Cover art by Neil Branquinho
Between 755 and 763, the An Lushan Rebellion raged across the Northern provinces and prefectures of the Tang Dynasty of Imperial China. The war was named for a northeastern military governor, An Lushan, who owed his present position to a fortuitous Imperial edict. Hoping to prevent the development of any rivals at court, chancellor Li Linfu (his personal patron) had filled the military governorships with permanent professional appointees, the sort of soldiers who could ironically become a bigger threat than any enemy in the capital. Indeed, An Lushan would go on to conquer that capital by force, only being dislodged when the Tang forged a costly alliance with the horse cavalry of the Turkic Uighurs. At the price of much silk tribute and the sacking of the ‘eastern capital’ Luoyang, An and his successors would eventually be defeated, with the Tang Dynasty itself going on to reign for another 150 years. Nevertheless, most historians still typify this rebellion as the beginning of the end for the Tang; the central government had lost much of its authority, and both the military governors of the northeast and the monopoly merchants of the south would mostly rule themselves henceforth. Court supremacy was still acknowledged nominally, but its overall effects were permanently diminished. In short, if An Lushan had stabbed the Tang in the back, then it would take until the early 900s before it had truly bled out.
We live in strange and uncertain times. To future readers, saying this may strike them as rather offensive; what right have we to complain about our own lot, when we prefigured the misery of their own era? Even so, I am sure that by merely looking at the date of this piece’s publication, they too could acknowledge the particular disruption that was (and still is) the Covid-19 pandemic. Short of more abstract, large-scale processes like those of geology and cosmology, one would be hard-pressed to find a societal domain which hasn’t been affected by this truly global cataclysm. Of course, what might be almost as shocking as the radical ruptures of this past year are the many things which have stayed the same. Particularly in the products of the capitalist machine, we may still recognize most of what we’re used to, albeit with a few uncanny admixtures. Most of us rightly recoil at the sight of face-masked Disneyland employees, all too aware of the false assurance their covered smiles represent. And yet, in spite of it all, time goes on. No final act of change or collapse awaits, neither revolution nor apocalypse. Instead, we just have to make do with what we’re given. While few positive adjustments have been made in the course of this pandemic, they hardly measure up against those many deaths that could have been avoided, most of them at least. Instead, one notices how the same dysfunctions that have brought us to this place are now carrying on as usual; the wake-up call this should have been is decidedly absent. Perhaps this tragic farce will turn out much like the An Lushan Rebellion: the first sign of a terminal decline, though not a killing blow all by itself. Unfortunately, knowing its true resolution is a matter of time. We’ll have to live it to find out.
When I mention the genre of cyberpunk, what comes to your mind? When it comes to most readers, insofar as they are even aware of this term, I would expect them to think of works like Blade Runner or The Matrix, gloomy futurist worlds which question human identity and the sense of self. Ironically, I would personally consider both of these works to be (at best) peripheral to cyberpunk; some of the genre’s most notable features are wholly absent from either of them. Perhaps when combined, they could make up its total spectrum of tropes. Even then, I don’t think they make for a good case study of what cyberpunk really means. For that, I’d like to look to a particular role-playing game from the early 90s, one which appropriately carries the name of this genre: Cyberpunk 2020.
In some ways—such as the ubiquitous sunglasses and leather trench coats which grace the pages of its many sourcebooks—we could think of Cyberpunk 2020 as the epitome of the 1990s, a time whose peculiar stylings have yet to return unironically. This lost cultural period may also be recognized in the game’s imagination of the internet: if its bizarre virtual reality can be said to resemble anything, Tron is a much closer approximation than our actual hellscape of hypertext. However, beyond these quaint aesthetics, the Cyberpunk universe still contains enough gloominess to warrant its self-appointed status as “the roleplaying game of the dark future”. A prime example of this would be the fate of the United States, which spends the in-universe 1990s in a prolonged period of societal collapse which kills about a third of its population. If this development seems rather divergent with the relative social peace of the real US, I would assure you that at least part of it is intentional on the part of the authors. The timeline of this dystopian world is inherently acknowledged as ‘alternate’, with at least one in-universe voice lamenting the road that was not taken—this being our own. Thus, Cyberpunk 2020 exists as a self-conscious parallel to our slightly superior reality. It must be said, however, that even the horrors of the aforementioned US apocalypse were not entirely alien to the actual 1990s. After all, the general societal dysfunction of the Cyberpunk landscape is not all too dissimilar from the capitalist ‘shock therapy’ inflicted on many post-communist countries. Whether they’re run by cyber-enhanced yakuza or simple Russian gangsters, protection rackets are a trick as old as time.
Taken together, the future visions set forth by Cyberpunk 2020 combines prescient social predictions with outdates technological expectations. While its authors foresaw the ravages of neoliberalism, the importation of peripheral rapacity towards a yet affluent core, they did not exactly know by what means the new corporate surveillance society would be effected. And, to be fair, a service like Facebook would not have seemed like a plausible agent in genocide and electoral fraud only ten years ago. The future is both stranger and more conventional than we often anticipate. Even so, I think it’s worth asking: how did cyberpunk (or rather Cyberpunk) get so much right? To be clear, it’s not the literal accuracy of its predictions I’m after; instead, what I’m wondering is how this work and its genre have maintained their relevance to a far greater degree than other futurisms, even those which are more contemporary than it. As the lengthy introduction might suggest, I have a bit of a theory about this, one which concerns the very nature in which cyberpunk relates to time: past, present, and future. Moreover, since we are now ourselves living in the prophesied year of 2020, one which resembles its imagined alternative in more ways than we might like, I can’t think of a better time to consider this matter. And before you ask: of course I haven’t forgotten about Cyberpunk 2077, the yet upcoming video game by CD Projekt Red. Indeed, its existence is crucial to my reasoning in the following. However, I must begin by once more turning to those dusty sourcebooks from the early 90s. Rather than looking at the story it tells, I’d now like to zoom in on the manner in which it does so. How do these cyberpunks build their world?
For those among us who enjoy lore and worldbuilding above all other aspects of narrative, tabletop RPGs are surely a blessing. Their manuals are generally structured around the pure delivery of exposition, a simple and didactic style which accords with their primary function as a rules directory. In this, the many ‘sourcebooks’ of Cyberpunk 2020 are no exception. However, they are also more than just a way to relay setting information. Throughout these various works, its authors have made sure to immerse their readers within the setting, to explain the latter using in-universe documents. While some sections are written from a more metafictional perspective, there are just as many maps, quotes, and news bulletins that help one to see Cyberpunk’sworld through the eyes of its inhabitants. This structural attempt at immersion is further enhanced by the sheer amount of material available. While I lack any statistics on the matter, Cyberpunk 2020 must surely have been a popular RPG in its day for such a volume and diversity of supplementary materials to be released. The primary locale for running this game—the West Coast metropolis of Night City—gets its own extensive sourcebook, as do the regions of Europe, East Asia, and the former United States.
With such lavish detail afforded to states, cities, and even individual buildings, the (alternate) reality of this world is almost overwhelming. Indeed, I would argue this sense of bewilderment extends into the setting itself. Those who dwell in the world of Cyberpunk must deal with a mess of complications that extends everywhere and everywhen. Just as most people toil in the shadows of megacorporate skyscrapers, so are they burdened by the yet ongoing dysfunctions of the past. While much has certainly changed, the problems of capitalist society are still fundamentally the same, and little exists that may challenge its hegemony. Most player archetypes are small-time hustlers, relatively powerless despite their nifty cybernetic enhancements (which everyone else also owns, after all). The few times this setting presents characters who might ‘fight the power’, such as the subversive musicians known as ‘Rockerboys’, they come across as pathetic or naïve. This is not the time and place for revolution—and if it were, it would not be lead by rock stars.
If I put these considerations together, what I come to find is that Cyberpunk 2020 (as well as its larger genre) is a narrative marked by accumulation. In this world, the excess of capitalism has driven global society to the brink of collapse, and yet it shows no signs of stopping whatsoever. In a more abstract sense, its history would rightfully be considered apocalyptic, were it not that the story ignores any notion of a fundamental break. There is no climax, no conclusion, no beginning or ending to anything that unfolds within this setting’s confines. Everything accumulates, and nothing resolves. Instead of the leather-clad cyborgs which usually define this genre, perhaps that Sisyphean temporality is the true essence of cyberpunk. Given our own state of historical endlessness, of dissatisfaction and irresolution, works like these are undoubtedly relevant. When would they not be?
Having now explained what I consider to be the core of the Cyberpunk experience, the relentless accumulation of societal dysfunction, I’d like to test this notion against a more recent specimen of the same tendency. I speak here of course of Cyberpunk 2077, the open world RPG which is currently (still) in development by CD Projekt Red. Considering the ambition of its design, there is certainly some irony in how the simulation of this setting will likely surpasses those of its own futuristic digisphere. However, if I stopped to consider each and every one of these peculiar parallels, there’d be no end to it. What interests me here is how the setting measures up to the standards of its predecessor. Do we observe the same accumulation?
On the face of it, CD Projekt Red has done a stellar job in adapting the gloomy glitz of Night City into a virtual experience. Its previews abound with the tacky fashions and hypercharged ads which are all too ubiquitous in the Cyberpunk landscape. All of it is thoroughly immersive, as these games so often claim to be. The developers also seem to be doing a good job at overwhelming the player with their digital universe, both in its visual appearance and in the endless details of its gameplay systems. The amount of content is a key selling point in the AAA market, and so it is no surprise that the regular excess of the genre has been further enhanced by the nature of this game’s development. Finally, the ongoing exposition of lore and world details by CD Projekt Red seems to suggest that their work is thoroughly faithful to the ones that preceded it. While one of the later editions of the TTRPG has now been decanonized, all of the tropes and histories have stayed the same, and those who have some previous experience with the franchise will be sure to recognize a lot of it in this installment.
Based on these observations, we might comfortably conclude that Cyberpunk 2077 is everything a fan could hope for: new technologies will finally realize the imagination of 90s tabletop enthusiasts. However, here I would intervene with a more subtle analysis. For reasons which I will lay out momentarily, I believe that a key aspect of Cyberpunk’s world has been neglected in the present implementation of its narrative. This is of course the aforementioned accumulation, which is to my eyes an ephemeral but nevertheless essential part of the whole fiction. Thus, I will now explain how Cyberpunk 2077 falls short in embodying this theme.
My litany of objections begins with a simple question: how many of this game’s prospective players know that it was based on a previously existing TTRPG? While this is an obvious fact to anyone who’s glanced at the game’s Wikipedia page, the overall marketing of this product barely even hints at its antecessors. While most would think nothing of this omission, the simple result of a focus on the game at hand, I believe it speaks to a greater tendency to ignore its anachronistic nature. This suspicion is further enhanced by the title and setting of Cyberpunk 2077; by placing its timeframe far ahead of the present, its creators implicitly suggest that this is a work of futurism rather than alternate history, something which would have been much more obvious if they’d opted for a straight adaptation of 2020. Indeed, I consider it a great shame that this earlier work was not realized wholeheartedly, as it would make for an interesting compare-contrast with our actual 2020. The excellent potential for satire and irony would have been nigh impossible to resist.
Unfortunately, the developers of Cyberpunk 2077 have chosen to deemphasize its roots in retro futures and alternate histories, a decision that was presumably driven by the desire to create a ‘cool’ setting rather than anything rooted in critical social reflection. In itself, this would not have been the worst thing ever, even if it cheapens an interesting fiction by association. No, what really bothers me about CDPR’s approach is the manner in which it actively undoes the sharpest and most salient aspect of Cyberpunk: its relation to time, society, and the general accumulation and breakdown of each. If one didn’t know any better, the worlds of 2020 and 2077 could be considered identical, with the same tropes and social realities prevailing in each. It’s a remarkably stagnant setting.
Of course, one might object that such stagnation is intentional: is the genre of cyberpunk not driven by the endlessness of capitalism, a social order which tolerates no alternative and seeks to influence every aspect of our lives? To some extent, this observation is undoubtedly correct. A cyberpunk story must necessarily exist within the hegemony of capitalism, or at least any totalized system of economistic relations (state capitalists are more than welcome). That said, it would be wrong to suggest that such a society is bereft of societal change altogether. Even if the prospects for positive social organization are severely curtailed, our current climate crisis alone is enough indication that the brute force of capital can produce fundamental shocks to global society. Nothing grows in exhausted soil, and you can’t market to a dead populace; though our global economic order yet survives, history teaches us that any hierarchical order must eventually face a choice between reform and collapse. Even if the rulers of Cyberpunk are more stubborn than our own, its own history suggests that societal change—likely taking the form of catastrophic breakdown—is an active and inevitable reality.
Within this present context, arguing over the changeability of cyberpunk reality, I must admit to concealing a trump card. For in the very franchise we have been considering, there is a still unmentioned work which perfectly embodies the themes I have been pleading for. Not only does it continue the course of accumulation and dysfunction, thus creating even more disastrous non-conclusions and semi-apocalypses, but it does so in a way which acknowledges both the alternate history it is set in, and the real history it is meant to parallel. Taken together, it makes for a much better sequel to Cyberpunk 2020 than whatever 2077 will ultimately turn out to be. Ironically however, it likely owns its very existence to this video game, its purpose being that of an interlude between these more prominent products. Its name is Cyberpunk Red, and it’s just been released. Let me tell you all about it.
Previously, I remarked that the lore of Cyberpunk 2077 might as well be the same as that of its predecessors, since no notable societal change appears to have occurred in the interim. However, while the ultimate lack of setting advancement is lamentable, the in-universe history between 2020 and 2077 is itself in no sense stagnant. The tumultuous nature of this period was first expressed in some of the later sourcebooks for 2020, which set up and then executed the cataclysmic events of the “Fourth Corporate War”. Originally, this war was meant to be the inciting incident for Cyberpunk’s third edition, but the radical departures of the latter in both presentation and worldbuilding proved unpopular with players. Unsurprisingly, the lore of this edition was ignored in the creation of 2077, with the Fourth Corporate War now leading a different outcome altogether. But as one version of the tabletop RPG was invalidated, another could be created in its stead. Thus, the new post-2020 lore was to be established in Cyberpunk Red, written by some of the same creators as the original sourcebooks. Much like the work it replaces, this edition represents a significant departure from what has come before, and—looking at the upcoming video game—from what will come after. Between two relatively conventional cyberpunk environments, there is the bittersweet chaos of the “Time of the Red”. If my goal is still to elaborate the accumulation and decay which essentially marks this genre, then this radically altered example of it is certainly worth exploring.
So, what does Cyberpunk Red change? First and foremost, the devastation of the Fourth Corporate War has fundamentally wrecked the planet, with its effects still being felt a full two decades after its official ending. Entire governments were almost brought down in the war between Militech and Arasaka, and global trade ceased almost entirely. Night City was no exception in this devastation, as its corporate center was hit with a ‘limited’ nuclear explosion. Near the end of the conflict, only the residual power of the world’s national militaries seemed capable of quelling the violence. Thus, Militech was nationalized by an ascendant United States, with Japan eventually following suit in the case of Arasaka. While this brought an end to the war itself, the world’s major infrastructures (both physical and digital) had still been severely compromised. For as long as the rebuilding would last, the globalization of the pre-war era would be a logistical impossibility. In its absence, it would fall to local economies and information networks to work their way out of the ruins, a strenuous task in even the least affected regions. As people moved away from war-wrecked urban centers, they would rebuild many of the suburban regions they had once abandoned. Overall, the world had become more divided, disconnected, and dispersed.
By 2045, the present day of Cyberpunk Red, global society at large seems to be back on track to its former mix of horror and glamor, albeit with some interesting new augmentations. International transport and communications are still rather limited, with the former NET having been entirely written off in favor of more regional ‘data pools’. Corporations also operate on a much smaller scale, many being the independent offshoots of former conglomerates. They are by no means more friendly, but represent an economic model that is altogether more local and precarious. In itself, this is good news for anyone who’s looking to take on the established order; determined ‘edgerunners’ can in many instances equal the power of those authorities they mean to fight. What’s more, the general rebalancing of street-level affairs means that there are also more groups worth fighting for. From rooftop garden collectives to Nomad caravans to the fraught council politics of Night City entire, anyone with a penchant for justice and community will surely find a group deserving of their loyalty. And while the true corporate elite may seem as impervious as ever (if not more so), perhaps the small but steady erosion of time and effort could eventually bring them down as well. A new day is dawning, choomba: what will you make of it?
By now, I hope I have given a sufficient impression of what Cyberpunk Red is all about. While many of its features are worth appreciating on their own, here I would like to focus on the way they relate to the other works within this universe, as well as to cyberpunk as a whole. Though the essential tropes of the genre are preserved within this incarnation, their framing within a larger setting history leads to some interesting permutations.
In this context, the main world element to discuss is undoubtedly the Fourth Corporate War. While its name suggests that inter-corporate conflict is nothing new, the ultimate impact is of a different scale altogether. To some extent, such cataclysmic destruction can be attributed to a metafictional pragmatism: how else could one explain the totally transformed layout of Night City in Cyberpunk 2077? However, we should also be able to acknowledge the meaning it has to Cyberpunk Red in particular. As I’ve pointed out before, the Fourth Corporate War was set up long in advance; surely that makes it more important than a bit of distant backstory.
So, once we consider this conflict from a more immediate perspective—one where its aftermath is still an ongoing source of trouble—a stark contrast arises between this environment and that of the Cyberpunk one might be used to. Gone is the global glamor of an interconnected world economy, with the glorious megacities of the 2020s now reduced to heaps of ruins and refugees. Though the setting as a whole had always been close to themes of post-apocalypse, this mostly applied to the blighted regions outside of its urban standard. Here, the dynamic seems almost reversed, as rural Nomads come to assist urban emigres in reclaiming the abandoned suburbs of the past. Such dispersal seems anathema to the expected tropes of cyberpunk society, and yet it flows naturally (if precariously) from the conditions of its typical existence. If a conflict like the Fourth Corporate War was inevitable within such a hyper-capitalist hellscape, then something like Cyberpunk Red would probably follow it. This is an argument I will return to.
So far, I’ve mostly addressed the direct material effects of the Fourth Corporate War. However, its political outcomes are at least as interesting in their departure from the established patterns. To put it simply, cyberpunk is generally not the genre you turn to if you’re interested in seeing stories about strong state authorities. While these fictions are hardly lacking in forms of oppression, they are usually of a more diffuse and corporate kind, the bootheel of private security supplanting that of any nominal government. Cyberpunk 2020 was a clear example of this kind of setting, as its imagined collapse of the United States had made almost any exercise of federal power west of the Mississippi untenable. While other world governments were depicted as slightly more effective, their fundamental structure was still rife with corruption and corporate influence. By contrast, the presence and influence of the nation-state seems to be making a comeback in Cyberpunk Red, a change which is epitomized in the nationalization of Arasaka and Militech by Japan and the US specifically. The latter seems to be finally getting its shit together; while the Fourth Corporate War was a heavy blow to its superpower status, the functional dictatorship of Elizabeth Kress is at least maintaining its hold over the eastern half of the country. Having already established some US military bases in the so-called Free States, it may only be a matter of time before the westward expansion of federal authority becomes a government priority once again.
Taken together, the political shifts of Cyberpunk Red are a pretty drastic departure from what both previous installments and the genre as a whole had lead one to expect. You simply don’t think of the cyberpunk state as one which can step in and take charge when faced with megacorporate warfare. Indeed, I would argue that the roots of this assumed impotence go back to the very beginnings of cyberpunk, with its foundation as a dystopian extension of the then novel neoliberal hegemony. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, the future seemed to exist beyond history, beyond the squabbling of nation-states and ideologies and towards the establishment of a global capitalist order. The interconnection of communication networks and the federalization of several political blocs only seemed like further proof of this. Even today, the philosophy of neoliberalism still stands at the heart of everything this genre imagines, though it often does so to ultimately critique this global-historical tendency. Therefore, to see the sequel to a quintessentially cyberpunk work subvert this neoliberal framing, choosing instead to imagine the disruption of globalization and the reemergence of nation-state power, this is a most radical and innovative development. It suits a world which itself increasingly questions the tenets of neoliberalism, and where a new type of hegemonic social order may already have been instituted.
As a short aside, I would note that a large part of Cyberpunk Red’s worldbuilding seems to be a way of reckoning with our real-life present: a kind of ‘retcon without a retcon’. Though this was evident in elements I discussed earlier, nowhere is it more obvious than in its technological trajectory. While the technical landscape of Red is generally similar to that of the 2020s, the devastation of the Fourth Corporate War not allowing for much in the way of innovation, the few novelties it introduces are still quite revealing.
One of those technological changes, the creation of urban or regional ‘info pools’, is actually presented as a direct effect of wartime ruination. With the almost complete corruption of the prewar NET, a new and more local digital architecture is designed based on old and abandoned ideas from the early 1990s. While the sourcebook doesn’t acknowledge this explicitly, it’s pretty clear that the design in question is the HTTP we are ourselves so familiar with. Thus, the critical break of global war becomes an in-universe excuse to undo or at least ignore one of the more anachronistic elements of the Cyberpunk setting, the Tron-like digisphere of the NET. Though a part of me laments the loss of a retrofuturistic curiosity like this, the subtle attempt at setting adaptation is still appreciated.
If one needs more proof of these self-correcting worldbuilding maneuvers, another important technological shift in the Time of the Red is the introduction of so-called ‘agents’, mobile handheld devices which resemble modern smartphones in all but name. While their total capabilities are different and more advanced than what we’re presently used to, their introduction is a clear nod to our own reality; essentially, the authors are making up for the quaint prediction of earlier sourcebooks by steering its technological history in a more realistic direction. Strictly speaking, such a change in course isn’t really necessary: the world of Cyberpunk has long been taken as representing an alternate universe, instead of some wholly accurate prediction of a dark future. However, if this setting is to maintain its dialectical relevance vis-à-vis the real world, it makes sense to update the former periodically, placing it on a more parallel if not convergent track. Thus, with the help of these small adaptations, and without contradicting what has already been established, Cyberpunk Red still manages to make its world feel both fresh and fitting, returning to the allegorical function it held in the early 90s.
Having now spent quite a few paragraphs exploring the unique contributions of Cyberpunk Red to its larger setting and genre, what can I say about it in conclusion? In many ways, this workmerely continues that which its previous installments have set up, carrying its many destitutions towards an inglorious yet crucially incomplete culmination. At the same time however, to confront these developments so honestly and logically is worthy of some praise, as it shows a basic understanding of how this genre must be founded in the accumulation and entropy it essentially exhibits. In short, even if it doesn’t seem so cyberpunk at first glance, Cyberpunk Red is a more worthy installment in this tradition than those which copy its conventions wholesale. Instead of seeing cyberpunk as a type, it knows it to be a dynamic.
This said, I’m sure that one question about the preceding analysis is likely to remain: why the hell did I start this essay with an explanation of the An Lushan Rebellion? With my emphasis on the notion of accumulation now thoroughly established, I hope that this mystery will be a little easier to resolve. Like most events in the world of Cyberpunk, the An Lushan Rebellion was not some great repudiation of all that had preceded it, the kind of radical shift which could herald a new era. Instead, it was a botched attempt at assassinating a political dynasty, one which failed in the short term while still contributing to the slow yet certain demise of the Tang empire. Those who lived through it would see neither total damnation nor possible salvation, but instead a series of accumulating dysfunctions that would not dissipate within their lifetimes. Much the same can be said of the present Covid-19 pandemic: though it will undoubtedly change a lot of things in the long run, it is also just one more problem on the list of global maladies. This is why I mentioned it as well.
Before I end this piece properly, I would be remiss if I did not mention one final connection in this context of societal breakdown. Though it is not often that I involve my academic work in my essay writing, there is a direct line of inspiration here which should not go unmentioned. As part of some recent scholarly work, I discovered or rather invented a literary tendency I’ve come to call the ‘entropic dystopia’. Unlike most classic dystopian imaginations, which focus on the total institution of new and terrifying social orders, this entropic kind is more about the breakdown of the present regime, and the thousand-and-one little horrors promised to us by the slow self-destruction of hegemonic capitalism. Prominent entries in this tentative tradition include Octavia Butler’s Parable duology, Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation of Children of Men, and Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049. While these works might feature events or technologies that are wholly imaginary, these are not the sole source of the malaise which surrounds its protagonists. That is generally owed to the dysfunction of modern capitalism, a feature which this genre shares with both cyberpunk and our own crisis-ridden present. Even if the accumulation of cyberpunk is not completely identical to this concept of entropic dystopia, their thematic similarities are still worth noting. Both of them reflect a time of societal claustrophobia, where the sheer momentum of the dominant social structures makes them seem like a greater force than nature. As the quote attributed to Fredric Jameson goes: “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. The world of Cyberpunk almost realizes the former; could it one day achieve the latter? Cyberpunk Red has me optimistic. At least it understands the situation.
In the end, perhaps even the process of writing itself could be taken as a form of accumulation. This piece in particular felt like an exercise in buildup: some of the ideas expressed here had been going around my mind for months, if not longer. To this, I also owe the slightly odd introduction, as my reading about the Tang Dynasty provided that last vital catalyst that brought everything. To be sure, a lot remains to be said about the topics discussed here. Wiser people than me have critiqued the cyberpunk genre—as well as its eponymous RPG series—from a thousand different angles. Naturally, my present analysis is not some overall judgment of the Cyberpunk games, nor is it any kind of endorsement. Nevertheless, I have been surprised by the extent to which my concept of accumulation proved applicable to the Cyberpunk setting; at this point, I don’t even think it’s complete bullshit anymore!
I will leave you with two final observations, short serendipities I came across while writing this. First of all, with the present release of Cyberpunk Red’s full-sized rulebook, I finally realized that the nuking of Night City is this universe’s 9/11, a metropolitan attack which marks the transition into a new and uncertain era. Since the book actually refers to it as the ‘fall of the [Arasaka] towers’, this parallel seems more than intentional. It’s poignant. Secondly, the ever-delayed release of Cyberpunk 2077 has seen several art and worldbuilding tomes released in its anticipation. While reading the introduction to one of them (World of Cyberpunk 2077), I encountered the following excerpt:
“We live in a dystopian world, my friends, filled with crime, corruption, and poverty—ruled by mighty, power-hungry corporations and heartless, brutal government. Each year we’re facing another global crisis, and each day we’re forced to face the consequences of the previous ones.”
If this in-universe quote is not proof of cyberpunk’s inherent notion of accumulation, then I don’t know what would be. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a sourcebook to read.