Cyberpunk 2077’s Los Angeles
What does the game have to say about Los Angeles Futurism? I played 50 hours to find out.
Author’s note: Cyberpunk 2077 is a massive, open-world game with dozens of hours of content, some of which I may not have experienced. What follows is what I gleaned from 50+ hours of playtime and reading of the game’s promotional literature. Also, this piece contains mild spoilers of some of the game’s lore.
An obsession with the halcyon days of guitar-based music genres like grunge and hard rock. A beach town buoyed by a decaying theme park on a pier. A white-lettered sign in the hills. Myriad neon signs and kitsch. Endless Keanu Reeves sightings.
You’ll find all this iconography and more in 2020’s much anticipated Cyberpunk 2077. Originally announced 2012, the game is a hugely ambitious follow-up to Polish developer CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, a medieval fantasy game that beloved as much for its rich storytelling, horniness, setting, and player choices as much as it was for the fact that the developer community at length with its community, and made consistent improvements to the game. The game turned CD Projekt Red into one of Poland’s largest entertainment companies and has led to a spinoff card game and Netflix series. By contrast, the release of Cyberpunk 2077 has been ugly. It was released on multiple generations of consoles, and ran so poorly on the old ones that Sony delisted it from its PS4 shop entirely. After promising that the studio wouldn’t resort to crunch — an industry term for forcing workers into countless hours of overtime — they eventually succumbed to its lull. The developers’ stock fell 40% in the week of its release. The game also caused multiple epileptic reviewers to have seizures. Nevertheless, the game has reportedly sold more than 13 million copies.
In the lore of Cyberpunk 2077’s universe, Night City exists in between Southern and Northern California, but it’s fair to say it’s an interpretation of Los Angeles. Perhaps, more appropriately, it is a representation of the Los Angeles realized in ‘90s cinema, then evolved through the eyes of a large-scale Polish video game development team.
In Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself — an essay on Los Angeles as depicted in cinema — he notes that film noir classic Double Indemnity created an image of Los Angeles that will forever be etched into the minds of of outsiders — that of a place filled to the brim with untold crime, seedy characters and sexual perversion. Night City checks all of those boxes. In this technocratic dystopian world, you’ll spend most of your time fucking people (or barely avoiding fucking them), murdering people with a wide array of detailed, fetishistic weapons, driving around, or deciding whether to betray or rob people. Cyberpunk 2077 displays an image of Los Angeles that’s been evolved by the game’s myriad other influences — William Gibson’s satirical future-noir Virtual Light, which features secrets stored in virtual reality goggles, cigarettes, a tele-empathic drug called Dancer, The Matrix, The Fast and the Furious series, and people smoking cigarettes in Blade Runner.
Cyberpunk 2077 is bullish with depicting its characters smoking cigarettes, despite the game’s bugs wreaking havoc with this aesthetic motif. Cigarettes fly around characters’ heads and mouths. They shoot out of characters’ hands. Characters stand up and leave tables, but their cigarettes remain, like obstinate nicotine ghosts. I won’t focus too much on the game’s bugs, as many reviews have already done, but the cigarette one really highlights how much of the game was intended to be an edgy update on the Los Angeles noir. It’s libertarianism run amok, with very few moments of community. In fact — that’s really one of the few choices you have in the game: the be a rugged individualist or to accept help from those around you and from your mental Keanu.
Unsurprisingly, the game heavily pushes you into being a rugged individualist. It’s the same image of Los Angeles sold to outsiders by Hollywood and developers for years: a place where one can use their wit and gall to make something of oneself, putting themselves over the top of openly corrupt institutions and other less industrious workers. And — much like the real thing — it very rarely works as it’s supposed to. People fall through their own cookware. Cars start floating at random. People get stuck in items. People just repeat punching animations while standing still and trying to box you. Cyberpunk 2077 fails its players in the same way that Los Angeles fails its citizens. Through dogged persistence — it took me 10 hours to start enjoying the game and figure out how to plan out my manual saves before I knew the game would crash — you’ll start enjoying your time spent with characters you meet along the way.
There are many highways in Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City, but everything is built out vertically, with none of the suburban sprawl of the real Los Angeles. It is as though the high rise developments of DTLA expanded outward like a plague. It is perhaps similar to Demolition Man’s San Angeles—an infinite urban sprawl comprised of Los Angeles, San Diego, and Santa Barbara. (Cyberpunk 2077 takes place after a disastrous proxy-war between corporations. Demolition Man often references the Franchise Wars, which were fought between fast food companies.) There are a few trailer parks, a community of nomads, and a single suburban community with bungalows, but they exist outside the boundaries of the city. As far as I could tell, there were two houses in the hills and they both belonged to aging rock stars. Even though CD Projekt Red claims the city as a dystopia, it’s clear they couldn’t resist the impulses of many who feel the need to “fix” Los Angeles. That is to say, their futuristic ideal is a Los Angeles less sprawl and enclaves and with more gridded areas and roundabouts. Many of the high-rises in Night City seem to exist in their own Columbus Circle, as though Manhattan were transplanted onto the beach.
Night City’s public transportation is glorious, and you would be hard-pressed to find any Angeleno living refer to it as dystopian. There’s a free underground subway (and seemingly an automated bus) system linking up the entire city, harkening back to the trolley era. There is little to no traffic or congestion. Wealthy people seemingly fly above the fray. It’s unclear why anyone in this version of Los Angeles would even need a car, as there’s nowhere to go if you’re not doing a street-race or perhaps leaving the city entirely. Though you could recreate the experience of cruising around in your vehicular private-public space, waiting behind cars at lights, turning onto an exit at the last minute, there really is no reason to. For me, it was essentially the only way to get around, as my game would often crash if I drove through the city too fast after finishing a mission (perhaps this was an allusion to Speed, yet another Keanu Reeves vehicle, though I doubt it). Unless we’re to assume everyone is a dying mercenarial gig-worker like V on a series of violent quests, there’s no industry in Night City besides tech. Where would people be driving to? All the low-wage jobs are automated, and all the high-wage jobs seem to be done virtually or inside of a tower. While the wealthy live in Eames-influenced tower penthouses, the poor either live on the street (though homelessness seems somewhat rare in Night City) or in homes that are essentially large capsule hotels, with their buildings hosting stores, restaurants, gun stores (on every corner) and every other necessary service in Night City. Abandoned and decrepit hotels and motels have become their own communities. Farms are obsolete, and food is synthetic.
The beaches of Cyberpunk, dubbed Pacifica, are empty and run by a problematically portrayed gang of Black people obsessed with Haitian culture called the Voodoo Boys. In our first encounter with them, we find them having a rave/prayer service and then one chops the head off of a rooster. It isn’t explained in the story why they’re obsessed with Haitian culture if they aren’t from the Caribbean. Pacifica is described in the Night City Guide: “Pacifica could have Night City’s money making resort, but once the investment dried up it became a husk left to rot. Now it’s the turf of one of Night City’s most dangerous gangs: the Voodoo Boys.” It seems like a race-baiting fantasia right out of an apocalyptic press release written by the LAPD or a ‘slow growth’ beach town homeowners’ association. Nobody is playing, or surfing, or boating, though it’s clear the wealthy still have yachts.
Mike Davis, the definitive Marxist chronicler of the history of Los Angeles, writes in City of Quartz about an LAPD officer being quoted in the times saying that the scenic Pacific Palisades park is “for rich white people.” There is certainly no “surftopia” as Reyner Banham — an architectural critic who documented the city in the seminal Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies — would call it. This is ostensibly because the ocean has become too toxic for recreation, but I couldn’t help but feel Los Angeles’ surfing culture would adapt if they had access to bodily implants. There is, however, a Waterworld-esque mission where you explore an old city that’s been submerged by water from a broken dam, no doubt an allusion to William Mulholland’s disastrous St. Francis Dam.
The most stirring way Cyberpunk depicts the future of Los Angeles is in the way it strips nature out of the city, highlighting through absence what we take for granted. A piece of in-game lore indicates, birds were exterminated because they carried some sort of avian virus. This touch is particularly resonant in early 2021. There are a few scenes where you encounter a mysterious, adorable sphinx cat. These contain some of the most resonant images in the game, as cats are great and this one is nicely animated, and also because the removal of nature has left such a hole in the rest of the world. By contrast, we’re treated to a flashback of a character working on a factory farm, and its just as sterile and disgusting as you might expect.
There is a MAGA-lite street gang of veteran “patriots” called the 6th Street Gang, but they’re completely divorced from the truly objectionable aspects of modern conservatism. They are not explicitly racist or cruel, they just enjoy American flags and guns. It’s a sheepish and tone-deaf portrayal. Politicians are corrupt — except for the two I get to work with in a mission, who are sincere but then it ends up they are having their thoughts controlled by an AI, so maybe they’re not sincere — and corporations are bad. People are addicted to drugs and body modification, which are good but also bad (the game waffles on this quite a bit). You can have sex with ciswomen or cismen, but not trans people, as far as I could tell.
It seems like Cyberpunk picks and chooses moments at random where society is desensitized and where it isn’t. The game adores sex, but in a mission where I chose to help a group of sex workers unionize, the workers themselves were depicted as stupid and flakey. Latin Americans are reduced to a woeful stereotype of family and modified-car obsessed subculture. Hollywood is represented in a limited way, as the industry has evolved into a large snuff-film money-laundering operation, in which people view productions that are first-person gratuitously violent and sexual experiences of prostitutes and inmates on death row. The message here is muddled. The game presents these productions as perfectly legal and profitable—the productions are shot on a studio lot accessible to the public —but there are also protesters against this system, and a black-market producing identical smut videos. The portrayal of police is unsophisticated: cops are nice but also spy on and modify the minds of civilians. It’s all a nonsensical, inconsistent mishmash. For all of the pre-release criticisms about transphobia and racial insensitivity in the game, I found that Cyberpunk has very little to say about the future of racial relations or queerness or even politics in America.
While Cyberpunk 2077 was supposed to define a generation of video games, it’s ultimately too incoherent and pieced together to make a grand statement of its own. Many of its worst tendencies are juvenile pastiche of other sci-fi properties, and its most rewarding emotional pieces come in the intimate first-person moments that seem influenced by smaller, narrative independent games. When it works, it’s absorbing fun, and dare I say beautiful, but in such a massive, messy adventure, that doesn’t really propel it out of a crowded genre.
There are inspired, beautiful moments and some surprisingly interactions in the game, but I couldn’t help but feel that the overall traversal and world of this future Los Angeles was detached from the real thing and unsure of itself. While Cyberpunk 2077 guides players through dozens of hours of a premonition of a synthetic future Los Angeles, too much of your time feels wasted on references to other interpretations of the city. It’s like taking homeopathic medicine distilled 100 times over, or taking a Star Tour that hasn’t been updated in 40 years.
KNOCK.LA and its writers unfortunately still live under capitalism — but not for long, if we have anything to say! Thanks to readers like you, KNOCK.LA is able to keep you informed on local politics and uplift marginalized voices in LA. Join us in fighting the good fight and donate to KNOCK.LA’s Patreon.