Cyberpunk 2077: Keeping the Faith

With the next-gen updates and most of the DLC finally released, I decided to take up playing Cyberpunk 2077 once more on my PlayStation 5 to see how it goes. I must say, there is a marked improvement over my original play-through when the game first released. Outside of the copious amount of weird glitches, bugged missions, and the near clockwork reliability of the game crashing every 30 minutes on the dot (later improved by early patches to 2 hours on the dot) – I still found it to be an okay game that I went on to platinum.

The updated PlayStation 5 version is pretty much the same without all the headaches. Oh I still run into the occasional silly bug or graphical glitch, but it’s nowhere near what it was. Now I can focus wholly on enjoying the game which I’d start mark as an above average RPG experience. Let’s be honest, narratively it doesn’t have the diversity of choice that would put it on par with Dragon Age Inquisition let alone Skyrim, and it cannot even touch the original Deus Ex. But it is still a fun game, with interesting characters, and a solid embodiment of the entirely depressing world that the cyberpunk genre offers.

That said, while I’ve been playing through the game again, I’ve noticed something. See in the world of Cyberpunk 2077, cynicism is king. The corporations can’t be trusted, people are usually listening to their worst instincts, and any attempt to improve things is routinely beaten back and down until you learn not to try. In the words of the setting’s creator Mike Pondsmith, “you can’t save the world, you can only save yourself.” Still, Cyberpunk 2077 does offer a single exception to this. One which I would say it’s inclusion by CD Projekt Red runs counter to the vaunted ‘non-political’ Cyberpunk they expressed to create: Religion.

Religion is not a running theme in the game, and unless you explored all the side jobs I couldn’t blame you for missing it entirely. But it does come up a number of times through the game, and it is almost always approached with a certain level of sincerity and optimism that quite starkly contrasts the rest of the game. I would honestly argue that the game ultimately depicts faith as the opposite of the dark cynicism of humanity.

One of the earliest examples is a small side job in north Watson where a monk who believes that cybernetic implants desecrates the body and prevents reincarnation that has been forcibly chipped at the hands of the Maelstrom gang. This belief is ridiculed or treated with suspicion, but viewed as a honest belief and his plea to save his brother from being implanted is believed in good faith. You are even incentivized to follow the monks’ belief of non-violence in regards to resolving the mission. Should you succeed, you can find both monks later on in the game and have a religious debate with them about the nature of artificial intelligence and mental engrams of living people and whether or not they qualify as a having a soul or being eligible for reincarnation. The entire conversation is a fascinating philosophical debate in religion combining with science fiction.

One prominent side character in the game is Misty, proprietress of Misty’s Esoterica and your partner’s girlfriend. She is fond of giving tarot card readings that are always accurately reflective of where you are in the main story of the game. She warns you of various characters intentions and potential threats for that leg of the narrative – and it’s always correct. So not only are we treated to a debate of whether an AI can be reincarnated with a Buddhist, and now are given the example of functional new age beliefs in this world of cynical science. Combine this with a series of small missions that involve doing zen meditation with a mysterious Zen Master that can appear and disappear at will and begins each stage of the job with an offer to pay him some money or nothing at all – only to find at the end that it doesn’t matter if you paid him or not, it’s all about whether or not you find enlightenment valued in cash or not. (Note, you DO lose the cash if you give it. But nothing changes between paying every time and paying nothing at all)

The most prominent example is the side job called “Sinnerman” which begins with a man wanting to kill the murderer of his wife, which if you don’t stop the cops from killing him leads into a weird trip into Christian iconography. You see, the murderer – Joshua – is set to be put to death. Instead of state executions, he ends up teaming up with a film studio to recreate The Passion, or the death of Jesus. The studio is pretty much treated as cynically as any other corporation in the game, but the murderer who found religion is treated as a true believer – something that we are explicitly told is something incredibly rare in the setting. You have lunch with Joshua at a local fast food joint with 11 other people in the diner to recreate the Last Supper, the studio offers you a bribe to betray Joshua’s trust and walk away in reference to Judas Iscariot, and finally you are asked to pray with Joshua and then assist in nailing him to a cross for his execution.

There’s no snark, so cynicism, and the entire side job is treated with a level of respect and sincerity that almost makes you forget that a half an hour earlier you were helping a man with an exploding genital implant get to a doctor while he screams at you to just run over a group of children. It also never forces you to participate. Outside of the studio trying to buy you into leaving, you are given a chance to walk away from the murderer-turned-zealot at every step of the way. When asked to pray, you can pray with Joshua to one of a number of provided faith options, choose to sit with Joshua as he prays or just not pray at all. By the end, I almost forgot that the whole reason he was being put to death was because he was… ya know… a murderer.

In fact I would say the only exception to this maybe would have been the Voodoo Boys. A bunch of a Haitian immigrants who have occupied the southern district of Pacifica and still perform a large number of ceremonies associated with their native country despite being portrayed by those outside of Pacifica as tribalistic and violent. That however doesn’t hold water, because as soon as you talked to the community leader of the Voodoo Boys – Maman Brigette – she flat out tells you that they left their faith behind in Haiti and it has only made them stronger. The religious practices in Pacifica are window dressing done out of habit. They are far more interested in escaping into the virtual world and joining forces with the Rogue AI than the old ways.

Ultimately, I found it very interesting in that a setting where corporations are depicted as controlling and greedy with no regard for human life, people operates almost on a Hobbesian level of natural law in the streets, politicians are universally corrupt, and the only person you can trust in Night City is yourself and your gun (except Skippy. Lying stupid little smart gun.) That religion in the game is almost always treated with a sense of reverence and purity that is absent literally everywhere else. There are no religious nuts firebombing Ripper Docs, or hate mobs protesting outside of the Doll Houses or Brain Dance Clubs. There aren’t any televangelists tricking their flock into forking over piles of eddies. Religion is the sanctum from the corruption of the world, and arguably the only one.

I would honestly argue that claiming that faith – any faith – is the only way to escape all the awful in the world and then couple that about putting it in a game that is very much at its core about the fear of death is a political argument. It is making the case that there really is only one way out and it is very much a belief you have to buy in to. It’s a well disguised sermon without any specific practice being vaunted as the right one – but the game is still a sermon.

But maybe that’s what Pondsmith meant when he said, “you can only save yourself?” Or perhaps this is what CD Projekt Red took away from that statement. Wonder if Hare Krishna is still around in 2077…

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