A Discussion on Intent and Context
In 1984, William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer was released. An underground hit that won multiple awards, the novel, which is about a washed-up computer hacker who must contend with an artificial intelligence, is looked back on today as the proto-typical novel found in the subgenre known as Cyberpunk.
Neuromancer would be an influential work in developing the "tropes" associated with Cyberpunk: high tech, near future, and always a corporate dystopia that focuses on the lowlife of society in all of its rusty glory. The subgenre itself has roots deep into the New Wave Science Fiction period of the 1960s and 70s, but the 1980s, the height of corporate greed and commercialism, provided the perfect backdrop for counterculture fiction like Cyberpunk, and even tabletop RPGs like Cyberpunk 2020. Yet for all its strength in the tone of the critiques of the world around them, Cyberpunk is still niche because it constantly walks a fine line between its counterculture roots and the very commercialization it comments on.
This is the problem, and the balance, that CD Projekt Red needs to get right with Cyberpunk 2077, the first major video game release of the popular Cyberpunk 2020 RPG. While the game has certainly dazzled many with its E3 presentations—thanks in part to Keanu Reeves dipping his toe back into the genre for the third time—the biggest controversies coming in today have to do with the style that Cyberpunk 2077 is trying to emulate, most notably how Cyberpunk as a subgenre continues to conflict with modern sociopolitical ideals.
The core controversy stems from, of all things, an advertisement. A 4K screenshot of the game, originally designed to show off the game's own state of the art graphical engine, sparked outrage over the hypersexualized depiction of a person selling a new soda, Chromanticore. The person in the advert, however, happened to be clearly transgendered and is used in a sexualized way.
Hypersexuality is sort of part and parcel with the themes of Cyberpunk as a genre, as are issues of gender and the role they play in society. The most elite of hackers in the fiction can be men or women easily, and modern use of Cyberpunk in movies such as The Matrix, Upgrade, or Alita: Battle Angel have also explored aspects of gender, sex, and empowerment in their own way. This is even tracked in the tabletop game; a player’s "humanity" is a tracked mechanic that is lowered if a player takes too many cybernetic modifications, and in some versions of Cyberpunk 2020 rules, cybernetic modifications, which include sex changes, cumulatively reduce your humanity score and that can give characters a state of “cyberpsychosis.”
So why the outrage? Part of the problem is how blatant the advertisement is, sexualizing a transgendered character by showcasing a feminine body with an obvious aroused penis. The advert is clear in its use of sex to sell something innocuous as a mixed-flavored soda, turning the model featured into a glorified sex object and metaphor for the drink itself.
It is understandable why folks may find the ad crass and offensive. It also doesn’t help that the reputation CD Projekt Red has in terms of transgender rights and issues is poor due to a previous faux pas on Twitter. Many have written off CD Projekt Red as being either transphobic or indifferent due to those mistakes, a sentiment that is arguably overblown. After all, the company is adding transgendered options into Cyberpunk’s character creator, which is a perfect fit for the game.
Not that no criticism is unwarranted for those mistakes either, but previous feelings towards CD Projekt Red have put them into a negative spot right off the bat with the intent of the advertisement. The artist behind the ad, art director Kasia Redesiuk, has pushed back against the notion of it being a joke at the expanse of the LGBTQ community. In an interview with Polygon, Redesiuk lays out the point of the advert, or at least, the intention behind it:
Personally, for me, this person is sexy. I like how this person looks. However, this model is used – their beautiful body is used – for corporate reasons. They are displayed there just as a thing, and that’s the terrible part of it.
Cyberpunk 2077 is a dystopian future where megacorporations dictate everything. They try to, and successfully, influence people’s lives. They shove products down their throats. They create those very aggressive advertisements that use, and abuse, a lot of people’s needs and instincts. So, hypersexualization is apparent everywhere, and in our ads there are many examples of hypersexualized women, hypersexualized men, and hypersexualized people in between.
This is all to show that [much like in our modern world], hypersexualization in advertisements is just terrible. It was a conscious choice on our end to show that in this world — a world where you are a cyberpunk, a person fighting against corporations. That [advertisement] is what you’re fighting against.
Redesiuk is on point in terms of the feel and intent of what Cyberpunk is. After all, what is more on the nose than a corporation trying to appeal to potential customers by featuring sexualized ads? Some have rightly pointed out that perhaps the ad goes too far—especially with the erect penis—but sexualized advertisements have always been crude and pushed boundaries of what they could get away with.
Part of the problem is how we also look at this advertisement in our own vacuums. A lot of this is tied, of course, to the aforementioned problems CD Projekt had over their previous mistakes on social media. It is also tied to someone's personal sociopolitical spectrum, though that does lead to poor opinions upon the subject that seem to miss what the real problem with the advertisement is: does the intent of the game really match the genre?
Take, for example, William Usher, author and editor of the gaming tabloid One Angry Gamer. In one article, Usher simultaneously criticizes far-left Twitter culture for unnecessary outrage over the advertisement and Redesiuk’s statement, and in the same breath seems confused by the decision to allow gender-neutral options in character creation—showcasing bewilderment at the game's character designs, which he calls "stomach churning."
“One could only hope that this kind of degenerate character imagery being pushed to the forefront of Cyberpunk 2077 is rare and infrequent. Hopefully the majority of the game will focus on more relatable faces and figures,” writes Usher, after showing off three different character designs.
It is easy to criticize someone like Usher because he clearly doesn’t understand what Cyberpunk is, instead hoping to implant his own myopic vision, even if it doesn’t fit the genre. Unfortunately, a lot of people have gross misconceptions of Cyberpunk and what it can be.
Sexy characters, for example, are obvious but many depictions of sexy characters in a sci-fi setting are often missing the point themselves regarding the context of their sex appeal. The sex appeal seen in characters like The Matrix or even Cyberpunk-themed anime, such as Cowboy Bebop or Ghost in the Shell, is either subdued or serves a purpose to provide a foil for the world around them.
In this vein, Redesiuk notes that she personally finds the model in the advert sexy, but the intent—why this sexy model is being used—is what should be critiqued. The corporate world of Cyberpunk 2077 is as crass and transparent as the real world by design, therefore arguing that context of the ad's use is appropriate.
Other criticisms, however, focus on the now instead of the hypothetical then. Sam Greer, writing for Rock Paper Shotgun, not only criticizes the ad, but also points out the major problem that is not addressed by the ad itself: it is still being used in a way that can be deemed transphobic, and that affects players now.
“Images like this may be minor in the grand scheme of obstacles facing trans people, but it’s there, adding on to the pile, in a game sure to be played by millions of people," states Greer. “Those millions will likely be largely unfamiliar with the topics and issues surrounding trans representation.”
Greer’s criticism is to an extant fair but relies heavily upon perception of what the advertisement means without context. An example Greer gives regarding CD Projekt Red showcasing issues of transgenderism is a questline from The Witcher 3 expansion Blood and Wine, where a woman transforms into a bird due to a curse each night and must contend with smitten knights' attempts to woo her that she does not care for.
Greer argues that the narrative presented in the questline is “about exerting agency over your identity and the power that comes from that. Sure, it’s wrapped up in a metaphor and players might not see this reading, but to its virtue they also won’t pick up on a negative implication either.”
Herein, however, lies the problem: the context of the narrative becomes more important than the intent. For Greer, the quest in the Witcher 3, regardless of intent, has given context to issues of transgenderism in a way that is metaphorical and tasteful. The question now is, will Cyberpunk make a similar critique through its context?
This is a question that CD Projekt Red might be forced to address because of our modern perceptions on trans issues. However, it is hard to gauge the overall prevalence of the advertisement in-game outside of it being a throwaway piece of worldbuilding. Intent is clearly to show a world defined by its corporate pandering, but there is no indication the advertisement will be relevant to any quest or bigger context in the game. Early trailers for Cyberpunk did show off what could have been issues of body modifications and cyberpsychosis, but beyond hints of what the tabletop game had, there is nothing that seems to provide the context that Greer is advocating for.
It may be a moot point though. Cyberpunk was always countercultural for a reason: it is blunt in its social commentary and unafraid of commenting on social issues. From corporate stereotyping to touching upon issues of wild technology, poverty and drug use, cybercrime, and, of course, gender and sexuality, Cyberpunk has always wore its heart on its sleeve in trying to evoke an emotional response to its dark take on the future. In this regard, the art direction for Cyberpunk 2077 is on point with the advertisement: it is blunt, evokes an emotional response, purposely calls attention to itself, and becomes the critique of terrible corporate practice in the in-game universe.
In this way, Cyberpunk 2077 can be successful. The bigger hurdle for CD Projekt Red, however, is striking that line correctly. One of the biggest problems facing Cyberpunk is its own size and scale. It is hard to depict counterculture in a corporate product, especially one where the genre it is attempting to showcase to the world may be unfamiliar or misinterpreted by many players. Many of the game's trailers have showcased a futuristic city, the high and lowlifes of society, but overall, at least in terms of characters and missions, CD Projekt Red is struggling to capture the “punk” in Cyberpunk.
A lot of this does ultimately stem from the style of the tabletop game itself. Dripping with 80s excess, Cyberpunk 2020 put great emphasis on the stereotypes of the day to highlight the corporatization of the time. It is a purposeful use of stereotyping, something that Cyberpunk 2020 designer Mike Pondsmith himself has defended, such as defending the Voodoo Boys being a commentary on cultural appropriation after criticisms for leaning into those stereotypes. Once again, intent is clear, but what seems missing for many people is a context that allows that intent to shine.
Neuromancer, when it released in 1984, was not a massive success because many in the mainstream public didn’t understand the point of its sci-fi critique. It took 10 years until Neuromancer was even given fanfare in mainstream newspapers like The New York Times, but by then it was a bestseller and award-winning novel. Cyberpunk 2077 is, out of the gate, a AAA product that will be hyped and scrutinized until its release in 2020, with all aspects of its design, good and bad, critiqued.
The lesson to learn from this is how difficult it will be to translate Cyberpunk for the general masses properly. Regardless of intent of the advert, the problems it can cause in modern context, or even the misconceptions we may have of what Cyberpunk should be, may make it hard for many to accept the intended critique presented at face value. It is clear CD Projekt Red walks a tightrope that can buckle under the weight of their own ambition to make the game true to its genre, while palpable for modern audiences. Cyberpunk 2077 may or may not represent what true Cyberpunk is, but if the intent and context of what it tries to be achieves the goal set forth for the game, then perhaps we can view aspects of its design in a different context than what we normally see.
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