In retrospect, it seems only fitting that as cursed a year as 2020 was, its most anticipated title would be equally as cursed. Cyberpunk 2077 should have been a triumphant amalgamation of 8 years of blood, sweat, and tears from the developers over at CD Projekt Red. Instead, it seemed at pretty much every pivotal moment the game swerved toward the most problematic possible conclusion. The bilious combination of hyper-fetishized trans posters mixed with studio tweeted “jokes” and Twitter hook-ups with unsavory technocrats like Elon Musk gave a clear and obvious message to the trolliest and most toxic of gaming communities: this is the game for you.
For the purposes of clarity, the most toxic gamers typically tend to be white, cis, heterosexual men. As someone who grew up gaming and witnessing the toxicity of these players online, I have an incredible insight into how this edgelord, meme-heavy, hyper-sexualised form of marketing can be effective. It plays into the most basic of social and political ideologies, some of which have been a part of male collective consciousness for hundreds of years – ‘man be strong,’ and can manipulate the world in their image no matter who is in the way. Cyberpunk 2077 set itself up to be a fuckboi fantasy, where toxic masculinity is at its safest, where technology can make people (especially women, such as in-game superstar turned corporate shell Lizzy Wizzy) bend to your will and marvel at your power. Thing is, there are times where the game’s facade cracks and moments of levity, introspection and a genuine desire to explore the root of this toxicity and start a conversation around it start to show. This is where Cyberpunk 2077 truly shines, but ultimately demonstrates where CD Projekt Red pulled their punches.
In a game as large and sprawling as Cyberpunk 2077 is, I think it’s best to look at two very specific examples. One where the walls of toxic masculinity crumble slightly in showing how love can blossom organically between two people. The other a moment that breaks down the emotional walls men often build to portray a false ideology of strength through truly difficult times. We will start with love because love is beautiful and often makes me cry.
There are many romance options for V to pursue throughout Night City and beyond. But one that caught me particularly off-guard was River Ward, an NCPD detective (boo) turned family man (much less boo) who you meet through another side quest. For some players, there is a very realistic chance that they might never meet River, but a character that starts as your typical, no-nonsense gruff detective soon starts to show a complexity beyond the badge. Throughout his missions, you start to understand more about how River works, his fight against NCPD corruption (an exaggerated but still very poignant vision of how political and budgetary biases towards policing will lead to a hyper-violent police state) and his eventual departure from that lifestyle to one more focused on his family.
Near the end of the story arc with River, sparks started to fly between my cis-male V and River. This took me by surprise, as River, up until that point, struck me as a “man’s man” stereotype. But on reflection, it was my personal biases that assumed that River would be hetrosexual, and I was both delighted and humbled to be proved otherwise. The writing is written in such a way that there wasn’t any clear “flirt with him” button as you would find in a BioWare RPG, but rather a series of conversations that lead to a connection being formed. When he took me up to the top of the water tower to toast our success, I of course took that moment to kiss the rugged ex-cop. That’s when my dreams were shattered.
As it turned out, River was your typical hetrosexual man’s man. Any flirting I thought was happening was actually me misreading the room and seeing a romantic connection that wasn’t there. This would have been absolutely no issue at all, after all we cannot help who we love, if when I tried to kiss River he didn’t recoil like I was trying to smear shit on his face.
I can’t help but wonder what the purpose of having the kiss option was. The game could have explored unrequited love in a way that didn’t make a mockery out of misreading a person’s orientation. This should have been a lesson in empathy for the audience of men the game primarily targeted. This should have been a moment where the alt-right echo-chamber could have been pierced, and a conversation about love, in all of its forms could have started. Instead, all Cyberpunk 2077 showed this audience is that love between two men is either awkward and gross or, in the case of Kerry Eurodyne (the only male romance option for male V) a relationship built on a general hatred of women. Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t give a homosexual male V a single shred of integrety throughout this game, only allowing him the option of heartbreak or misogyny.
But River and Kerry aren’t the only cases worth looking at. In an early story beat of the game, V is tasked with trying to track down a doll called Evelyn in Clouds, a club where said dolls are put into a form of stasis that renders their consciousness out of their physical form for the patron to do as they will. Gross. However, the conversation that V can have with their respective partner can be genuinely touching.
The premise of Clouds is that the doll connects with their patron on a subconscious level to give the buying customer a unique and transformative experience. In this case, V is allowed a moment to consider the fate that has been bestowed upon them. If the conversation is allowed to run its course, V explores complex emotions such as grief, anger, acceptance and understanding as an avatar relays V’s innermost thoughts and fears in a way that they can then process and start to make sense of. It’s actually quite lovely, and a real shining example of how we can grow as people when we start to take down these walls. That is, if you ever commit to the conversation.
When setting up the experience, the clerk asks you to give them a safeword that deactivates the program and brings the original occupant back into their body. Safewords are important, especially when taking part in conversations or activities that can be triggering or difficult. The problem is that the game gives you the option to force quit the conversation before it even begins. Whilst I understand this is a roleplaying game where the player has autonomy over V’s actions, allowing a player to immediately delta (to steal a phrase from the future apparently) out of the conversation instantly represents a missed opportunity to at least start to understand the foundations of why people feel the way that they feel. For the men this game was targeted at, this was a moment of possible reflection into trauma – and maybe a moment to start accepting and dealing with it. Instead, you can just continue being an arsehole and leave that underlying toxicity where it is.
All of this displays Cyberpunk 2077’s inability when trying to challenge toxicity at any capacity. The game will happily force V to undertake missions that further the overall narrative, such as the Konpeki in the opening hours, but will not steer players when trying to break down the social bonds and ideologies that cripple men. Allowing a player to just blast through the quieter moments only solidifies this raison d’être. That a man can overcome anything if he is strong, closed off, and vicious enough.
Cyberpunk 2077 is not solely responsible for solving toxic masculinity, nor would it ever have been even if it was a perfect bastion of tolerance, love, acceptance and understanding. But Cyberpunk 2077 tailored itself to some of the worst among us. Cyberpunk 2077 caught the imaginations of the Elon Musk stans, the alt-right fuckboi and the intolerant gamer lad. Cyberpunk 2077 could have used that as an opportunity to show this audience something that their alt-right bubbles refuse to entertain and maybe get some of these men to start considering the thoughts and feelings of others.
Instead, Cyberpunk 2077 pulls its punches, choosing instead to coddle toxic masculinity and offering a game world where it will be rewarded with in-game titillation and XP boosts. Not only does this doom marginalised people to more abuse within the video game community and beyond, it further ensnares men within this toxic bubble, which serves them nothing but anger, pain and confusion.