There is nothing in life more expensive than being poor. It costs more than just money; poverty requires spending the one nonrenewable resource that everyone, in one way or another, prizes above all else: time. It costs energy and willpower. It consumes hopes, dreams, and the chance for opportunities that could otherwise lift someone out of bad circumstances. Worse yet, it can cost not only your life, but the lives of your loved ones and those closest to you.
David Martinez, the protagonist of Netflix’s excellent new anime Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, understands this intimately. The precarity of poverty and the predatory nature of privatized health insurance are the driving motivations behind his decision to become a cybernetically enhanced mercenary. It is those aspects that place the show as a whole more in line with Citizen Sleeper, one of this year’s most critically acclaimed indie titles, than it does with its own action-RPG namesake, Cyberpunk 2077.
[Ed note: This article contains spoilers for Cyberpunk: Edgerunners and Cyberpunk 2077.]
When audiences first meet David, he’s just a street kid from the Santo Domingo district of Night City, trying to make it as a student at the Arasaka Academy. The specter of poverty looms ever-present in David’s daily life, be it in the form of a malfunctioning washing machine that leaves him without a uniform, the armored gunships filled with private paramilitary paramedics that flank his commute to school, or his wealthier peers who scorn him for his background.
David doesn’t have much in the way of a stable home life. His closest apparent “friend” is a lecherous ripperdoc with an affinity for explicit “braindance” tech, and his only parent is his mother, Gloria, an overworked EMT who secretly salvages and sells illicit cyberware enhancements to a local crew of mercenary “edgerunners.” What little shred of stability David has is mercilessly stripped away when he and his mother are caught in the crossfire between a fleeing armored limousine and a van of armed gang members. David regains consciousness in their overturned car just in time to watch helplessly as Trauma Team — the series’ in-universe equivalent of privatized health insurance — passes over his mother’s motionless body to recover their actual client: a corporate policyholder.
When David’s mother is taken to a run-down hospital for treatment, David is denied his request to see her, being told by the presiding physician that visitation rights are not covered by his insurance plan. Returning home from the hospital with his mother’s personal items in tow, David is denied access to his and his mother’s apartment due to overdue rent. All of this comes to a head the following day, when David is told by the hospital that his mother died due to a combination of her injuries from the crash and the physical strain of her work. With not a cent to his name and no one else in the world to call family, David makes a fateful decision to get “chromed up” with an experimental military cyberware enhancement he finds in his mother’s bag, and later, to become an edgerunner himself in order to survive.
Although set within the same shared universe, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners and Cyberpunk 2077 could not be more different in their respective depictions of poverty and social precarity. While V, the customizable protagonist character of Cyberpunk 2077, starts out as a minor-league edgerunner regardless of the three available life paths the player can choose from, their goals are spurred on more by starry-eyed ambition of becoming a legend than they are by out-and-out survival, even in light of existential stakes of the Soulkiller chip embedded in their brain. It’s technically possible to be penniless in the world of Cyberpunk 2077, but the affordances of an open-world action RPG means the player can never be so poor that it actually hurts. By contrast, Citizen Sleeper, the 2022 sci-fi RPG by U.K. developer Jump Over the Age, not only deftly tackles the subject of poverty and debilitating medical debt head-on, but centralizes it at the core of its mechanics.
In Citizen Sleeper, players assume the role of the eponymous “Sleeper,” a digitized human consciousness housed in an artificial body. This body was created to serve a corporation as an indentured servant in exchange for their human counterpart’s freedom from debt bondage. Escaping from their creator-employers aboard a freighter, the player awakens aboard Erlin’s Eye, a derelict space station on the outer rim of the habitable universe. Although free, the Sleeper is forced to contend with the fact that without the corporation’s proprietary serum to maintain their health, their body will quickly begin to deteriorate and eventually die. To survive, players must build connections and amass resources by taking on odd jobs and assignments from across the station, all while managing their own ever-dwindling health and energy reserves.
Aside from their shared focus on the physical and mental toll incurred through poverty, David’s and the Sleeper’s plights are similar in another aspect: the strain of maintaining an artificial body. As the series progresses, we see David not only grow and mature as an edgerunner, becoming more adept at tracking down and killing targets, but also become more zealous in voluntarily upgrading his body with ever-more-invasive forms of cyberware technology. While David’s body possesses an innate resistance to the psychosis-inducing effects of excessive cyberware use, he nevertheless grows more and more reliant on military-issue immuno-blockers — medicine that allows cyberware users to continue augmenting their psychical and mental abilities while momentarily staving off inevitable “cyberpsychosis.”
The irony is that, in upgrading his body to become more proficient in fighting so-called cyberpsychos, David and co. are constantly skirting the knife’s edge of becoming cyberpsychos themselves. This is in contrast to Cyberpunk 2077 — although it prominently features both cyberpsychos and cyberware enhancements, the game does not allow the player to experience the risks of cyberpsychosis. It’s a conspicuous absence, one which calls attention to itself particularly when compared to other cyberpunk games, like 2016’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. In that game, players manage experimental cybernetic augmentations that grant enhanced combat, defensive, and stealth abilities while simultaneously risking the psychical strain of “overclocking” one’s own body, resulting in consequences that range from hallucinatory visual effects to lethal malfunctioning augmentations.
Another way Cyberpunk: Edgerunners and Citizen Sleeper are alike is in their respective emphasis on community and relationships. To be clear: the Sleeper is emphatically not a gun-toting cyberpunk mercenary, just as David is not a digitized indentured servant on the lam, but what these two strange bedfellows share is a common appreciation for the bonds of friendship forged in the face of adversity. The denizens of Erlin’s Eye grow to know, trust, and even rely on the Sleeper in the same way that Maine, Lucy, Rebecca, Dorio, and co. look to David not only to pull his weight as a member of their crew, but as a comrade in arms.
In the source book of Mike Pondsmith’s TTRPG Cyberpunk 2020, the concept of “style over substance” is directly cited as one of the game’s “rules,” along with “attitude is everything,” “always take it to the edge,” and finally to “break the rules” themselves. In centralizing the precarity of poverty, the pernicious predatory nature of privatized health insurance, and the importance of communities and friendships as support systems at the heart of David’s story, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners lives up to the potential set forth by those four guiding principles, culminating in a series that is not only visually scintillating but expands on the promise of Night City in ways that Cyberpunk 2077 never quite dared to.