Full-text audio version of this essay.

It’s been nearly 40 years since Bruce Bethke published “Cyberpunk” (1983), the short story that would lend its name to a science fiction subgenre. That genre would offer dystopian visions of a near-future marked by environmental collapse, severe economic inequality, corporate authoritarianism, megacities drenched in neon and soot, and a blurring of the boundary between human and machine. Of course, this now sounds less like fiction and more like ordinary life. As the genre’s speculations have grown more realistic, its appeal has become paradoxically nostalgic: a longing for yesterday’s stylization of a future in which we already live and suffer.

In “Confessions of an Ex-Cyberpunk” (1991), Lewis Shiner, a novelist who was part of the original cyberpunk literary movement (alongside William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, and Rudy Rucker), argued that the genre was dead by 1987. Cyberpunk had once enjoyed an intimate relationship with cultural theory — consider the cyborgian quality of McLuhan’s “extensions of man”; Deleuze and Guattari’s “desiring-machines”;’ Baudrillard’s simulacra; Haraway’s deconstruction of the human/technology, human/animal, and physical/virtual dichotomies; Jameson’s sprawling evocations of postmodernism. But that didn’t last. Later cyberpunk, Shiner claimed, offered only “power fantasies, the same dead-end thrills we get from video games and blockbuster movies.”

Contemporary open-world games are more conducive to surveillance capitalism; they allow games to be sold as a perpetual service rather than a discrete experience

Enter CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077, a blockbuster triple-A video game released in December 2020. Video gaming — that most cyborgian entertainment medium, in which a player prosthetically interfaces through controllers, headsets, and other appendages with a virtual world — evolved alongside cyberpunk, so it’s not surprising to see the circle squared with the highly anticipated release of a big budget open-world game catering to cyberpunk nostalgia. Mike Pondsmith, who created the tabletop RPG on which Cyberpunk 2077 is based, has insisted that “Cyberpunk is a warning, not an aspiration.” But this message has been obscured by the licensor of his franchise. As one CD Projekt Red employee has implied, the company’s leadership has mirrored the oppressive corporatism that Cyberpunk supposedly critiques: It forced workers to comply with numerous rounds of crunch (compulsory overtime and six-day work weeks), misled reviewers and consumers about the game’s performance and features, and shipped the game while it was still riddled with bugs, leading to demands for refunds and class-action lawsuits.

CD Projekt Red’s labor and marketing practices are not the only way Cyberpunk 2077 embodies the genre’s dystopian capitalism. It is also echoed in the game’s open-world, amusement-park structure. Previous cyberpunk games have been more faithful to the genre’s core themes: The real-time strategy games Syndicate (1993) and Syndicate Wars (1996) make players responsible for the toll of their actions as they head an unscrupulous megacorporation. Immersive sims like System Shock 1 and 2 (1994, 1999), Deus Ex (2000), Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011), and Prey (2017) use first-person perspective and interactive 3-D environments to foster improvisation and consequential decision-making to solve problems rather than brute force and superheroics. These games trace anxieties over the loss of the liberal humanist self in postmodernity. By contrast, Cyberpunk 2077’s open-world cliches create a false sense of free will that clashes with the cyberpunk themes of limited agency and megacorporate oppression. Its retrofuturism and trope-heavy pastiche give it a self-parodic rather than critical relation to the genre.

This accords with the game industry’s infatuation with the idea that open worlds always make for better games even when narrative and theme are contradicted in the process. In 2007, game director Clint Hocking coined the term ludonarrative dissonance to describe this clash between a game’s play and narrative structures. When, for example, a character presented as noble or charming throughout a game’s storytelling also sadistically murders scores of enemies during gameplay, this creates ludonarrative dissonance.

Such dissonance can appear in any game format and can be used intentionally to create defamiliarization and meta-commentary, but in big budget open-world games, it can be hard to recuperate it as purposeful. Those games promise not friction but freedom, and an immersive unity of effect second only to (and sometimes adapted for) virtual reality. Triple-A-game writer Kim Belair places the blame for dissonance on the industry’s over-reliance on contrived “adrenaline rushes,” which are especially prominent in current open-world games: “We seem largely unable to marry the urgency and seriousness of a main story kicked off with action, danger, and overwhelming odds, with an open world that prioritizes freedom and going at one’s own pace.” As more and more game developers convert to open-worldism, open worlds start to look and feel like different flavors of the same game, and the gap that had been closing between gameplay and narrative in ostensibly story-driven titles begins to reopen.

Open worlds can be traced back to the flight simulators, alinear text-based adventures, and free-roaming action and role-playing games of the 1970s and ’80s. Most famously, The Legend of Zelda (1986) places players on an overworld map where they can discover secrets and access the game’s dungeons in an order of their choosing. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017) maintains this approach on a much larger map — Nintendo calls it “open air” — but it stands in contrast to many of today’s open-world games, with their cluttered maps, incessant activity, and persistent online services. Open worlds are touted as uniquely immersive aesthetic experiences, but developers are not merely drawn to the format by its gameplay potential. Speaking almost confessionally, Belair recounts how design conventions and financial concerns converge:

In triple-A games there are millions of dollars at stake, relying on millions of players to justify the investment, and that means that one story has to motivate an entire audience, made up of myriad different backgrounds and life experiences. But more than that, in an age of DLC [downloadable content], episodic content, and microtransactions, it has to motivate players to stay in the game … We’re swearing that the world will end in 72 hours, while hoping players will stay in the game for 80+

Compared with conventional linear games and earlier open worlds, contemporary open-world games are much more like platforms, which makes them more conducive to surveillance capitalism: more captured social interaction, data collection, in-game advertising, and microtransactions. They also allow games to be sold as a perpetual service — requiring subscriptions and constant updates — rather than a discrete experience. Today’s open worlds offer play-as-work in the guise of free-roaming adventurism. But in practice they resemble gig economy platforms where an inscrutable algorithm assigns you countless tasks that force you to run around the map performing errands. This reduces a game’s narrative opportunities to the business of keeping players occupied, caught up within the slot-machine psychology of a game’s quest mechanics.

In Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late-Capitalism, Frederic Jameson made a plea for an “aesthetic of cognitive mapping” that could render the totality of globalization and international markets more psychologically comprehensible. In “A Global Neuromancer” (2015), Jameson made the case for Gibsonian cyberspace as a cognitive map of finance capitalism:

Science fiction, and in particular this historically inventive novel by Gibson, offered a new and post-realistic but also post-modernistic way of giving us a picture and a sense of our individual relationships to realities that transcend our phenomenological mapping systems and our cognitive abilities to think them … The distinction of Neuromancer thus lies in the nature of the form itself, as an instrument which registers current realities normally beyond the capacity of the realistic eye to see, which projects dimensions of daily life we cannot consciously experience.

The cyberspace of Neuromancer arranges information into architectural abstractions resembling buildings, streets, and cities that hackers, net security agents, and AIs digitally traverse to capture or protect data. For Jameson, this visualization of cybernetic data flows and constructs makes the totality of global networks representable. This global visualization is dialectically accompanied by a localized one in Neuromancer: the “simstim” technology that allows one’s consciousness to be projected into another’s body.

Cyberpunk fiction typically depicts body enhancements as a source of power but also pain and trauma, but in Cyberpunk 2077 they are straightforward upgrades, acquired as soon as you can afford them

Open-world games have a similar dialectic, in which players oscillate between the subjectivity of their avatars to the totality of their game maps, which they can pan around, zoom in and out from, and mark with custom iconography to establish relationships between locations, characters, and events. Open world games, at their best, could be conceived as cognitive maps. One of the most influential open-world franchises, Grand Theft Auto, has been interpreted in this light. In “Fredric Jameson and the Gangster,” Alistair Brown explains how Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas works as a kind of cognitive map of racial capitalism in America:

San Andreas is the only game of the GTA series to feature a black central character, called CJ. CJ finds that in order to succeed he must leave his comparatively safe suburban home (modeled on the poor Los Angeles suburb of Compton) and explore the city center areas where (white) wealth and power is concentrated. Through the game’s “spatial organization,” players learn that greater economic rewards are present in the city, but also greater risks in terms of police presence, and a greater sense of dislocation as CJ leaves his “proper” place as a young, poor, black man, and takes on opposing gangs, white policemen, and the mafia. San Andreas thus offers some sense of how Jameson’s “cognitive maps” might represent economic and social issues in a spatial way that invites active exploration.

Cyberpunk 2077 and Watch Dogs: Legion, another cyberpunk game from 2020, both deploy the Grand Theft Auto approach to open-world game design but provide cognitive maps of nothing in particular, failing to orient the player in a sociopolitically meaningful way. The districts of Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City display grave disparities in wealth, cleanliness, pollution, safety, and policing, but the game’s pacing makes this into window dressing. In GTA: San Andreas, CJ is affected by player choices that are constrained by the game’s representation of socioeconomic disparities: the quality and quantity of the food he eats, how much walking versus driving he does, whether he goes to the gym or is sedentary. In Cyberpunk: 2077, the protagonist, V, faces no such dilemmas. Instead, V is constantly assailed by job offers and propositioned with so many car deals that the game often feels like an auto-trader simulation. Driving through Night City and the Badlands in a purchased or stolen vehicle feels like cruising the Pacific Coast Highway or off-roading in the desert — fun activities, but ones that run counter to V’s race-against-the-clock story and push the game’s cyberpunk themes to the background. And whereas cyberpunk fiction typically emphasizes body enhancements as double-edged, a source of power but also pain and trauma, in Cyberpunk 2077 they represent straightforward upgrades to be acquired as soon as you can afford them.

The absence of open-worldism keeps platform-style services at bay

V is the sort of walking contradiction that one is often required to play in open-world games: a seemingly amoral mercenary who also routinely displays altruism when not running people over with cars or motorcycles. In a quest summary for the “A Day in the Life” side job, Cyberpunk 2077 almost seems aware of this: “Gonna sound like my gramps for a sec,” says Johnny Silverhand (performed by Keanu Reeves), “but you know, in my time, being a punk meant something different. People fought against the system whatever way they could, frying the biggest fish they could catch, tearing down palaces brick by brick. Now every random gonk-brain fool thinks they’re a hero for flatlining an unarmed normie.” When following major story arcs, the protagonist fights nobly against the system; when hitting the open map, V can flatline unarmed normies with no consequences for the narrative.

Watch Dogs: Legion’s depiction of popular rebellion and solidarity against state-corporate power is undercut by similar inconsistency. It makes running someone over with a car as permissible as recruiting them to fight techno-fascism. To its credit, the game lacks a specific protagonist, allowing players to instead become anyone that they’ve recruited at any time. Within an hour of playing, I had Londoners of varying races, genders, and occupations in my roster of hacktivists, including a grandmother, a human rights lawyer, a mechanic, and a sex worker. Toggling between the map and these multiple subjectivities approaches Jameson’s cyberspace-simstim dialectic. But this novel approach is squandered when — in between the hacktivist work of hijacking government propaganda and uncovering workers’ right abuses — the player can carjack, sucker-punch, and murder the same citizens that the narrative compels them to fight for and recruit. The moral incoherence undermines the possibility of cognitive mapping, splintering the totality into incompatible spaces that players dip in and out of depending on their interest in varying game mechanics.

The idea of an open world, like the idea of “cyberpunk” to a degree, is used as a marketing tool. It assumes — and, in turn, creates — consumer desire for a pseudo-autonomy that is really just the “freedom” to endlessly grind away at tasks when not committing random acts of violence. When developers claim that open-world games are bigger and more immersive, this is often an illusion produced by synthesizing all levels and locations into one map that then requires stuffing with predictable game mechanics, busywork, and, ironically, fast travel points to ease the burden of traversing it. And these maps have become less about discovery and more about systematized work — of the player being managed by the game engine, much as gig workers are managed by apps and algorithms.

Open worlds of the Playstation 3 era — in such series as Elder Scrolls and Fallout — used uncluttered maps that revealed new locations, characters, and scenarios primarily when players discover them. More recent open-world titles (including the newer persistent-platform versions of otherwise noteworthy franchises, like Elder Scrolls Online, Fallout 76, Red Dead Online, and Grand Theft Auto Online) present the player with icon-saturated maps that represent an endless list of chores and tasks. These games still allow players to discover locations and events, but they have far more predetermined activities presented all at once, constantly forcing players to prioritize and clear them like cases from a docket.

To the open-world weary player, this can start to feel like a simulation of the crunch that so many programmers are subjected to when developing these games. This is why some players enjoy ignoring quests and tasks altogether to aimlessly wander the open world instead. Newer open-map games, however, seem invested in dissuading this through the panopticism of the quest log, which serves as a means of disciplining players into longer gaming sessions. As Jed Pressgrove writes in “Conformity in an Open World,” “These games (and others) seem to inspire … a type of ideology that suggests great game design must follow two maxims: (1) more is better and (2) freedom is yours … The open-world ideology says you should be a consumer and love the freedom to consume whatever is put in front of you — to admire art the way you would a buffet.” Of course, this compulsory consumption, incitement to hoard items, and simulation of gig economics can be referred to as “freedom” only in scare quotes.

The dissonance in open worlds generally stems from the difficulty of balancing player “autonomy” and narrative “purposiveness.” In conversation with Belair, narrative director Darby McDevitt of Ubisoft Montreal attributes the incoherence of open worlds to an “over-reliance on a narrow battery of game mechanics … it’s [nearly] impossible to pace an open world game with traditional narrative techniques, unless you make the open-ended quality of the game part of the story.” Some argue that this challenge has been met by some of the most praised open worlds — Skyrim, Breath of the Wild, Red Dead Redemption 2, The Witcher III, Ghost of Tsushima. But far more titles force open-worldism into narrative games to turn them into money-making platforms rather than contained, aesthetically coherent experiences. Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War illustrate both sides of this duality: the former introduced a revolutionary mechanic, the Nemesis System, that procedurally generates narratives wedded to the player’s performance in the open world; the latter developed this system further but also undermined it with pay-to-win microtransactions, causing a backlash that eventually forced their removal.

Though open worlds seem to have the cognitive-mapping potential that Jameson saw in Gibsonian cyberspace, linear games that balance openness and constraint, agency and oppression, offer stronger and more coherent forms of playable critique. The 2020 remake of Final Fantasy VII is notable for eschewing open-worldism — the first installment focuses on one location from the original’s globular map, the megacity of Midgar. The setting is more open and detailed than the original, but it is linear rather than open world, offering a vivid cognitive mapping of a two-tiered society with a periphery blighted by the upper half’s industrial and commercial waste. There are side quests and large locations that can be approached in various orders, but they are finite and never overshadow the main story and theme. The absence of open-worldism keeps platform-style services at bay, preventing Final Fantasy VII from devolving into the kind of virtual grind that cyberpunk fiction critiques.

The ending of Ready Player One dramatizes the dismal alternative: After taking control of the Oasis, a world-wide virtual-reality game full of digital goods and pervasive branding, the protagonist shuts it all down — on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so players can then return refreshed to their game-work.