I’ve been playing Cyberpunk 2077 lately, as readers of this blog may have guessed by some of the references, and it is everything the hype said it would be: A dystopian story set in a grim, hyper-corporatized, ultra-capitalist future in which the masses worship the gods of consumption, virtually everything that humans come in contact with is synthetic, and nature is a forgotten dream that may or may not exist beyond the seemingly-infinite concrete and chrome of human sprawl.
It’s Bladerunner writ large and interactive, a retrofuturistic nightmare in which people voluntarily have their own eyes plucked out to replace them with brain-interfaced digital lenses and biomechanical grotesqueness is the societal norm. A future in which a person’s life amounts to the price their internal organs can fetch on the black market and the only civil liberties that exist do so by the forbearance of megacorporations.
Even if you’re not a gamer, unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ve probably heard of the game. It is, after all, one of the most highly-anticipated pieces of consumable media in modern history, and familiar actors have lent their voices and likenesses to the production.
One of the most depressing aspects of 2017’s Bladerunner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to the 1982 Ridley Scott classic, is the utter disconnect from anything natural.
Future Los Angeles is so choked with smog that the city exists in a perpetual twilight gloom. Animals have been purged from the Earth, and humanity has turned to farming insect larvae for protein in processed foods. Vegetation is so rare that the sight of a single sprout near the dusty carcass of an old oak tree fascinates Ryan Gosling’s antagonist character, K.
Drawing heavily on Bladerunner — as well as the seminal 1988 Japanese film Akira, William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997), and even the 1979 action thriller Warriors (which is itself based on Xenophon’s Anabasis from 370 BC) — Cyberpunk 2077 is about violence, hedonism and human greed.
There is no room for the beauty of animals or nature in a future like this.
That’s why it’s surprising to find cats stalking the dim alleys of Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City.
The player’s character, V, can stop and pet stray cats he encounters throughout the game.
There’s even a hidden opportunity to adopt your own stray and take it back to your apartment in the game. Johnny Silverhand, the wise-ass character played by Keanu Reeves, is particularly fond of Nibbles the stray, who can be found amid piles of trash in the hallway outside V’s apartment.
Nibbles “doesn’t really do much besides lay around and take up space,” Screenrant notes. “Basically exactly what a cat does in real life. What an immersive experience.”
In another scene, V is conducting recon on a corporate target with Takemura, a Japanese ally, when a cat slinks by and lays down about 20 feet away.
Takemura says the cat is the first animal he’s seen in Night City, “except for the cockroaches, of course.” Then he wonders if the cat is a bakeneko, a Japanese spirit.
Night City is a technological achievement so impressive that it takes many hours just to get your head wrapped around how big and detailed it is. It’s easily the largest virtual city ever created, but it’s not just about sprawl — the city is truly vertical, from hidden subterranean depths and accessible street-level locales to highways, apartments and offices that claw at the sky, their peaks towering over ubiquitous flying car traffic.
The game is a form of entertainment, but it’s also a warning: This could be our future. Some would say it’s even likely to be our future.
Most of us are disconnected from nature. We’ve forgotten the stars and the night sky, which have been blotted out by smog and light pollution. We have wiped out more than two thirds of all the wildlife on the Earth and innumerable species teeter on the edge of extinction, including almost every example of iconic megafauna, from tigers and jaguars to orangutans, chimpanzees and elephants.
The interregnum caused by the global pandemic has reminded us that we share this planet with billions of other minds, with animals cautiously poking their heads out at the edges of civilization, wondering where all the humans have gone.
It’s fun to play in a dystopian future, but I don’t want to live in it.