I am in Flux about Cyberpunk 2077
When I first started writing this, about a week ago, it was easy. Or as easy as it ever is.
I was going to compare and contrast Watchdogs 3 with Cyberpunk 2077 in order to show Cyperpunk 2077 lacking in it’s Empathy stats, unable to properly fulfill the true requirements for being part of the cyberpunk genre. It had sold off it’s empathy points to appeal to the wrong side of online, I would say. I’d reveal how it’s shell was bare without a hint of a ghost within, while extolling the virtues of Watchdogs 3 that (while not in our too distant future) shows the spirit of resistance against corporate forces.
But those Netrunners are right when they say “Netspace moves fast”.
And now, I find myself in Flux.
What follows are my own imperfect thoughts on this genre and the Internet reactions. I’ve tried to be compassionate. I think anger is valid in a lot of cases. But I also know that the discomfort that cyberpunk brings for so many people, scratches an itch in my brain I can’t explain. There is context for some of these choices the studio has made, that I hope when brought into the light, will bring more understanding of the genre.
For the briefest of rundowns, Cyberpunk 2077 launched into our hearts and minds at E3 2013 with a trailer. It was a fleeting glimpse into the promise of a playable videogame version of the tabletop game Cyberpunk 2020.
Then last year in August, during Gamescon, in response to a Twitter user saying “MORE GUYS” whoever was in charge of the Cyberpunk 2077 account Tweeted “Did you just assume their gender?!” It caused justifiable outrage and there was a pretty swift appology (Because the “did you assume my gender?” joke trivialises the very real experiences of gender diverse and trans individuals who live through it).
This year, at E3 we saw much more of Cyberpunk 2077 (KEANU REEVES!).
Once more there was the question about whether, in a world where you can customise anything, where identity and sense of self is fluid, were they really going to be sticking to a binary when it came to gender?
The character creation screen only showed male and female as choices.
And then, in a screenshot to show off the Nvidia ray tracing technology, a poster was spied in the background that showed a woman, with a sizeable penis, being used in an advertisement for a drink with the words “Mix It Up” on the poster.
The depiction was deemed fetishizing of trans women and reminiscent of any number of horrible and bigotted ideas that target the trans community. Later the artist who designed the poster, gave the reasons for their artistic choices, pointing out that in the cyberpunk genre everything is fetishized and marketed. The commercialisation was meant to disgust you, the body being shown, was not.
Just recently, Cyberpunk 2077 have been more outspoken about the range of customisation of characters. We’ll be able to customise voices, skintones, hair and gender. They don’t make it clear whether that will be something to work towards in game, or whether we’ll be able to choose it from the get-go.
But now I find myself with a very cyberpunk problem, asking whether I’m being duped into believing a corporate lie of authenticity, selling out my humanity (and my hope of being a good ally) for a game that will no doubt be pleasing to the senses…. Or am I missing the forest for the electric trees?
Time to jump into this tangled ball of wires and see if we can’t work it all out.
The most important part of Cyberpunk, is the punk.
Cyberpunk, as a genre, is meant to be confronting and uncomfortable. It’s very nature demands that any media designed to fall under this genre’s banner must be subversively political.
Altered Carbon’s entire plot hinges on ideas like “History is always written by the winners” and “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” while also examining the structures of power as they relate to identity. The Blade Runner movies push us to consider our real feelings around sentience and autonomy. There is a reason you feel for the replicants, despite them not being the legal definition of human and that’s because if we’re honest, we’re not sure the wetware (read:biological bodies) is really what makes us human. In the world of cyberpunk, bodies don’t mean the same thing as they do in our world now. That’s why the scene of Major Motoko Kusanagi tearing herself apart is meant to both disgust us, but also signal that this is a world where physical bodies don’t hold the same value as they once did.
The Major’s purpose in Ghost In The Shell, is far more important to her at any given time, than the body she finds her conscious inhabiting.
It is imperative that any cyberpunk media be critical of the identity norms of the Now, even though it is focused far into the future. Transhumanism (the evolution of humanity through technology is the shortest explanation) is a large chunk of cyberpunk. So there has to make a comment on our definition, resistance and embrace of what is an 'acceptable' body.
In the case of Cyberpunk 2077, it is a game where by it’s declaration of genre in it’s title, all calls of “identity politics are ruining fun/discourse/games” are null and void. The cornerstone of the cyberpunk genre is the politics of someone’s identity. It is a world where society is a bloated corpse, kept animated by high tech and a hunger for depravity. It’s a chasm between rich and poor, where bodies are sold into the void because if you’re poor, you don’t own anything but your sense of self. Your physical self is up for grabs.
Which brings us to….
That Poster. That Bulge.
When I saw this picture, I wasn’t entirely sure what was wrong with it. I don’t mean, it made me feel uneasy and then when someone pointed out the fetishization I suddenly realised that was the problem. I mean, when I first saw it, my thoughts were “You go girl! Rock it!” Some women have penises, some women wear strap ons, some women have labia (of all sizes) and our shared experience is a history of being made to feel ashamed of what is below our waist. So, this depiction of a woman so unashamed of her genitalia was, to me, brilliant.
That’s not how it was received by everyone.
And given CD Project Red’s hesitance and history with the gender diverse and trans community, who can blame that community for feeling angry?
No one. No one can blame them or any allies standing with them. It was a rhetorical question I was asking, but I’m telling you the answer, in case you need to hear it. Just like no one gets to tell me, how I get to feel about depictions of labia, cis people do not get to tell gender diverse and trans folk how they should feel about depictions of their bodies. Especially when this is the ONLY depiction of them as characters so far. Yes, there’s been a promise of more diverse options, but a promise isn’t seeing it so….
So, what I’m about to say, is not to be used as a way to invalidate anyone’s anger at that poster (unless it’s some TERF or general bigot who gets offended at such depictions for all the wrong reasons). Everyone is entitled to good representation, not as an NPC, not as a caricature, not as an ode to the bigotted views passed down from generation to generation. That’s not how good character design works.
However (and after much consideration) I do think that schlong is pretty great.
I say schlong as that is no average penis. You could take an eye out with that. It’s a powerful body part and in the world of cyberpunk, I’m inclined to believe the person with it, chose it to be so. The intimation that this character, who is presenting as a woman, must have something gentle and ‘feminine’ between their legs is wrong. I’m not saying she can’t (that should be an option and I’ll get to that). I’m saying that the belief that women’s body parts must inherently not be shown as powerful organs, is wrong. Whether girldick or labia, there’s no correct shape, size or girth and no one should be made to feel wrong for what’s happening below their waist.
In the context of Cyberpunk, everyone is hyper fetishized and sexualised. Whether that’s gross to you, or weirdly engaging, is a personal thing. But it is part of the genre. They’re not backing off from that and they shouldn’t. It’s meant to be extreme and enthralling, it’s meant to make you hate how overdone everything is and if you find yourself liking it, it’s meant to make you question why. The fetishization in cyberpunk is not only about appealing to an audience, it’s about the message of what that says about them as well.
The body, in Cyberpunk, is not sacred.
But the idea of humanity is.
There has been a lot of criticism surrounding a particular quote from game director Adam Badowski.
“She is not clean. maybe she is augmented too much. Maybe the humanity level is pretty low in her, so it’s an interesting topic. It’s one of the key themes in cyberpunk. The very first scenes in the original Ghost in the Shell anime show exactly the same aspect. Because where is sacrum and where is profanum in a world when you can simply modify yourself to such limits that it makes you a different kind of person? It’s one of the most important themes in cyberpunk, as a genre.”
Understandably, people who need to modify themselves in the Now, feel offence at this. No one wants to hear that they are less human because they need a modification of some kind. It’s not like this quote exists in a vaccuum, that our society is otherwise really very cool with anyone modifying their bodies. There’s baggage.
But cyberpunk’s transhumanism aspect is about unpacking that baggage we attach to our physical forms. The cool part of it, is how we’ll be able to customise every aspect of ourselves. We can change and design the perfect us. Where it takes a more grotesque turn, as part of the cyberpunk genre, is not that we get filled with technology, but how our very survival that is reliant on technology will be used by those in power.
The conditions we deal with now, largely won’t exist because in the cyberpunk future because everyone is modular. It is the norm that you have enhancements and make changes. Your body is replaceable. Perhaps your organs are valuable but not because they’re part of you, but because they’re something you can sell, like a used car, while you get an upgrade. Or perhaps they’re something to be repossessed because you missed the rent.
I think where the distinction needs to be, is that majority of cyberpunk media (at least that which is most well known)doesn’t address normal people, it addresses militarised bodies. The idea of argumentation taking away humanity is one that is handed down from those in power, who often are just as augmented as those on the lower rungs of society….it’s just the rich can afford to appear more human. The cyberpunk future is, in general, an indictment on the idea augmentation makes you unfit to be part of humanity.
In Altered Carbon, it’s no longer a ‘body’, but a “sleeve”, something you can slip in and out of. Attachment to your sleeve is a luxury that only the rich can truly afford. Everyone else makes do with what they’re given. In GiTS a large degree of all of the movies, are questions around sentience and awareness of self, apart from the attachment to our bodies. In Blade Runner, the sacredness of the biological humans is upheld not because enhancements are wrong, but because if you don’t hold technology as profane then you have to admit the awareness of the replicants.
In these examples, the higher ups are the ones who appear the most human, while rarely being so themselves. Whether enhanced or not, they play at being human because they’re so far removed from society and consequences for their abuses of power. They hold that power, in many ways, because they reinforce a false ideal of humanity in order to satisfy their own inability to stay moral. Sure, they kill some robots, maybe damage a sleeve, treat an employee like they own them. What does it matter? None of that is ‘real’. It’s replaceable.
More specifically, within the game mechanics of Cyberpunk 2020, the tabletop this is based on, humanity points are calculated based on your empathy. (Empathy works like your Charisma state in the game). The more cybernetics you have, the less you can relate to other living things. For instance, eyes that change colour, roll 2 D6 die and add 0.5 to the final score. Subtract that from your Humanity. For eyes that function like a poison dartgun, it’s 2 d6 plus 2. Fall below a certain threshold and be taken over by cyberpsycosis (and of course, if you don’t think the game takes the time to point out how arrests for those suffering is really down to the discretion of the authorities…..) This doesn’t appear in the character screen, so far. But it doesn’t mean it’s not introduced later on, or part of the finished product.
Those character options though….
In this game specifically, and in life generally, people should be able to wield whatever genitalia they want.
And no they shouldn’t have to work for it. I understand why it might work for someone to start as a binary character and transition to either the other side of the spectrum or somewhere between those two points. But just like I shouldn’t need to play a man character for hours to 'unlock' the lady character, neither should the trans and gender diverse members of our community have to unlock the basic versions of themselves.
And they don’t need to.
I’m no character designer. But what I do exceptionally well, is balance my hatred of my face with a love of making a character look like me. After hours on character creation screens, forcing my character to have a nose that looks like mine but cute, I can tell you…. The software already exists for them to allow players to create whatever genitalia they want.
Make the genitalia like facial hair, with all options (well, as many as possible) available regardless of gender. Put it on a sliding scale (as I’m told Saints Row 3 has) and leave it at that. Done. I fixed the problem.
This issue doesn’t need to stop at genitalia either, nor should it.
As far back as Never Winter, you could choose your voice. I delighted in finally choosing a voice that was closer to my low tones, than something higher pitched. In The Sims, your character can swing between or change completely, their gender. THE SIMS.
In an ideal world, this would also be a game where people with prosthetics can play characters that look like them if they so choose. As I’ve said before, Cyberpunk is about choice and the impacts of those choices.
Though I’m well aware that there are warm, humany, squishy bodies behind this whole thing.
Which brings us to the matter of crunch because while this is a huge undertaking that has no doubt taken a lot of hours….
Cyberpunk has to be loudly for the workers.
The true evil in cyberpunk, is the class power imbalance. Just as human modification has gone to extremes, so too has big business and exploitation of the poor. The rich live about the muck and are above the law. Everyone else is as expendible as the tech in their bodies.
CD Project Red have repeatedly said that there will be non-obligatory crunch for this game. Crunch being a term used in the gaming industry, but can be felt everywhere, being the idea that even though you’re only paid for 8 hours a day, if you’re really committed to your job, you’ll work the hours needed, rather than JUST the hours paid.
This is the very environment and imbalanced power dynamics that cyberpunk warns us about. Sure, you can step away from your desk. You can choose to not engage in crunch. Just like Major Kusanagi can choose not to work for the 501 Organisation. But at the end of the day, they own her body and CD Project Red own the job security of their employees. The obligation is there.
The promise of CD Project Red, in the beginning, was for it to be here “when it’s ready”. For it to be released in 2020 would be a lovely tribute to the tabletop. But it would come marching over the hunched backs of devs trying to make such a deadline, that must leave you wondering if it’s a tribute worthy of it’s inspiration. Maybe they could put on more people to make deadline, maybe the higher ups can take a pay cut spreading the wealth around a little more so that more opportunities are given and crunch isn’t needed.
It’s not enough, of course, for me to say “fixed it” to every problem so that now all we can all run out and buy the game, guilt free. That’s not how it works.
If you want to play a cyberpunk game without at least some of this particular baggage, you can buy the tabletop gamebook (the newer editions are better, as far as representation goes, apparently). You can seek out cyberpunk games and media made by trans and gender diverse creators. Don’t tell me there is none, start with the Matrix and work from there.
I hope I get to do both though.
I want better from CD Project Red. Not just because that game is like all the sexiness of Cyberpunk shoved into a city sleeve…. But because I know with or without my money, this will be a successful game. The skill, effort and love poured into it are undeniable. The Cyberpunk fandom is expanding at a rapid rate and I want these newbies to get a good, full, experience of the genre. I want them to understand that one of the key elements of cyberpunk is thinking about how your body Now, dictates how you move through the world because of the way the world sees you. I want them to see how cyberpunk subverts that narrative and highlights the inherent flaws in a system we’re all part of.
More than that, I want a good game for all the gamers. The cyberpunk genre lends itself to so much inclusion and this game, with this studio, could do this. I really think they can do this.
I probably had something witty to finish this on, back when I was sure this was trash. I’d probably use some wordplay like “Make it cyberPUNK not cyberFLUNK”.
Instead, I’m going to be very unCyberpunk and try to end on hope.
CD Project Red have made a lot of mistakes. None of this is meant to be a defense for what those mistakes, but merely an explanation for the parameters of cyberpunk as I see it. I hope, that they’ve heard everyone’s voices. I want this game to be gritty and uncomfortable, while being a rallying cry for everyone who needs to play it.
Until then, it’s not ready.