Gaming in a Present Future-Past:
Notes on the Polygon Review of Cyberpunk 2077

About a decade ago, back in June, The Last Of Us Part 2 was released, foregrounded by unbelievable hype and followed by a strange outpouring of praise and critique. Hoards of fans slammed the developers, and even the actors, for its brutal storyline that was otherwise resolutely praised by critics. Those critics who were less glowing in their reviews provoked controversies all of their own.

Maddy Myers’ review of the game for Polygon succeeded, in hindsight, in defining the critical sphere in which the game was to be considered. Balanced and insightful, celebrating its strengths whilst retaining a firm grasp on its unfortunate flaws, it was a review that lingered in my head throughout my entire play-through.

Though I loved the game and was reluctant to say goodbye to the universe it created, playing it with an excitable fervour whilst trying to savour every moment, I ultimately agreed with Myers. The story’s overbearing moralism, coupled with the player’s very limited influence on the overall plot, made it feel like a parable on rails. It’s open-world was magnificent and its scope incredible, but the game was frequently undermined by the linearity of its own overweight story.

As Myers put it, “The Last of Us Part 2 depicts the future, yet it fails to escape its own past.”

At around this same time, whilst very much enjoying this new game on the market, I was thinking about how the games industry was also obsessed with its own past. The other game I had been playing at that time was Resident Evil 3 — the blockbuster remake of a game that had largely defined my childhood; a remake that followed Resident Evil 2, Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon: the already remastered games of my youth.

Connecting this compulsion to remaster with the theoretical tension at work between hauntology and accelerationism in the first blogosphere, I wrote:

[T]echnological hardware is being improved at an astounding rate, with new devices, consoles and ways to play appearing with an increased frequency, and yet it is also an industry currently infatuated with remakes of classic games.

Why is this?

In hindsight, there’s a strange irony on display here. Of course the most successful and critically acclaimed remakes in recent years are zombie games. In many respects, this is why, despite its flaws, The Last of Us Part 2 still functions as it is supposed to. To depict the future whilst failing to escape our own past is the driving force behind just about every zombie game. (Emphasis on game; zombie films do not have this same innate templexity — that is, a texplexity beyond the anarchonism of the living dead.) Even in worlds that look like our own, like in Resident Evil, the living dead are combined with technologically-advanced tools that are made available to slay them. Whether explicit or implicit, every zombie game seems to be set at least a bit little ahead of our present.

So, what happens when this tendency emerges within another genre? Chances are, it’s a lot harder to ignore…


Fast-forward to the present day… After years of marketing finesse and levels of hype that somehow exceeded the games industry’s already excessive norms, Cyberpunk 2077 is about to be released to a salivating public.

Apparently, it’s buggy as hell. And it seems like another instance of a highly-anticipated property being undermined by its own marketing cycle. But I’m not one to judge — I’ll save that for after I’ve played it myself, no doubt in many months time. (I’m still not over the absolute waste of money that was my Fallout 76 pre-order.)

Nevertheless, I have just read Carolyn Piet’s review of the game for Polygon, and it once again seems like Polygon’s astute and objective review is going to define this game’s critical reception.

Piet’s comments on the game’s character customisation options are already doing the rounds. Championed during development for the choices on offer, the game was supposed to allow players to build any character they desire, from the transgender to the transhuman. The reality is that there are limits, and those limits are politically quite clumsy.

But, beyond this issue, what I found interesting in Piet’s review was how she described Cyberpunk falling into a familiar trap. Indeed, the review’s tagline echoes that of The Last of Us Part 2 before it. Piet writes:

Though the word cyberpunk evokes a radical vision of the future, there’s nothing revolutionary on offer here. Instead, it’s a game obsessed with the past.

There is, once again, a strange templexity here. I doubt many are genuinely anticipating some grand vision of the future. Cyberpunk, after all, as a genre, is synonymous with the 1980s to my mind. In truth, there is overlap with the 1970s and the 1990s but, either way, Cyberpunk 2077 was always going to be a celebration of a late-twentieth century vision of the future.

The issue, then, is not that the game is “obsessed with the past” but rather that it is haunted by the present. As Piet rightly notes, “There’s real potential for a grim world like the one Cyberpunk 2077 offers to serve as a lens through which our own world is critiqued”. However, by the sounds of it, it is a game that has put its fascination of the past ahead of its actual place in the present. It’s trans representation is the most obvious example of this for many. For Piet, it seems like the game offers up the potential to play as a trans character, with a light sprinkling of other queer signs and signals, in the sort of lacklustre and exoticized way that plenty of media in the 1980s did. As Piet explains:

Here in 2020, people boldly and bravely hack gender all the time. And yes, I know that Cyberpunk 2077 takes place on a separate timeline in which the year 2020 looked very different than it does for us, but it’s still a world in which people push their bodies to the extreme of technological modification, sometimes swapping out eyes or limbs like they’re changing clothes. You’d think transgressing gender norms would be pretty commonplace, too, and that as a result, a fundamentally different understanding of gender and of trans identity would have taken root in the world.

Instead, Cyberpunk‘s world is one of pervasive transphobia.

The backlash to this review almost writes itself. This cold dystopian future shouldn’t have to align itself with your woke ideals in the present. But that is only part of the issue for Piet. It isn’t just that it’s politics are predictably superficial — it’s that they are wholly unimaginative for a game set 50+ years in the future. As such, according to Piet, the game fails to engage with how the concerns of our cyberpunk past might look different in a future projected from the present.

If this is a shame, it is one compounded by how the game supposedly succeeds in other areas. Commenting on the game’s primary location, Night City, Piet notes that it is “not just an amalgamation of imagery lifted from other influential sources, but an original creation that incorporates many signifiers of cyberpunk genre flavor (lots of Japanese kanji in neon, airships slowly drifting through the sky) while also feeling like a place we haven’t seen before.” Clearly, this is an update on the genre we might otherwise know from films such as Blade Runner.

But this is complicated further still by one character who, although he allows you to better engage with the city in which you wander, is nonetheless a ghost from the past. That character, played by Keanu Reeves, is

Johnny Silverhand, the once-legendary rock star whose digitized consciousness takes up residence in your head via a highly sought-after biochip you slot into your brain during a heist gone sideways. Johnny is central to some of the biggest upheavals in Night City history, and as you carry the cybernetic construct of his personality around with you, playable flashbacks thrust you into that history, giving you a taste both of the blur of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll that made up much of his life, and of the anticorporate actions that have him branded as a terrorist in some people’s eyes.

Piet continues:

This is what I least expected about Cyberpunk 2077: that its notions of “cool” are so tied up in the digital persona of a past-his-prime rocker that the game sometimes feels like looking through your uncle’s musty record collection while he talks about how great the Rolling Stones are. When William Gibson’s genre-defining novels like Neuromancer and Count Zero first appeared in the mid-’80s, they were thrilling in part because they offered a vision of the future that felt entirely new, and with it, a whole new vision of “cool.” I believe there’s still potential for cyberpunk stories to be so boldly visionary and relevant, but Cyberpunk 2077 prefers to look back, an attitude reflected not just through Johnny’s efforts to avenge old grudges and to recapture the glory days of his band Samurai. In fact, the game’s entire worldview feels like the product of someone who’s about 30 years behind the times, who may have been rebellious and liberated once but who nowadays doesn’t understand why it’s messed up to call sex workers “whores,” as Johnny routinely does.

Following the hauntological zombie-romp that is The Last of Us Part 2, where the past (read: the dead) constantly stalks and threatens to rip the throat out of the present, Piet’s appraisal of Cyberpunk 2077 seems oddly complementary, despite the two games being from entirely different genres. The difference, however, is that in Cyberpunk‘s future, the past does not stalk the present in any material sense; it is instead installed directly into your cerebellum. It literally lives rent-free in your head…

What’s strange about this is that it is The Last of Us Part 2 that seems to be more progressive — not just politically speaking but also temporally. That doesn’t feel right. The necrotic transcendentalism of The Last of Us is purposefully set in a recognisable future — the rotten husk of our present — and yet, despite that depressively melancholic perspective, it is more forward-thinking than Cyberpunk‘s transhumanist free-for-all?

After all, in The Last of Us Part 2, Ellie and Dina, scavenging in the zombie-infested wastes of Seattle, are able to see great potential in the ruins around them. As I wrote in a previous post on the game:

Joel’s nostalgic nature isn’t something I want to criticise. In fact, it is all too relatable. In his role as father figure, he wants to inspire Ellie with his knowledge and expertise, showing her things about the old world that she can take with her into the new. Whilst Ellie’s excitement and curiosity in this regard is endlessly endearing, Joel’s own melancholy never quite fades into the background. And it is an understandable melancholy too. If I was able to watch old films or listen to old records depicting a world catastrophically destroyed by a zombifying pathogen, I think the cognitive dissonance would soon start to take its toll. For the younger characters in The Last of Us Part 2, however, this disconnect is taken to be a given. They don’t focus much on what has been lost but always push forwards, considering what they can do next. They seem inspired by the old world but only because it shows them the kind of cultural production possible in the new one they hope to build.

In this sense, the young adults of The Last of Us Part 2 are enthralled by the magic of relics.

Cyberpunk 2077, at least according to this one reviewer, doesn’t inspire as much hope. Instead, as the flawed product of a flawed tech industry, it seems to do what many other over-hyped recent games have done in recent years: it has inadvertently highlighted the problems with our own world and its dominant ideological perspective, by failing to offer the kind of revolutionary new perspective its marketing campaign promised.

For Piet, Cyberpunk 2077 remains a game that speaks more readily to the past. Her closing sentiment is almost heartbreaking in its disappointment. She writes:

Yes, I know I shouldn’t look to a colossal game that was itself produced under exploitative labor conditions to lead the charge of anticapitalist liberation, but I wish the sparks of Johnny Silverhand’s ideological rage got to burn brighter, that Cyberpunk 2077 felt more interested in envisioning new futures than in reminiscing over bygone glories. Neither its gameplay nor its narrative can imagine the bold possibilities that I find so central to the best of cyberpunk. But what it does offer is visions of people trying to make do and get by in a world that’s trying to eat them alive, and sometimes those people get by with a little help from their friends.

The revolution will not be gamified, that’s for sure. But Piet’s disappointment doesn’t just seem to be aimed at this blockbuster game; it also feels like a disappointment with the world in which it was made. The harsh truth lurking under the surface here is that Cyberpunk 2077 speaks far more to our present than we are prepared to admit.

Piet attempts to find some silver lining in that suspended realisation but stops herself. She concludes: “It’s not the revolution I hoped for, but it’s something.” What that something is barely warrants thinking about; that something is our all-too-familiar reality. Piet may not see herself, as a trans woman, reflected in the game as promised, but is the silver lining here really that she at least finds herself represented and reflected as a browbeaten but defiant capitalist subject? Trans representation in the game could have been a wondrous affirmation but, denied that, we shouldn’t settle for a half-baked identity politics instead. That is perhaps a more depressing conclusion that she realises.

It leads me to a depressing conclusion of my own. Though I will wait to play Cyberpunk 2077 for myself before casting any final judgement on it, by the sounds of things, and despite its obsession with the past, this is a game far more representative of the reactionary crises in our present than first appearances suggest. It is exemplary of the postmodern in all its impotence — not lost futures but future-presents with an eye to the past. The “no future” of punk echoes cybernetically down the years, not as a refusal but as a prophecy. Our own imagined progress becomes a flattened temporal disk where high tech surfaces cover over an abject lack of depth. A futuristic game that doubles down on our lack of future is certainly one kind of cyberpunk, but today nihilism is a rational fact of life and not a cool kids’ ideological choice. And if cyberpunk — as game or genre — cannot adequately deliver on nihilism’s Promethean potentials then it is unfit for purpose.

More than that, it’s ironically played out and time-twisted. It renders Cyberpunk 2077 as a hot new property, a brand new game, built with all the logic of a remake. It might look great and it might feel great but it is shortsighted. It is more zombified than a zombie game — old ideas clawing their way to the fore of our collective unconscious, only to remind us of what we’ve lost — not “the future” in itself but our very capacity to refuse it.

The scorpions might attack, but the systems stole the sting
Cyberpunk is dead

2 Comments

  1. You write that, “Cyberpunk, after all, as a genre, is synonymous with the 1980s to my mind. In truth, there is overlap with the 1970s and the 1990s but, either way, Cyberpunk 2077 was always going to be a celebration of a late-twentieth century vision of the future.”

    It is maybe to easy to forget how old is cyberpunk. Some consider 1927 Metropolis to be the first cyberpunk film, produced and directed by two guys born in the late 1800s. It was then remade in 1984. Or consider the 1982 Blade Runner. It’s production and the source material both came from people of the Silent Generation. Even William Gibson is now in his 70s, having been on the other side of the edge of the last wave of Silents.

    One could speculate that nostalgia is baked into cyberpunk. We are now living in the future portrayed in so many sci-fi films I grew up watching, such as Back to the Future. In some cases, we are long past the fictionalized future. The 1980s Terminator movies projected the turning point of the future with a 1997 invention of Skynet, similar to Star Trek’s 1990s eugenics wars. I’m often amused as we are now fully in Star Trek future history, albeit of a different variety of technological vision.

    Actually, any number of dystopian cyberpunk stories could fit into Star Trek future history. About right now, every major city in the United States is supposed to build sanctuary districts where the unemployed, homeless, and mentally ill are ghettoized. Soon following that are decades of nuclear war and post-nuclear apocalypse, during which most goverments collapse. The Terminator movies also portrayed the 2020s as being a pivot toward war. For Star Trek world, the cause was genetic engineering. And for the Terminator world, it was artificial intelligence.

    Mass war and the threat of apocalypse has always been the shadow cast upon sci-fi genres like cyberpunk. Metropolis was produced following the first war when the Western world was rebuilding and industrializing after large-scale death and atrocity. But cyberpunk and sci-fi in general came of age during the Cold War. For anyone older than a Millennial, the Cold War looms large in the imagination, shaping so many of the speculations about the future. And nostalgia was a powerful force in the Cold War as modernization, industrialization, and nationalization destroyed the last remnants of what came before.

    Cyberpunk might not fit well into this new century. It’s an echo from the past being enforced upon the present. And maybe the only reason it’s kept alive is because the older generations who remember it are still in power and have most of the wealth. In entertainment media companies, most of the management and many of the workers are GenX and older. The clumsiness of what is produced is because many of these people are mentally still living in the 20th century of their early lives. Cyberpunk describes revolutionary forces of the past, not of the present, but what was revolutionary over time becomes reactionary. Yet that is what can resonate about cyberpunk, as we have become so fully reactionary as a society.

    1. Marshall McLuhan said that, “It helps to know that whatever pattern stands out loud and clear is the old one, not the new one” (1967 Symposium, University of California, Berkeley). One might suggest that the cyberpunk genre is so dominant in the corporate media imaginaion for the very reason that it’s an old pattern. That leaves us to consider what new pattern is already replacing it, if we were sensitive enough to discern it.

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