If cyberpunk is going to survive, it has to drop the racism

Cyberpunk has a murky legacy of orientalism and xenophobia, but indie developers are creating cyberpunk worlds through a different lens — and telling vastly different stories.

Cyberpunk 2077, the new face of the cyberpunk genre, begins with you staring into a mirror, the slick cybernetic implants a few lines of gleaming silver beneath the contours of your face.

From the luxurious offices of the skyscraper you’re in, you may catch a glimpse of a holographic display of a massive koi, leisurely swimming in mid-air — a convenient shorthand for the city’s distinctly Japanese aesthetic. Look up from the streets of this neon metropolis, and you’ll spot an abundance of red gauze lanterns amidst fleets of flying cars. All par for the course for an orient cyberpunk tale, filtered through the Western lens.

Such scenes have roots in the pioneering works of one of cyberpunk’s most well-known authors, William Gibson. He has acknowledged that back in the ’80s, Japan was already the spiritual home of the genre: “I remember my first glimpse of Shibuya, when one of the young Tokyo journalists who had taken me there, his face drenched with the light of a thousand media-suns [...], said, ‘You see? You see? It is Blade Runner town.’"

“You see? You see? It is Blade Runner town.”

Gibson’s landmark 1984 novel Neuromancer had paved the way for cyberpunk’s unyielding fascination with East Asia: the Chinese characters and the likeness of giggling geishas, liberally sprinkled on the glistening surfaces of buildings and flaring billboards. Cyberpunk cities also mimic the dazzling, urban sprawl of major Asian cities such as Tokyo and Kowloon, Hong Kong. The oppressive hyper-density of Kowloon Walled City, amplified by its towering, concrete structures, formed the basis of many cyberpunk landscapes like Cyberpunk 2077: the sordid underbelly of the game's sleek, shimmering Night City.

But the rampant use of this Asian iconography, which implied xenophobic fears of Japanese dominance in the genre’s earliest days, never abated in modern cyberpunk. Signboards that are emblazoned with Asian letterings, or the sheer prevalence of Japanese artifacts, such as the katana, the samurai armor, and the Kabuto helmet, are still abundant, and are a shorthand for exoticism. The largely Western audience can instinctively recognize this imagery as otherworldly and intriguing, yet as an unwanted intrusion of Asia’s burgeoning influence. Even in a world rife with the paraphernalia of Asian culture, these cities are devoid of its very provenance: Asian people like me. Aside from cyberpunk titles made by Japanese creators, I hardly ever see myself represented in most cyberpunk stories.

One underlying truth, however, is that cyberpunk has never just been consumed by Western fans alone.

Goodnight, Night City.CD Projekt Red

“In [cyberpunk] there’s that inbuilt racism — the idea that the worst thing you can possibly have in the future is having to live like a non-white person,” says Tali Faulkner, a game developer of Maori descent and the creator of the cyberpunk photography game Umurangi Generation. A title steeped in Maori culture, the game has steered clear of many racially charged tropes, with its environment a greater reflection of the city’s urban identity and the modern anxieties that plague the real world — rather than echoes of a bleak future that spells the end of American exceptionalism.

This approach isn’t new though. Without the Western anxieties around East Asian dominance, Japanese creators have instead tapped on cyberpunk’s cartoonish nature to address contemporary themes and criticize imperialism, with Oshii Mamoru’s Ghost in the Shell series being one example. In the same vein, Faulkner sought to redefine some of its more recognizable tropes — from more deliberate use of kanji signage and the prominence of megacorps — as a means to reclaim the genre back from its imperialist roots.

Umurangi GenerationOrigame Digital

“There are things in Umurangi that I used, like Japanese and Korean text, because I want to [quickly] help steep people into the idea of cyberpunk. I wanted to contextualize it with this idea of why you would have that in there,” Faulkner says. “It was about figuring out all that stuff and unpacking it. The thing that started to really hurt though, was just looking at what was taken, and why it was taken. For example, our language, Te reo Maori, which I wanted to put in this game, because it was part of the idea that cyberpunk is also actively punk, in terms of that it's also a tool for speaking back [against power].”

For a genre noted for its futuristic, dystopian themes, cyberpunk’s stories remain a collection of glossy but dated tropes from the ’80s. But many cyberpunk worlds conjured by Asian developers, such as Mark Fillion from Singaporean studio General Interactive Co., try to move past these conventions to present a perspective that’s rooted in the ongoing, but equally alarming, issues of the present. That, in a nutshell, was the impetus for his studio’s game Chinatown Detective Agency. “What I loved most about the genre were the social aspects — the great divide of the social classes amplified by technology,” says Fillion, although he adds that that many cyberpunk tales are still rather derivative. “I think we’re still mesmerized by the spectacle of the cyberpunk future and don’t feel a need to really rethink the genre.” A portrayal of the not-so-distant cyberpunk dystopia of Singapore, Chinatown Detective Agency features updated, yet recognizable touchstones of the country, such as its cuisine and locations — a much welcomed extension to the mostly static milieu of cyberpunk.

Chinatown Detective AgencyGeneral Interactive Co.

As a Singaporean, I get an odd sense of relief from seeing a local cyberpunk tale. Watching the trajectory of my country’s growth in the name of progress — from our national obsession with being the world’s smartest city to the methodical obliteration of our historical landmarks and ecosystem — seems like a reflection of the sobering, dystopian future that cyberpunk purportedly foretells. Gibson himself has referred to our city as “Disneyland with the death penalty” — a term that caused so much distress among our leaders that the publication that published his piece was swiftly banned from local shores. So when I played the demo to Chinatown Detective Agency, there’s some comfort in seeing familiar sights molded in the characteristic veneer of cyberpunk neon, from the iconic hawker centers (food courts in Singapore that serve local cuisine, and which has been recently added to the UNESCO heritage list) to the very people who roam the streets in this futuristic interpretation of Singapore. It all feels eerily intimate, but this dystopian future of Singapore that many of us see our country hurtling towards is also an often untold perspective in the media, much less in games — a cautionary tale that deserves the spotlight.

If anything, such cyberpunk tales are a step towards better representation, too — a concept that’s seemingly at odds with the ‘80s zeitgeist of cyberpunk that persists today and in video games as a whole. “The game recreates many locations in Singapore but as imagined in the year 2032, and many of the main characters are from the region,” Fillion says. “Most of the time, when a cyberpunk game is set in Asia — as it so often is — the local culture and people are often just cool-looking props. In our game, everything from the way we speak to the nuances of familial ties play important roles in the storytelling.”

Solace StateVivid Foundry

Taking this concept to its logical conclusion is Tanya Kan, the founder of Vivid Foundry, whose upcoming narrative game Solace State is actively anti-racist in nature. Based in the fictional East Asian city of Abraxa, Solace State prominently features women, LGBTQ, and BIPOC characters taking on roles at the frontlines of a resistance movement. “We want our characters to reflect the complexity of lived experiences. So our narrative research must also interrogate anti-Blackness and anti-subaltern in Asian communities. Our learning must include multicultural and international solidarity in strategies against oppression,” Kan adds.

This is a somber reminder of my own experiences as I played Cyberpunk 2077. I tried to replicate my own identity as a queer, Asian nonbinary person in V, the game’s protagonist. For a game that boasts of letting you become anyone you want — you can even personalize your genitals in dazzling new ways under the character customization menu — V has always been implicitly coded as white. This can be subtly felt in how most people converse with you — like how one of your associates talks about he’s being smeared “in front of Japanese executives.” And while it’s nice to finally meet an Asian queer woman in the game — an anomaly in even most mainstream cyberpunk stories — she’s still a side character, belonging to one of the most infamous examples of orientalism in the game: the Japanese gang Tyger Claws, whose members have a penchant for martial arts and katanas.

Yet beyond the clichéd metaphors of neon corporate logos, cybernetic attachments, and the flagrant misuse of East Asian characters are enduring tales of power, consciousness, and humanity that are still relevant against the ever-growing chasm of inequality. The trick then, according to these developers, is for modern cyberpunk games to actively engage with present-day tyrannies — ”bring cyberpunk up to the present,” as Faulkner suggests — to avoid the pitfalls of techno-orientalist tropes. When the technological sheen of cyberspace is no longer a far-flung vision of the future, cyberpunk games have quite a bit of catching up to do.