The Stranded Kelpie

A short story about a girl named Mels at a festival. She encounters a girl behaving oddly, and has to perform a task in exchange for the return of her phone. Continue reading

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Cyberpunk 2077: Punk or just the Aesthetic?

Cyberpunk 2077 has a while to come out yet, but the trailer raises many, many questions about what it’s going to be. It may seem rather forward to condemn a product before its release, but the purpose of this advertisement is to tell us about the intent and quality of the product. With how incredibly powerful the trailer is and what it’s already doing as a standalone piece, it’s worth breaking down what it’s doing in each moment, and why this matters.

Before I get into the thick of it, let’s look at Cyberpunk and what the title alone could tell us about the story. Punk itself is a movement with decades of history, but mainly today it ties into ideas about anarchy and grassroots power structures and left-wing activism. Cyberpunk as a genre has grown to have its own conventions, but over a good half of the genre is still about that at its core, still about resisting corrupt structures of power and Orwellian futures. For such a message to be effective, it must tie into the human experiences of its audience. So far as most cyberpunk stories are concerned, that’s easy. We’re effectively living in a cyberpunk story right now; we have Murdoch media, we have social inequality, we have multinational private corporations bargaining for power over entire countries in the TPP deal, and we also have the internet and social media and citizen journalism and 3D printed prosthetics. Technology today is giving everyday members of society the ability to improve their lives and resist corruption. We are ready to take control of our futures away from corrupt bodies who seek to destroy us for profit. We are burning for it. The emotional work of the story is already provided.
So, why does it feel like this trailer fails at that?

The first shot is a woman’s eyes, colourful, brow unfurrowed, gaze steady. Accompanied by the line, “have a look in my eyes”, the lyrics poise her as the speaker, the protagonist, the viewpoint character. We are poised to be sympathetic to her. We’re lead straight into the image of her resisting bullet fire, the lyrics refer to her as powerful, having ‘violence’ under her skin. In that first shot, I think it’s important to note, no clothes are visible. The primary focus is the bullets, smashed into nothing but dust upon impact with her, but the second underlying thing to note in that shot is the initial appearance of bared skin. The woman is powerful, but she is also soft, bare and, as we see going into the rest of the trailer, completely surrounded by enemies. This sets her up as our underdog, our chosen protagonist taking a stand against the odds. It doesn’t appear to be a coincidence that we’re opening with a powerful but vulnerable woman. We’re in an age of push-back against feminism, where vocal speakers for truth and equality face doxxing and swatting and serious cyber abuse. These images immediately tap into that cultural context.

We get flashes of other shots setting the scene. A discarded red stiletto heel with a bullet passing in front, a recognisable symbol of femininity passed over for violence. The placement and framing of that shot is too significant for it to be something we’re meant to ignore. Environment shots of the city, advertisements for 80’s pin-up women wearing tech, telling us this world is ‘gritty’, it’s grim-dark and consumerist, the shitty gender politics are much the same as what we have to deal with today. Tech has progressed, people have not.
Wider shots give us the police department that surrounds our viewpoint character. These are pretty important establishing shots so far as the villain is concerned: villains in cyberpunk stories are nearly always authority figures, inciting readers to question where power is held and why. The beginning of this trailer sets us up with the police as the threat, suggesting this story is one about anarchy. The split between organics and synthetics has been established: our viewpoint character is marginalised, alone, a criminal (and therefore a traditional cyberpunk protagonist) and clearly not organic. The question now, apparently, is whether she can use the technology at her disposal for her liberation and the redemption of her society, or if she’s at the centre of a battle she can never win.
But as we get more details, these initial conceptions are undermined, and the portrayal of our viewpoint character is revealed to be less sympathetic to her cause and more…. ‘video gamey’.

 

the only thing threatening to me about this image is the resonances it has of female sexuality posed as a force of evil Is this used as a promotional image for the powerful concepts it raises, or is it just aesthetic? Are we meant to be asking questions and anticipating answers, or are we simply being promised titillation through violence?

She’s revealed to be wearing some kind of corset, underclothes, and she is covered in blood. Her hands appear as if broken, fingers curled as if in pain, scythes extended from her arms. We take the first steps away from ‘cyberpunk protagonist’ and towards ‘horror movie trope’. We don’t know enough to say for sure which horror movie trope this woman fills, though my guess at this stage would be the ‘overly liberated woman’ trope. She’s modded her body, she’s taken control, and now she is out of control and has Gone Too Far. We have echoes of the lyrics “personal responsibility” over the panning shots of her in her underwear, the blood, the bodies around her, bodies of her victims. The voiceover tells us “…Fourteen people are dead,” and we are taken back from the shots of her as the progatonist and into an outsider’s point of view with the flicker of a TV stream over the scene. Here we are told, she is not the hero.

We transition to see the newest player on the field, a stubbly police officer holding a gun to the back of her head. We get a close-up view of his set jaw–my mind still resists the New Guy as Protagonist as his eyes are covered, hidden, he is depersonalised, but that puts him even further into the Men In Black trope–and a panning shot of his shiny Police Department Badge, as resplendently shiny as any symbol of hope ought to be. Once this scene is done, we see the woman don the same uniform and helmet that he wears, and smile as their helicopter takes them off to a new mission.
So now, instead of an anarchist story where technology gives people power to resist, we have a Secret Police story where Technology Eats Your Soul and turns the average tech user into a monster (Ooh, technology scary, woo). These are both typical subversions of cyberpunk genre tropes, not incredibly unusual to see a story take this path, but presenting this subversion in this way risks alienating any audience who would sympathise with the initial shots of this woman. Promising one story then showing another isn’t always the best way to tell something, not when the twist uses a marginalised audience as its scapegoat. It shows that this subversion is less, well, ‘subversive’ so much as another reinforcement of old, tired tropes, encouraging socially progressive, punk-hearted audiences to feel betrayed by the corporate AAA industry. It seems like a sell-out. The Men in Black trope is ancient history in the world of TV Tropes. Trying to tell that story in our current sociopolitical context seems nearly tragic in the way it threatens to completely fail to connect to everyday audiences.

Current game industry narratives are ones of a shifting power dynamic, of making room for everyone’s voices and different stories to be told. But this game appears to be trying to maintain a status quo of power (whiteness, maleness, capitalism) which resonates really strongly in clearly unintended ways here: the misguided sense of heroism holding a trigger to the heads of a disenfranchised audience; the adaptation of a rebellious force (the cyborg woman) into a weapon against those who would rebel (tech users) is rather like the ways that abusers turn the language of protection and safety into further methods of abuse. Like how SWAT teams created for disarming bombs are appropriated by abusers into a tool to terrorise women in Canada and the USA. The image of the badge on the “hero’s” chest feels like dangerous propaganda, particularly as we’re in an age where we have individuals hiding behind police organisations in order to get away with racially-motivated hate crimes. I could go on. But essentially, by using the Men In Black trope, Cyberpunk 2077 is far from politically neutral, but actually aligning itself politically as a conservative piece of media.

I want to pause and go back here, and talk about what this does as an image. This female character doesn’t look like a monster. Scythes aside, she looks like she’s been displaced from the bedroom, taken right from a place of comfort and intimacy and placed in the middle of a place of pain, where she is deserving of being shut down and attacked. She is a typical depiction of sexiness in modern media; knees spread, shoulders back: and now she is being punished and portrayed as evil, a twisted monster. The scythes extending from her arms don’t look like a part of her. They look like they have violently cut away from her arms, a monster from within, treading closer and closer to the trope of sexiness and vulnerability being a trap for victims. (I really have no amount of words for how dangerous this trope is) I want to ask questions such as – why was she dressed for bed when she went on her rampage? What about an intimate moment turned her into a villain? I’m not sure those are questions that even have an answer. The label of “punk” promises me that marginalised people will have their heyday, but the history of portrayals of women in mainstream media tells me that this may just be titillation, which once again is showing it has more loyalty to generic mainstream sci-fi aesthetics than the spiritual origins of the cyberpunk genre.

Hints of the story from other sources tell me that the motivation behind her ‘rampage’ may be out of her control in more ways; a drug called Braindance which causes people to lose control and commit crimes, that the police force pictured rescue people whose brains have been ‘burnt out’ by the drug and recruit them where possible in order to reduce crime.
This is pretty bad on the surface of it for multiple reasons. One is that the War on Drugs narrative suggested here is one that is currently understood by scientific communities as a complete misunderstanding of why drugs are a problem in society; drugs are a symptom of a problem in society, something people turn to when they lack a proper support structure, not the source of problems themselves. Turning to that outdated idea for narrative fuel devalues the story before it’s even told.

Someone argued elsewhere that this trailer can’t be an example of more misogyny in gaming, because the fact that this woman is clearly a serial killer means that she has ‘agency’ and therefore this entire trailer is not misogynistic. So long as the drug narrative is in play, this is false. One could argue that agency is in the choosing to take drugs, but we’re getting further and further away from the trailer content here: either she is directly responsible for mass slaughter and is a malicious, deliberate antagonist who cannot be redeemed, or she has ‘lost control’ over her own brain and emotions; and if the latter we’re edging closer to an example of mental illness as a source of violent and conflict, as well as the ‘hysterical woman‘ trope. They’re playing with the lie that she’s normal, she just needs help to get control again, whether a slap on the wrist, face, or a bullet to the back of the head. And that trope really awkwardly falls back in with the patterns of this video as a dangerous reinforcement of ideas behind both domestic violence, the demonization of mental illness and the excuses made for real-world murderers when people refuse to hold them accountable for their own actions.

As someone who was seconds ago in the trailer sympathising with her as a protagonist, someone who has been acutely aware of the risks I have to navigate every day in regards to domestic violence in Australia and as a bisexual woman, this is starting to hurt. I’ve gone from, “shit yeah, I can be a bullet-proof woman standing up against the corrupt status quo!” now I get to see that my sympathetic voice in this world is evil/out of control and punishable by extreme force. The resonances to domestic violence against women are made stronger by her dress code, by the justification of extreme violence against her (because she’s ‘too powerful’, because she’s hurt others, she’s getting a gun to the brain on a grimy street instead of a court trial), by the image of vulnerability and a man with a gun against the back of her head, and an entire street filled with people–an entire organisation–who are supporting this male character. The fact that this woman is later seen on the same team as the male character reinforces this rather than undermines this. Women are often forced to forgive their abusers or work with them in order to maintain their status and avoid losing their freedoms and rights. At the start of the trailer, she was implied as rebelling against an unfair system; now she’s joined on board with it, so it’s promoting the falsehood that it’s okay, that it justifies the actions of the enforcers of ‘justice’.

I want to come back to a quote from Emilie Buchwald about rape culture, as “a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women.  It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent”. This trailer appears to support this in its imagery. The woman does nothing in this clip but display her sexuality, and it’s shown to be a force of violence that must be stopped. The violence against her is a power play, one acted upon by what appears to be the Official Protagonist: it’s portrayed as exciting, the part of the game we’re all waiting for, the AAA promise of boss fights and shooter mechanics. With her in her underwear, feminine objects scattered about the scene as though discarded in haste for a hook-up, and a powerful man ready to punish her for her transgressions, the ways in which this video relates to femininity is harmful. Cyberpunk is a genre in which “nothing is what it seems” but if that genre promise is leading to nothing but a reinforcement of the idea that Femininity (or Sexual Freedom/Vulnerability) Is a Trap, or any of the ideas around drug/tech use and mental illness being sources of true evil in society, I have a lot of doubts as to what this game is actually going to achieve. There’s nothing surprising about this. There’s nothing new, only disappointments. How can the game make up for a trailer that can tap into so much harm in such a short span of time? It would have to be a completely different beast to stop from turning into a monster of a failure to contribute positively to games media.

This is a great trailer, on a technical level. It has great sound, animation, the level of polish is a beautiful display of technical skill. The environment shots are gorgeous. But it is precisely because it has so much beauty behind it that the messages it threatens to spread feel so insidious; high quality work of this kind is taken seriously by millions of consumers. They will internalise the lessons it teaches. We must always remember that everything in design is a choice. If the teaser trailer is a promise of what is to come, it is a promise of outdated narratives spreading harmful ideas. It chooses not to question anything, but to instead revel in aesthetic over meaning.