How a video game managed to become everything the genre warned us about

There’s a lot of buzz going around about a new video game based on a TTRPG. It was initially set for release in the Spring, but got pushed back (a few times) to avoid “crunch” (but then it was revealed there still was in fact crunch). Add to that exploitation of the trans community, some really ableist statements by one of the company leads, and now reports that certain scenes may trigger epileptic seizures, and what you have is a big old hot mess that is still looking like it will rake in tons of profit.

And there are a lot of people who want to find ways to try and defend it. Because they want to consume that product. There are those who just want to defend the company, because they’ve made other games that those people enjoyed. There are those who want to defend it because they played the TTRPG it is based on. There are those who want to defend it because, “How could it be problematic if this ‘good’ celebrity was willing to be involved with the product?”

But it doesn’t need your defense. The company responsible only cares about the money you will give them or the marketing you give them through live plays, promoted tweets, and other free advertisement.

The entire thing is somewhat meta. The genre it is based on shares a name with the game: cyberpunk. The genre really got traction in the 1980s. It was “near future” sci-fi. Frequently it delved into concepts of anarchy and trans-humanism. In many of these works, the enemy was entrenched power structures or conservative ideology. This often took the form of corporations that viewed people as disposable. Human life was nothing more than a renewable resource. Human beings reduced down to numbers and statistics to be manipulated and used for the further consolidation of wealth and power by the elite entrenched power structure.

In the genre, bleeding edge tech was another tool of control. You want the best gear? Better sign up to work for one of the major corps, because they’ll issue it to you as part of your life contract to be bound to that corp until the grave. It went beyond that, though. Need a new heart or lungs? They can get you on the list for that transplant, if you just sign the dotted line. This led to some equating “chrome” (advanced cybernetic tech) with a loss of “humanity”. It was never about the tech. It was always about the autonomy you give up for the tech. How much of your humanity you give up, just to keep surviving. Really think on that. Does someone who has a prosthetic arm deserve to be any less human than someone with a flesh and blood arm? What about someone who lost an arm but doesn’t have a prosthesis? How does having an advanced disability aid somehow render someone less human?

“But what if they voluntarily have a functioning organ/limp replaced/augmented?”

So? Do people who have purely “cosmetic” surgeries less than human?

Because, as I said, it was never about the chrome. It was about control. You see a lot of these Faustian compacts in the genre, just with Satan replaced with some corporate suit with an unassuming name like Mr. Smith. A faceless cog in the corporate machine. Something much more terrifyingly realistic.

The protagonists in these stories were usually people who lived in the fringes of society. Outcasts and outlaws. Scavengers. Derelicts. A lot of the narratives start with the protagonist being somehow part of the entrenched power structure. Maybe they are doing off-books jobs for one of the corps in exchange for a new set of lungs. The type of job where if it goes south, the corp employer can disavow the protagonist. But our protagonist gets pulled into something bigger. Some piece of information, or a person, or some new tech that threatens to completely rock the foundations of the entrenched power structure.

It is a common narrative. Most of the “noir” mystery genre had a similar theme. Of course, there are other elements to the genre that explore much more philosophical questions like how do you define “life” or “humanity”.

The anti-authoritarian element though is what got the genre labeled as “punk”. It was anti-authoritarian, anti-conservative, anti-corporate, and anti-fascist. It would have been anti-government as well, but in the genre any government around is clearly just a puppet for the big corps.

We now have a game which has reduced a marginalized community to a harmful fetishized marketing ploy. A game that contains a harmful tech virus to those with certain medical conditions. A game that forced programmers to work excessive overtime without additional compensation (during a pandemic, no less).

They don’t need your defense. They are the villains if this were a work of cyberpunk fiction.

But they have the NERP (new exciting retail product). And if there’s another thing I’ve learned from cyberpunk fiction, it is that people will cause themselves and others harm simply for the NERP. Not only that, they will defend the NERP (momentarily, until the next NERP) knowing full well of its harm. And the producers of the NERP will walk away wealthier and more powerful than before, no matter the real world harm caused. Because cyberpunk is also cynical as fuck.

So if you feel the need to defend this NERP and its manufacturer, you aren’t really interested in cyberpunk at all. You just want to play a bang-bang game where you get to sell your soul for some chrome, no matter what the cost to others.

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