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Cyberpunk 2077 is Reactionary

Cyberpunk 2077 is Reactionary
Photo by Valentin BEAUVAIS / Unsplash

I don't consider myself a hardcore gamer, but I do indulge in video games for about a week 2-3 times a year before returning to my usual routine. My most recent affair has been with Polish developer CD PROJEKT RED’s Cyberpunk 2077 2.0. The game recently released a major update and expansion, so I’ve been wasting my Christmas free time in the virtual world. I bring this up not to confess my sins but to explore a broader trend in media.

Liberal writers often produce works that are more ‘true’ than they realize. Cyberpunk 2077 has truth in it and because of that it is inherently reactionary.

Let me start by defining my terms. Let me clarify my terminology. When I use the term 'liberal,' I'm referring not to Democrats or leftists, but to the system of thought that prioritizes human liberation as the highest good. In this frame, the majority of conservatives are best understood as liberals. Consequently, when I say reactionary I simply mean illiberal.

For those unfamiliar, the game I’m discussing shares its name with both a pen-and-paper RPG and a subgenre of sci-fi. Cyberpunk is a dystopian genre, with anti-capitalist trappings. Themes of transhumanism, environmental degradation, and rampant corporatism are common. Prominent cyberpunk films include both Blade Runners, The Matrix Series, and the critically acclaimed 1995 classic Johnny Mnemonic.

On its face 2077 is a very blue-pilled game. Set in a near-future Los Angeles, the games NPCs are diverse and each in the city has a ‘vibrant’ multicultural atmosphere. The main villains of the setting are large multinationals or ‘corps'.’ The heroes are anarchists and terrorists fighting the system. In the expansion, the player is led around by a middle-aged blond female president of the New United States of America. A pantsuit and shoulder pads are included. Drug use and abuse is rampant. Pornography, prostitution, and all forms of sexual perversion are common. The character can choose between any combination of stacked genitalia and sex characteristics. This plays into the genre trope of human modification and transhumanism. Cyber-wear, which are mechanical alterations to the human form, allows characters in this world to modify or enhance any attribute.

If this were the extent of my discussion, it would result in a rather dull article. Simply pointing out subversion, while profitable, is not exactly edifying. There is truth in this game. Cyberpunk 2077 contains a certain truth that elevates it beyond a mere game; it makes a compelling reactionary argument.

My argument is based on this premise; art is good insomuch as it reveals a truth about reality. Humans are narrative creatures and use art to express ideas mimetically. Dostoevsky wrote entertaining novels, but he is considered a good artist because he accurately captures facets of human nature.

Oftentimes artists become captured by bad ideology. However, as good art must reflect truth, it can only cause so much damage. For instance, Hemmingway supported the Spanish Republicans. Yet, For Whom the Bell Tolls, has more to say about individual heroism and vitality than Spanish politics. The ideology is certainly there, but the truth captured by the artist transcends it. It seems almost as if this truth shines through, despite the best efforts of the ideologue.

There is a similar dynamic at play in Cyberpunk 2077, even if it never quite reaches the quality of Hemmingway. All the subversions mentioned above are present, but the consequences are there too.

Each borough in Night City, the setting of this work, is controlled by an ethnic gang. Crime is rampant and focused on these criminal organizations. There is a Hispanic faction, a Hattian mob, and a vaguely Asian gang among others. Multiculturalism is violent and disorganized. Explicit racism is absent from the game. However, the player is left to draw their conclusions about assimilation and identity.

There is no dodging the anti-capitalist tone of the game or the genre more broadly. Rampant consumerism contrasts with mass poverty. In this setting, private companies have surpassed governments in size and power. This seems to disprove my assertion that Cyberpunk 2077 has right-wing messaging. However, I reject the core premise here. Rampant corporatism, whether in the game or our own lives, is a bad and subversive trend. The idea that corporate capitalism is the utmost rightwing ideal and communism the leftmost is past its sell-by-date. Any system built for solely economic ends will become a dystopia. The game accurately represents this.

I cannot defend the Hilary Clinton insert. That is deeply embarrassing.

In the world of Cyberpunk drugs are open commodities. The streets are clogged with junkies and dealers. Unlike the lies by legalization activists, a future in which narcotics are de-stigmatized is one where drug abuse is rampant. the rich are shown as having access to high-end designer drugs while the poor are taking substances derived from toxic industrial chemicals. This issue is never addressed directly in-game. The consequences of drug culture are shown unflinchingly.

Overt sexuality has always been a part of this franchise. Even before the game launched, the usual suspects were angry about how much nudity there was in the game. The nudity comes in two categories that are worth discussing. The first is the use of pornography in advertising, and the next is the prominence of prostitution.

It might be worth it to examine the advertising in another post. It's very much in the vein of Paul Verhoeven. For the sake of this article, I will say that this is an auxiliary point to the game's anti-corporate messaging. Sex has been fully commodified to the point where nude models are used to sell dog food and other commodities. Despite featuring sexualized imagery, none of this advertising is erotic per se. It is deliberately off-putting and serves to illustrate an argument about advertising and sexuality. Just like in the modern world, sex is used as a marketing tactic to sell products. However, in Cyberpunk 2077, this trend is taken to its logical extreme. This game shows the logical conclusion of lowest common denominator advertising.

Prostitution is not only legalized, but fully de-stigmatized in 2077. NPCs talk about so-called sex work as if it were just another job. The characters never directly condemn the practice, if anything it's referred to as normal recreation. However, the narrative paints another picture. At the risk of either spoiling the story or boring my readers with unnecessary details, I will briefly summarize one story beat.

The first act of the game covers the stages of preparing and heist on a corporate office. The crime is facilitated by a high-end call girl who often meets with the heir to the firm. Although the robbery fails, the proustite remains a prominent tertiary character. The game charges the player with reestablishing contact several weeks after the unsuccessful crime. Through a series of events, we follow this proustite through the seedy underbelly of Night City. Events ultimately culminate in her sliding into depression and suicide. At no point does the game explicitly condemn her choice of career. But at every turn, she is confronted by misery and exploitation.

Cyberpunk and transhumanism are almost synonymous. On one hand, human modification is the main draw of the gamer. After all, who wouldn’t want to have ninja blades pop out of their arms? On deeper inspection, Cyberpunk makes clear the Faustian bargain of human modification. The benefits of cyber wear are apparent. The player can run higher, jump faster, and replace their human limbs with the aforementioned ninja blades. However, the costs are devastating. Cybernetics require extensive medication to ensure the body does not reject them or cause terminal insanity. The player is constantly bombarded with situations where an NPC has lost access to vital medications and suffers greatly as a result. Cyber-psychosis, or violet insanity brought on by over-modifying the human body, is a major social issue.

After examination, it is clear that Cyberpunk 2077 is reactionary. In the world of this game, the liberation the left has long desired has arrived. Instead of a panacea, Night City is a hellscape. The authors doubtless, had no political intentions. But because they wanted to write a true story, they ended up revealing a core flaw in liberal thinking. When freed from the constraints of sexuality, social shame, and the human body itself, mankind will create hell.