The character builder’s sterile outside-intimacy falls to perspective and reflection and body fluids. The haggard, pink-haired "Corpo" girl dragging vomit from her [“my”] lips with the back of a hand; she [“I”] was naked a frame ago and now she’s [“I’m”] in a mirror in a spotless bathroom in a blazer and slacks. I’m reminded of the girl in the lighted vanity in my bedroom, the evolving structure of her body and face, the mason jar of used syringes, the long-routine work of altering her body to fit.
Cyberpunk 2077’s claustrophobic point of view seems built around a convention of identity dissonance, as does its preoccupation with the player character’s body. The game makes a show of sitting somewhere between having an avatar-as-self and avatar-as-Eros-object, with pale, touristic faux-casual. The performance is translucent.
The cyberpunk genre’s Eros-fascination with identity dissonance is far older and far more originary than Cyberpunk 2077. In a passage from William Gibson’s Neuromancer (a founding text for the genre), the cis male POV Case flips into a neurosensory feed from his female partner Molly:
“Then he keyed the new switch.
The abrupt jolt into other flesh.
Her body language was disorienting, her style foreign. She seemed constantly on the verge of colliding with someone, but people melted out of her way, stepped sideways, made room.
‘How you doing, Case?’ He heard the words and felt her form them. She slid a hand into her jacket, a fingertip circling a nipple under warm silk. The sensation made him catch his breath. She laughed. But the link was one-way. He had no way to reply.”
I’m reminded of this by Cyberpunk 2077’s braindances, which, in fiction, are neurosensory records played back via neural interface and used mainly for porn. Mechanically, “BDs” are Return of the Obra Dinn-esque clue-finding segments that play out on rails. They’re seen from the same claustrophobic first-person view, this time shifted to other meat.
The first braindance we encounter is prototypical of the game itself: you’re a street tough in fingerless gloves and a gasmask, standing in an alleyway. Your near-identically-dressed “choomba” hands you a pistol and tells you to yell to get the adrenaline pumping, it’ll be good for the BD you’re filming. You shove open a door in front of you, and suddenly you’re in a convenience store, which you’re robbing. You run out to the street, money in hand, and someone shoots you in the head.
The second time through the scene, your viewpoint opens up—you can explore this guy’s senses: small sounds he’s not processing, objects in his peripheral vision. It’s now a video you can scrub through, to hunt for clues and information. It becomes a resource, a vehicle for espionage.
Also: the clue that delivers the big twist? This guy’s “choomba” who handed him the pistol is also the person that shot him. This braindance is an intentionally staged snuff film. In 2077's Night City, body-switching is always perverse, but it’s justified if it serves a purpose.
Most “canonized” cyberpunk doesn’t break from this mold of body-switching, either. Curious cross-gender body-hoppers tend to be cast as seedy, nosy men: in the premier episode of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, a plot point has the Japanese Foreign Minister injecting his cybernetic consciousness into a robot geisha.
“Well … yeah,” Kusanagi explains, a slight acidity in her voice. “Apparently, he occasionally likes to swap bodies with ‘em when he’s drunk.”
Even in Mamoru Oshii’s boundary-shattering take on the franchise (a work that engages with dysphoria and body/identity dissonance more than any other sci-fi film in memory), the cybernetic body of the genderless, deep-voiced antagonist still has breasts, is still coded heavily female. The Major’s climactic dive into other flesh, then, still doesn’t confuse her gender. Cisgender body-trading is profound. Across genders, it’s cast as sleazy (if, occasionally, understandable).
The genre of cyberpunk, then, might be more about the portability of cis meat; its status as the compatibility standard. Not “bodiless exultation,” but chimeric glimpses of the view from other flesh:
“He liked that very much, to be conscious and unable to think. He seemed to become each thing he saw: a park bench, a cloud of white moths around an antique streetlight, a robot gardener striped diagonally with black and yellow.”
2077's protagonist V and Neuromancer's Case don’t transcend their own body-forms: their meat just has a passport. It’s privileged enough to vacation overseas and easily return. This facet of the genre is used much less cleverly in 2077 than it is in Neuromancer.
In Gibson’s story, Case’s “contempt for the flesh” is arguably used to flesh out his narcissism and dependency. It’s the drug he craves when he’s already high. Once he’s got it, it’s the system that only lets him support his girl by invading her body and tapping her senses. It’s dysphoria and flow-state, simultaneously. For all the myriad failures that follow in Neuromancer’s wake, body-switching does give Case pathos. It makes him a noir protagonist: believably privileged, believably pathetic, believably regretful.
In Cyberpunk 2077, body-switching serves as little more than set-dressing and flavor text. It’s not here to build the intrigue and pathos of other flesh. Like the game casting Keanu Reeves in a starring role, it’s only a nod to genre convention.
It’s what’s meant to be here.
The game’s failure in this is best summed up by the second braindance, right after your stint as the boy who got fatally lobotomized at range by his “choomba”+.
See, you’re learning to scrub through these non-pornographic braindances at the behest of a client of yours named Evelyn, who’s hired you to lift a mysterious item called the Relic from a floor safe in the apartment of a businessman called Yorinobu Arasaka. This job is made a bit more manageable by the fact that Evelyn has already collected some useful resources for planning the heist, including a braindance showing the inside of the apartment in question.
Evelyn recorded it herself, because she’s been having sex with Yorinobu Arasaka. This is one of the few moments in Cyberpunk 2077 that made my ears genuinely perk up: an Obra Dinn-style search for evidence within a sex tape made to entrap a powerful man.
On the surface, there’s something undeniably compelling about this premise: an authentic sense of noir depravity and disturbing voyeurism, and a hint at Evelyn’s own “contempt for the flesh.” Perhaps she’s a transhumanist femme fatale; a woman who’d fuck a businessman and thoughtlessly share the sensation with people she’s hired to fleece him. It would make her dangerous in her own right, and serve as a gruesome, sexualized mirror to the capitalist domination Arasaka presumably exerts over his corporate subjects.
Unsurprisingly, the scene doesn’t play out anything like this.
Instead, the braindance “tastefully” cuts away before any sex happens++. In addition, it doesn’t play Evelyn as particularly cunning or capable. Rather, it paints her as a harried woman who is (literally) dwarfed by men: the scene begins with a pair of elevator doors sliding open to reveal Arasaka’s towering cyberpsycho bodyguard who recites the now-infamous line:
To which Evelyn’s first-person viewpoint cringes backwards. V winces, muttering, “I felt her fear.”
But here’s the thing: my V, built with the weirdly intimate character creator, is a trans woman. When I first took control of her, she was being harassed and threatened by an older male boss. Shortly after, she got roughed up in a bar by a gang of similar-looking cyber-enhanced men.
She would know what it’s like to be afraid of a male-coded body. In fact, many trans women would feel a similar frisson of dread at meeting shady, cis-passing Evelyn. None of this would bear remarking on in surprise.
Regardless of gender and genital anatomy, V comments on sharp differences in power and privilege in the same tone as Nathan Drake exclaiming at the lost city of Shambhala: this moment is exotic, never routine. The story doesn’t bank on V being used to it. The true, default V is functionally the same as every gruff, shaved-headed golden boy on every game box since 2007, this time with a bomber jacket and an '80s fade.
This is V. No matter how your V looks, their personality is always that of the Ambiguous Protagonist Guy, to whom women are secondary in power and ability. And the presumptiveness of this personality (and its unfamiliarity with the Other) shows in and out of every braindance.
It’s the subdued vibe in every bar and club. It’s me picking an innocuous-seeming dialogue option only to abruptly start acting like a total dick. It’s V’s best friend Jackie saying some unconvincingly cold shit about the "boostergang" we’re about to go shoot up. And it still would’ve been, even if a bug didn’t make Jackie punctuate his shit-talking by turning to face a prone woman hovering over the middle of the street and vaulting over her like a traffic barricade before strolling brusquely onward.
Even if this game functioned properly, it wouldn’t be able to show you how to source grey-market hormones from overseas, or how to act on a date with an off-duty sex worker, or how to make a trans girl orgasm. It’s not a game that factors in self-actualization or compassion, or any real sense of one’s non-capitalist responsibility to another.
Beyond the bugs, the dissonance and bathos at Night City’s core is a misunderstanding of what it means to actually be a remade, marginalized body; a native to other flesh. 2077’s characters strut and boast and fast-talk like queers, but their motives barely range past simple modes of domination. The setting theorizes a world where the horrors of late capitalism turned everyone into a nihilist, but couldn’t make anyone care.
In this sense, the view from V’s eyes is like a chaser watching a trans girl’s braindance. We see the freedom and possibility beyond present society and “natural” human forms, but the anarchy of the setting is imagined as an absence of softness, not hierarchy. This is Elysium, but we can only inhabit it through our ability to take it the fuck over; through our touristic urge to become some theorized royalty among hustlers, dealers, and transsexuals.
V’s acts of body modification and self-transformation, then, amount to barely more than a colonizer’s transition into a more effective version of themself. Like many colonizers, neither V nor 2077’s creator CDProjekt seem to realize that some of us live here.
In William Gibson’s Count Zero, presumed-cis/het narrator Marly rides to an abandoned orbital station in a shuttle called Sweet Jane. This name is an allusion to “Sweet Jane,” a single from the Velvet Underground’s 1970 album Loaded. Indeed, Gibson’s work is littered with references to the pop and protopunk music of the 1960s and '70s—Mona Lisa Overdrive has a legendary gang of street toughs named the Deacon Blues. Another of his novels is titled All Tomorrow’s Parties, after the 1966 Velvet Underground album opener of the same name.
Constant in the Velvet Underground’s music is a kind of desperation fetishism, at once a degradation and glorification of sex work, androgyny, kink, and addiction; one that Gibson appropriates and wears openly on his sleeve. In the preface to Gibson’s Burning Chrome, author Bruce Sterling coined the now famous phrase “a combination of high tech and low life” to describe Gibson’s ur-cyberpunk metropolis, the Sprawl.
The Velvets may also have embodied this: they were high tech and low life, at a time when “high tech” meant Fender tube amps. Lyricist and frontman Lou Reed would later enjoy a lauded solo career, buoyed in large part by his 1972 album Transformer, and its single “Walk on the Wild Side”/”Perfect Day.”
I grew up listening to “Wild Side.” My parents were fans of the album, but I imprinted on this one song in particular. This is largely because, as I’d finally parse as a teenager, the song is about trans women. It mentions transgender actresses Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling by name. Reed met them through the pop artist Andy Warhol, who was responsible for much of the Velvets’ initial exposure+++.
Darling also shows up in the lyrics to “Candy Says,” another Velvet Underground album track:
“Candy says I’ve come to hate my body,
And all that it requires in this world.
Candy says I’d like to know completely,
What others so discreetly talk about.”
I can’t overstate the influence of these thoughts and stories on my life. In a sense, they were my earliest glimpse at transfeminine self-identity: not to the concept of transness itself, but to the personality and inner reality of trans womanhood; what it is to live and breathe and need as a transfeminine person.
But until my transition, I never thought about who had been allowed to tell these stories, and why.
+ The setting’s constructed slang is one of the few worldbuilding elements I really do appreciate. It’s a thing that was common to several other gritty '80s/'90s tabletop settings, as well as to a lot of early cyberpunk lit. It brings a kind of campy, dorky charm that’s otherwise largely absent from Night City. Of course, most of the Cyberpunk franchise’s “streetslang” was created by Mike Pondsmith for Cyberpunk 2020, and was barely elaborated on by CDProjekt.
++ This is one of many reasons I think the game could have fared better artistically with an “AO” rating. There’s a sense in which Cyberpunk 2077’s depictions of squalor and violence are lurid to the point of being pornographic, making it fairly jarring that the game’s sexual content is milder than even softcore eroge like Summer's End: Hong Kong 1986, let alone envelope-pushing erotica like Hardcoded. This produces a setting that seems strangely wedded to patriarchal mores about sex and sex work, and one where sexual violence is heavily and frequently implied (often in extremely triggering ways) without much meaningful engagement from the narrative. Sex is the one thing Cyberpunk 2077 is “tasteful” with, but it’s only “tasteful” according to the ESRB “M” rating.
I should note also that CDProjekt don’t necessarily have a history of handling sexuality gracefully—i.e., the fairly infamous “romance cards” from the first Witcher. Although the second and third Witcher games pushed boundaries for depictions of sexuality in AAA games, they really only did so with straight sex, in a straightforward genre, and in a rather puritanical game dev space. The cyberpunk genre’s sexual mores are influenced far more by queerness, transness, and kink/BDSM (and they deal with far thornier questions of privacy and consent) so it’s entirely possible that CDProjekt still wouldn’t stick the landing given the freedom to make their game’s sexuality as lurid as its violence.
+++ Woodlawn and Darling were both Warhol Superstars, a manifestation of the artist’s vision of a future time where everyone is famous for 15 minutes. These Superstars happened to include a lot of trans women in their ranks. I’m impressed with Warhol’s prescience in imagining a world where cis and transmisogyny-exempt people get notoriety by going around and bothering random trans girls for brief periods of time.
Molly is a journalist, essayist, and epidemiologist-to-be. Catch her editing at Into the Spine, reporting at Daily Dot, and literally never tweeting @guroflower. Find her prior work under a different name.