Cyberpunk: Edgerunners boldly builds on the thought experiments of 2077

Cyberpunk: Edgerunners boldly builds on the thought experiments of 2077

Image: Studio Trigger/Netflix

It’s a fun anime, but he’s not afraid to center the heavy stuff

There is nothing more expensive in life than being poor. It costs more than just money; poverty requires spending that one non-renewable resource that everyone somehow prizes above all else: time. It takes energy and willpower. It consumes hopes, dreams and the chance of opportunities that could get someone else out of bad circumstances. Worse, it could cost not only your life, but the lives of your loved ones and those closest to you.

David Martinez, the main character of Netflix’s excellent new anime Cyberpunk: Edge Runnersunderstands this very well. The precariousness of poverty, as well as the predatory nature of privatized health insurance, are the driving motivations behind his decision to become a cybernetically enhanced mercenary. It is precisely those aspects that bring the show as a whole more in line with burger sleeperone of this year’s most acclaimed indie titles, then with its own action-RPG namesake, Cyberpunk 2077.

[Ed note: This article contains spoilers for Cyberpunk: Edgerunners and Cyberpunk 2077.]

When the public first meets David, he’s just a street kid from Night City’s Santo Domingo neighborhood, trying to make it as a student at Arasaka Academy. The specter of poverty always looms over David’s daily life, whether it’s in the form of a malfunctioning washing machine that leaves him without a uniform, the armored battleships filled with paramilitary paramedics flanking his commute, or his wealthier peers. who despise him for his background.

David doesn’t have much in the way of a stable family life. His best “friend” is a lecherous ripper doc with an affinity for explicit “braindance” technology, and his only parent is his mother, Gloria, an overworked EMT who secretly rescues and sells illegal cyberware enhancements to a local crew of mercenaries. “edge runners”. The little bit of stability David has is mercilessly wiped out when he and his mother are caught in the crossfire between a fleeing armored limousine and a van with armed mobsters. David regains consciousness in their overturned car, just in time to watch helplessly as Trauma Team—the in-universe equivalent of privatized health insurance—goes over his mother’s motionless body to get their real customer back: a corporate policyholder.

An anime character stares out a window at two paramedic hovercraft flying toward a burning skyscraper.
Image: Studio Trigger/Netflix

When David’s mother is taken to a dilapidated hospital for treatment, David’s request to see her is denied, as the presiding physician is told that visitation rights are not covered by his insurance plan. When David comes home from the hospital with his mother’s personal items in tow, David is denied access to his and his mother’s apartment due to rent arrears. All of this comes to a head the next day, when David is told by the hospital that his mother has died as a result of a combination of her injuries from the crash and the physical strain of her job. With not a cent to his name and no one else in the world to call family, David makes a fateful decision to go “chrome” with an experimental military cyberware enhancement he finds in his mother’s purse, and later an edgerunner himself. to be in order to survive.

Although they are in the same shared universe, Cyberpunk: Edge Runners and Cyberpunk 2077 could not have been more different in their respective portrayals of poverty and social insecurity. While V, the customizable main character of Cyberpunk 2077, starting out as a minor league edgerunner, regardless of the three available life paths the player can choose from, their goals are fueled more by the ambition to become a legend with the starry skies than by fully surviving even in the face of the existential deployment of the Soulkiller chip embedded in their brains. It is technically possible to be without money in the world of Cyberpunk 2077, but the benefits of an open world action RPG mean that the player can never be so poor that it hurts. On the other hand, burger sleeperthe 2022 sci-fi RPG from British developer Jump Over the Age, not only deftly tackles the subject of poverty and debilitating medical debt, but centralizes it at the core of its mechanics.

The Operator Character Page in Citizen Sleeper
Image: Jump over the age/Fellow traveler

In burger sleeper, players take on the role of the eponymous “Sleeper,” a digitized human consciousness housed in an artificial body. This body was created to serve a company as an indentured servant in exchange for the freedom of their human counterpart from debt bondage. Escaping their creator employers aboard a freighter, the player awakens aboard Erlin’s Eye, a dilapidated space station on the periphery of the habitable universe. Though free, the Sleeper is forced to contend that without the company’s own serum to maintain their health, their bodies will rapidly deteriorate and eventually die. To survive, players must build connections and gather resources by taking on chores and assignments from across the station, while managing their own dwindling health and energy reserves.

Aside from their shared focus on the physical and mental toll of poverty, David and the Sleeper’s plight are similar in another aspect: the burden of maintaining an artificial body. As the series progresses, we see David not only grow and mature as an edgerunner, becoming increasingly adept at targeting and killing, but also becoming more diligent in voluntarily upgrading his body with increasingly invasive forms of cyberware technology. Although David’s body has an innate resistance to the psychosis-inducing effects of cyberware overuse, he nonetheless becomes increasingly dependent on military-problem immunoblockers — drugs that allow cyberware users to continue improving their psychic and mental abilities while temporarily distancing themselves. taking inevitable ‘cyberpsychosis’.

A bloodied mechanical exoskeleton protruding from the back of a spiky-haired anime character.
Image: Studio Trigger/Netflix

The irony is that in upgrading his body to become better at fighting so-called cyberpsychos, David and co. are constantly walking along the edge of the knife to become cyberpsychos themselves. This is in contrast to Cyberpunk 2077 – although it features both cyberpsycho and cyberware enhancements prominently, the game does not allow the player to experience the risks of cyberpsychosis. It’s a noticeable absence, one that draws attention to itself, especially when compared to other cyberpunk games, like the one from 2016 Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. In that game, players manage experimental cybernetic augmentations that provide enhanced combat, defensive, and stealth abilities, while risking the psychic strain of “overclocking” one’s own body, resulting in consequences ranging from hallucinatory visual effects to deadly evil. functioning augmentations.

An other way Cyberpunk: Edge Runners and burger sleeper are equal in their respective emphasis on community and relationships. To be clear: the Sleeper is emphatic not an armed cyberpunk mercenary just like David not a digitized indentured worker on the run, but what these two strange bedfellows share is a common appreciation for the bonds of friendship forged in the face of adversity. The inhabitants of Erlin’s Eye come to know, trust and even trust the Sleeper in the same way that Maine, Lucy, Rebecca, Dorio and co. look not only to David to bear his weight as a member of their crew, but as a comrade in arms.

In the sourcebook of Mike Pondsmith’s TTRPG Cyberpunk 2020, the concept of “style over substance” is directly cited as one of the “rules” of the game, along with “attitude is everything”, “always go the extra mile”, and finally to “break the rules” itself. By centralizing the precarious poverty, the pernicious predatory nature of privatized health insurance, and the importance of communities and friendships as support systems at the heart of David’s story, Cyberpunk: Edge Runners fulfills the potential set forth by those four guiding principles, culminating in a series that is not only visually scintillating, but extends the promise of Night City in ways that Cyberpunk 2077 never quite dared.

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