Keanu Reeves, Chaos, And Unsubtle Transphobia: We Spoke To the Creators Of ‘Cyberpunk 2077’

Cyberpunk 2077

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At last year’s E3, CD Projekt Red described its next open-world role-playing game CyberPunk 2077 as an “epic, mature RPG.” Shortly after, media were shown an espionage rescue mission, infamously showing an excessive amount of gratuitous female nudity.

But that’s all fine now, right? It’s got Keanu Reeves! Sadly, no amount of John Wick or satisfying gameplay can ignore that CyberPunk 2077‘s world has some problems.

Keanu Reeves Is A Figment Of Your Imagination

Reeves, who was in the motion capture booths at the same time he was shooting John Wick 3, plays the role of Johnny Silverhand. The iconic legendary frontman of the chrome rock band Samurai, Silverhand is now a digital ghost trapped in a microchip in your brain. When he was alive, Silverhand was a freedom fighter, sabotaging the greedy, inhumane corporations in charge of the six districts of Night City, but now he’s just a smooth chaotic good voice inside your head.

In an hour-long hands-off demonstration Junkee attended during E3 2019, Silverhand commented on who Cyberpunk 2077’s protagonist “V” could trust. He also spoke about the world, and revealed a preference for stealth — sneaking into a bandit’s hideout, rather than running in guns blazing. Just like real NPCs, your relationship with Silverhand develops over time and through your choices, so you can potentially build a good working relationship with him if you play everything as anti-capitalist and chaotic.

“Johnny Silverhand has his agenda, and he’s not always really nice,” CD Projekt Red’s lead quest designer Pawel Sasko told Junkee. “He has his own plan. He says, ‘Wake up, samurai. We have a city to burn,’ right? And he really means it.”

A Chaotic World With Literally Shocking Weapons

You play as V, a genetically-enhanced human seeking a microchip that grants immortality. While last year’s demo was set in the sprawling conventionally dystopian sci-fi metropolis of Watson, everything we saw this week was in the urban Americanised city of Pacifica.

Populated by refugees, homelessness and people of low socioeconomic status, Pacifica is the result of a multi-billion dollar plan to create a society for the wealthiest of Night City, before corporations ceased all construction, leaving deserted, half-complete apartment complexes and towns. It’s poorly maintained, ignored by authorities, and home to bandits, street thugs, the disadvantaged, and the Voodoo Boys — a gang of Haitian refugees and one of the many factions in the game.

There are six distinct districts in Night City, and each will have their factions, cultures and visual inspiration from the real world. Some of these locations include Watson; Pacifica; City Center, a rebuilt central business district and police state society that’s the remains of a city destroyed by a nuclear bomb half a century ago; and Charter Hill, a land for the most important and expensive people of Night City filled with beautiful vistas and greenery.

In Junkee’s demo, V was searching for a way into Cyberpunk’s digital Matrix realm called The Net. Making their way to Pacifica, they sought the help of the Voodoo Boys’ leader and hacker Bridgitte, searching through shelters, tent villages and abandoned buildings as their sensory device auto-translated Creole to English to find her. After climbing a half-complete skyscraper turned village, they met Voodoo Boys’ second in command and were asked to prove their loyalty before meeting her. After a gang of savage bandits funded by militant corporate scum took over a nearby shopping complex, the group needed V’s help to claim it back.

While the CD Projekt Red developer playing the demo opted to help them with their problem and sneak into the facility before a full out assault, in the game you’ll be able to avoid the quest, use violent or passive methods or even betray the Voodoo Boys. Driving to the location and flicking through various vaporwave radio stations, the roads and infrastructure of Pacifica felt like a cyber-dystopian future of Los Angeles. Bleeding with crime, homelessness, sickness and outsider paranoia.

Once inside the mall, we made our way to an open area where various goons and their leader — wielding a massive electric axe — awaited. While there is a huge variety of character creation options, the demo frequently switched between a stealthy hacker and speedy brute build. As one hacked into the mainframe of a turret to turn it on its allies and used gadgets and small weapons, the other ripped the turret out of the floor and began wielding it, dodging the gang leader’s huge axe swings as they attacked with the spider-legged blade implants from their arms.

It all seemed quite chaotic, but very fucking rad, and incredibly fitting.

‘Cyberpunk 2077’ And Transphobia

It’s disappointing that the biggest thing that stuck with me as I walked out of the demo was that CyberPunk 2077‘s world is potentially problematic. As V walks through an alleyway of grungy rundown bars, there’s an advertisement for an in-game soft drink company featuring a transgender woman in a unitard, a penis tightly poking against her uniform. The slogan reads “Mix it Up.”

While the internet has justly criticised this depiction of trans people, Sasko says that everyone completely misunderstood the meaning behind it. In the world of CyberPunk 2077, corporations commodify everyone and anything. They create offensively exploitative advertisements about groups of people, and transgender people are no different.

“Our goal was to point it out,” Sasko said. “To make people feel uncomfortable, to feel that this is not right.”

The person behind the poster, art director Kasia Redesiuk, is proudly queer. Allegedly, many members of the team are part of the LGBTIQ+ community and annually participate in Warsaw’s Pride march. But still, without a trans person involved, it’s incredibly easy for this to come across as disrespectful and ignorant.

“Our goal was to point it out,” Sasko said. “To make people feel uncomfortable, to feel that this is not right.”

“So if you see art in the game, and there are males, females, and they are all those … I don’t know, genders, all those races and so on, when you are making, let’s say, ‘fun’ of it — because I mean this — when we are treating it in a way that we take it, and the advertisement twists it up, it makes it uneasy and just a bit absurd.”

“When we treat it equally, I think this is a moment when we have the real…I would call it representation and inclusion, I think. To just treat it as a normal part of the world, and not to feel strange about it. And that was the whole thing. And we have lots more art that is exactly like this, because that’s not really about transgender people but in general, really everything.”

In a genre and future about transhumanism, body modification and the freedom to be whatever, it’s odd to have this conversation about the option to be transgender in-game. When characters can summon blades from their arms, see through walls and talk to a ghost of Keanu Reeves, identifying as non-binary seems like a given opportunity.

“It all depends on the meaning of transgender that you’re using,” Sasko explained. “I can explain to you what you can do in the game, and then you need to decide on your own if that’s what you mean. So what you can do, you pick different body types. So basically something that we could call male or female, right, in terms of biological … in terms of genes, I would say, okay?

“If you want to have strong male features on the female, you can do it. If you want to have female features on male, you can do it. If you want to have male and female features, to be … I don’t know, be a human that doesn’t really have any of the sides very stronger, you can also do that. So you can build it.”

“Now, after that, you are defining your own voice. And the voice is not typed to anything, right? So you can decide, ‘Okay, yeah, I have a more female voice. I have a more male voice.”‘ And then afterwards, you are defining how you identify yourself in the character. So you can say, ‘Okay, I’m a male or I’m a female,’ which basically defines, okay, that is the pronouns, sort of, that I will be referred to by other characters in the world, right?”

When asked if this meant that non-playable characters in the game will recognise you as non-binary as opposed to being coded as transgender through subverting conventionally binary character customisation options, Sasko was unsure of the difference.

After seeing two hour long demos of CyberPunk 2077 over the last two years, I’m hesitant to call it the “epic, mature RPG” CD Projekt Red described it to me as last year. The futuristic technology and overarching world building the studio have teased so far is interesting, and I like what I saw of the game’s combat, but CD Projekt Red is completely failing to show what we love most about cyberpunk science fiction.

In a genre that features social and technological freedom to be whoever, whatever and however, giving the player binary gender options and limiting their ability to be themselves in a world that already despises them is a big yikes.

According to Sasko, this controversy won’t influence CD Projekt Red to edit out the “Mix it Up” poster or change any of its currently announced transgender representation. While Sakso wasn’t willing to share more in case it doesn’t end up in the game’s final version, he stressed the team is working on other features to cover sexuality and gender. The fact they’re so willing to have a dialogue about this does deliver some hope.

CyberPunk 2077 joins the Net on April 16 next year for PS4, Xbox One and PC.

Julian Rizzo-Smith is a freelance pop culture and games writer. He would love his own personal Keanu Reeves AI and dreams of a future where he can listen to vaporwave on mainstream radio. He tweets @GayWeebDisaster.