header is screenshot from Cyberpunk 2077 + Phantom Liberty
Monuments to Futility
Pao Yumol

Cyberpunk 2077's Night City has no birds. A collectible data shard explains why: In 2063, the city's government ordered the mass extermination of all birds to curb the spread of zoonotic diseases.

Gangoons exchange barbs and bullets under this birdless sky. Luminescent billboards bulge with stiff dicks and bulbous asses as seedy club owners convene with back-alley cyber-surgeon ripperdocs, trafficking sex workers and harvesting them for cybernetics. Both self-driving cabs and rapid response medical teams arrive armed with heavy-duty weaponry. Protein farms on the outskirts of the city grind worms into an artificially flavored meat substitute called SCOP, or "Single Cell Organic Protein."

Wow, the player thinks. How dystopian. They've got these poor saps eating literal fucking bug burgers.

Meanwhile, in meatspace Los Angeles—one of a handful of cities that inspired Night City's design—a more pedestrian dystopia unfolds. There are still birds, sure, but light pollution has malformed their migration patterns. Their insomniac cackling radiates from the trees at weird hours.

In downtown LA, vacant condos tower over homeless encampments. Disposable vapes with colorful, silicon sex toy casings lie discarded in the gutter. The LAPD enjoys continued annual budget increases in the wake of a movement to defund and dismantle police departments across the country, accumulating an extensive inventory of military-grade weapons, vehicles, and robots. Neighborhoods near the heart of the city are beset by the constant sound of whirring police helicopter blades. Meanwhile, gentrified streets gleam with the beady eyes of CBD snake oil salesmen and wellness product peddlers.

A sense of banality is ultimately what separates Night City from its real-world inspirations. Instead of braindance parlors, LA's strip malls host boutique dispensaries that threaten to charge unwitting boomer moms $35 for a pre-rolled joint; instead of self-driving cabs equipped with witty AI chauffeurs, LA's highways throb with semi-autonomous vehicles that are notorious for spontaneous combustion. In contrast to Cyberpunk's supposedly "transhumanist" fantasies regarding bodily autonomy and gender expression, gender-affirming surgeries can cost a trans person tens of thousands of dollars.

As a genre, cyberpunk was originally a vehicle for our anxieties about how rapid globalization and unfettered capitalistic "innovation" might destroy the world. Recent imaginations of cyberpunk dystopias like Night City, however, read more like escapist fantasies that distract from the dystopian qualities of modern life rather than offer meaningful critique tailored to the current moment. After all, the LAPD isn't as bad as MaxTac; the opioid crisis isn't as dire as Night City's cyberpsychosis epidemic.

At least things aren't this bad, the Cyberpunk player is supposed to think. We've still got birds in LA.

Phantom Liberty perpetuates this delusion. Dogtown, the DLC's setting, is presented to the player as Night City squared. It's characterized as a derelict, "lawless" district ruled by BARGHEST, a militia comprised of soldiers who had previously claimed the area after defecting from a major defense contractor named Militech, one of the megacorporations at the heart of Cyberpunk's political drama. It remains untouched by Night City's police force, housing a supposedly more "anarchic" society guarded by heavily militarized security checkpoints.

Dogtown brims with monuments to futility, reflecting its history as a failed tourist destination ravaged by war: a dilapidated football stadium converted into a black market megamall, luxury resorts abandoned partway through development, overturned cars baking in eternal flames. Each of the characters you encounter at the game's outset—NUSA President Rosalind Myers, sleeper agents Solomon Reed and Alex Xenakis—condemn the district as a "shithole." We're meant to feel like Dogtown outdoes Night City as a den of depravity.

The problem with Dogtown’s characterization isn't simply that Phantom Liberty imagines a future darker than our present: it's that it refuses to put its campaign's themes in conversation with our present reality, opting instead to expand on more "timeless" existential themes regarding mortality, honor, and fate. In spite of the introduction of multiple new endings and branching questlines, Phantom Liberty is as ruthlessly deterministic as the game's main campaign.

Just as in Cyberpunk's main story, Phantom Liberty's most pivotal characters are assigned not-so-subtle tarot cards that organize them into tidy archetypes. Songbird, the rogue netrunner at the heart of Phantom Liberty's story, serves as a foil for player character V; her pursuit of freedom and dogged commitment to self-preservation echo V's own determination. As the player progresses through Phantom Liberty's primary questline, they sculpt the destinies of V and Songbird in tandem—it isn't possible for both characters to get what they want. The result is a story that meditates on the same set of questions introduced in the main game: How important is a person's legacy? How can one reconcile the natural will to survive with their moral obligations? What do we fear most about death?

Yet while the DLC maintains the game's pervasive emphasis on player choice and differing outcomes, the choices you make still amount to little in the grand scheme of Cyberpunk's narrative world. Regardless of whether V or Songbird survives, the machinations of Night City's corporate overlords remain unaffected. Even after BARGHEST's leader is assassinated and V is tasked with determining his replacement using shapeshifting subterfuge, the player gets the sense that little will materially change for the downtrodden residents of Dogtown.

In the absence of any novel critique, Phantom Liberty ultimately leaves the player with an oppressive sense of futility. No matter which conclusion the player reaches, the prevailing takeaway remains the same: We should be thankful for the birds we have.


Pao Yumol writes about games, music, and the internet. She contributes to EX, a Substack covering contemporary online culture, while further proof of her existence can be found at her brand new Twitter handle, @b0realdancer. She thanks you for taking the time to read her work.