This article discusses plot details from throughout Cyberpunk 2077 and Phantom Liberty.
Videogame protagonists don’t stay dead. They might take a shower of bullets to the sternum and fall down briefly, but they come to life again in the length of time it takes for a loading screen to resurrect them. Within this framework, death becomes something frivolous in games—a dim reflection of the enormity of real loss that can be countered only through narrative context.
Early in Cyberpunk 2077, the game’s protagonist, V, learns that she is terminally ill. Although she, like so many other game characters, is magically able to revive with save file reloads, the plot makes clear in its opening hours that V will not be able to dodge death forever. She’s infected, at the same time that her best friend dies, with a kind of sci-fi virus that will ultimately end her life. Everything that follows in both Cyberpunk 2077 itself and its expansion Phantom Liberty involves, directly or indirectly, V’s attempt to find a cure for her condition.
Excepting rare cases—Red Dead Redemption 2, Metal Gear Solid 4, Nier: Automata’s finale—videogames aren’t eager to harsh the player’s mood by casting them as terminally ill characters. This in itself isn’t a problem in games that aren’t concerned with the real world in any meaningful way. But it does speak to the mainstream’s general hesitation to engage seriously with a topic that towers above basically every other.
Cyberpunk’s preoccupation with death is framed in scenes that take place just before she receives her sentence. While setting up the mission that will result in her illness, V works with a fixer named Dexter DeShawn, who poses a question that resounds throughout the rest of the game: Would you rather die comfortably at an old age or go out young in “a blaze of glory.”
That blaze of glory looks appealing from a distance, but life, in Cyberpunk as in reality, has a way of insisting upon itself the longer we grow accustomed to it. As she chases down leads that might save her life, V ends up fostering new relationships and discovering aspects of the dystopian Night City worth caring about as more than a means to an end. She fights for a way to survive rather than extinguish herself in an explosive display of legacy-ensuring glory. While this aspect of the story is explored thoroughly in the main game, Phantom Liberty pokes into new corners of the subject with a particular focus on how a desperation for survival shapes its cast.
Through an Escape From New York indebted set-up, V ends up working for (and, depending on certain choices, against) Cyberpunk’s version of the American government and its take on the CIA. She meets Song “Songbird” So Mi, a talented hacker working for the government, and an agent called Solomon Reed, cast appropriately with a sad-eyed digital Idris Elba. The plot eventually reveals that Songbird is facing death just as V is and, in order to avoid her fate, she ends up betraying the player and her not-CIA masters both. Whether V ends up sticking with Songbird following this betrayal or sides with Reed in handing her over to rough government “care,” Phantom Liberty ends on a grim note.
In what’s likely the saddest of the game’s many possible endings, prompted by V making decisions based on self-preservation, she wakes from a coma having received surgery that saves her life but destroys her ability to use cybernetic enhancements. More importantly, the majority of her former friends have long moved on from their lives together during the two years V spent in the coma. She’s regained her future but lost everything else that mattered in the process. The final scenes are textured like a midday nightmare, nauseous resignation and surreal sadness blurred together.
The character of Misty—a tarot-reading New Age mystic—provides sage advice in this ending, as she does in the main game. V tells Misty that she spent so much time afraid of death that maybe it was a fear of change that really should’ve worried her. In turn, Misty notes that the two years that V spent in a coma is nothing in the lifespan of the universe. This point seems, initially, unhelpful. It’s followed by V leaving her friend and walking onto a bustling street where she’s absorbed into a crowd of city residents, the indistinct sounds of their conversation growing louder until the scene ends. V is just one of many, the game says here. Her life is small in the context of a city’s population and absolutely miniscule when held against the grandeur of the universe.
V's loneliness appears even more tragic in light of this, forcing the player to think back on the decisions that led her to an alienation so vast she seems entirely insignificant. With hindsight, we realize that her insistence on survival over all else—over sacrifice and other displays of empathy—has brought her to ruin.
Everyone in Phantom Liberty is either trying desperately to survive or figure out how to reclaim their lives from the dead ends that mistakes or abuses of power have led them toward. The terminal illnesses that both suffer turn V and Songbird into rival animals, both trying to outwit the other in an effort to escape death. They’re positioned as mirror images of one another and the selfishness that causes one to betray the other, then, becomes a wound that will hurt the betrayer in turn. Choose to give up Songbird to a government that will treat her tortuously and that self-centred act of survival will result in V losing her friends and wandering alone through the rest of her newly lengthened life. Make altruistic choices and the story may conclude with V missing her shot at a cure and ending up back where she started before Songbird came into her life.
The essential truth of the story, in this light, is that death makes us all ugly and beautiful in turns. The recognition of its coming can lead to acts of great compassion in one moment and reduce us to selfish beasts at others. It’s able to destroy all distractions, simplifying choices to binaries of existence or non-existence: true sacrifice or scrabbling for life’s continuation.
In Cyberpunk’s main story, a character mentions that this desperation for survival—what she calls an ”animal instinct”—has clung to her so powerfully that it’s persisted even beyond the flesh she left behind to live on as a digital construct.
“That instinct’s part of being human—but so is denying it,” another character says in turn.
Giving up our life, rejecting the latter half of this "instinct" isn't just noble. Sacrifice might be the only way for us to protect the value the existence we're given, long or short as it may be. Being able to deny our desperation to survive at all costs is, in the end, what can elevate us as animals, making us unique even as our world and bodies transform in the strange sci-fi future of Cyberpunk 2077 and Phantom Liberty.
Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Polygon, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.