Sunday, July 14, 2024

Cyberpunk 2077 Misunderstands the Appeal of a Queer World

I’m nineteen the first time I go to a gay nightclub and it is a little scary, but fun. I could get used to it. I’m twenty-four the first time I go to a gay nightclub in Cyberpunk 2077 and I could laugh at how being queer and queerness, in general, is so distinctly different. Sure, it’s a video game, it’ll never replicate the full extent of what real life can and does, but… There’s this churning in my gut, this desire to laugh at the absurdity of it all as I walk into Cyberpunk 2077’s Dicky Twister and head to the bar.

On my way there I pass half-naked men gyrating their hips over the pole they dance at. Some ask for some sugar, some are called ‘daddies’ by their horny and inebriated patrons, some get up and close and personal with one another, and some just T-Pose. Just a regular night in Night City. But I’m here on a job, not to unpack who I am in a boxed room that smells of sweat and booze.

“Quirky joint you got here,” V says, despite having just been doing the horizontal tango with Judy a few hours before. It is so absurd that I laugh, put my controller down, and laugh again. I imagine, for a moment, what I’d say if I was in a room with Cyberpunk 2077’s development team. Maybe it’d be something like this.

“Team, I am playing a queer V. The year is 2077. There have been clubs catered to sex for years and years. Since before you even existed.” I laugh again because I’m unable to stop at this point. Maybe I’d cover my face with my hands and shake my head for comedic effect. I have to laugh, because the alternative is too extreme. “Why on earth is being in a gay nightclub considered quirky?”

Let’s be honest with each other. For some in CD Projekt Red – it’d be unfair to state all – the thoughts and opinions of the LGBTQIA+ community about how being queer in this game is handled has largely been swept aside. From the very beginning, at the reveal of that Mix It Up poster and the transphobic jesting coming from the game’s social media, people were concerned. What sort of audience did they want to cater to? Just the edgy assholes who think saying ‘you have pronouns in your bio’ is a world-class diss? If that isn’t the case then, huh, they did a poor job at showing their marketing in any other way.

But even with all that, it’s hard to deny how much Cyberpunk 2077, despite including queer love interests, is so at war with itself in regards to not only its queer players, but the queer space it includes in its world.

Source: Marta Leydy / ArtStation

Dicky Twister is described as a place of sin by Sebastian ‘Padre” Ibarra, the Fixer in charge of Heywood. It’s not clear whether it’s because the place is for gay men, or if it’s because there’s something shady going on there that, to be blunt, allows gay men to be taken advantage of. It’s sex work gone wrong, and it’s up to V to take care of it by stealing the owner’s footage – footage that includes celebrities, cops, gang members, etc participating in sexual acts. Again, I’m unsure if this is considered distasteful to Padre because they are queer men, or it’s because they are being hurt. I suspect the latter, so I had no true problem in going to the club and doing the task.

Once you finish the Side Gig for Padre, you never go into that club again. There’s no real reason to, but it doesn’t matter anyway. The club already has gained the reputation of being that place where sex workers are taken advantage of. And it is true, sex workers do get taken advantage of – regardless if they are queer or not, but there is something to be said that the only queer space – territory which queer people have claimed for their own, for safety, for being themselves – in the entirety of the game, has such a dark cloud hanging over it. It’s only made worse when you play as V, someone who makes comments about how strange the damn club is in the first place. It’s like being stuck in a body that isn’t your own. That, despite who you are, V is an intruder in a place that many queer folks see as their safe space. But not even just an intruder, but a person who looks at Dicky Twister and its patrons as though they are a part of some zoo. It hurts.

And yet, despite Cyberpunk 2077 having such a wildly conflicting view of queer space, V can have queer relationships with no judgment whatsoever from the people they meet. Nobody is going up to V or any of their love interests saying ‘hey, cut that shit out!’ because they happen to be in a same-sex relationship. Even when you’re playing Female V and you hang around with Panam, the same rumors and whispers of you two being together are spread around at the same rate as if you were a Male V. There’s no judgment in it. Nobody cares because there are bigger things to worry about and, that perspective in this dystopian nightmare of a world already puts Cyberpunk 2077 leaps and bounds ahead of the queer prejudice that’s still present in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part 2.

Yet where Cyberpunk stumbles is understanding Panam, River, and Kerry’s relation to queerness, shown through the controversial sexuality system that’s been implemented to have River and Panam attracted to both a Female and Male V – but locked behind body and voice. While it’s true that people have preferences, the sexuality system in this game does not dig deeper into understanding this. Instead content to bring up romance – in Panam and Female V’s case – is locked away, despite every other thing being the exact same. The same looks, the same animation, and the same flirty dialogue. We know that these developers can handle queer sexuality and romance – they do so beautifully with Judy. Why River, Panam, and Kerry failed in that respect is a complete mystery to me.

Panam Palmer, one of V’s potential love interests and overall badass

And look, I know and you know that these developers were worked to exhaustion already and that they knew this game shouldn’t even be released until 2022. It still stings that, for a game that marketed itself as one where you could be yourself, it does little to try and understand queer sexuality – despite all of the love interests being queer. And that’s not even mentioning how Kerry, the gay romance for Male V, is actually bisexual in the TTRPG and was changed for… Well, we still don’t know why. It was never explained.

But, in spite of the queer relationships and characters you meet – including singular trans character Claire, who is a complete sweetheart by the way – the biggest misunderstanding of what appeals to a queer player and community is the positioning of V. To go back to V’s reaction to the gay club Dicky Twister, I only have one question to ask. How can you play as a V that is intimately aware of the queer scene – being queer themself – if you have a game that is so determined to make V a white, cis, heterosexual asshole?

Cyberpunk 2077 wanted you to create V that fits you, but that only goes skin-deep even if you aren’t queer and, if we’re being honest, still fails even that much due to the lack of body customization outside of genitals. You’re not able to make V fat, or short or tall despite being numerous NPCs around that have different body shapes and cybernetics. These NPCs aren’t even your stereotypical ‘fat slobs’ either, they’ve got fashionable clothing on, and they have lines that sometimes talk about their family or boyfriend/girlfriend, or how they’re waiting for a date. They are window dressing at best, but at least they are there. V doesn’t have that luxury – they have to be the toned, jerkish mercenary that adheres to a gender-binary you can’t even escape from. They have to be the V who sees an opportunity in exposing gay celebrities and leaders. In fact, outside of romance and Judy’s personal quests, the only time I felt truly queer as V was in the defense of the Mox and sex-workers at Clouds against opportunist scumbags, and joining of the Aldecados in The Star ending. The pain of being ostracized and shunned, only to defend and become part of a group that understands that feeling so well? I could almost cry with relief.

Outside of all that? V just feels like another heterosexual protagonist trying to survive in a world where toxic masculinity and rage and fear go hand in hand. It’s why Johnny Silverhand is so well-loved, after all. The little nods of a different V are there and can be grasped, but they are so few that it feels like I’m fighting my way through an incoming tide. Impossible to stay on my feet.

River Ward is the only real time the game assumes you’re playing as a female V

Cyberpunk 2077 is just so frustrating. It makes strides towards inclusivity that feels intentional, but absolutely trips at the last second. Even as Judy’s story feels very real and relatable with her childhood crush, realizing she doesn’t like boys, loving her family and community, and having it ripped away, V doesn’t get that same treatment. And it makes sense, of course. V can be moulded to fit (almost) anyone’s image, but these little quips and jabs against queer spaces, fat people, and more builds-up and it shows a complete lack of understanding of the choices that a queer player wants outside of romantic and sexual interest.

Strangely enough, I feel a weight of sadness in my chest writing this. Because, despite all the shambling, the tripping over what could have been some very interesting things to say about sexuality and gender, the game just misunderstands a good majority of it. With more time perhaps, or even something as simple as having more empathy and goodwill, Cyberpunk 2077 could have been not just a successful game, but a game with something vital to say about the queer space and characters within its world.

Instead, I’m driving through Night City to the next side quest, V’s Dicky Twister comment still fresh on my mind. It hurts.

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