Cyberpunk 2077 has mastered parasocial advertising as only the best influencers can. The game’s Twitter account swaps jokes with Elon Musk, and despite tech billionaire Musk fitting the clichéd description of many cyberpunk villains, both Musk and Cyberpunk 2077 share a similar online presence, stoking controversy and gaining legions of loyal defenders with every tweet. The game’s marketing has a Fred Durst-esque faux edginess persona that has defined the conversation around the game. Cyberpunk 2077 already has one of the 20 most-followed gaming subreddits, and it’s not even out yet. CD Projekt Red has got everybody talking about this game, though not always for the right reasons.
My skepticism started when the game revealed its controversial “Mix It Up” promotional poster back in June 2019. This poster featured a feminine model with what can only be described as a huge, bulging penis. Her skin-tight leotard left nothing to the imagination; even the veins were visible. At the time, some fans called out the imagery as exploitative, mocking, and transphobic, though CDPR defended the poster. “I like how this person looks,” said Kasia Redesiuk, the artist who designed the poster, at the time. “However, this model is used — their beautiful body is used — for corporate reasons. They are displayed there just as a thing, and that’s the terrible part of it.”
I don’t buy it. While a cutting critique of queer commodification might have been part of the idea’s nucleus, the outcome is a commodification itself, objectifying trans people as creatures of deviance, defined by their genitals and suitable only for sexualization or rejection.
CDPR’s marketing arm already had a history of transphobic incidents before the poster got revealed. In September 2018, Cyberpunk’s official Twitter account, back in its edgiest, earliest stage of public existence, tweeted a tired “Did you just assume my gender?” joke in response to an innocuous compliment. A month later, the Twitter account for the digital storefront GOG (owned by CD Projekt, parent company of CD Projekt Red) hijacked a trans-positive hashtag to make a joke about PC games. Earlier in 2018, that account had tweeted a gravestone marked “Games Journalism, Dead By Suicide,” with the date of death corresponding with the launch of GamerGate. After criticism, the account deleted that post and apologized.
GOG’s community manager got fired over those tweets. But it’s not about specific admins being fall guys. It’s about the pervasive, toxic attitudes that have long swirled around Cyberpunk 2077, attitudes that only get stronger as the game’s release nears and CDPR appeals more and more to their chosen market of Elon Musk superfans.
While I didn’t believe CDPR’s stated intentions around the Mix It Up poster, that didn’t mean they couldn’t become true. When I was a kid, trans stories on television and in movies were hard to come by. I learned to see the trans experience in things that were designed to mock it. Body-switching stories, boys being made to dress up as girls or given makeovers as punishments, boys being pushed into the unspeakable horror of the girls’ bathroom. The poster seemed tied to the then-rumored, now-confirmed prospect of creating a protagonist similar to the character in the poster. It seemed like the closest big-budget games would ever get to embracing a trans character, even if it had to sit alongside exploitation dressed up as social commentary, and come with humiliation disguised as humor as well.
The Mix It Up poster is so brazenly exploitative of trans people, conjuring up very transphobic images and ideas that indelibly link trans people to the contents of their underwear, images that are responsible for real-world harm to trans people. Yet, there’s a deep irony in that it offers trans people one of the few opportunities to see ourselves and play as ourselves in gaming.
Because of all of that, Mix It Up has arguably become the single most divisive, most controversial moment in the entirety of Cyberpunk 2077’s marketing, yet it’s the one they’ve decided to build around. Since then, the game’s official Twitter account has joked about canceling their FIFA 78 pre-order due to the lack of vagina options, a joke which pokes fun at their own potentially progressive non-gendered character creator, again tying any positive representation of trans people to mockery, exploitation, and humiliation. CDPR also included a cisgender cosplayer as the Mix It Up girl among their cosplay contest finalists. Even if you buy the company line that the poster represents how queer bodies have been appropriated for marketing, their entire argument is negated when they have a cis person dress up in that queer body as part of their own video game marketing.
If you’re thinking perhaps the model was well-meaning, attempting to create a trans-positive cosplay, trying to further highlight queer commodification CDPR spoke of originally, or just a misguided ally who got it wrong this time around, I have bad (yet predictable) news for you. Yugoro Forge, the cosplayer in question, tweeted that her costumes are “beyond politics,” and when pushed on the fact her Cyberpunk 2077 costume dehumanized trans people who are already subject to violence so frequently, she replied, “many cis men and women face acts of harassment and violence on a daily basis as well.”
With such a long, hyped run-up to release, Cyberpunk 2077 has consistently kept itself in the headlines with gameplay demos and Night City preview footage. Even here, where CDPR has complete control over the content it highlights and has the space to put it in context, the marketing has catered to the edgier part of the fanbase. I’m not even sure if the full game will be so edgy, but it’s clear that CDPR wants its fans to think it will be.
Defenders of Cyberpunk 2077 may point to its character creator— one of the most heavily showcased features in pre-release — which doesn’t tie gender to genitalia. It’s true that this means the game provides the opportunity to create a transgender protagonist. However, gender in the game is still tied to voice, meaning if you want to be referred to as a woman, you need to select the voice actor with a typically feminine voice. For me — and in my experience, many other trans people — voice is far more important than genitalia. No one sees what’s in my pants, but everyone hears my voice. To truly create a character who is trans like me, I would want a more typically “male” voice in a more typically “female” body. The junk, especially in a first-person game, isn’t that important to me. The fact that Cyberpunk has fixated on the junk as the ultimate feature of a trans person, yet given no consideration for voice, and then repeatedly joked about customizable genitals in its marketing efforts, shows the complete lack of a trans perspective in both the design and in the advertising of the game. It’s also worth noting, that for a character creator which prides itself of inclusivity and depth of customization, there’s been nothing said of a non-binary option.
As well as criticism for its depiction of trans folk, Cyberpunk 2077 has also come under fire for its use of racist imagery. The game includes the Voodoo Boys, who in the original board game were a white gang who dressed in Haitian gear as a commentary on cultural appropriation, but in Cyberpunk 2077 are actual Black Haitians and racial stereotypes. The Asian gang, Tyger Claws, are a strange amalgamation of various East Asian cultures, all armed with swords despite the high-tech advancements of their world.
Cyberpunk 2077’s advertising has been saying the quiet part loud. It has maintained the spiky, anti-SJW, anti-woke persona throughout its marketing campaign, careful to always pepper any diverse characters’ inclusion with stereotyping or humor designed to mock its own ideas. As such, it has earned an army of fans who will defend it from criticism, whether that be from accusations of transphobia, racism, or even crunch. With the specter of GamerGate still looming over gaming, the company may have even gained fans through this reactionary and edgy marketing style.
Again, no one knows how well any of these controversial themes will be tackled in Cyberpunk 2077 itself. That’s an entirely different issue, one to be dissected upon the game’s release. The much bigger issue is that Cyberpunk 2077 has demonstrated that this new form of populist video game marketing can not only be successful, but it can lead fans to form unbreakable bonds with a game they haven’t even played yet. Would it have been so successful were CDPR not already equipped with such a uniquely fervent fanbase, or if Cyberpunk 2077 did not have the dual playgrounds of a future setting and a dystopian world? I’m not sure.
What’s most depressing though isn’t how loyal CDPR’s fanbase has been throughout all this controversy, but all the controversy CDPR has deliberately decided to put them through. They might have genuinely meant well with the Mix It Up poster the first time. But to harken back to it in the cosplay contest, to keep joking around about vagina options, to play into racial stereotypes: Those are all active choices. CDPR has a fanbase that would follow them to the ends of the earth, but rather than take those fans somewhere positive and progressive, rather than use their unique position to tackle the rampant discrimination and toxicity in the gaming community, they’ve played to the lowest common denominator every time.
Whatever else you think about it, it’s hard to deny it worked, and that means other games are probably going to copy it in the future.