Yeats shared similar sentiments. He mentioned that one of the most sophisticated and important elements of the cyberpunk genre in general was the conflation between military and private corporations. “This is very much a part of Blade Runner and Robocop, when fears of ‘Japanese’ corporations buying American towns were high, but of course that was just a radicalized stand-in for Reagan’s privatization of many government functions, fears about emerging technology exacerbating economic inequality, and a loss of democratic control,” he added.

Finally, You, the Main Character

Finally, one aspect that reinforces the notion of Asian characters in the game as the “other” may actually be the most inconspicuous: the main character, V. The game’s extensive character customization is impressive. However, even if you create the most Asian-looking person you can through the customization tools, there are elements of racialization that are inescapable.

V is by default, a white person. So players’ interactions with the various characters and the world are going to be through the lens of one. Rivera said that Cyberpunk 2077’s character creator reminded him of Mass Effect’s.

In Mass Effect, you can customize the gender and appearance of the protagonist, Commander Shepard, and make him or her look as Asian as you want. However, Mass Effect 3 introduced the cyber-ninja villain Kai Leng. Throughout the game, Commander Shepard fights Kai Leng several times. In these particular moments, Shepard occupies a space of normative whiteness, regardless of what his or her racial features are.

Shepard is scripted the same in those situations, reading as a very culturally white liberal Canadian, no matter how nonwhite the player made him or her look. Contrast that with Kai Leng, who on the other hand is stoic and unfeeling, which unfortunately are stereotypes of Asians.

Rivera added, “Even when it isn’t as overt, or otherwise virulently racist, you can still find traces of racialization in characterization, narrative, and procedural rhetoric, even in the absence of phenotype.” Also, the fact that Kai Leng was written to fight with a katana in a sci-fi universe filled with advanced space travel technology, laser guns, and biotic superpowers is problematic at best.

Regardless of all of this, it is possible to embrace the elements of cyberpunk that resonate with audiences without resorting to orientalist tropes. The sequel to Deus Ex: Human Revolution, 2016’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, was a big step in the right direction. It was considerably less techno-orientalist, given that the game’s central location was Prague, in the Czech Republic.

In addition to including an Asian character devoid of those tropes on protagonist Adam Jensen’s team, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was still unmistakably cyberpunk in tone and identity, despite the relative absence of Asian iconography and stereotypes.

Similar to myself, Rivera is hesitant to write off Cyberpunk 2077 entirely without having actually played it first. He continued, “While there do seem to be familiar techno-orientalist tropes, which are particularly problematic and even dangerous in an era marked by anti-Asian COVID panic, I do wonder how complexly it will deal with race throughout the rest of the game.”

“The fact that the original tabletop game was developed by a man of color, after all, does make me cautiously optimistic.”

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