it necessarily says anything about what we can expect from Cyberpunk 2077 as a finished game. But it did make me consider more deeply what I had seen of the game, its relation to progressive ideals, and cyberpunk as a contemporary genre.

There are certainly some interesting arguments to chew over. Game director Adam Badowski said at E3 that:

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

This might seem a fairly cut-and-dried argument, but I personally have a problem with this kind of blanket statement on body augmentation and transhumanism, because it overlooks so much of where the real world already is in that regard: whether we're talking transhumanism, body modification, gender transition or disability. We already live in a world where prosthetic arms can be controlled via use of the brain and existing nerves, there are headsets which can convert colours to audio tones in order to allow colourblind individuals to parse colour in the world, belts that can detect seizures and notify next of kin, internal devices that monitor blood sugar in real time, and medications that allow trans women to grow breasts.

We have real world technology that allows people to live their lives more easily, or more comfortably, or with fewer risks to their health. But Badowski's point at E3 is that body augmentation disconnects humans from reality. He doesn't draw a line about where he views the body as no longer being sacred. Is someone less human because they have a prosthetic, or an implant, or wear a headset?

This kind of idea goes back further than an E3 talk, and in fact to the tabletop game Cyberpunk 2020 on which Cyberpunk 2077 is based. 2020's ruleset gives a much clearer picture of this world's view of body modification, and often doesn't distinguish between real world body modification and hypothetical sci-fi technology.

In Cyberpunk 2020, 2nd Edition, players are prone to a condition called cyberpsychosis, a condition where adding plastic or metal to humans in any way causes them to lose empathy for humanity, then lose humanity itself, before ultimately growing to see humans as weak pointless watery meat sacks. If you get too many of these modifications, you'll be offered two choices by the government: either face being murdered as a pre-emptive crime prevention measure; or submit to basically be on parole, sent to therapy and fitted with a government tracking chip to constantly monitor you. Oh and you'll be fitted with a small explosive, which will detonate if you step out of line.

Getting a muscle graft, getting improved antibodies if yours are struggling, getting your damaged hearing improved, getting a bionic leg, getting fake skin to cover that bionic leg, doing all of these things in the Cyberpunk universe will impact your humanity. When it starts mixing in augmentations that help people in the real world, and suggests these make them dangerous and less empathetic to the rest of humanity, it's hard not to feel this is a clunky and outdated perspective. At one point it comes tantalisingly close to examining this, then backs off. The book asks if your grandmother's metal hip makes her less human, but stops short of actively confirming that no, her metal hip doesn't make her less human. It mentions harmless disability and mobility aids, then simply leaves them in a nebulous space for individual players to make their own calls.

So here we have a world where biomonitors, which monitor the health of people with high blood pressure and diabetes, explicitly lower your humanity. Trans women in 2020 who might want surgery to change their vocal tone can get it, but it'll make them a little less human. Even contraceptive implants lower your humanity in 2020, a device already available in many forms in the real world, and seen by most people as allowing us to take control of our own reproductive rights and body autonomy. Trans people have the option to get appearance altering surgery, but it's highly expensive and (bizarrely) leaves you with a 10% chance of skin cancer, a downside that doesn't exist in real world surgery today.

I emphasise that these aspects of Cyberpunk's world are from Cyberpunk 2020, which is where the series began, rather than reflecting Cyberpunk 2077. In the context of Badowski's E3 statement, however, it does feel like this general view of body modification — that it's dangerous, or makes you less human — has persisted in some form.

We have seen a few aspects of how Cyberpunk 2077 handles identity and, while the full game is a ways off, I've been thinking more on these scenes and how they present certain characters.

In the demo shown at Gamescom, as well as the gameplay footage online, the player only has a choice of playing a cisgender male or female character, with no options for characters to be trans or non-binary. The game is played entirely in first person, and as such including non-binary character options would have simply required characters to address you as with the gender-neutral pronoun 'they', but apparently folk like this don't exist in the future.

You select between two naked characters and your gender selection is specifically labelled as your birth record, shutting off any room for players to headcanon that their character is trans. The game goes out of its way to emphasise that your character was born the same gender as they are now. The demo also defaults to your character appearing to be coded heterosexual, as we soon see them in what is presented as a casual sexual encounter with the opposite sex without the player having any input. It's possibly your character might be bisexual, but the option to be explicitly homosexual was not on offer.

We do in the demo see a man using a mobility scooter to get around, and in the streets there is a reasonable amount of racial and body type diversity on show. A lot of this is surface visuals however, and there are no indicators of how this world thinks: has it overcome our current world's discrimination against minority groups, or have things got worse? In a world where appearance is flawlessly modifiable, and bodies are endlessly editable, is a mobility scooter a defiantly human choice, or an indicator of someone so poor they can't afford new legs?

Cyberpunk 2077's gameplay demo doesn't give us much of an idea about whether the full game will live up to Tost's words, whereby "being a Cyberpunk is all about being your authentic self, no matter who that is." Or if it will more closely follow the tabletop game and the idea that people are ultimately distancing itself from human emotions like empathy anytime they alter themselves in any way.

This may be a cyberpunk story where the idea of body modification as a means for becoming more authentically yourself is explored, but thinking about certain tweets and statements alongside the series' fictional origins I'm not feeling optimistic. The game is undeniably gorgeous, and I've previously gushed about how amazing it looks in action, but to me a contemporary cyberpunk narrative is one where augmentations are not simply 'futureshock' gimmicks, but exist in the context of where the world is now. I want a Cyberpunk story that feels punk in the 21st century.

If 'better' biomechanical arms become easily available for able-bodied people, and swapping out your limbs became somewhat normalised, what impact would that have on disabled access rights, or the perception of disabled people with functional prosthetics? If you can change parts of your body at will, and people are frequently not the same person at birth as they are later in life physically, what does that mean for transgender people, who've been engaging in body modification for their own comfort longer than most? These are the kinds of questions about identity cyberpunk as a genre has addressed in recent decades.

For all the problems I had with Ready Player One, a cyberpunk novel with undeniable transphobic content, the recent movie adaptation realised this crossover between tech and identity in a neat manner. The character Art3mis, who initially excludes a large face-covering birthmark from her virtual avatar, later accepts that part of herself and incorporates it into her avatar. It suggests what it means to use virtual spaces to explore oneself, the fear of how the world might treat your true self, and ultimately the positivity of embracing who you are. I'd never say Ready Player One is progressive in all its forms, or even overall a good film, but that plotline at least felt like it was embracing the punk aspect of cyberpunk.

"Being a Cyberpunk is all about being your authentic self, no matter who that is." I'm looking forward to Cyberpunk 2077, but I wonder whether it really will allow us to be our authentic selves — or whether CD Projekt's punk ethos is only skin deep.