“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.
“Ultimately, what we see over and over is that people within dominant ideologies appropriate from these aesthetics and [their work] becomes the point of conversation in its stead,” says Matilde Park, co-owner of Toronto, Canada-based studio Aether Interactive. “I think that happens all the time – look at cyberpunk. What does cyberpunk really mean to AAA corporations owned by other, bigger corporations making multimillion dollar fantasies within its aesthetics? Apparently, it means body modifications that don’t change the body in any transgressive way; pervasive, overwhelming corporate dominance that is passively accepted as a fact of life. In a sense, when dominant ideologies appropriate the aesthetics of these movements, they’re defanged, they’re the same sort of narratives we see over and over. I think they’re inherently less interesting stories, and I think that’s why the movements begin to ‘die.'” It’s just as well, then, that there’s more to videogame punk and cyberpunk than blockbuster games. Park and her colleagues are part of a cluster of developers – many of them queer, trans and indigenous people – who are learning from or embracing punk not just for its flavour but for the traditions and techniques it embodies.
If you’re unfamiliar with Aether Interactive, now is the time to catch up: they’re responsible for some of the most daring and profound narrative games of the past few years. Like much cyberpunk, Aether’s games deal with the construction of consciousness, memory, identity and social relationships in a wired-up world, but they are among the few that manage to invest these explorations with a sense of adventure or peril. One of Aether’s trademarks is that it casts you as a user, not a player, manipulating an in-game interface that has a tangible history. The recent Subserial Network appears as a set of pixelated, Netscape-style windows on your computer desktop, allowing you to exchange emails with characters and browse underground fansites as you comb a network for misbehaving synthetic lifeforms. Another staple is the characterisation of your involvement as an existential threat to the beings each game houses; they are stories about vulnerability in which the player’s very agency is mistrusted rather than celebrated. Your putative role in LOCAL HOST, for example, is to wipe hard drives containing AIs that are notionally sentient, which involves assessing each program’s claims to personhood in echo of the traumatic contestation of queer and trans identities online.
None of this is explicitly “punk”, in Park’s view, but it draws upon what she considers two key elements of punk culture. “A political and ideological thrust against dominant and hegemonic categories and institutions, and an inventive use of basic and inexpensive tools to make art.” In this regard, Park feels there is “a huge overlap between punk and queer and marginalised creators. Queerness as an ideology is the collapse of category, it’s taking and recontextualising roles and archetypes, it’s making use of these symbols and semiotics to express one’s identity and relation to others in a new way, one completely separate from the roles and life paths of the dominant heterosexuality.” If “queerness, and especially trans experiences, are this inherent threat” to domineering ideologies, she goes on, then “punk is the voice of that threat” – it is a source of expressive practices queer people might wield to make space for themselves in a society that wants to deny their existence.
Moreover, while Aether’s games are at odds with the anti-capitalist and anti-elitist sensibilities of much punk – they are “polished” products shaped by the studio’s engagement with academia, a dominant institution – they embrace punk’s much-sung DIY cut-and-paste ethic in that they are made with tools anybody might use without much training. In this, they sit outside the forbidding blackbox of a game like Cyberpunk 2077, which glories in the free modding of technology by end users but is itself an inaccessible work of technology, replicable and modifiable only by a group with CD Projekt’s resources (for more on the implications of such inaccessibility, I heartily recommend Tara Hillegeist’s amazing essay on DOOMs old and new). “We’re just queer and trans people using Twine,” says Park. “All our games are Twine. Subserial is seven different Twine files communicating with each other and your computer. Sol Hemochroma is a Twine file shuffling images around with a Parallax library. These are inventive uses of basic tools, to amplify our voices – to signify a different kind of storytelling, a different way of life.”