That Way, You’d Kill Two Souls

This post contains significant spoilers for Cyberpunk 2077, as well as mentions of suicide ideation.

I have found that people lie, most often deceiving themselves. Not so the dead. The dead are so very, very loud. And yet, lying is not in their nature. It is so… humbling, to listen to the dead speak.” – Saburo Arasaka

It started with a dull ache, the type you’re likely to ignore, some errant muscle twitch or miniscule bother that will go away if you pay no mind. Unfortunately, there was no abatement, only more pain. Even then, it might have been dismissed, a new reminder that I’m getting a little bit older every moment, a little less able to act and do what I want with impunity. If only.

Soon, just a couple hours after I first noticed it, it was painful to even walk. Every step was a new shooting spasm, and an extended toilet visit did nothing to alleviate the agony I was now feeling. Admittedly, being fairly drunk and out with friends, I didn’t want to ruin the mood, so I gritted my teeth and rode the mechanical bull in the honky-tonk bar we’d found ourselves in, which of course did not help matters. The next morning, barely able to plant my feet on the ground out of bed, I gingerly got ready and headed to the urgent care center.

Diverticulitis.

It’s not a death sentence, of course. It’s something that happens to plenty of people, for a variety of reasons. For me, a combination of failed yoyo dieting, exorbitant amounts of red meat, and cheap convenience meals throughout my adulthood had finally led to a confirmable Body Goof, a sign that I was not invincible and indeed would one day do something irreparable to myself if I continued on this path. It was sobering, especially reflecting on my stepfather, a large man who’d nearly killed himself working grueling shifts with an aggravated inguinal hernia and excess intake, leading to four surgeries of increasing severity to reverse the toll it was taking on him. But most of all, it made me think of another person in my life who’d had similar stomach issues: my mother, who was now ten years dead. Ten years…doesn’t really seem like that long ago that I was in that hospital room, watching her brain shut itself off after a lifetime of regrets and grief.

***

I had taken a break from a lot of things for a long time, justifying to myself that it was necessary for my mental health, but I knew what it really was: I was scared. I’d managed to not think about any encroaching stoppage to my existence, but now, meditating on my mother’s passing and my own previous brushes with The End, including a failed suicide attempt soon after my mother’s death, I was reflecting on how it could all go in an instant. The night before my mother died, I kissed her on the forehead as we talked about a possible vacation we would take as a family. I told her I’d see her after work the next day. I’d see her sooner than that, a blanket being put over her face as she flatlined.

Coinciding with a series of catastrophic car mishaps and failures that has, to date, cost me over $5000 in savings over the last year, I felt suddenly unmoored after my diagnosis, disconnected from people around me, my friends, things I’d been looking forward to. The long-overdue vacation to Vegas I’d been planning for months, the first proper vacation I’d be taking as an adult? Cancelled. I found myself on the back-foot financially, once again where I’d been for most of my life. I had to return to the cursed plasma center, a place I’d promised myself I’d never have to rely upon again. I had to sell some things I’d recently bought for myself, change so many plans I had for the near future, including finally being able to return to college. Fortunately, due to my current job and circumstances, homelessness is not on the table for this round of setbacks, only a weary sigh as things I’ve wanted to do for a long time will, once again, be put on the back-burner as I recover. Less fortunately, I retreated into my old bad habits: isolating myself, pushing people away, going to my cozy entertainments and creature comforts that would not cost me anything. I convinced myself that poverty is something others could sense on me, like a gamey smell that emanated from my very pores.

As it happens, I went back to a game I’d put on the shelf a long while ago. A surprising experience that helped me come to terms with, well, everything.

***

CyberPunk 2077 is a game possessing more baggage than a suburban TJ Maxx in the off-season. Released with an almost impossible amount of hype, a botched launch that saw it reach instant meme status as a bottomless source of bugs, glitches, and aborted promises of the game it could have been, not to mention controversy around its careless marketing that repeatedly invoked outdated and offensive tropes around trans representation, all led to a relegation to the pile of broken dreams that lay strewn on the highway of video game mishaps. A brutally missed opportunity from CDProjektRed, a once-proud studio that now faced internal struggles over how to proceed once the biggest hand they’d played to date ended up being a calamity. It’s currently held together with duct tape and twine, assembled into something resembling the game it could and should have been if more time and care were taken, and perhaps if honesty had played more of a part in their cycle than their unbridled arrogance and insistence that things would work out for the best. Coupled with allegations of a severe “crunch” environment and unclear, often contradictory direction from management, the game was left behind by most, including me at the time. “I’ll come back when it’s fixed,” I’m sure I said to myself before burying it in my Steam backlog.

I’m not confident that “fixed” is the word to describe the game now. The old issues are mostly there: some hilarious bugs (including one where enemies started floating up and away after I dispatched them, presumably being called back to their home planet like the dearly departed Poochie); some missed opportunities with regards to side stories ending abruptly, almost pointing out the dead ends left in the final product by a dev team working feverishly to just put the damn game out (there’s an intriguing set of missions involving the presumptive new mayor of the city that just seems to sputter to a stop without any resolution, perhaps in anticipation of a sequel that will probably never materialize); the prevalent ads depicting trans bodies in almost fetishistic and definitely insensitive ways (if I never have to think about the in-game TV show “Watson Whore” and the gross ads for it that seem to dot every street corner again, it would be a blessing; not to mention one coded-nonbinary character, who also acts as a rapist and John Waters parody whom appears about halfway through that seems so ill-conceived and offensive that I almost can’t believe NOBODY in the writers’ room thought better of including them). Those are all, very unfortunately, still there, polluting the waters and forcing me to think better of truly recommending the game to anyone I want to still respect me and my opinions after the experience.

Here we see a poor soul who’s had his very face and clothing detail taken by CAPITALISM!

But the true tragedy of CyberPunk 2077 is how close to actual greatness it is. They HAD something here, a dark and emotional examination of bodies as commodities under hyper-capitalism, how humans themselves become mere products to be discarded in the dark economic future we seem to be hurtling towards with every passing day. Of how sexuality, emotion, livelihood, dreams, everything that makes us human, becomes kitschy merch on a street vendor’s dilapidated stand. This of course isn’t new ground for the genre, but it’s still got some juice in it, especially once the plot fully reveals itself. The story revolves around the main character “V,” a customizable streetwise mercenary who finds themselves in the middle of a heist gone bad and a twisted conspiracy involving the all-powerful mega-corporation Arasaka (you get a good picture of their deal if you imagine Samsung, Sony, and Northrup-Grumman merged into one hydra-esque terror of a globe-spanning company). Saburo Arasaka, the near two-hundred year old oligarch and CEO of the company, has been murdered by his son Yorinobu, an arrogant and cold little little twerp who decides that he has to take what he feels he’s owed by his distant, seemingly all-powerful father. In the middle of being a key eye-witness to this heinous crime, V loses their best friend Jackie Welles during the harrowing escape, and becomes the carrier to a mysterious chip, initially known only as the Relic. Betrayed by their handler (understandably nervous that his nice and clean little heist turned into a presumed assassination of the most important and dangerous man in the world), left to die in a landfill, the Relic chip stored in V’s head for safekeeping activates itself. And it starts…expanding.

The Relic is what’s called an “engram,” an imprint of an AI based on the “soul” of Johnny Silverhand, legend of the setting (probably the closest figure the table-top RPG upon which the game is based had to a protagonist) and long-dead terrorist who nursed a grudge with Arasaka, to the point that they set off a nuclear bomb inside the Arasaka HQ in 2023 at the cost of their own life…or so people thought. In actuality, Johnny was captured and subjected to the Soulkiller Program, a brutal copying process of their very personality that inevitably leaves the victim brain-dead. The engram’s AI was stuck in Arasaka’s database for fifty years, until it got reactivated inside V’s damaged brain. Initiating a rewrite to preserve itself, it started to copy its contents into the vessel preserving it: namely, V’s brain.

The helpful local RipperDoc Victor explains to V that this is a terminal condition. The chip WILL complete its rewrite, and V as a person will simply cease to be; replaced, for all intents and purposes, by a completely different person inside their shell of a body. As far as anyone knows, this is irreversible. It will take weeks, or months, but V is a dead-person-walking now. What will they do? How does one live knowing that the Sword (or Chip) of Damocles is resting over their head? The central conundrum of the game is established, and you the player must answer these questions for V as you drive around the gorgeous and foreboding city environment, completing Gigs for various friends and acquaintances, trying to unravel the mystery of Saburo’s murder, and hopefully, mercifully, finding an answer as to why a chip inside your head is slowly consuming your very existence. It’s not just a passive process however, and this is where the sci-fi setting allows for truly intriguing possibilities: the chip can talk to you, believing itself to be Johnny Silverhand, and “he” manifests as a walking, talking being that only the player can interact with. Acting as a pseudo-conscience (albeit one that’s a rough-hewn, chain-smoking rockstar-cum-killer and generally irritable asshole), Johnny accompanies V constantly, offering advice, directions, and pithy insults, all alongside a great performance delivered by the delightful Keanu Reeves (who clearly had a blast making this) that helps the tobacco-stained medicine go down swimmingly. He’s one of the premier highlights of the game, and his complicated legacy as both a hero and villain allows for a level of moral complexity one does not normally get from mentor-type characters in these games. The terrific characters abound in fact; there’s a gang of Nomads that all have distinct personalities and motivations; there’s Misty, the spiritual guru/former lost love of V’s departed friend Jackie; there’s Judy, a “Braindance” editor (think VR but way more intense) who works out of a strip club basement; there’s Takemura, Saburo’s former bodyguard, who finds himself in a foreign country he both despises and finds fascinating. These people make the game, and I found myself doing as many side missions as I could just to run into more characters…

This man pounds tequila old-fashioneds and groupies like I pound fresh Cheez-It boxes.

…Side missions? V has a death sentence hanging over them, they presumably should be hyper-focused on that…no? I thought about this as I cruised over the mega-highways on my Akira-inspired motorcycle, carving through the nuclear rains to have dinner with my new cop (not quite ACAB?) buddy character River and his adorable family. Would V really be running these sorts of errands? And by extension, would I? What AM I doing, in fact? I was isolated in my bedroom, lying about asking for time off for a camping trip with friends, feeling the dread of having to interact with real people while I bombed around with virtual people, having the time of V’s life as their brain slowly melted away to be replaced by someone else’s. Maybe it had already happened, in a manner of speaking. Who was I, but another interloper? Did V exist before I decided to boot up the game? Here I was, like Johnny, coaxing V to allow me in so I could experience the world through their eyes, even controlling their movements, guiding their decisions through the last stages of their presumptive life. Did V like using shotguns? Because I sure did, punishing my enemies with showers of lead that turned them into gory soup splatters on the wall. Did V actually like Panam, the gorgeous Nomad woman who’d taken a liking to them? Because I did, and that’s what mattered, damn V’s actual feelings on the matter. I spent V’s money, I drove their cars, I lived in their sleek apartment and forced them to live on a diet of potato chips and tequila pilfered from fallen enemies. I made V buy the invasive cyborg implants that replaced their arm bones with deadly swords to better slice up their…our…my…the foes blocking the path to victory. Did V long to have their normal arms back? I never asked them. In a sense, their personality was already erased.

Be VERY careful going for a philosopher pose when you have these bad boys.

***

My mother spent many of her final days hooked to a fearsome-looking dialysis machine, spending hours listening to Enya and Josh Groban on the iPod we’d purchased for her. It took longer than I’d care to admit to get her to understand how to use it, but it was soon her prized possession. She only took her buds out to talk to us, the nurse techs or her disability lawyer…so we thought. For years, she’d told us all about this lawyer, told us about their meetings, updated us on the status of her process through the legal system to get what was rightfully hers. I drove her to meetings, picked her up…

It took a few months for me to find out in the aftermath of her death, the general scrum that happens in the wake of any passing of sorting out unfinished business…but after looking through unsealed records, documents she’d kept hidden, it became clear that she never had a lawyer. All those meetings I drove her to? She sat in the lobby. All the talks she’d had with him during her dialysis appointments? None of the nurses could recall anybody besides me ever talking to her. A ghost only she could “see.” She’d lied to us for years about this. Why, I asked myself? I will never have a definitive answer. Maybe she wanted to spare us the depressing truth that she’d never been qualified for monetary compensation. Maybe she wanted us to have hope for the future, however distant it would be. I decided that, maybe, she knew that time was short. She was so ill during her last year that I frequently had to carry her up the stairs to her bedroom. Maybe she didn’t want me to have to carry another burden besides her. Maybe that’s why she never asked about why I didn’t have a steady job, or why I didn’t ever seem to have any lady friends around, or what I did at night when I took my car and drove for hours around the city, looking at the lights and dreaming of having someone else’s life. I regret not asking her anything, most of all. What did she dream of? Was she proud of me? Did she think she’d done a fine job, raising a shiftless son who lived at home and spent his waking hours buried inside video game worlds? Did she also want another person’s life? A different child? I used to laugh when she told me that, had I been born a girl, she’d have named me Savanna. I don’t laugh when I think about that anymore. I feel sad. I wish she’d had what she wanted, whatever it was. Even if it wasn’t me.

***

When it comes time for CyberPunk 2077’s finale, it’s a race against time to infiltrate Arasaka’s HQ, the belly of the beast, to find the answers V seeks. Will they be able to get closure? Find a medical cure for their terminal brainwipe? Will their allies come through? You have a few choices, mostly dependent on the friends you’ve made along the way, which allies you can call upon. But one choice you can make is both the most intriguing and the harshest one could make: you can simply decide to end it. “Eating iron,” as Johnny memorably calls it. If you take this path, you get end credits, overlaid with your friends video-calling in to berate you. They almost universally despise that you chose this outcome, they curse that you were unable to confide…they wish they could have been there, to see you in your time of need. It’s a very bold thematic choice, even if I suspect the vast majority of people would label it a “sad” ending. It fits, after a story spent at the whims of powerful people and entities beyond the scope of anyone’s ability to change, to simply sit down in your favorite spot, with a gorgeous view of the city, and make the sober decision to go out on your own terms, damning anyone else’s plans in the process…but is this a choice V would make? I ask myself, as I observe the gun in V’s hand, with the Arasaka tower in the background, is this another form of control? If I could ask V what they wanted to do, would they agree? Would they instead want to go for a drive, wish they had another person’s life? Or is this me projecting again? Maybe they think this is the way out, or maybe they want to claw out any days they can with their friends before the inevitable. Maybe they too wanted to fight.

I couldn’t make that choice for V, ultimately. I wanted a more satisfying ending, I wanted more for V, even if they themselves might have wanted nothing more than to lay in bed and go to sleep for the last time. I went in alone, a one-person suicide mission, forsaking my allies for the understandable reason that this was our fight and nobody else’s. It’s a brutal mission, with hardened Arasaka assassins and cyborgs crawling over every inch of the facility. Notably, if you die during this mission, it “counts” as a suicide anyway. Truly a one-way road that you and V are walking. But we made it to the other side. Through bloody firefights, gory splatters of arms and legs sent flying with every brutal swipe of our arm-blades, every round of our rifles and pistols sent through the heads of the Arasaka elite, we made it to the end. We said goodbye to Johnny as the Relic was finally removed, leaving only one remaining interloper in V’s head.

You can meet Yorinobu here, depending on certain circumstances. He’s in a prison of his own, reflecting on his own life of wasted talent and failed enterprises. We learn of his history as the Earth’s greatest failson, of being the black sheep of the powerful dynasty. His father was never proud of him, always doted on his sister Hanako instead. Indeed, we can learn that Saburo’s endgame was to use the Relic’s power on his own son, essentially erasing the son he never wanted and becoming truly immortal, after a fashion. A truly gruesome way to get rid of one’s unwanted legacy, and it helps to ground Yorinobu’s mentality after seeing him as a one-dimensional villain for most of the game. Perhaps, in this way, I’m more like Yorinobu than V, feeling like I’m part of a world that doesn’t have room for me. Despite his privilege and background, he’d taken so many opportunities to try and carve his own path, only to be drawn inexorably back to his imperious father and the family business he wanted nothing to do with. And then to have his very body, his own essence, denied him by the family he’d given everything else to? It’s a chilling conversation. Even more chilling is that we never get a good idea of what will ultimately happen to him. I couldn’t bring myself to hate him, not even after the hell he’d put V through. I wanted to give him a hug and tell him I too felt like I didn’t belong. Didn’t belong in this body, in this circumstance, in this reality. Here, at last, confirmation that at least one other person in here wants to be out. To be free to be whoever and whatever they want, as long as it’s far away from the here and now.

***

It’s six months later. V is…worse for wear. The Relic left physical scars that can never be healed, and the damaged brain rattling around in their cranium is slowly shutting down. The Relic was a true curse: keeping their body alive while erasing their soul. The true SoulKiller, indeed. Now there is a hole where memories and brain functions should have been, and V is on borrowed time. V may have a new penthouse, a fancy hypercar, and a beautiful girlfriend, but it’s all for naught. Gold means nothing to someone who can’t spend it. Does “his” beloved Panam know? Do any of V’s friends know? The game seems to imply that V is keeping all this to themself. They kiss their loved one goodbye and proceed to one last mission, one last heist to truly attain legendary status, like Johnny Silverhand, Morgan Blackhand, Adam Smasher, all the greats of the setting before them. One last decision that only they can make for themselves, damn the Relic, damn the player, damn the world, all the people who tried to control them, to tell them how to live their fleeting life. I have no control here, merely an observer as V finally gets to make their own way towards this final goal. They step out into the void, ready to take on the imposing space station, knowing this is one more suicide mission than anyone should be given, or allowed to take for themselves. They won’t be coming back. They’re smiling.

I wonder if my mother knew, in the end. So many conversations with doctors I was never privy to, so many visits and hours spent thinking about the approaching end. Maybe she wanted one thing for herself. She’d spent years with her various illnesses by then, perhaps hoping that one day she’d simply be able to let them all go. It couldn’t have been easy, such a strong woman who’d been through so much: disowned by her hyper-religious parents for having me out of wedlock; having to be a single mother to me for years on end; having to deal with, well, me. On the day she died, I drove to the hospital, forsaking the rest of my shift. I drove easy that day, blaring Nick Cave, sure that like all the other times, my mother would be back home before too long. If I’d known, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so cavalier and chipper. Maybe I’d be closing my eyes and wishing I was heading somewhere else, to another life.

I remember that my mother died with a smile on her comatose features, which I never understood. Not until I saw the same smile on V’s face.

I’ll miss you, Night City. And I still miss you, mom. I hope I’m the son you wanted me to be.