Image provided by CD Projekt Red
E3 2019 superseded all my expectations this year. I was able to get hands-on demos of so many of the games that I’d been following for many months now. But for some reason there was an undercurrent that I couldn’t help but notice, and it pertains to two of the biggest games of this gen, Obsidian Entertaiment’s “The Outer Worlds” and CD Projekt Red’s “Cyberpunk 2077”. Here now, staunchly into the 21st century, post-internet, post-cold war, mired in the fallout from War on Terror, antagonists are no longer nations. According to these two games, its corporations.
In my childhood, your enemies in video games were often extraterrestrial in nature, zombies or Nazis. It was much rarer in classic games to see writers tackle the concept of gross capitalism or environmentalism or economic inequality. And to be fair, many of these games were made by people molded by the Cold War. We often forget in the lifetime of many Millennials there was an entire swath of the world blanketed by State-run media and propaganda. It’s easy to see why governments and their agents would draw the enmity of Late Boomer/Early Gen-X game creators in the 80’s and 90’s. This helped create a relationship to gaming that was very clear cut and simple. There are good guys and bad guys. It was a rudimentary, yet engaging, time for storytelling in games. I cut the game on, fight some monsters/Nazis/aliens/evil wizard, save the girl and turn it off. A singularly motivated antagonist hell bent on world domination didn’t need complex hero to fight them. And to be fair, I didn’t think I needed villains to be more complex either. That was until I started playing JRPGs.
The first time I personally recall fighting a company and not some evil empire or nation it was in Final Fantasy VII. Ironic, considering the shadow of the Sector 1 reactor loomed over the South Hall of the LA Convention Center at E3. JRPGs in the 90’s and beyond generally focused on destroying well-established, centuries-long power structures. Emperors, Governments, Religions and Armies were the primary antagonists for years in the genre. However, in FFVII, the power hungry (both in influence AND natural resources) Shinra Corporation’s master plan was to tap into a limitless font of energy within the planet and sell it. Their efforts harvesting the planet’s life force caused the surrounding areas of the city of Midgard to become a barren wasteland. You as the player, begin the game as a mercenary under contract from a small cadre of eco-terrorists that wants to stop Shinra and their wanton destruction of the environment. But what of the people of Midgard? How will they get power? How will their economy survive? How will some people work or eat? These were questions asked in the game that had never been asked before. The price of corporate greed and the price of fighting it as well.
This is where we come to games like “The Outer Worlds” and “Cyberpunk 2077”. Two games that both wrestle with the idea of corporations as factions and antagonists in two very different ways. Now, by 2019 this isn’t some rarity. Deus Ex, Resident Evil, Borderlands and other series have all tackled this in different ways but in the shadow of the FF7 Remake at E3 this year, evolution of this subject became more apparent.
In Obsidian Entertainment’s The Outer Worlds, the entire planet we saw gameplay take place in was owned and operated by a single company, Monarch. We were also told in the demo that the company used a loophole in corporate law to name the planet after itself. As creators of one of the most beloved interpretations of the Fallout universe, Fallout: New Vegas, Obsidian’s skill in world building comes in the form of its humor and “read the fine print” cynicism. For example, we meet and NPC that own’s “Malin’s House of Hospitality” in the town the gameplay demo starts in. Underneath there’s an asterisk that says, “hospitality not guaranteed”. And while it’s obvious that the tone of the Outer Worlds is to be more humorous, you can’t help but notice the more sinister underpinnings of this world as the demo went on. Entrepreneurs have no issue hiring mercenaries to flat out murder competition. One company has genetically engineered pigs to grow bacon-flavored tumors which fall off and are harvested for various products. It’s all very absurdist, over the top and made to highlight how far corporations will go for profit. However, from what we saw there was not really an emphasis on consumerism. The player character is somewhat removed from how the corporations operate and generate revenue. You are an independent variable in the world of Monarch, bent on eliminating corporate control of the planet. For as complex as making capitalism an enemy could be, The Outer Worlds creates a more one-dimensional depiction of it. This isn’t a bad thing. And for a game that is going to lean on irony and humor, getting too complex would make the jokes much harder to land.
What Obsidian created is a setting in which corporate hegemony is a laughable inevitability. Of course, massive companies would name entire planets after themselves. Why wouldn’t corporations terraform new lands and completely disrupt the ecosystem, forcing the evolution of multiple species? It’s the ridiculous nature of greed that Obsidian chose to highlight with the Outer Words. And so far, it looks like all the familiar tropes that they’ve perfected with New Vegas thrown into an intergalactic, capitalistic context. Obsidian’s been down similar roads before and done well, but its contemporary Cyberpunk is taking a totally different spin on the subject.
The genre of CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk addresses many different near-future issues. Transhumanism, Oligarchy, the surveillance state and many other things that exist in some form now and could become cornerstones of society soon. Corporations in the world of Cyberpunk 2077 have a very different symbiosis with the game world. The corpos are more than just a faction, they are inextricably linked to story and gameplay. As the player, you aren’t necessarily trying to totally dismantle the system in which you live in. In fact, you are a complete participant in it, and can use it to your advantage. Companies are so tied to everyday life that certain upgrades and dialogue options will only be available if you are a pro-corporate player. But the major difference between the two games is in the tone in which capitalism is depicted.
Night City, where Cyberpunk takes place, isn’t just riddled with advertisements. Its filled with people that have modified their bodies with corporate tech. Pacifica, a run-down district in Night City, was supposed to be a lavish playground for the rich that was abandoned when the economy slowed up. Being a native Detroiter, I’m all too familiar with what happens when corporations (aka Jobs) leave a city en masse. But that’s part of what makes Cyberpunk so interesting. The world isn’t just exploring what corporations will do to maximize profit, it’d looking at the cost society pays as well. Rampant consumerism creating not just a wider divide between classes, but also empowering conglomerates to have carte blanche over Night City’s day-to-day ecosystem. Armed private medical insurance agents will come and forcibly remove your cybernetic implants should you miss payments. Back alley ripper-docs will install them under the table to avoid said agents. The corporations have made life “better” while at the same time eroding everyone’s sense of self-worth. In earlier examples of the near future we feared Artificial Intelligence and companies building androids that would eradicate humanity. In Cyberpunk, the never-ending struggle to consume has made humanity desire to become the machines themselves.
CD Projekt Red already blew the world away with the Witcher series. But Cyberpunk 2077 is easily one of the most ambitions games ever. Not just from a technical perspective, Night City is shaping up to be one of the most layered and complex settings in gaming. It’s a place where corporate power is omni-present and at the same time wholly ambiguous. Players are thrown into a place where every underlying social system has been privatized and packaged for sale, not to mention our own bodies.
Exploring a system that guides our everyday lives is something that takes a steady hand. While we may not think about it, we interface with both government and corporations every day from the moment we are born. But what happens when the lines of those two giants continue to blur, to the point where they are indistinguishable? Do we get Shinra and a dying planet in exchange for limitless power? Do we get Monarch and a surreal exploration of capitalism where genetic modification is commonplace? Or do we get Night City? Where our very bodies have been commodified in our quest to attain more. Or perhaps we’ve put ourselves on a path to experience all three. I’m excited to play both games soon not just for tight, focused gameplay. But also, to explore what these immensely talented dev teams and writers have chosen to say about our interactions with what we buy, who we buy it from, and how much it really costs us.