On December 10th, Polish game studio CD Projekt RED released its latest game, Cyberpunk 2077. The release capped eight long years of development.
But what followed the game’s release was unimaginably worse. Players on the PS4 and Xbox One reported that the game was near-unplayable. Sony eventually removed the game from their online store and offered full refunds. It turned out there were also multiple issues related to sexuality and gender identity. For example, the main character’s gender identity is also tied to their voice. And the entire main story is so chock-full of Orientalism that it would even make Edward Said blush.
These are just a few of the criticisms that critics and players have discussed over the past few weeks. Many more are sure to surface. However, in light of COVID-19’s effect on rising Sinophobia in the US, and increasing awareness of racial discrimination both online and offline, it’s more important than ever before to understand where exactly these problematic elements come from. Why is Night City set in California? And how did Cyberpunk 2077, a game whose entire genre revolves around critiquing the status quo, end up reinforcing those beliefs?
Cyberpunk, the 80s’, and Techno-OrientalismThe genre is unfortunately colored by many of the anxieties that existed in the 1980s, one of the most prominent being “Japan Panic” and Techno-Orientalism. Click To Tweet
Cyberpunk, the genre, has its home in the 1980s. Neuromancer, written by William Gibson and considered the inception point of the genre, was written in 1984. Bladerunner, starring Harrison Ford and directed by Ridley Scott, was released in 1982. And Cyberpunk 2020, the original tabletop RPG which Cyberpunk 2077 was based off of, was first released in 1988. Notable mentions also include works from Japanese Cyberpunk, such as Ghost in the Shell which ran from 1989 to 1990, and Akira which was released in 1988.
Defined as a subgenre of science fiction, cyberpunk generally focuses on the use of high-tech by “low-life” or criminal individuals, primarily in the form of hackers. Many works explore how high-tech can influence or change our perspective on what “humanity” means (ie. Ghost in the Shell). Others also focus on social issues that are present in reality such as income inequality, exploitation, and the increasing influence of corporations over society (ie. Blade Runner, Neuromancer). In any case, as with the defining term “punk” in its name, Cyberpunk as a genre is inherently anti-status quo. It’s supposed to critique our current understanding of how society should be organized.
So, where’s the issue?
As with every form of media from the 1980s’ (and any form of media from the past, really), the genre is unfortunately colored by many of the anxieties that existed at the time, one of the most prominent being “Japan Panic” and Techno-Orientalism.
David Morely and Kevin Robins coined “Japan Panic” in their book Spaces of Identity. It was a fear that the Japanese economy would overtake the West through their electronics and automotive industries. To an extent, this came true. Profits for companies like GM, Ford, and Chrysler fell. Meanwhile, Nissan, Honda, and Toyota became prominent car brands in the US.
This led to a large public outcry towards foreign-made products. It also led to a spike in xenophobia against primarily the Japanese and Japanese diaspora. Worse yet, there wasn’t a clear distinction between Japanese and other East Asian ethnicities at the time. As a result, much of the racial hostilities were also aimed at Chinese and Korean-Americans as well. These racial tensions would eventually culminate in the murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American who was mistaken as Japanese and killed by two former Chrysler autoworkers. (They would receive no jail time.)
Japanophobia was not new (See: World War II). But this resurgence of fear towards the Japanese would make its way into many pieces of popular media during the 80s’. Some examples were tame, such as in Back to the Future II where future-Marty works for an angry Japanese boss. Others such as Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor, focused on Japanese “Zaibatsu” companies as power-hungry threats to US economic dominance. And in an effort to combat these imagined threats, many pieces of media — from movies and television, to literature and video games — took to portraying Japanese people as an “other” that needed to be fought against.
Japanophobia in Cyberpunk
This Japanophobia is also present in cyberpunk. It’s why so many seminal pieces of cyberpunk almost always feature monopolistic Japanese conglomerates. It’s also why Japanese culture is shown as prevalent to an absurd degree. Places like Los Angeles serve as perfect settings. Such cities are regarded as a melting pot of cultures. Additionally, such settings mix in the American anxiety of living in a future where English may be a second language. It’s the reason why, rather than making accurate representations of Japanese culture (be it food or music), most studios default to using a pastiche of Orientalist designs that blend Japanese, Chinese, and other East Asian cultures together. At best, this results in a focus on the more “popular” forms of Japanese culture like Geisha, Noh, and Anime. At worst, you get cultural appropriation, stories that are weirdly fixated on “honor”, and just blatant racist caricature.
Western cyberpunk’s obsession with heavy-handed cultural iconography becomes even more apparent when you compare it to its Japanese counterpart. Japanese cyberpunk, in contrast, is able to cover topics such as the increasing influence of the military, income inequality and poverty, and government corruption, all without the fetishizing of foreign cultures. This could be explained simply by the fact that there are few — if any — prominent non-Japanese characters in Japanese cyberpunk media. Nevertheless, it proves that a piece of media can still be considered “Cyberpunk” without having a foreign, antagonistic “other.”
Cyberpunk 2077, or How Not to Update a Genre
Cyberpunk is a genre of the past. It’s no surprise that many of its core themes have been tainted with the xenophobic elements of America’s history. (It’s also marred by sexism and ableism – but that’s a story for another day.) And to those who are generous, you could even say that those elements are a vital part of cyberpunk’s storytelling. They make for a cautionary tale – a form of satire that criticizes the very thing it portrays.To Western studios, this aesthetic – including its racial caricatures and xenophobic settings – is not just a racist relic from the 1980s; it IS Cyberpunk. Click To Tweet
When asked about the political nature of the game, senior concept artist Marthe Jonkers said that they “based it on Mike Pondsmith’s world that he created, which was already a dangerous world. If you take that, you have to go for it: you can’t just make some happy world. You have to respect the source material and then expand on it, so we’re keeping the same vibe as Mike Pondsmith’s original vision.” Senior quest designer Patrick Mills also stated that “Most of our gangs come directly from the source material, though obviously with a lot of tweaks.” Even the creator of Cyberpunk 2020 himself stated that the game “does justice to the source material.”
Inspiration is one thing. It’s understandable that a studio would prefer to keep to the rules of a game’s source material and genre. But that’s where things go wrong. By trying to “stay true to the source material”, Cyberpunk 2077 ends up inheriting many of its problematic elements as well. Because to Western studios like CD Projekt Red, the aesthetic — including its racial caricatures and xenophobic settings — is not just a racist relic from the 1980s; it is Cyberpunk.
The Cyberpunk Game We Need in 2020
It might be tempting to say that cyberpunk itself is an unsalvageable genre mired in the xenophobia of the 80s’. But movies like The Matrix and the whole of Japanese cyberpunk say otherwise. It’s possible to create a piece of cyberpunk fiction that doesn’t rely on grossly inaccurate, surface-level aesthetics borrowed from nearly half a century ago in order to attach your work to a genre. It’s even possible to make commentary on xenophobia, racial stereotypes, and inequality without resorting to caricature and discrimination.
At the end of the day, cyberpunk does not have to be techno-samurai, cyber-geisha girls, and antagonistic Japanese monopolies. It’s high time that cyberpunk be updated, its Japanophobia scrapped as a thing of the past, and its critiques on society refocused by a game that portrays foreign cultures accurately and respectfully.
And sadly, Cyberpunk 2077 is not that game.