Just four days after the conclusion to the unparalleled hype of Cyberpunk 2077, its developers released a formal apology to a dismayed audience, and even went as far as to offer generous refunds. What had, since 2013, promised to give a glimpse of a hypertechnological future, delivered precisely the opposite: gamers experienced it as a return to PS2-style graphics and animations, and many went as far as to call the game “unfinished”, even “unplayable” on last-gen platforms (PS4 and XBOX one). As one gamer testimonial, retweeted by Elon Musk, reads: “This was supposed to be the future of gaming and now I don’t know what else I have to look forward to.”
Many games have glitches, some even a lot of them. In this case, however, they result in a massive aesthetic failure. Cyberpunk imagines the future as a place of smog-drenched cityscapes, gaudy splashes of neon flickering into ideograms and nude models; run-down shuttles floating up into skies the colour of a television tuned to a dead channel. Cyberpunk thus tells of something very hard, tangible and concrete, in the midst of technological networks. Cyberpunk 2077, on the other hand, jettisons any such tangible elements: it makes the sharp saturated lines of Night City hopelessly smooth in an attempt to render more quickly, it lets NPCs walk through walls, has cars slipping through roads to traverse down the grid of the 3D-map below the city and policemen materializing out of thin air. What is left of the concrete that cyberpunk celebrates, when Cyberpunk 2077 is so virtual? As PC Gamer put it: “The lighting, shadows, and density of the architecture are stunning, no doubt. … But it’s all superficial. A plywood cowboy movie set propped up by wooden planks that could topple over in a stiff breeze.”
There is a philosophically interesting answer CD Projekt Red could give to such a charge. They could argue that Night City is simply cyberpunk in its fully developed form, where technology has not only nested itself as an essential part of the environment, but also in the subjects that experience it. “V”, the main character, is after all a cyborg living in augmented reality, able to loadnew skills into his/her brain by means of a chip; hack nearby objects by just gazing on them; jump into security cameras and experience them from the first person perspective. The bugs and glitches, the slow rendering time, the smooth backgrounds, the polygonic faces – they could have argued – are all technological failures on the part of V’s gear, and not the console itself. Night City looks indeed unreal and intangible from the first person, partly because it is.
They could also make the (equally dishonest) case that their decision to release it early was an act of performance art, itself an inkling of the kind of logic that would shape V’s virtual reality. The game had been in the pipeline for eight years, and its release had already been postponed several times in 2020. At some point, capital had to flow in, and releasing an unfinished product was perhaps an easy way to monetize its unprecedented hype (the game sold eight million copies only in pre-orders, and won ’game of the year’ at E3 two years before being released). By analogy, what is to say that V’s gear would not be equally unfinished and glitchy? The reign of capital that generated CD Projekt Red’s fiasco is the very premise of Cyberpunk 2077: Night City is governed by corpos with the sole purpose of maximizing profit rather than necessarily manufacturing passable quality tech. Given that they produced V’s chips and AR-equipment, are we not to expect his/her reality to include endemic bugs and glitches, in constant need of tweaking and fixing? Just like the game?
To take such a cynical PR-move further, they might reason that their performance art is philosophically grounded; the idea of a future ontology including literal glitches and bugs is after all by no means new. Philosophers of the internet have long both warned and praised the reontologization that the internet entails: that the inventory of our ontology can no longer be seen as hard and fast, in the way metaphysicians since Plato have imagined, but as a net of nodes that always reshape themselves, morphing into ever-new constellations. For our podcast Metaphysical Laboratory (in a coming episode) we spoke to Luciano Floridi, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information and Director of the Digital Ethics Lab at Oxford, who argued that this is the first time in history where human beings actually shape the noumenon (the noumenon being the reality we have no access to, beyond the phenomenon, the reality of our experience). When human beings fabricate technological entities, it no longer makes sense to distinguish between their noumenal and phenomenal being, since the latter is constitutive of the former (the iPhone-in-itself must carry a piece of Steve Jobs in it for it even to qualify as an iPhone). The corporate technology ordering and filtering V’s intuitions thus literally inhabits the inventory of Cyberpunk 2077’s noumenal world. And so glitches and bugs are introduced to the fabric of reality with them; no wonder they are in the game!
Behind every ontological shift, however, lies an aesthetic, be it Quine’s arenaceous landscapes or the imbricate folds of the baroque. Notwithstanding its bleak, even neo-fascistic overtones, cyberpunk offers the perfect aesthetic for the technological ontology: its imaginaries are kaleidoscopic clutters of random stuff, lumped together, decentralized in webworks of intensities. But when this aesthetic is no longer a dreamy reverie, but the noumenon itself, it ceases to any longer be aesthetic: it is simply a glitchy mess, sullied by the very nodal fluxes of capital that it wants to represent. Cyberpunk 2077 was a failure precisely because it takes the cyberpunk aesthetic too far down the lane of ontologization. Even the dream of cyberpunk cannot be kept pristine. The wish to have the aesthetic without the ontology is particularly obvious in one review: “I loved being sucked into Night City, it felt so real. When glitches happen, it reminds you that this is just a video-game. It is a real snap-back to reality moment, which is a bummer.” Cyberpunk 2077 becomes too real for us to fetischize the broken future it imagines.
But the future is not only broken. It is cancelled. The cyberpunk-inspired philosophical movement known as accelerationism aptly theorises that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism (as either Fredrick Jameson or Slavoj Zizek or Mark Fisher or your stoner college dorm-mate famously quipped), and the #Accelerate Manifesto bluntly declares that “the future is cancelled”. They are ostensibly right – a utopian political impetus survives only in a handful of otherwise delusional Marxists. In such dire circumstances, what is there to do but sit back and enjoy the aesthetics of our impending doom, perhaps through a video game?
Yet Cyberpunk 2077 shows us that the acceleration had not gone far enough, that there was one future left to cancel: the aesthetic vision of the accelerated dystopia. It forces us to ontologize (and not aestheticize) such a (non-)future, and any vague consolation of cyberpunk is lost. Elon Musk’s reviewer was thus right in that Cyberpunk 2077 cancelled the future: it was a failure of dramatic proportions. But the very idea of a cancelled future is at the heart of the promise of cyberpunk. Cyberpunk 2077 is, therefore, a perfect failure.
Åke Gafvelin (University of Cambridge)
Lapo Lappin (Uppsala/Innsbruck)