Cyberpunk 2077 is a (Latin) American dystopia
There are eerie similarities between fictional Night City and today’s Latin American reality
Ok, I have a confession to make: Cyberpunk 2077 is a masterpiece. Yes, the game has taken a lot of flak for the buggy, near-unplayable mess that it was upon release for the PS4 and Xbox One but I am blessed with the PC version which was clearly made with more tender loving care. The developers, Polish studio CD Projekt Red, has also taken some very deserved criticism for its excessive and at times obnoxious marketing, frequent delays, and months-long “crunch time” imposed by management on its staff, a regrettably common exploitative practice in a gaming labor market where unions are non-existent and a surplus of labor (who wouldn’t want to make a living making videogames?) means all but a handful of A-list designers are expendable. Indeed, it is the utmost of ironies that a game based around the cyberpunk premise of rapacious hyper-capitalism ended up exemplifying every bit of it, a fact that has not gone unnoticed to the majority of reviewers who have called the game out for its sub-standard quality control at time of release and impossible-to-meet hype.
But still, launch fiasco and bugs (I have only encountered a couple of rather innocuous ones) aside, I have been utterly enamored by this game despite being less than halfway through it. Firstly, it has the brilliant Hollywood-quality plot and dialogue that one should expect from the people who brought us The Witcher 3. Secondly, it actually has enjoyable combat which I felt in The Witcher 3 was a bit bland, all the more considering it adds stealth elements like having to sneak past guards or security cameras. Thirdly, the hacking elements are perfectly done. Geralt of Rivia’s “Witcher sense” has been replaced with a hacker mode where you can perform various kinds of cyber-trickery on any number of equipment around you, even enemies themselves. But even that pales in comparison to the “braindances”, essentially a detective “ghost-mode” which lets you enter other people’s memories and pick up visual, audio, or thermal clues. All this seems overwhelming at first but the game’s excellent in-game tutorials make it second nature very quickly. It’s all brilliantly done and gives you a good variety of tactical options to approach the game.
But the real star isn’t the infinitely-customizable protagonist, V, who can be a man, woman, or even transgender. Nor are the eminently likeable secondary characters such Jackie Welles, the lovable rogue who serves as your partner in crime, or Johnny Silverhand, the mysterious icon of cyber-coolness played by none other than Keanu Reeves. No, the real protagonist of Cyberpunk 2077 is without a doubt Night City, the sprawling, dystopian megalopolis which serves as the location for most of the game (along with the barren, Mad Max-inspired outskirts). If you think The Witcher 3 is the epitome of immersive open world environments, think again. Night City is a bustling place full of glitzy skyscrapers, holographic ads, seedy nightclubs and strip joints, run-down apartment blocks full of thugs, junkies, and prostitutes, and every other cyberpunk cliché you could think of. Add to this evil Japanese mega-corporations for the full dose of 80s sci-fi nostalgia. It is probably the first game in 13 years to unquestionably dislodge Bioshock’s underwater Art Deco city of Rapture as the most mesmerizing videogame environment ever made.
Western dystopia, Latin American reality
Cyberpunk has always played with Western notions of capitalism excess, visualizing futuristic societies past the event horizon in which the state has any meaningful role in enforcing the rule of law or providing public services, to say nothing of basic welfare for its citizens. But the real conflict in cyberpunk is really about the gap between the realm of possibilities that technology offers and what is delivered in terms of human well-being. The narrative of free market capitalism compels us to assume that a society where flying cars, cybernetic implants, and other technological wonders are ubiquitous would have found the solution to poverty, deprivation, and inequality and would have made a better life available for all. And yet the exact opposite is the case, as the majority of inhabitants in these societies must scrape through life by whatever means necessary (legally or, usually, illegally). This gap in what society achieves and what it can achieve is at the heart of my critique of modern progress in my book The Glass Half Empty: Debunking The Myth of Progress in the Twenty-First Century, and few genres of fiction capture this more effectively than cyberpunk.
Nevertheless, the imagining of a Western future on cyberpunk premises seems at times a bit far-fetched. In fact, I would argue that cyberpunk, and specifically Cyberpunk 2077, is far more illustrative of the type of societies that Latin America will see in the second half of the 21st century if they continue to be guided by capitalist fundamentalism. Already, Latin America is the most unequal region in the world and is riddled with the visual contrasts that make a place like Night City seem so dystopian to Western eyes: the squalid residential districts lying in the shadow of giant corporate or luxury high-rises is already a fact of urban life in places like Mexico City, Sao Paulo, and Bogotá. Other symbols of modernity like highway overpasses and metro lines snake through Latin American cities while street vendors and peddlers congregate in the spaces below. And unless you are lucky to have a formal 9 to 5 job (more like 8 to 7 given that most Latin Americans work longer hours than Westerners), most people even in the vaunted “emerging middle class” have one or more side gigs to make ends meet, usually informally. The gig economy may be a novelty in the West, but it’s been standard labor practice in Latin America for ages.
The makeshift nature of technology is also a characteristic of Latin America, and this is captured perfectly by Night City’s multitude of tech dealers and “ripperdocs” (doctors for your cybernetic enhancements), most of which work in shabby back alley garages. Every technology in Night City seems to be pieced together and patched up rather than bought ready-made. In Latin America, Cubans are famous for the way in which they have kept vintage American cars in working order for decades despite having no source of official car components due to the US embargo. But everywhere else, the combination of necessity and low incomes (as well as higher retail costs since so many consumer goods are imported) means many Latin Americans find ways of keeping old electronics and household goods in working order, defying age and obsolescence (planned or otherwise).
One particular aspect of cyberpunk cities including Night City is the chaotic use of the urban space. This is far closer to what is commonly seen in Latin America than in the West where land use is heavily regulated. Even the most run-down parts of Detroit or Blackpool do not have the shambolic mixture of residential and commercial spaces that you see in Night City and which are not uncommon in relatively affluent neighborhoods in Latin America even if the latter are actually less deprived. In Night City you get the sense that everyone builds whatever they want wherever they can. The maze-like corridors between apartment blocks is reminiscent of a particular 19th and 20th century style of tenements in Latin America and Spain (known in different countries as vecindades, conventillos, or corralas), the largest of which are veritable neighborhoods within neighborhoods.
Night City’s contrast between the neon glitz of its skyline and the filthy, steamy, streets is also very Latin American, where even the financial districts and rich neighborhoods have appalling street-level aesthetics. As I am prone to tell Westerners, you can tell whether a city is in the third world not by looking at its skyscrapers which may be as tall and as modern as any in the West, but by the quality of its sidewalks which would not pass the minimum standards of any Western city planner. The proliferation of shabby concrete design in Night City’s street-level visuals is also a nod to Latin America’s modernist fetish (most big Latin American cities exploded in size between the 1950s and 70s), rather than the more common industrial-age brick and steel of a Western city.
Latin America 2077
There are many other not-too-subtle hints that Night City is, at its heart, a Latin American dystopia rather than a Western one, not least the proliferation of Spanish; perhaps most amusingly by Jackie Welles who is Mexican (or Mexican-American) in all but name as evidenced by his subtle Chicano accent and profuse use of Mexican slang. Then again, Night City is supposed to be in California so perhaps it is a testament to the increasingly blurred lines between American and Latino culture more than anything else. That you start the game in a seedy bar called “El Coyote Cojo” and can ride around the city blasting reggaeton on the car stereo is as much a Miami thing nowadays as it is a Tijuana or Medellín thing.
But here’s the real test of why Cyberpunk 2077 is really Latin American at heart. Imagine yourself as a Westerner in the 1950s who had to conjure a futuristic dystopia based on the premise of technological progress and social regress. You would imagine a city of modernist skyscrapers of concrete and glass towering over aluminum-roofed slums (even mid-sized Latin American cities today have more skyscrapers than any city in the world in 1950 except New York). You would imagine a place where everyone has a TV, radio, and maybe other futuristic contraptions such as say, a portable phone with a TV screen, but still have to hustle to put food on their tables. You would imagine a society where governments are weak, corrupt, and beholden to powerful foreign corporations, perhaps you would go so far as to call these corporations “multinationals”. Ultimately you see a future where technology served not so much to reduce human needs but more to serve instant consumerist gratification.
Neoliberal Latin America in the early 21st century is surely what you have imagined. One can only hope Night City remains fiction rather than become an early warning of what to expect by 2077.