You stagger out of a cockroach infested motel in the middle of the California desert. You hack up your lungs, the biochip malfunctioning again. And in the phosphorescent street lights you slump onto a bench. Desperate and miserable, you finally ask Johnny why he hates Arasaka. What his beef is with corps. And Johnny tells you.
They’re too big to stop, he says. Their tech is everywhere, infesting the streets, our homes, even ourselves, inside our non-organics. A database of unmatched depth and breadth capable of zeroing anyone, anytime, for any reason that will be systematically obligated to do so for profit. Beyond discrimination: the extinction of freedom. The end of self-expression, art, empathy, kindness. Anything non-essential will be consumed, automated, all at the expense of you and me. No one person at the controls anymore, rather, a techno-organic force of imperial might, set in motion with too much inertia to be stopped or turned off at the wall. The only option is to blow it all to hell.
While the narrative of Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t quite grapple with the questions Johnny raises, he’s nonetheless right about the emergent colonialism that comes with end stage Capitalism. While the exploitation of the vulnerable is obvious, what Johnny keys into is the systematic nature of the violence and hunger and greed. If geometric growth starts with gaining more clients, then expanding into new markets, then new countries, then new mediums, where does it end? If the number has to go up, where to next once we’ve conquered all the land and all the sea and all the devices? Cyberpunk gestures to the last natural resource to be consumed: existence itself.
Arasaka, the mega-corp conquering the world, has conquered life. Reality. With a simple computer program, Soulkiller, they can rip your mind from your body. Create copies to sabotage your life. Hunt you down. Hold you hostage to blackmail your loved ones. Or maybe they just blink you out of existence if they can get a tax break on server storage space for doing so.
Despite the verity of Johnny’s memories in the game, the prescience of how he perceives the threat of Arasaka is accurate and arrestingly relevant. Even as companies report record profits, they lay off hundreds of workers. Entire industries sacrifice their people to make the line go up more even as corporations colonise increasing fragments of our lives. First they came for our entertainment: product placement, advertising. Then they came for our art: dull the edges, make it appeal to as many folks as possible. Reinvented the oldest financial scams and gave them new names and batched them onto new tech. And now they’ve come for our attention: scroll, tap. Don’t blink. Don’t think about it. They’re probably not trying to sell you something, right? It’s just a cute dog video. Quick, check it out, you can track your steps and your heartbeat, cool isn’t it? Talks to your phone too. And actually, here, we can tell you what’s up with your sleep as well, wizard huh? Cool right? Don’t think. We can track your mood too, why are you so sad and anxious? Tap this, you’ll feel better. Don’t stop. Don’t blink.
Cyperpunk literalises this concept in genre appropriate, if at times very literal, ways. Human beings have operating systems now. Everyone’s brains and bodies are full of chips and upgrades and subroutines. Advertising isn’t even in the world, it’s personalised and served to you as augmented reality. Even without the fictitious bio-tech, we’re already there with our dozen flavours of glass rectangles. Sleep and unconsciousness are obliterated into technology too. When you die in the game, your operating system “flatlines”, so too when V is knocked out, your system has to reboot.
Johnny is right. The scales have been tipped too far in the wrong direction. While Cyberpunk’s narrative choices are few and far between, how you choose to resolve the three outstanding threats matters. What will your V do about Arasaka’s forever prison on the moon, what will you do about Johnny’s long lost love Alt, and Johnny himself, what happens to him. The story originally offered fairly binary options: blow Arasaka to holy hell and save Alt, leave the city with nomads, two variations of dying, or a revenge quest that dooms you to Arasaka’s forever prison. Whatever you choose, V dies.
One of the new endings introduced by Phantom Liberty sees V survive their death sentence, but at the cost of wearing implants - a choice framed in an odd way for reasons we’ll get to. We learn that V’s been in a coma for two years. Their partner has moved on. They can’t wear any chrome at all, the one thing that you absolutely need to be a mercenary in Night City. Despite surviving, their life is over.
My V returned to Night City flat and depressed. Our friend Viktor sold out to the corps. Everyone else is gone. But before the end, V ran into Misty and they talked. Honestly. Misty gently explained that V is like everyone else now, and will need to start a new life, somewhere else.
If the threat of Cyberpunk is a fate worse than death - the loss of control over one’s reality and self - in being forever barred from cyberware, V is, by definition, immune to this possibility. And yet, in being severed from the means of production of the system, V is now powerless to change it. V can never tear Arasaka’s forever prison apart. Johnny Silverhand, the very embodiment of this desire for change, is killed in the act of saving V. My V, in choosing to live, did the wrong thing for the world.
Before the surgery, you’re not provided this information as the player. The dramatic tension of this ending, for those who’ve beaten the game before, is what does survival even mean for V. It’s fitting that erasing Johnny’s engram erases V’s old life. Choosing to walk away and leave Arasaka to their devices means they win. The mega-corp, indirectly, through pure inertia alone, steals your life. Takes away your access to modern reality. You can feel this loss in V’s movements and voice: sluggish, worn to marrow. The world feels distant, seen as if through a haze. And at the end of it all, the punishment is to survive with the guilt of killing Johnny. Losing your partner. Losing your life: soulkiller comes for you, too, in the end.