Steelman (and I don’t mean Adam Smasher)

(Spoiler Alert for the ending/s of Cyberpunk 2077 and the expansion Phantom Liberty)

The expansion to Cyberpunk 2077, Phantom Liberty, intrigued me even more than it already did when I learned that the expansion would introduce a new ending to the base game. Upon first starting the expansion, Songbird, a new character introduced in Phantom Liberty, dangles a very delicious carrot: a cure to V’s relic problem. None of the original endings available in the base game could be construed as ‘happy’. Regardless of your chosen ending, V is never cured of the relic. The natural inference is that this new ending would be one where V is finally fully cured of the relic. At last, a happy ending for V?

Alas, it would not come to be. In this newly added ending, V does get a cure, but not without the metaphorical monkey’s paw curling its fingers. They end up in a 2 year long coma, and all of their friends move on with their lives without them. Furthermore, the damage to their brain and body are permanent, and they can no longer use the fancy cyberware that allowed them to be the infamous mercenary that they were. The final shot of this ending is a lone V, walking down the street and vanishing into a crowd, no longer special, becoming nobody and everybody.

On the surface, this seems like quite the rug pull from CD Projekt Red! A new ending added to a game 3 years after its release, and still they refuse to give us a happy ending. The more I thought about it though, the more I admired this bold creative decision. The game has always had a clear, consistent theme, and a particular perspective on that theme, and this new ending is consistent with this theme and perspective, and reveals new nuances to it.

The central theme of Cyberpunk 2077 can be summarized thusly: When faced with a vicious and exploitative system/world like the one in Night City, how should one respond? How should one live one’s life?

(The system is basically capitalism, but the game is less concerned with the specificities of the economic system than it with with our emotional and moral responses to it)

The game’s endings represent possible answers to these questions, and the consequences for V in each of these endings act as the game’s responses to these answers.

Do you try to become a winner in this system? That’s the ‘Sun’ ending, where V becomes a legendary mercenary within the last few months of his life, working a very special job for the mysterious Mr. Blue Eyes.

Do you try to join the system and hope to find prosperity within? That’s the ‘Devil’ ending, where V works with Takemura to save the Arasaka corporation from the treacherous Yorinobu Arasaka.

Do you abandon the system and try to find peace someplace else? That’s the ‘Star’ ending, where V leaves the city with Pan Am and the Aldecados. Alternatively, this is also the ‘Temperance’ ending, except Johnny Silverhand controls V’s body instead and leaves Night City on his own.

Do you try to destroy the system? V can’t really try to do this (though you could argue the secret ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’ ending represents this), but Johnny Silverhand did try by bombing Arasaka.

While you are given the freedom to choose how to respond to the system, the system will also respond to you, and how the system responds to your choices, as seen in the endings, elucidates the game’s fundamental perspective: there is no winning against the system. Once you engage with the system on its own terms, you have already lost.

If you try to win in the system, you have a few months to live and become an accomplice to the mysterious and machiavellian Mr. Blue Eyes.

If you join the system by working with Arasaka, you are made use of by its CEO and then largely forgotten, with the corporation only able to slow down the relic’s effects on your body.

If you try to destroy the system, you’d almost certainly end up like Johnny did: dead.

The closest thing to a peaceful solution is to abandon the system. Leave the city, either as V with the Aldecados or as a newly reformed Silverhand, on his own.

Regardless of your chosen ending, V suffers the consequences of their prior hubris. They tried to steal the relic. They tried to win against the system, and either has months to live or relinquishes their body to Silverhand (or even ends up plain dead).

The new ending introduced in Phantom Liberty has its own consequences too. The cure is not without its complications. V no longer has cyberware, or the friends they’ve made along the way, but after much contemplation I don’t think of this as a particularly tragic ending. The complications from the cure transforms it into something more than a cure, it becomes chance for a do-over, another opportunity at a new life for V. Early in the base game, V’s fixer Dexter DeShawn asks them, “Would you rather live in peace as Mr. Nobody, die ripe, old and smelling slightly of urine? Or go down for all times in a blaze of glory, smelling near like posies, without seeing your thirtieth?”

The cure allows V to choose the other option. V has seen what the blaze of glory looks like and the early grave it leads to. They can now avoid it instead, and live a quiet life. A chance to start fresh. He fades into the Night City crowd, but the crowd exists because they lived quiet lives.

As we’ve seen, CDPR really does care about the game’s themes! These endings explore a whole variety of perspectives on its themes and takes all of these perspectives seriously. The game never strawmans any perspective on its central theme, even when in direct opposition to the game’s own perspective. In fact, it steelmans them.

“Steelmanning is the practice of addressing the strongest form of the other person’s argument, even if it is not the one they presented.” – Wikipedia

Cyberpunk 2077 is actively cynical of Night City and its socioeconomic and political system, but you can go ahead and try and work with the system if you want, and the game gives you ostensibly good reasons to do so. In the base game, we get to see the megacorp Arasaka through the eyes of former CEO Saburo Arasaka’s personal bodyguard, Goro Takemura. Despite working for a megacorp, Takemura is generally a good person. He is sincere, loyal, and even quite friendly with V as they get to know each other through working with each other. He works with V, trusts them, and never betrays them. If you choose to fight Arasaka in the ending, Takemura feels a deep sense of betrayal and his fate is anything but positive. If you choose to cooperate with Arasaka, V and Takemura become very close friends. He works with the system and is a core part of it, and is for the most part rewarded for it. The game may be cynical of this system, but it would not deny that there are those who prosper in it.

In many ways, Goro Takemura is Cyberpunk’s Kim Kitsuragi. Disco Elysium, too is about surviving in a world with a harsh political and economic system. Kim Kitsuragi is a cop within this world, but beyond being just a cop, he does sincerely believe in the system he is working within and the good that he does. Like Takemura is to V, Kim too is loyal and sincere to Disco Elysium’s protagonist, Harry. Disco Elysium is made by staunch socialists, yet they have chosen to steelman political moderates/centrists, embodied by Kim. This steelmanning of an opposing ideology serves to reinforce the game’s ideological position and perspective. Kim is actively aware of how dysfunctional Revachol is and how corrupt the ops are but that simply becomes his justification to be a cop with moral integrity. If he remains ‘pure’ and tries to work to do good within the system than at least something positive, however small, can come out of it. Through Kim, we see why it’s easy to simply be a political moderate. You can acknowledge the flaws of the system and try to improve from within, and the appearance of progress, tiny as it is, feels good and it seems like you are doing something good. We see, through Kim, why people are largely unwilling to reject the status quo. It’s scary to abandon the appearance of progress.

You could even argue that Disco Elysium strawmans its own ideological position. The socialist characters in the game are consistently depicted as deeply flawed in some manner. The union leader is sleazy and corrupt. The communist book club members are obsessed criticizing other communists and do absolutely nothing to advance the cause of communism. The (redacted for spoilers) is old, bitter and delusional. The game picks the worst soldiers for its own ideology and has them fight against the best soldiers of opposing ideologies and by doing so, drills down to the core tenets of their ideologies, ignoring questions of political strategy or aesthetics, and argues quite convincingly for the moral integrity of socialism

In Cyberpunk 2077, through Takemura, we see why working with the megacorps is so appealing. Maybe if you worked hard enough, if you were loyal enough, you could be like Takemura. You could be rewarded by the system and rise up the ranks. People work with the system because if they are loyal and keep their head down, they are in fact rewarded, but they become complicit in its exploitation.

If you’re going to make a work of art that is about beliefs and ideologies, and you show ideologies that are in conflict with each other, it takes a great deal of intellectual and creative integrity to showcase ideologies in opposition to yours in their best possible light, but doing so can elicit even greater nuance in the exploration of your work’s themes.