As a cancer patient, “Cyberpunk 2077” frees me from my mental prison

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I was diagnosed with cancer in early June. For some reason, I haven’t been able to stop playing CD Projekt Red’s “Cyberpunk 2077” since then, a story about navigating or braving a terminal illness.

The terminal illness that V, the game’s protagonist, faces is the almost certain annihilation of her soul. Their personalities, memories and cognitive functions are overwritten by an artificial intelligence, Johnny Silverhand, a rocker and branded terrorist brought to virtual life by Keanu Reeves. They can only deny or accept their fate; either look for a way to sever their connection while Silverhand takes over, or leave this world on their own terms.

But V is not a real person. You’re just a video game character, and I, as the player, determine your destiny – not the game’s script and code, and certainly not Keanu Reeves. Ever since my cancer diagnosis, my male V (you can choose the protagonist’s gender) has roamed the streets of “Cyberpunk 2077” Night City, carefree and blissfully blissful, willfully ignorant – of my choice – of his death sentence.

It wasn’t always easy being carefree in Night City. The game’s infamous December 2020 release redefined the term “cyberpunk” to mean “unfinished, buggy, and unplayable video game.” As I wrote my final rating Launching the game in 2021, Cyberpunk 2077 bombarded the player with phone calls and notifications of new activity, with the resulting information overload destroying any sense of spatial immersion and choking the pace of the game’s otherwise compelling story arc.

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This older, more awkward version of “Cyberpunk 2077” reminds me of my current situation. My phone is constantly buzzing with concerned texts and calls from friends, family, ex-girlfriends, former co-workers, and long-lost acquaintances. Everyone talks about the myriad challenges of cancer, but one of the least talked about is the emotional drain placed on the patient as they navigate, soothe, and buckle under the overwhelming grief of their loved ones. I appreciate and often need the support and care of my family and friends, but there remains a lingering feeling that none of this would need to be said were it not for my cancer. Words meant to calm me often just remind me that I’m fighting for my life.

Five months ago, developer CD Projekt Red released their 1.5 update, which brought with it a host of stabilization fixes, new features, and most importantly, for me, the ability to ignore those nagging in-game texts and phone calls. The promise of a streamlined experience following the 1.5 patch, coupled with my excitement for September’s Netflix anime series Cyberpunk Edgerunners, drew me back to this experience. In the days leading up to my first chemotherapy session, my mind was an anxiety-ridden mess. But now I’ve learned to accept muting my phone and holding the screen face down while I spend hours playing “Cyberpunk 2077,” sort of a 1.5 patch in my own life.

Today I face the relentlessly trying reality of battling cancer, a battle that consumes every hour, if not every minute, of my day. As a cancer patient, I feel pulled in so many directions that I have little control over my life: Doctors constantly fill my schedule with appointments, exams, and follow-ups; a nurse who visits me twice a week; my family asking for updates and dealing with their own trauma since my diagnosis; and hundreds of friends offering their help while they’re feeling and (let’s face it) helpless.

But in Cyberpunk 2077, I can ignore my character’s death sentence. As in other open world games, there is no “Game Over” screen to ignore the main campaign. I can play how I want and ignore the corruption trying to kill my character from within while remaining immune to the consequences of that choice.

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Critics of the tale rightly blame Cyberpunk 2077 for not having a strong motivation for its protagonist to commit to anything other than saving his own life. Why does V help the police stop gang activity when they have to save themselves instead? What’s the point of collecting all that money? Why buy a new car when every day could be your last?

Why put off replying to a loved one’s distressed and pleading message as if tomorrow were promised?

Asking myself that question made me appreciate V’s disregard for saving his life. With nothing more at stake than existence, my V stubbornly lives each day, refusing to face the fact that this might be the case her last – a waking daydream of chasing more and more dreams. It’s this context that helps me, a possibly dying man too, appreciate Cyberpunk 2077 more than any other open-world game when it comes to fulfilling my specific power fantasy.

In real life, ignoring my diagnosis is not a luxury. My cancer is aggressive and I will fight back aggressively over the next few months. I’m praying to be rid of it by the end of 2022. I’m only at the beginning of the nightmare; It will be some time before I can wake up to some semblance of normal life.

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Even after dozens of hours of “Cyberpunk 2077” since my diagnosis and several drafts of this essay, I’m not much closer to understanding my sudden fascination with the title given my current predicament. I should be triggered by this game. It is an aggressive reminder of an incurable disease.

Yet this game compels me in a way it’s never done before – and in a way no other game in 2022 could. This compulsion extends beyond my playtime: I bought the “Cyberpunk 2077” Secret Lab Gamer Chair, the “Cyberpunk 2077”. Soundtrack on Apple Music, Cyberpunk 2077 artbook and comics, and two Cyberpunk 2077 action figures by Dark Horse. I never felt caught up in the nine year marketing hype cycle for this game. Yet here I am, a few years before release, spending money on the brand like an uncritical fan.

Even my text alert tones and ringtones are straight out of Cyberpunk 2077. Making it for the iPhone was a first for me: it meant learning to use GarageBand just to satisfy that weird and all-encompassing desire to live in the world of Cyberpunk 2077.

Perhaps it really is all the small improvements that CD Projekt Red made to the game for update 1.5, including: cars that react to real-time events and have suspension that give them a real sense of weight in this virtual world; side quests that provide so many worthwhile short stories and let me live through an electronic cyberpunk version of ‘The Thousand and One Nights’; an overhauled skill system that makes character development more meaningful; and deeper interactions through friendships that can be ignored but are there when I need them.

Perhaps it’s the way Cyberpunk 2077 borrows, intentionally or not, from genre tropes and so effortlessly references famous teenage artworks from the ’80s and ’90s like the groundbreaking anime Akira or David Fincher’s Fight Club “ reflects. After all, V is essentially the “Fight Club” protagonist, aware of his Tyler Durden (but now played by Keanu Reeves instead of Brad Pitt).

Here’s a confession: I often fall asleep to old Steve Jobs presentations when he announces industry-changing products like the iPod, iPhone, iPad or iCloud. He is an experienced marketer as many people believed in his belief that these technologies would change the world. In hindsight, it’s easy to see how much that change has both helped and hurt, but the innocence of that early belief comforts me and lulls me to sleep.

Cyberpunk 2077 is often criticized for offering no real vision of the future, but I now understand that it was never intended to depict any kind of future. Cyberpunk 2077 is the future as seen from our past. Back then we still believed in flying cars.

Perhaps, as a 40-year-old man, I find solace in how modern technology is repackaging a catalog of ancient and outdated counterculture, everything from my youth, a time in my life when I felt truly immortal and timeless, when tomorrow was guaranteed—even if that was just a dream

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None of this is to say that I’m giving CD Projekt Red a belated clue as to how the company mishandled the launch of this game. Most egregious are the attempts to fool consumers and journalists by holding back the near-unplayable PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions of the game until after release. I’m still there what I wrote last year: CD Projekt Red’s marketing of the game and eventual release transformed them from industry darlings to their most notorious liars. The studio promised a “dream game,” an experience that would fulfill so many fantasies for so many people. They didn’t publish that.

But in 2022, I’d be the liar if I said I don’t enjoy wrapping myself up in CD Projekt Red’s messy, teenage electric dream. It fulfills the video game medium’s ultimate promise of power fantasy, overcoming challenges, and achieving some kind of emotional, tangential fulfillment, all without serious consequences. Cyberpunk 2077 helps me create the most treasured memories of that horrific moment in my life.

Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t a dream game, but it’s an experience that still feels like some kind of dream, even if I can’t fully understand or explain it. To me, that’s all a video game ever needs to be.

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