THE HAUNTED SELF IN CYBERPUNK 2077
BY RACHAEL ROBERTSON
The Relic®: Advanced consciousness-saving technology from Arasaka Corp., packed onto a shard that is the pinnacle of minimalist design. Relic® and The Relic® are registered trademarks of the Arasaka Corporation. Any similarity to products or services that are either extant or in development is purely coincidental. The compilation of personality-construct data and its operative writing to data carriers is a nascent realm of technological, neurological, and psychological exploration - results may vary.
Part of an in-game limited-access advertisement for the Arasaka Corporation’s Relic.
The Gothic spaces that underpin CD Projekt RED’s action-role-playing game Cyberpunk 2077 (2020) are haunted by uncertainties of self. The narrative at work here is full of liminal spaces - gaps between buildings, gaps between self and ghost, gaps between technology and flesh, gaps between bodied and disembodied. Upon first immersion, the player is invited - as is typical - to create their version of the main character, V. While some aspects of V must be chosen from clustered options - predilections towards certain skills or strengths, or one of three primary backgrounds to set up a recent past, the rest of V can be flexibly designed and played, including gender, race, voice, and physical appearance. The array of options available–V may be created to be cisgender or transgender, male or female, or to present as non-binary if the player wishes– locate the character immediately as one that does not exist in any true, distinct category. In essence, then, there is no canonical V. Instead, there is only the version, the fragment, the V - whoever they are - in the current moment of playing.
In the opening act of the game, V must undertake a heist with their closest friend, Jackie. Their goal is to steal the sinisterly-named Relic, a prototype second-tier version of biochip that acts as a storage device for a transferred and digitised psyche or set of personality data. This transferred psyche, referred to in-game as an engram, may then be communicated with. Arguably, it is a device that bestows immortality of a sort and indeed, the game world offers up examples of the wealthiest customers using Relic biochips to converse with the digitised memories and personalities of their deceased family members. Grotesquely Gothic, the in-game advertisements for the technology implore customers to “Secure Your Soul,” while whispers in dark alleys instead term the technology “Soulkiller.” However, even within the advanced environs V must navigate–they have a personal link embedded in their wrist, along with options for “optics” instead of biological eyes, and a host of elective cybernetic augmentations - the Relic is something new. New, and newly dangerous, reflecting the Gothic fascination with technology’s perilous promise, long a preoccupation of the genre since Victor’s Creature first drew tremulous breath. Nested within the framework of a cyberpunk text–itself a form of neo-gothic–technology and its ubiquity is a monster to be reckoned with. This is certainly true of the game when V slots the biochip into their own head. Following a dizzying hurtle from disaster during the heist to betrayal afterwards, V is left for dead, shot in the head, and dumped in a landfill. This–with a cruel twist of fate Poe might enjoy–allows the program on the chip to activate. This is the opening of the Book of the Dead, the stumble into the forbidden crypt, the unlocking of the secret door–a decision that is accidental, and yet feels fated. In jolts and sputters, the psyche on the biochip stirs, and V is haunted by the digital ghost of Johnny Silverhand. He is a figure of city legend, part rockerboy and part rebel freedom fighter,–or terrorist, depending on who you ask–dead half a century prior in murky circumstances involving a bombing that leveled Arasaka Tower. Their first meeting appropriately takes place in a phantom, virtual no man’s land that comprises parts of Johnny’s memories as they bleed out of the biochip and into V’s own consciousness. In an eerie foreshadowing, V’s consciousness is stampeded by Johnny’s: they are paralysed under this psychic onslaught as if Johnny is Fuseli’s nightmarish goblin wrought in code.
Back in the real world and eschewing civility, Johnny is all bluster and bravado, appearing as a digital apparition and quickly established as being able to interact with the world in a traditionally spectral way–he appears to be able to sit or lean against objects and can materialise at will. As host to this ghostly intrusion–as reliquary for Johnny’s invasive presence on the Relic–V's very existence is transgressive, and at risk of being swallowed up. Furthermore, they are simply not meant to exist - the psyche on the shard is meant to unfurl into an empty shell. Instead, Johnny's presence merges with and threatens to overtake V's, at the cost of self.
Answering V’s desperation, Viktor–V’s–ripperdoc, and potentially their friend–acts as a sort of cyberpunk Van Helsing guide/helper figure, though his name is flagged directly by an exhausted, traumatised V: “You’re Doctor Viktor, and I’m your monster.” Providing plot-necessary information, he talks V through the brutal details of the Relic’s inevitable ramifications:
Viktor: “Okay. There was - is - a construct, a psyche, on the chip. [...]. You jacked it in your chipslot. Nothing happened, right? Until you died.”
V: [...]. “But – how do you come back from something like that?”
Viktor: “Ask the Arasaka engineers who built the thing. All I know is your mind’s gonna go and it won’t be pretty. From the biochip’s perspective, your brain cells are a tumor [sic] that needs to be scooped out, while your body’s an empty shell to hold the construct.”
V: “So [Johnny] wants to wipe me and take my place. Take my body.”
Viktor: “It’s not willful on his part. It’s inevitable. And neither of you can stop it.”
Amid its scattering of cyberpunk slang, the game’s dialogue embraces the Gothic language of hauntings and resurrection–V is a “ghost” and a “walkin’ corpse,” “back from the other side.”
It is this return that renders their body a site of transgression. All boundaries are not only rewritten but in the process of continually being rewritten as Johnny’s possession of V progresses, their combined grasp of where those edges begin and end becoming disrupted.
While the early stages of the relationship between person and ghost can be played as antagonistic, prickly, tentatively friendly (or somewhere between all three), the narrative structure nonetheless draws V and Johnny inexorably closer. Punctuating each major questline is a “Relic malfunction” in which the creeping digital infection chewing at V’s identity gains more ground–these pave the way for the threat of complete possession. “Death by becoming someone else,” as Johnny puts it, is a haunting that has the potential to become an act of body-snatching. Concomitantly, the boundaries between them are further troubled if V takes on aspects of Johnny’s personality more voluntarily–Rogue, for instance, remarks that “they [V] even look like him, you know? Same mean smirk.” This erosion of self is slowly erupting through to V’s outward appearance–at points, randomly, when looking in mirrors, the player will not see their V looking back, but Johnny instead, deceptively human-like, without his trademark ghostly glitching.
Gothic is often characterised by its eminently recognisable yet slippery sense of place–houses, graveyards, mausoleums, isolated islands, windswept moors, and underground labyrinths, all are prone to instability and not to be trusted. These are landscapes that are replete with secrets and potentiality–with the possibilities of opening doors, or crossing gateways, or stepping too far and risking one’s soul. The game’s visual landscape is one that has equal footing in the cyberpunk and Gothic camps, and slides between both with ease. V’s haunting unfolds within the punishing maze of Night City, heir to the disorientingly threatening cityscapes of William Gibson’s Sprawl tales. Visual inheritance is also plucked wholesale from everything from Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner (the skyline, the often wretched weather, and all those brilliant eruptions of neon) to Mamoru Oishii’s 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell (permeability of the body, and the many ways in which a person’s frame can be added to, or altered) to Pete Travis’ 2012 film Dredd (poverty-riddled mega-cities containing mega-blocks on mega-highways) with a host of other motifs and echoes that pop up along the way. Arguably though, the genre pendulum swings the city’s physical topography more strongly into Gothic–it is a patchwork of nooks and crannies within which the echoes of the past linger. Night City’s ghosts, however, are also particular, tailored for those who claw an existence within its walls. For Judy, the city that “chewed [her] up and spit [her] out” still lingers even after she has fled mid-way through Act 2, spectral as the sunken bell-haunted ruins that are all that remains of her childhood home in Laguna Bend. For Kerry, as one of Johnny’s former bandmates, it is “a city of shadows,” insistently haunted by Johnny’s memory for five decades before Johnny’s presence re-emerges wearing V’s face. He is overwhelmingly eclipsed by Johnny’s reputation–rockerboy, musician, rebel, everything that Kerry stood in the shadow of “for years…part of the scenery, machinery, helping him shine brighter.”
For V, the heart of the city is the appropriately named club, The Afterlife. Delightfully unsubtle, this on-the-nose framing is acknowledged within the in-game dialogue, with a perky pre-heist Jackie insisting to V that he has never told them the oft-repeated tale that the club used to, in fact, be a morgue–naturally, he has. The Afterlife is also a graveyard of sorts–the drinks are named after dead (anti)heroes. It is also from The Afterlife, framed as the last stand staging ground, that the latter stretches of the game unfurl. Or can unfurl, if the player chooses to trust Johnny, and take their shared, haunted body back to Arasaka Tower, an act as much a seance as a guns blazing adventure. There, the past will be revisited–this is the transformed site of Johnny’s death, recreated after the bombing, and a shrine to the corporation responsible for the Relic. Strikingly, there is no classic showdown scene, no tackling of an easily identifiable villain in these latter stages. The architect of the Relic, Saburu Arasaka–rumoured to be some kind of life-sucking vampire, which turns out to be partially accurate–is murdered in the first act of the game, during the heist. Faceless and untouchable, the corporation itself is of course the symbolic ultimate enemy, monolithic, and owing a great deal to the Tyrell Corporation. Instead, once they are inside the haunted walls–past the requisite waves of henchmen for the player to gun down–the finale itself collapses down to one of discussion, of decisions made concerning the “correct” path back towards individual identit(ies). It is a quiet finale–surrounded by Arasaka secrets, slipping again between the Gothic and cyberpunk, and concerned with transformation.
Located in the undefinable abyss of cyberspace, the possibility of digital exorcism is invoked–one that might allow V and Johnny to separate. Like all stings in the tail, however, the catch is that one of them must, in the form of data, be absorbed by Alt Cunningham, who–like Johnny, and arguably also like V at this point–used to be human and used to breathe. Disembodied and floating in cyberspace, Alt is part ghost, part oracle. She states directly that she is not the Alt Cunningham of Johnny’s past life, or at least, not entirely. Certainly, little human inflexion remains in her speech, though Johnny claims to recognise her.
Her self–or what may remain of it–is impossible to categorise in any satisfactory way.
Closure, too, for V–and the player–is also elusive here, impossible to pin down, and hope remains even further away. Either V’s self is entirely swallowed up, consumed, their body belonging now to Johnny–the reliquary is transformed and remade for a new host. Choosing to let Johnny spill into the datastream instead offers a similar lack of resolution, however, while they no longer share their body, the Relic remains in V’s head, the damage there irreparable. Even the game’s possible epilogues–untidy and ambiguous, Johnny leaving the city or V spitting blood into the shower–are loops left unclosed, haunted by the encounter inside Arasaka Tower, and, whichever of them emerges out of cyberspace, they bring with them ghosts.