Perspective | As a cancer patient, ‘Cyberpunk 2077’ frees me from my mental prison

Perspective | As a cancer patient, ‘Cyberpunk 2077’ frees me from my mental prison

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I was diagnosed with cancer in early June. For some reason, since then, I haven’t been able to stop playing CD Projekt Red’s “Cyberpunk 2077,” a story about how you must navigate or defy terminal illness.

The terminal illness facing V, the game’s protagonist, is the all-but-certain erasure of their soul. Their personality, memories and cognitive functions are being overwritten by an artificial intelligence, Johnny Silverhand, a rocker and branded terrorist brought to virtual life by Keanu Reeves. They can only deny or accept their fate; either grasp at some way to sever their connection as Silverhand takes over, or leave this world on their own terms.

But V isn’t a real person. They’re just a video game character, and I, as the player, choose their fate — not the game’s script and code, and certainly not Keanu Reeves. Since my cancer diagnosis, my male V (you can choose the protagonist’s gender) has roamed the streets of “Cyberpunk 2077′s” Night City, carefree and blissful, willfully ignorant — by my choice — of his death sentence.

It wasn’t always this easy to be carefree in Night City. The game’s infamous release in December 2020 redefined the term “cyberpunk” to mean “unfinished, buggy and unplayable video game.” As I wrote in my final review of the game in 2021, “Cyberpunk 2077” used to barrage the player with phone calls and notifications about new activities, with the resulting information overload destroying any sense of spatial immersion, and strangling the pace of the game’s otherwise compelling narrative arc.

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This older, more unpleasant version of “Cyberpunk 2077” reminds me of my current situation. My phone is constantly buzzing with concerned texts and phone calls from friends, family, ex-girlfriends, former co-workers and long lost acquaintances. Everyone talks about the myriad challenges of cancer, but one of the least discussed is the emotional burden placed on the patient as they navigate, soothe and buckle under the overwhelming grief projected by their loved ones. I value and often need the support and concern from my family and friends, but there’s the lingering sense that none of this would need to be said if not for my cancer. Words meant to soothe me often just remind me that I’m fighting for my life.

Five months ago, developer CD Projekt Red released its 1.5 update, which brought along a host of stabilization fixes, new features, and most importantly to me, the ability to ignore those carping in-game texts and phone calls. The promise of a streamlined experience after the 1.5 patch, paired with my excitement over Netflix’s “Cyberpunk Edgerunners” anime series in September, invited me back to the experience. In the days leading up to my first chemotherapy session, my mind was an anxiety-ridden mess. But now I’ve learned to accept turning my phone on silent and keeping the screen face down as I play “Cyberpunk 2077” for hours a day, a sort of 1.5 patch on my own life.

Today, I face the relentlessly exhausting reality of battling cancer, a fight that consumes every hour, if not every minute of my day. As a cancer patient, I feel pulled in so many directions that I’m hardly in control of my life: doctors constantly filling my schedule with appointments, checkups and follow-ups; a home care nurse who visits me twice a week; my family asking for updates, and grappling with their own trauma since my diagnosis; and hundreds of friends offering to help while feeling and (let’s face it) being helpless.

But in “Cyberpunk 2077,” I can ignore my character’s death sentence. As in other open-world games, there’s no “Game Over” screen for ignoring the main campaign. I can play how I like, ignoring the corruption trying to kill my character from the inside, while remaining immune to any fallout from that decision.

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Critiques of the narrative correctly chide “Cyberpunk 2077” for failing to establish any strong motivation for its protagonist to engage in anything else but saving their own life. Why is V helping police stop gang activity when they need to save themselves instead? What’s the point of all this money being collected? Why buy a new car when any day could be their last?

Why put off responding to a loved one’s desperate and pleading text as if tomorrow is promised?

It’s when I asked myself this question that I grew to appreciate V’s disregard toward saving his life. With nothing more than existence at stake, my V lives every day stubbornly refusing to engage with the fact that it may be their last — a waking daydream of chasing ever more dreams. It’s this context that helps me, a possibly dying man as well, appreciate “Cyberpunk 2077” more than any other open-world game when it comes to achieving my specific power fantasy.

In real life, ignoring my diagnosis is not a luxury I can afford. My cancer is aggressive, and I will be aggressively fighting back over the next few months. I pray that I can be rid of it by the end of 2022. I’m only at the beginning of the nightmare; it’ll be some time before I can wake up to any semblance of a normal life.

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Even after dozens of hours of playing “Cyberpunk 2077” since my diagnosis, and several drafts of this essay, I am not much closer to understanding my sudden fascination with this title given my current predicament. I should be triggered by this game. It’s an aggressive reminder of terminal illness.

Yet this game compels me in ways it never did before — and in ways no other game has been able to in 2022. This compulsion extends beyond my playtime: I have bought the “Cyberpunk 2077” Secret Lab gamer chair, the “Cyberpunk 2077” soundtrack on Apple Music, the “Cyberpunk 2077” art book and comics, and two Dark Horse “Cyberpunk 2077” action figures. I never felt caught up in the nine-year marketing hype cycle for this game. Yet here I am, a few years out from release, spending money on the brand like an uncritical fan.

Even my text alert sounds and ringtones are ripped straight from “Cyberpunk 2077.” Creating them for iPhone was a first for me: It meant learning to use GarageBand just to satisfy this strange and all-encompassing desire to live in the world of “Cyberpunk 2077.”

Maybe it really is all the little improvements CD Projekt Red made to the game for its 1.5 update, which include: Cars that react to real-time events and feature suspension, giving them a sense of real weight in this virtual world; side quests that offer so many rewarding short stories, letting me live through an electronic cyberpunk-version of “One Thousand and One Nights”; a reworked skill system that makes character evolution more meaningful; and deeper interactions through friendships, which can be ignored but are there if I need them.

Perhaps it’s the way “Cyberpunk 2077,” whether intentionally or not, leans into genre tropes, so effortlessly echoing famous boyhood works of art from the ’80s and ’90s like the groundbreaking anime “Akira,” or David Fincher’s “Fight Club.” After all, V is essentially the “Fight Club” protagonist who’s aware of his Tyler Durden (now played by Keanu Reeves rather than Brad Pitt, however).

Here’s a confession: I often fall asleep to old presentations by Steve Jobs, as he announces industry-changing products like the iPod, iPhone, iPad or iCloud. He’s a skilled marketer, in that many people believed in his conviction that these technologies would change the world. It’s easy to see in hindsight how much that change has come to both help and hurt, but the innocence of that early faith comforts me and lulls me to sleep.

“Cyberpunk 2077” is often criticized as not really offering any real vision of the future, but now I understand that it was never meant to represent any sort of future. “Cyberpunk 2077” is the future as it was seen from our past. It’s when we still believed flying cars were a possibility.

Maybe I, as a 40-year-old man, take comfort in how modern technology is repackaging a catalogue of old and outdated counterculture, all from my youth, a time of my life when I truly felt immortal and ageless, when tomorrow felt guaranteed — even if that, too, was just a dream.

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None of this is to say that I am giving CD Projekt Red a belated pass on how the company mishandled this game’s launch. Most egregious are the attempts at deceiving consumers and journalists, withholding the nigh-unplayable PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions of the game until after release. I still stand by what I wrote last year: CD Projekt Red’s marketing of the game, and the final release, turned them from industry darlings to its most renowned liars. The studio promised a “dream game,” an experience that would fulfill so many fantasies for so many people. That’s not what they released.

But in 2022, I would be the liar if I said I wasn’t enjoying wrapping myself in CD Projekt Red’s messy, juvenile electric dream. It fulfills the ultimate promise of the video game medium, the power fantasy of overcoming challenges and achieving some kind of emotional, tangential fulfillment, all without serious consequence. “Cyberpunk 2077” is helping me create the most valuable memories I can from this awful moment in my life.

“Cyberpunk 2077” is not a dream game, but it’s an experience that still feels like some kind of dream, even if I can’t fully understand or explain it. For me, that’s all a video game ever needs to be.

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