Aspirational Dystopia

Luke Libera Moore on Cyberpunk 2077 (2020)

Author’s screenshot from Cyberpunk 2077, 2020.

THE MOST WIDELY ANTICIPATED VIDEO GAME of the past several years, Cyberpunk 2077, was finally released in the twilight of 2020. Served up in over thirty countries across all major gaming platforms, this regrettably undercooked sci-fi pastiche—riddled with disruptive glitches, prone to crashing, and jerry-rigged from clearly unfinished code—infuriated nerds across the globe. I thought that perhaps a dystopian hacker narrative marred by erroneous programming might represent a perfect (albeit accidental) marriage of form and content—but this interpretation has probably appeased no one. Moreover, from this gaymer’s perspective, the technical faults of Cyberpunk 2077 are the least of its problems.

But first, it bears noting that the most successful aspects of this game lie in its virtuosic world-building. Cyberpunk’s staggeringly intricate and expansive locale, a fictional Californian megalopolis called Night City, offers countless visual theses on the very real entanglements of capitalism, ecocide, inequity, architecture, and advanced technology. And as in all well-wrought sci-fi, these themes are engrained within the very spatial organization of its fabricated world. In this regard, Cyberpunk 2077 reaches toward something remarkable: an interactive Gesamtkunstwerk concerning the future of urbanism.

Beyond its commendable ambitions in environmental design, the fact that this setting is utterly saturated with sex necessitates a critical unpacking of its libidinal ethos. If Night City itself is the true protagonist of this game, then horniness is its ever-present sidekick. Through raunchy advertising plastered across nearly every surface and hours upon hours of dialogue—either overheard in passing crowds or directly encountered within the narrative arc (which I needn’t even address)—the presumed sexual frustration of the player is culled from its mortal cage and stretched into something like a transmedial tissue connecting the desirous meat-body of the IRL player to their idealized avatar. The ostensible complexity of Cyberpunk’s character customization pushes this further, allowing players to craft an intricately realistic likeness, equipped with fully rendered genitalia of one’s choosing, and a body modifiable through hundreds of garments and cybernetic prosthetics.

In many ways, one’s own yearning constitutes the fourth wall of role-playing video games, or at least the unseen interface between eyes and screen. Perhaps this could be said of most art (or all perception), but the stark contrast between real-life Covid lockdowns and this enormous virtual world, ready to explore—and fuck—cannot be overlooked as the psychological crux of this game.

What struck me most within this desire-drenched Lebenswelt was the complete absence of male bisexuality. Perhaps negligible to most, this detail actually functions as a revelatory clue into the game’s sociosexual worldview, evidenced most damningly through countless interactive dialogue segments and one particularly asinine mission in a gay club. That is, despite so many attempts to persuade us otherwise, ultimately—beyond the illusions of agential self-creation and blurred identitarian boundaries—all existence in Night City is ineluctably reduced to one of three implied categories: Real Men, Hot Chicks, and Fucking Faggots. And yes, that order is morally hierarchical. 

It seems to me that this third and lowliest caste was added to front as something resembling a progressive edge. The fact that queer women are granted entry into that gilded prison of Hot Chicks amounts to nothing. Moreover, the game’s smattering of blatant homophobia by way of grotesque stereotypes and derision, specifically of and toward gay men, wouldn’t be as noteworthy if the development studio, CD Projekt Red, hadn’t gone out of its way to tout the game’s “LGBT content.” Alas, the now-familiar gimmick of #conscious marketing always reveals itself in the end.

My point here is not to demand a more “polite” product—that would render this critique as shallow and meaningless as the developers’ attempt to camouflage their antipathy toward “us gays.” Rather, I aim to address a fundamental epistemic incongruity within the game’s universe: Why is a hypothetical future marked by rampant surgical implantation and body modification still so thoroughly beholden to the misogynistic mores of penetrator vs. penetrated? The answer is simple: In that all sci-fi is equally about the future and the historical moment of its creation, Cyberpunk 2077 is a portrait of the idiots among us today.

Luke Libera Moore is an interdisciplinary artist in New York.