Saving punk from Cyberpunk

“How cyberpunk is Cyberpunk 2077?” is the question many of the game’s detractors have been asking, often with reference to its handling of trans representation. The one I’ve been asking myself over the past few weeks is: how punk is Cyberpunk 2077? For that matter, how punk is cyberpunk full stop? The two share a moment in history but come from different places: punk is a distinctively angry and egalitarian music form, spawned in the 1970s and feeding into a much broader ethos of anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian protest; cyberpunk, an outgrowth of New Wave sci-fi which explores, and revels in, what networked computing technology might bode for society and humanity. The origins of the term “cyberpunk” are hardly rock and roll: as Sam Greer recalls in a recent RPS piece on Cyberpunk 2077’s trans politics, the writer Bruce Bethke coined it by stirring together words for “socially misdirected youth” with bits of tech jargon, in a “purely selfish and market-driven” act of editor-pleasing that would make a diehard punk spit blood.

Still, the fact that one is the other’s suffix is no incidental detail, and if cyberpunk began life as a snappy pitch, it has grown more radical in the hands of later generations as the technology it loves and fears has developed, and many of its prophecies about the associated risks and opportunities have become everyday concerns. Punk and cyberpunk today share a preoccupation with radical individuality and solidarity in the face of oppression in all its forms, be it surveillance through your smart appliances or the enforcing of destructive gender norms. Both are on some level about “constantly surprising people”, in the words of Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova, about seizing upon and recoding the categories and systems into which you are thrust, trampling hierarchies and running amok in the sanctums of the powerful. Each has its reactionary elements – there’s a strong vein of macho chauvinism in old school punk rock, while cyberpunk’s fondness for bad boy nerds saving the world through their laptops is not, to say the least, a good look in the age of 8chan – but both explore transgressiveness as a fundamental theme.

There’s not a whole lot of transgressiveness thus far in Cyberpunk 2077. Instead, there are implants that make you a better fighter, infiltrator and hacker, branching dialogue paths, main and optional objectives, level-ups and a banquet of lavishly modelled weapons – all the customary fittings of an open world RPG, swimming beneath a crust of comfortably cyberpunk atmospheric cues such as chrome skinwear, overcompensatory neoslang and sexbots on billboards. It seems the game you’d expect from a publicly traded software company worth over two billion dollars, one that is, like Bethke, basically looking to combine known quantities in a flashy way rather than break things, and in that regard, of course, it’s part of a very old cycle.

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