Saturday, May 18, 2024

Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t adhere to the gender binary – it revels in it

At the beginning of CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077, an open-world RPG/FPS game set in the sci-fi Night City, I had to create my character, my personal V. I’m one of those boring people who uses video game character editors just to re-create themselves: I look for the correct long aquiline nose, I look for perfect, enormous digital eyebrows and for that, exactly that, thin beard. That doesn’t mean creating video game characters is easy for me (and for a lot of people): I’m a non-binary person and video games are usually very interested in knowing the protagonist’s gender and their pronouns, but they often give us binary choices. I can be either “a girl” or “a boy.” 

Lately, and that’s what happens in Cyberpunk 2077, I can sometimes choose between two non-explicitly-gendered body types, but in CD Projekt’s latest game they represent a traditionally feminine body with a tiny waist and a traditionally masculine and muscular body. I can manage to replicate my face, but I can’t find my far-from-perfect body in the character editor: V must be athletic, and other body shapes are reserved to the NPCs I can meet in Night City. I envy those NPCs. Then, even though I’m very male-coded in real life, I thought I could try something different in Cyberpunk 2077. I’ve come out only recently, I haven’t experimented with how I perform my gender and I don’t have a clear idea of how my gender should be performed. I wouldn’t want to be seen as a man, but would I prefer to be seen as a woman? I’ve somehow already accepted that people are going to misgender me for all my life, how could I clearly show who I am? Can the character editor from a video game set in a future where bodies are malleable help me to understand something more about my non-binarism? 

Spoiler: nope.

Cyberpunk 2077 promised a trans-humanist future where people freely modify their own bodies, but not only that, they aggressively promoted the flexibility of its character editor – but by switching between the two possible body types, I discovered that everything is still very gendered there. For example, available haircuts for the “traditionally feminine body type” are different from the available haircuts for the “traditionally masculine body type,” reminding me of my high school days, when once I went to have my hair cut and the hairdresser objected that the haircut I was asking for was “for girls.”

If I choose the feminine body type I have boobs and I can switch between three different sizes (but even the “small” and “big” options are actually quite average) and between three different sizes for my nipples, while the masculine body type has only two option for its nipples: yes or no. And if I “look like a woman” I can’t have a beard. Even Cyanide & Happiness’s Rapture Reject allows me to play as a bearded, breasted non-binary person (in fact, it doesn’t even ask me what’s my gender).

At the end of the day gender in Cyberpunk 2077 is still intended as a binary choice. And (you probably already know this, but I still think it’s quite weird) gender and pronouns are tied to V’s voice: the voice reveals my “real gender.” What does it mean? Since voice is usually tied to the gender we are assigned at birth, is this our “real gender” in Cyberpunk 2077? Do people always modify their voices to reflect their chosen gender in this future? As CD Projekt announced, I can freely choose what my genitals are, but it feels like a misdirected attempt to include some trans representation in the game on a solely visual level. While body type and voice influence some interactions, my genitals have no importance.

Furthermore, there’s only one vagina while there are two different penises with three different sizes: CD Projekt’s priorities feel as gendered as the character creator. You can’t change the size of your nose, and real vaginas come in a lot of different shapes, but they decided to focus on the size of the penis instead.

Why was I so affected by the shortcoming of Cyberpunk 2077’s editor? Maybe, it’s because of the detachment between the potential of the cyberpunk genre and how Cyberpunk 2077 turned out. Even with its character editor, the game comes really close to doing something interesting. I can almost see it: I can imagine a character editor that would allow me to create my 2077’s persona, neither man nor woman, neither masculine nor feminine, in a future where we are not either human or machine anymore. Character editors have always allowed us to experiment with our gender, and Cyberpunk 2077 wastes a great opportunity to push things further than usual. For example, I really liked how XSeed’s Daemon X Machina, while restricting bodies to two gendered alternatives, allows players to change voice and gender with a cheap visit to the local clinic. Maybe Cyberpunk 2077 could give us the same opportunity at the ripperdocs (Night City’s cyberpunk doctors) we meet during the game. Gender is way less binary if you can change it at any moment, if it’s represented like an aspect of your life that you can both play and experiment within a genderfluid future where “male” and “female” just presets.

But there’s something else, too: playing with gender representation is not so interesting when you are in a game with such a ‘problematic’ marketing campaign as Cyberpunk 2077. The promotional material for the game showed an in-game ad (still present in the game) featuring a trans woman, her transness revealed by her erected penis. CD Projekt RED said that the poster wanted to show how in-game evil corps were exploiting trans bodies as well, but CD Projekt itself used the poster as promotional material for the game and Yuliya “Yugoro” Ogorodnik, a cisgender woman cosplaying the model from the ad with a fake glowing penis, was even finalist at an official cosplay competition. Knowing that gender, gender identity, transness was turned into a costume in Cyberpunk 2077, I was somewhat unwilling to wear that costume myself. Social media is already filled with cis men telling us how they are going to satisfy their “futanari” fetish inside the game. 

So, at the end of the day, I came back to the usual, boring, male in-game clone of myself. I’m V: part human, part machine, all he/him.

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  • Thank you!!1

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