Before E3 2019 began in earnest, CD Projekt Red was riding high. It revealed at Microsoft's E3 press conference that Keanu Reeves would be starring in Cyberpunk 2077 as Johnny Silverhand. With that exciting reveal, Cyberpunk 2077 was poised to be the most talked about game of the show. But then some screenshots were released, and a new controversy arose.
The screenshot in question was posted originally by Nvidia, showing off how its ray tracing technology makes the world of Cyberpunk 2077 look extra realistic. Only someone zoomed in on the high resolution screenshot, and found a poster for a trans model with the tagline, "Mix it up!" The image received heavy criticism, with some calling it transphobic. In an interview with Polygon, artist Kasia Redesiuk explained the meaning behind the advertisement. "I would say it was never the intention to offend anyone," Redesiuk told the site. "However, with this image of an oversexualized person, we did want to show how oversexualization of people is bad. And that's it."
CD Projekt Red has had a long history of controversial public remarks. In October 2018, CD Projekt's GOG co-opted the phrase #WontBeErased, a trending hashtag that emerged after a memo from the Trump administration was reported by the New York Times, revealing that it was rolling back the recognition and protection for trans Americans under federal civil rights law. GOG used the hashtag for a joke about PC games. Cyberpunk 2077's own Twitter made an insensitive joke, replying to a fan with, "Did you just assume their gender?" in August 2018. Even The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has weathered criticism for its lack of in-game diversity. With all of these controversies, it's become harder and harder for fans to trust CD Projekt Red to get representation right.
"I know for sure that we had many discussions about this in the office, and there are a lot of people at the office that really care about these subjects and we want to do it right," CD Projekt Red quest director Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz tells me in an interview. "It's sad to hear sometimes that people associate these negative assumptions regarding us, or assign malign intent to us, because that's not the case, I can assure you."
Tomaszkiewicz goes on to say that the intent behind the posters in question is the developers' interpretation of "how this world is oppressive and how bad it is actually for the people that live in this world, to show that," he continues, "and it's not like in any form a way of condoning this kind of behavior or this kind of portrayal. It's more like a way of showing that the corporations are actually unethical in how they sexualize everything, and how they treat people."
In the hands-off demo I watched at E3 2019, I was also alarmed at the names of two prominent gangs in the demo: the "Voodoo Boys," who V aligns with for a job, and the "Animals," who are swole men and women who use "Juice" to get extremely buff. Commonly, Tomaszkiewicz tells me, they are bodyguards around Night City, and derogatory name "Animals" stuck with them. "So the Voodoo Boys for example, the name comes not from the people themselves. That's not how they would call themselves. But that's how people from the city treat those people," explains Tomaszkiewicz. "They are extremely prejudiced towards them and because they are from Haiti where Voodoo is like an actual religion, this is what the label that they gave them. So through that we want to kind of show that the city oppresses them and the city doesn't accept them.
However as you progress through the story, as you saw in this quest, you see that actually they are not at all like stereotypical, like I don't know witch doctors or anything like that. They are actually very highly skilled Netrunners. They are some of the best in the city and they have nothing really in common with the prejudice that is built around them. [...] So in general, yes, I would argue is that we would like to portray the oppressiveness of the system and like how these people think in Night City about different people and how they treat each other."
While Cyberpunk 2077 has now been shown at two separate E3 presentations, and CD Projekt Red has conducted a multitude of interviews, there's still a lot we don't know about the anticipated RPG. We'll just have to wait until the final version to see how everything is ultimately contextualized.
Cyberpunk 2077 is set for release on April 26, 2020 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Stay tuned for more Cyberpunk-related coverage later this week.