Brave New World: Cyberpunk 2077’s novel depiction of mental illness

Steve Server //

By now, many have heard of Cyberpunk 2077, even those not normally within the gamer-orbit.  The early rollout of the game has been plagued by game-breaking glitches and unexpectedly poor graphics and performance.  Beyond the controversial rollout—and underneath the typical blood and guts associated with violent role-playing games—Cyberpunk 2077 has something unique to say about mental illness. 

Admittedly, it is rather unexpected for a video game to positively contribute to discourse on mental illness.  In general, mental illness in video games is often overwhelmingly negatively depicted, associated with horror, violence and chaos, evil and darkness, hopelessness and helplessness (Shapiro and Rotter 2016; Ferrari et. al. 2019).  As such, as a media source, video games are core contributors to a culture of stigma, fear, and distrust when it comes to encountering people with mental illness.  This unfortunate state of affairs makes Cyberpunk 2077 particularly notable in its subversion of these tropes.

First, some context: Cyberpunk 2077 takes place in a dystopian city state called Night City located in 2077 California, or what’s left of it.  For those who can afford it, Night City can be an elegant playground, the wealthy moving high above the ground in comfortable drones.  Those without means struggle to get by in the grimy streets and warrens of Night City, often resorting to petty crime or mercenary activity on behalf of one of the small number of international conglomerates, which do their utmost to jockey for market share and political influence.  

For the vast majority in Night City, life is nasty, brutish, and short.  Think Grand Theft Auto meets Blade Runner.

Similar to most of its peers, the gameplay of Cyberpunk 2077 is quite bloody.  Moving your character, V, through Night City typically means conceiving of creative ways to kill your enemies with futuristic weapons, katanas, and a panoply of lethal cybernetic improvements to various body parts.  Most of Night City’s citizens have some level of cybernetic enhancement—if not the most lethal military grade buffs—and life goes on, with toil and torment.  A small number of the enhanced, however, with either a large number of enhancements, or who have installed black-market enhancements for mercenary work, experience neuropsychiatric toxicity from the implants.  This disorder, called cyberpsychosis, causes paranoia, dissociation from reality, and violent rampages, which are often splashed sensationally across Night City’s media in gory detail.

As such, the specter of cyberpsychosis hangs like a pall over Night City, but another of the menaces of life in dystopia.  One of V’s fixers, a former Night City Police Officer herself, has an interest in cyberpsychosis.  She sends V a list of cases across the City concerning for cyberpsychotic activity, and instructs him to take care of them so that the NCDP or the corpos don’t get involve to raise the body count even higher.  Players can seek out these cases if they wish, often coming upon a bloody massacre and a solitary person—evidently divorced from reality—as the culprit, needing to be neutralized.  

Here, the game seemingly is on the verge of reinforcing the same old trope that people with mental illness are overwhelmingly violent and unpredictable (an inaccurate characterization; see, for example, Friedman 2006 and “Mental Illness and Violence” 2011).

But Cyberpunk distinguishes itself from its peers.  The fixer expressly prefers non-lethal solutions to these encounters.  If, upon completion, V has killed the people experiencing cyberpsychosis, the fixer expresses her profound disappointment and V receives no reward.  Upon completion of all the cases by nonviolent means, however, the fixer calls V into the office.  She thanks V, earnestly, for their empathetic treatment of the situations and informs V that, thanks to the compassion showed these people in need. 

Some of the cyberpsychotic have started therapy.  Even if they can’t be saved, at least maybe we’ll learn more about the disease…I know how much easier and simpler it can be to take a life rather than save one.  Really, V, nice work

(Cyberpunk 2077).

By the choice to address the problem of cyberpsychosis non-lethally, V’s compassionate touch might promise a better future for Night City’s most vulnerable citizens.

Though Cyberpunk 2077 does still deploy some stigmatizing language about mental illness—the casual use of the word “cyberpsycho” or “psycho” is unfortunate, as is the semiology of cyberpsychosis itself—the game nevertheless advances a remarkably timely and sensitive critique on mental illness.  There are all too many contemporary examples of episodes of acute psychosis ending in tragedy.  At the end of last year, NPR featured a story reviewing the pervasive problem of violent encounters between police departments and those with mental illness (Westervelt 2020).  In it, the reporter emphasized the inadequacy of the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) approach as currently implemented.  The program often comes with inadequate training for officers, often without the support of a mental health professional.  This is a problem in need of reform, which Cyberpunk supports by means of its narrative.

But Cyberpunk is also unique in that its characters with mental illness are not simply props which permit it to comment on the structural deficits in the treatment of psychiatric disease.  The game richly depicts the personal suffering of its characters struggling with life in Night City.  One day, as V is leaving their apartment, they come upon two police officers knocking on a neighbor, Barry’s, door.  The police officers tell V that they haven’t seen their colleague at the precinct for several days, and that they’re starting to get worried.  V offers to assist and is able to meet face to face with Barry, who finds it easier to speak with V than with his partners on the force.  He tells V just how hard the last year has been, the extent of the violence and suffering he has seen, and the indifference of his peers at the police force.  Helping him through it all was his old friend, Andrew.  But when Andrew died a few weeks ago, everything just seemed insurmountable.

V then has a choice: pay respects to Andrew?  Or inform Barry’s partners directly?

If V chooses to speak directly to them, informing them that Barry is struggling, they return to Barry’s apartment.  They talk past each other, reinforcing Barry’s feelings of isolation, and shortly thereafter, you learn that Barry has taken his own life.

But if V chooses instead to visit Andrew’s grave—to go off the beaten path to learn a little more about someone who was meaningful to Barry—V discovers that Andrew was, in fact, a pet turtle.  When V presents that information to Barry’s partners, they are incredulous at first, at the prospect that the death of a pet turtle could have Barry despondent.  But with V’s empathetic reframing, Barry’s partners appreciate the depth of his isolation.  When the three of them sit down together, they begin an open, earnest talk about the challenges of the job.

As most effective dystopian literature does, Cyberpunk 2077 invites the player to make uncomfortable comparisons with the bleakness of Night City and the suffering of our current moment.  Unlike most video games, which deploy mental illness as a trope to heighten sense danger or chaos, Cyberpunk 2077 offers players the sense that mental illness is not some form of demonic position or a marker of evil that needs to be eradicated.  Rather, in Night City, mental illness is product of the structures of a profoundly unequal, indifferent, and isolating urban modernity.  What is necessary to start the process of healing is someone willing to resist the familiar current of chaos for just long enough to recognize the suffering of a fellow human being.


References

Featured image courtesy of Tom Marks, “Cyberpunk 2077: The Final Review,” IGN. https://www.ign.com/articles/cyberpunk-2077-the-final-preview.

Cyberpunk 2077. CD Projekt Red. 2020.

Ferrari M, et al. “Gaming With Stigma: Analysis of Messages About Mental Illnesses in Video Games. JMIR Ment Health, 6(5), 2019, doi: 10.2196/12418.

Friedman, Richard. “Violence and Mental Illness — How Strong Is the Link?” N Engl J Med 355; 20, 2006, pp. 2064-2066.

“Mental Illness and Violence,” Harvard Mental Health Newsletter. January 2011. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/mental-illness-and-violence.

Shapiro, S. and Rotter, M. “Graphic Depictions: Portrayals of Mental Illness in Video Games.” J Forensic Sci, 61, 2016: pp. 1592-1595. https://doi.org/10.1111/1556-4029.13214

Westervelt, Eric. “Mental Health And Police Violence: How Crisis Intervention Teams Are Failing.” NPR. September 18, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/09/18/913229469/mental-health-and-police-violence-how-crisis-intervention-teams-are-failing.

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