header is screenshot from Cyberpunk 2077
Autumn Wright

Perhaps the most damning thing about Cyberpunk 2077, a game that wants so desperately to be bright and loud and cool, is that it is uninspiring. Whereas other games might use their systems to posit new ideas about history, gender, or humanism, ideas I may well disagree with but demand critical attention, 2077 depicts a world that is much like our own. But this isn’t in pursuit of realist commentary. Rather, 2077 is entirely reactionary. It would be forgettable too if it weren’t for the attention money can buy.

The hype (re: marketing) around 2077 has provoked much writing about genre, race, and gender, but turning the same critical eye to the game as it is today proves a more difficult pursuit. While critics better than me have taken up the task of reading the text closely, even most of these turn to audience, genre, medium, execution, marketing. My own thoughts, though, are constantly drowned out by the graphical and theoretical equivalent of static (or, more likely, random gunfire). 

Don’t get me wrong, there is text, imagery, design; there are certainly themes. But when I play 2077, I am only moved insofar as I feel, deep in my bones, that this sucks. I want to play something, anything else. Or I don’t want to play anything ever again. And I know I am not alone in finding the game exhausting, confining my play to short periods of time, maybe an hour, at the end of the day. Maybe this is an artful achievement for a game about a gig worker living under late capitalism. Maybe it is, though that line of reasoning would lead to a reckoning with capitalism and it would feel almost unfair, superfluous, to laud an argument about economic systems over a game with no awareness of its own reality. 

Night City is a post-historical dreamscape. History ended in 1988, when Mike Pondsmith made the titular TTRPG in our world and, apparently, socioeconomics stagnated+. That’s why the world of 2077 appears like ours, only worse. It’s not just that late capitalism, with its gig work and monopolies and ever more annoying ads, continued to play out from 2020, it’s that this fiction hasn’t even considered the past three decades of scholars, activists, and organizers imaginingcreating—radical alternatives to living in this world++. While even Fukuyama himself admits that history can start up again, 2077 envisions a world that can’t itself die.

So maybe 2077 is a capitalism simulator, but I have to wonder how useful this is. What does a nihilistic hypothetical do for us? Is the world around us not bad enough? How do you plan for the death of a safety net? When did even escapism come to be subsumed by the logics of capital?

Maybe this would be interesting, maybe I would be moved to unpack the functioning dreamwork of Night City’s capitalist reality if similar Marxist readings could not be found in so many other games already+++. What I come to find interesting in 2077 is not anything the text puts forward, not anything we could contort to say it accomplishes, but its paratextual failure. 2077 is emblematic of the industry that created it: the crunch, the expense, the racism, the transphobia, the ableism, the excessive addition of RPG systems, the engines teetering on the edge of collapse for want of more, more. But 2077 doesn’t epitomize a AAA game, it betrays them. The difference between true success and failure in the AAA realm comes to be understood as the smooth maintenance of the spectacle. 

In The Society of The Spectacle (1967), Marxist philosopher Guy Debord describes the spectacle as “the very heart of society's real unreality.” He never offers one explicit definition. Rather mimetically, his writing begins somewhere among the cyclical, hierarchical production of a particular reality that the spectacle necessitates: “In form as in content the spectacle serves as the total justification for the conditions and aims of the existing system. It further ensures the preeminent presence of that justification.”  The spectacle, he says, “governs almost all time spent outside the production process itself.” Where would you begin to describe water to a fish? Framerate to an NPC? 

2077 is not, cannot alone be, spectacle. Rather, I would posit 2077 is spectacular; The game emblemizes the ideals and practices of an institution of mainstream popular culture made for mass audiences. It is at once a symptom of, argument for, and cogent example of the very reality that it emerged from, instructive insomuch as “the attitude that it demands in principle is the same passive acceptance that it has already secured by means of its seeming incontrovertibility, and indeed its monopolization of the realm of appearances.” And in this way the spectacle is inherently tied up in realism (or, more accurately, photorealism)++++. As mass audiences are taught by the spectacle what “good” looks like, only the wealthiest, most exploitative corporations will keep up in this arms race disguised as “business as usual++++++.” CDPR has, it seems, meteorically burned out.

2077 is at least notable. If not for anything the game itself offers, then for its apocalyptic release. Coming off The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, considered one of the greatest games of all time, CDPR managed to undermine an entire industry by showing what happens when games fail. 2077’s many bugs and anticlimactic gameplay not only failed to reify the spectacle, but the spectacular disaster of 2077’s launch pulled back the diaphanous curtain on the reality that so much of our media conceals as unmediated. In 2077, the failure of the extraordinary reveals the production of the ordinary.

And is this not itself worthy of praise? “Why,” as Woolf asks, “if it was an illusion, not praise the catastrophe, whatever it was, that destroyed illusion and put truth in its place?” This is the chance we weren't supposed to have, to pull back that curtain and expose the motivations of the real forces shaping the industry, to even find ourselves aligned with players against capital++++++. We came so close to that void, so used to not seeing any there, there, that, bereft of any history, it appeared to be something new. In it, we found a pithy ending. And that, at least, is pretty cool. 


+ While there is another system alluded to in data shards, as today, it exists only in a mythical far away on the other side of the world. Night City is, like our reality, barely congealed by dreamwork.

++ We can see how the only form of community organizing, the Mox, take the form of dominant power structures (gangs) in this world, rather than a union, a collective, a co-op, or any other model that exists in spite of our world today.

+++ See: Gamer Theory (Wark) and Ideology and the Virtual City (Bailes).

++++ While I draw on Steal As Much As You Can (Olah), I am consciously sliding between the spectacle described by Debord and capitalist realism described by Fisher (who she is explicitly in conversation with). 

+++++ This is made all the more particular by the pandemic, which seems to have unaffected the schedules and marketing of AAA studios like Ubisoft and EA while upending the creative output and productivity of creators in other mediums/industries.

++++++  Moving our criticism from culture to discourse, we may benefit by sliding between the spectacle and the big Other (as with capitalist realism above).


Autumn Wright is a Florida based essayist and critic. Find their latest writing at @TheAutumnWright.