Cyberpunk 2077: Drugs, Dystopia, and the American Dream
CD Projekt RED’s upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 wowed the world at E3 2018, and did so again when it aired its previously exclusive gamescom footage on Twitch a few weeks ago. The game’s FPS mechanics look incredible, and the world in which it’s set is vibrant and loud. However, what intrigued me most of all about Cyberpunk were the dreamers amidst the grit.
Cyberpunk 2077 is set in a Blade Runner-esque dystopian future. The neon skyline of Night City is deceptive to the faraway eye, though, as it hides the city’s darkest secrets, only knowable if you’re in the thick of the chaos. At the top, MegaCorp pulls the strings; at the bottom, gangs and mercenaries form a lawless society of violence and crime. The middle juxtaposes the two—the crime from below has a presence, but the lights above seem within reach, if only barely. The middle contains the dreamers, those who will stop at nothing to earn themselves a position in the upper echelons of a broken society.
Night City’s grit is defined by its dreamers, who refuse to be pulled down. Even in a gone-to-shit world, the American Dream is alive and kicking. Society may seem to have progressed in every conceivable way, from technology to medicine, yet it has lost its sense of humanity. The American Dream is the dream to get out, to break free. There is nothing for anyone in Night City, except the promise of a chance, even if it is only a small one.
This makes the game’s sensory overload, produced by the combination of its aesthetic and soundtrack, all the more important, as it accurately depicts what it would be like to live in Night City. This is one of the many reasons as to why the game is better in first-person than it would have been in third-person—character customization is one thing, but immersion is another thing entirely. It is absolutely possible to become immersed in a narrative from a third-person perspective, as The Witcher 3 is one of the most highly immersive games I’ve ever played. However, the degree of immersion in Cyberpunk extends past that of other video games, in that is essential that you see the world from the perspective of your character. Why? So that you can feel as overwhelmed and intimidated as every other dreamer else in Night City.
The overwhelming nature of the city oppresses all of those who aspire to defeat it. In the gameplay trailer that was streamed on Twitch, we see the protagonist partaking in the consumption of a substance by using inhalers. Although we don’t know exactly what the substance was, or the effect it’s supposed to have, its casual use implies a desensitization to whatever its effect is. I suspect the inhalers provide an effect more in line with “uppers,” possibly making the user hyper-aware of their surroundings, and increasing their faculty of sensory perception. Instead of escaping from the world around them, they escape into it, as they embrace the colors, the noise, and the chaos—but why? Why embrace a world of chaos?
Well, first of all, the characters shown in the trailer were all pretty flat. This is a strength of the narrative, though. Although I do hope that there are some fantastic characters in the game, some characters will likely serve a purely descriptive function. They’re a part of the cold, unfeeling aesthetic that the game needs to provide. Whether they’re up or down, the majority of people in a world like this need to stay out of touch in order to survive. They need to be out of touch in order to cope, is what I mean. Either you embrace the colors, or you escape from them. Either way, you’re within or without the harsh reality of a world that offers you nothing more than a chance.
Although Joel from The Last of Us has an incredibly written character arc, there was a stage in the game during which he no longer cared. The world went to shit, albeit in a very different way to Cyberpunk, in which the world’s deterioration is disguised as “progress.” Together with Tess, Joel became the person who smuggled drugs in and out of the Quarantine Zones. He facilitated people’s escapism, uncaring in relation to whether or not it was good for them. More food rations for him.
Ellie changed Joel. Despite not wanting to have anything to do with her initially, Joel grows to see her as a daughter. Ultimately, he decides that there is nothing he wouldn’t do to save her. Joel’s rehumanization occurs because he gains a sense of purpose—a sense of meaning. The Last of Us‘ dystopia is one in which the population has been decimated; however, Night City is home to over five million people. None of them care about you. None of them ever will. The only way you can survive is by creating your own purpose. The lights may be bright, but the world is dark. This is why people dare to dream.
In order to survive the dystopia, the player must embrace it. In order to chase their dreams, they need to remain unafraid. It’s often that substance consumption is seen to be a form of escapism, distraction, and deferral. In Cyberpunk 2077, it’s a form of presence, immediacy, and survival. If the lights dim and the sounds become noise, the dreamer will be swallowed whole by the ground beneath their feet.