DISCLAIMER: This is a rant based on my experience and observations, not a research paper. I am not an expert on the game, the intellectual property, anime, CD Projekt Red, Trigger, streaming services, life, the universe, or anything. I just knows what I likes.
I accept that the Cyberpunk 2077 property is going to be much of the next generation’s first encounter with the genre. As someone with a vested interest in said genre, I’ve made a point to follow some of the news around the AAA video game and its spin-off products.
In fact, snooping around reviews and comment threads about the game is what clued me into its pop culture significance. A big giveaway being that a lot of players had no clue that cyberpunk existed outside of the Cyberpunk 2077 franchise.
(Worth noting, the following Wikipedia snippet does mention trademark ownership of the term, but that just applies to the distinctive logotype, I’m sure. Since these entities didn’t invent the word, it wouldn’t count as a ‘fanciful or arbitrary’ trademark.)
While I have some experience with a different cyberpunk RPG, Shadowrun, I know nothing about the Cyberpunk TTG. I did play Cyberpunk 2077 on PC, however. I jumped all over it because it was a truly unique-looking, AAA game from a renowned developer.
It excited me because I want cyberpunk to go mainstream. (Even though I’ve tried to write the Jack: universe to be as accessible as possible, I’m still going to reach more readers if people are actively seeking out the genre.) Look at what the same developer did for The Witcher, after all.
Unfortunately, the video game was met with harsh criticism when it launched. I’d venture to say that it was dragged through the dirt, completely savaged by people who felt like it was mishandled and generally disappointing. Not to mention the vast sea of people who couldn’t even get the game to run.
I didn’t buy the game on day one, so they must have fixed the technical problems by the time I started it. And I thought it was very entertaining. In the wake of zillions of people attacking the game, I defended it often because my sense was that quite a few were holding it up to some expectation that hadn’t been met. I had no expectations…I just played it and enjoyed it.
Many months after I’d had my fill of the game and it was no longer a major topic of discussion, I saw an animated Cyberpunk 2077 show appear on Netflix — Cyberpunk: Edgerunners. Again, I was excited because it represented another push to drive the genre into the mainstream.
I eagerly fired up the show but was pretty disappointed by it overall. Not that it was bad, per se, but simply because it felt to me like a gross mishandling of both cyberpunk as a concept and Cyberpunk 2077 as an IP.
First and foremost, my heart sank when I realized it was an anime. Not that there’s anything wrong with anime, but the format has tons of its own conventions and tropes that I knew it was going to bring along like some kind of aggressive, thematic VD.
I was right, and the show ended up being far more anime than cyberpunk. The nuance of the genre was cast aside in favor of the “gotta catch ‘em all, I want to be the very best” mentality of the most banal anime story.
What killed it for me was the design direction, though. Stupidly over the top and off-model because the anime studio wanted to go in a very Dragonball direction with it, apparently. I even did a little research and found out that CD Projekt Red fought against the “suggestions” that the anime studio dumped on the series because they thought they weren’t being true to the property.
I agree with CDPR. (But no one asked me.)
One of the arguments between dev and studio was over my least favorite character in the show, Rebecca, who is actually considered the “fan favorite” among viewers. (I’m an outlier.) CDPR didn’t want her in the show because her decidedly anime nature doesn’t fit with the Cyberpunk 2077 aesthetic.
I wholeheartedly agree with that assessment.
She was forced into the show because she’s what anime viewers expect to see. She’s an archetypal character, and anime is kind of bad about having a roster of trope characters and making them all the same. I’m sure diehard fans want to flatline me for saying that, but you have to admit that a lot of anime feature the same five characters doing the same things, just with different hair.
Anyway, Rebecca is a “loli”, and I’m only mentioning this because anime archetypes are so defined that you can literally imagine everything there is to know about her presence in the show simply by knowing that word.
As such, she embodies the broken adaptation of Cyberpunk 2077 quite well. Wherein the in-game universe maintains a certain level of “realism” (Plausibility? Something like that) the Edgerunners anime just throws it all out the window in favor of making everything as big, weird, or loud as possible.
Again, Rebecca. Despite being four feet tall, she decides to get a pair of cybernetic arms that are each larger than her body. Forgetting the fact that they’re ridiculous from day dot, she pretty much only uses these giant arms to shoot guns. Based on the scale, this means she’s somehow getting firearms that are considerably larger than normal, because her huge anime hands are able to use them. But…she’s not. She’s using the same firearms as everyone else, they just morph to fit her giant hands like the One Ring. And why get the arms if you’re just going to use them to shoot human-sized firearms and occasionally walk on them like a gibbon?
Cyberware in good cyberpunk should make sense. I mean, this genre is hanging over absurdity by a thread to begin with, and some of us really want it to be taken seriously as a sub-genre of science fiction, not…whatever the hell this is:
And Rebecca is not the only character that looks like they were never at any point human.
You see, that’s the problem I have with the direction they’re taking. All sense of “science fiction” is being thrown away in favor of short-attention-span goofiness. Big arms because big arms. Exploding heads every five minutes because why not?
Anime often does that well, I’ll admit. Look at One Piece, now topping the charts as a live-action adaptation. But it’s an adaptation of a manga/anime that was always over the top and goofy. It makes sense.
(I’ve never gotten into that type which probably has a name in Nihongo that someone else can fill me in on. My favorites: FMA: Brotherhood, Death Note, Initial D, maybe a couple of others that I can’t think of right now. Cowboy Bebop. Yeah, that one was good.)
It’s completely different when you take Cyberpunk 2077, something that is already pretty awesome (and unique), and shove it into a mold where it doesn’t belong. If they would have given it a more realistic treatment ala Appleseed, I might have a different take, but…they didn’t.
It’s not even what I would call a cyberpunk story. It’s an adolescence story…basic coming-of-age stuff…with a little bit of “corpos are bad” shoved in with all the violence.
Being in marketing, I fully understand why it went down this way. They’re trying to save the game that struggled at launch, and that means (among other things) penetrating into a different market segment. The (probably older) players who know cyberpunk as a genre and probably have some familiarity with tabletop games didn’t like it, so pander it to a different generation. One that’s really into anime.
I’m not the target audience for the show. Fine. But the paradox is that I clearly was the target audience for the game. Hm. Backpedaling is it, then?
This is what really turns the whole thing into a downward spiral…
A few weeks ago, I found out that Cyberpunk 2077 was getting a huge expansion: Phantom Liberty. A great reason to play the game again, so I was on board.
Until I realized a few days ago that they released a patch to the original video game essentially making it “version 2.0”. I tried it…and not only did they drag stuff from the anime into the game, but they changed everything about the game mechanics almost as if they wanted it to feel like the anime.
CDPR watered down the RPG part and steered it hard in the direction of being all about wild, visual combat. Jumping, throwing people, flying off motorcycles, gory fatalities…that sort of vapid crap. If that had just been added on, that would be tolerable. But they actually went and depreciated everything remotely cerebral about the game in the process.
In short, it was dumbed down in the same way the anime was dumbed down. All violence and flash, minimize the substance. “Cyberpunk” just means violence with big metal arms, sure.
I’m definitely not alone in noticing this weird “alienate the fans” thing that’s going on. I can only shrug it off. It’s not my IP, not my game, and not my show. From what I hear, they’re making money on the game again because the anime helped boost sales. They got what they wanted.
All I care about is the mechanism behind all of it. Namely, that the choice was made to crap on the fans who stood up for the game to water the entire IP down so it would appeal to pubescents who only want to see fights and explosions and spiky hair.
It’s indicative of something that’s impossible to miss in all forms of entertainment these days…the very cyberpunk trend of using data to create content. (By the way, “content” used to be called things like “art” when it wasn’t driven entirely by metrics.) It’s not wicked or evil, just what happens when the people who sign checks have access to insane amounts of data.
They can look at it, check a few boxes to appease a certain segment, and throw those demands to the creatives with relative certainty that it will result in X profit. It’s good for the shareholders, but I would argue that it’s absolutely murdering mass market entertainment.
And in cases like this, it results in a sort of slimy corruption of the art. And yes, when Cyberpunk 2077 launched*, I would have called it a piece of art. (I even ran out and bought the hardcover art book right after the game launched.) Now, it’s very clearly a data-driven homunculus of committee decisions and desperate pivoting.
If that puts CDPR in the black, bully for them. But it still sucks.
* I did not have any of the technical problems people reported in terms of crashes and bugs. Only minor visual glitches that, as someone who grew up loading games in MS-DOS, I’m okay with.