Where Has the Rebellious Spirit of Cyberpunk Gone?
Today we’re going to talk Cyberpunk–the game, not the genre–but we’re also going to talk cyberpunk–the genre, not the game. Specifically, I want to touch on the tone of the original Cyberpunk tabletop game and what may have been lost in adaptation. Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t even out yet (the trailers look awesome though), so it’s too soon to say anything concrete, but some of what we’ve been seeing in the promos is giving me an odd feeling. As though something important might have been forgotten in the leap from tabletop RPG to video game.
Let me start this article with a bold statement: genre-wise, cyberpunk is horror. Specifically, cyberpunk is horror the way that urban fantasy is horror: the protagonists may make it out all right, or at least live to fight another day, but on a larger scale something has gone horribly wrong. The government is either ineffective or actively working against the people it’s meant to protect. Corporations may put on a friendly face, but they are not your friends. A catastrophic breakdown or separation of the economy, social services, and the legal system cause violence to spill out into the streets. People are not born–or made–equal. In urban fantasy, these things usually arise as a result of a hidden magical society clashing with the human society around it. In cyberpunk, however, the events of an alternate history or a dark future leave them out in plain sight.
It’s not that nobody knows things have gone wrong. It’s just that nobody who cares can fix them, and nobody who can fix them cares.
Enter Johnny Silverhand.
In Cyberpunk the tabletop RPG, hereafter called Cyberpunk 2020 so I can keep things straight in my head, Johnny Silverhand is the quintessential Rockerboy–a character class, but also a movement of musicians, poets, and any kind of artist fighting for a better future. 2020 portrays Johnny as a flawed idealist who, despite bearing the scars of past trauma, has always fought to change the world. You could go so far as to call him one of the last heroes of this dark future. It also portrays his battle as pretty hopeless. His original appearance in the Never Fade Away adventure saw him hire the players to help deal immense damage to Arasaka Corporation, but they ultimately fail to rescue his kidnapped Netrunner girlfriend, Alt Cunningham. His reappearance in the Firestorm expansion has him try saving her digitized consciousness from Arasaka again, only to fail a second time and seemingly die in the process.
The gamebooks left Johnny’s exact fate ambiguous so that GMs could bring him back if they wanted. Now, decades later, CD Projekt Red has done exactly that. But they’ve made some changes to the program.
Who is Johnny Silverhand in 2077? Good question. Devs describe Johnny as the co-protagonist of the game–to get things done, V and Johnny have to work together, despite having separate agendas. That sounds like a fun set-up and a great way to build tension. But that’s not the only thing they have to say about the man who once embodied the spirit of rebellion. In the trailer for his character, 2077‘s Johnny gets hit with this pretty phrase: “He’d burn down half the city just to prove he was right. And then burn the other half just for fun.”
As if that wasn’t enough to get the point across, the devs have made it clear that this version of Johnny is no hero, and despite sharing headspace with the player, he’s probably not even a romanceable option. Maybe that’s because CD Projekt Red wants to respect his relationship with Alt, but I’m not convinced. The way they talk about him, it sounds like Johnny Silverhand is being repurposed from symbol of revolution to, well, terrorism. Why?
Here’s the thing: old school cyberpunk really likes its rebels, and often times, they do cross over with terrorists. Just look at Total Recall. When the system is fundamentally broken, anyone who tries to burn that down is going to get slapped with ugly labels. They might even deserve it. But recent cyberpunk has a lower tolerance for this brand of moral ambiguity. Its protagonists are less rebel and more detective. Works like Altered Carbon place you in the observer’s seat, looking in on a world you aren’t really part of and can’t really change. The most these protagonists can do is solve a mystery, try to save a single life, or focus on tackling their own issues of identity. Taking the system down is no longer on the table.
In Night City Wire episode 5, Keanu Reeves has a chance to talk about the experience of playing Johnny: “It’s really kind of an interpretation, ’cause I think there’s a Johnny Silverhand in all of us.” Reeves goes on to elaborate a few things about Johnny’s personality, at least the way he sees it. “He’s very passionate, he cares, you know. He’s kinda naive, but he’s also super experienced in life. He’s got certainly an appetite for life. He wants to change the world.”
Maybe that’s the ticket. At some point, cyberpunk gave up on changing the world and started acting as though living within or outside the system were the only options. There’s a kind of horror in that, but I can’t help but compare that numb resignation to the wild-eyed desperation inherent in the decision to say “This is crazy, but let’s try it, things can’t get any worse.”
Reportedly, Cyberpunk 2077 is about freedom. It’s a game that presents a dizzying number of different paths stretching out in front of you, the player. If we’re lucky, Cyberpunk 2077 will be the new Skyrim–a game so dizzyingly huge that it would take a decade for one person to explore the whole thing. If so, I have to ask: in all that space, is there really no room for revolution?
The cyberpunk genre has never pretended that change is quick or easy. If Johnny’s trying to drag us into a conflict he doesn’t fully understand for stakes that are too high to contemplate, that’s fine. The same goes if he’s manipulating us, using us, or straight-up lying about his real goals. What’s important here isn’t the character of Johnny Silverhand specifically, but what he represents: the possibility that things could get better. In a game that is as much about figuring out who you are as it is about doing quests and kicking ass, that’s important.
Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t have to be a happy game. Classic cyberpunk is rarely happy. All we ask is that it contains a spark of searing, incandescent hope. That way, the rest of Night City will be even darker in comparison.
Thank you for keeping it locked on COGconnected.