i am going to solve the cyberpunk discourse forever. part 1: the pigs.

Doc Burford
67 min readOct 1, 2022

A while back, I replayed Mass Effect; my politics have shifted more towards the left since I last played it about four years prior, and I found myself decidedly less enthusiastic towards the game than in my prior outings. Offhandedly, I remarked that one of the party members, Garrus, is a cop who wants to get away with extrajudicial murder, because I thought it was funny just how badly written he is.

It’s not that the writing is bad because the game is pro-cop when it comes to Garrus, because supporting him is the ‘renegade’ option; playing his arc as it’s meant sees you convincing him that his worldview is wrong, the writing is bad because it’s super on the nose about how much of a cop he is! I found that funny! A lot of people got on my case; some pointed out that he was ‘pressured’ to be a cop by his cop dad, others argued I was just saying shit about him because he had been a cop, others went “but he quit the police! Doesn’t that make him a good person?”

All of them insisted that I didn’t understand the game’s writing.

But, hey, in fairness, I’ll let you make up your mind. Here’s the actual game:

all screenshots are mine unless otherwise noted

This screenshot isn’t out of context, as some of my detractors argued. My screenshots — I wasn’t able to capture everything, but got as much as I could — shows a rant that goes something like “At C-Sec, you’re buried by the rules. The damn bureaucrats are always on your back. Sometimes it feels like the rules are only there to stop me from doing my work. If I’m trying to take down a suspect, it shouldn’t matter how I do it, as long as I do it. But C-Sec wants it done their way. Protocol and procedure come first. That’s why I left.”

Shepard responds by asking “So you just quit because you didn’t like the way they do things?”

Garrus continues, saying “It didn’t start out so bad, but as I rose in ranks, I got saddled with more and more red tape.” You reply something to this — I didn’t catch it — and he responds “Well, that’s sort of why I teamed up with you. It’s a chance for me to get off the Citadel, see how things are done outside C-Sec. And without C-Sec headquarters looking over my shoulder, well, maybe I can get the job done my way for a change.”

That way ends up being extrajudicial murder, unless you can paragon Garrus down from this.

also im just grabbing random screenshots that I have, there’s no theming or illustrative point to a lot of these

As you can see, my read on the character was correct, and while I am happy to let everyone who says “alien hot tho” go about their lives, commenting on the fact that a character has some kinda fucked up beliefs isn’t really justification for someone to tweet about how I may have mental problems (no, seriously, at some point I just received a deluge of people calling me literally mentally ill for simply… posting screenshots of things Garrus said and said “haha this is a bit fucked up”) for a quick little thread about a character.

It wasn’t even the first time that week people got on my case. Neil Druckmann talked about how a video of a lynching caused him to feel such intense hatred that he felt compelled to write a game about a character experiencing that hatred and following it through to its natural conclusion. While my essay on The Last of Us 2 isn’t done, and I have a lot of issues with the game, it’s very clear that the game condemns Ellie’s actions.

Druckmann might get a lot wrong (like that interview he gave where he claimed video games were the only medium that could make you feel things like hate and shame), but he does at least seem to understand that for his story to work, Ellie needs to be the villain. That’s why she is given a loving family that she abandons, that’s why she loses her literal finger, which is what empowered her to play guitar; the whole point of the game is that violence begets violence and pursuing it doesn’t make the world a better place. Ellie could have been happy. She chose violence, and it destroyed her. That’s why the end of The Last of Us 2 is this fucking hilarious bit where she makes a silly sound on a guitar cause she got one of her fingers bit off.

Gamers, of course, took issue with that, with a bunch of them again saying I was obsessed, insane, didn’t understand “that the story is about trauma” (as someone going through trauma therapy and with a degree in writing, trained by a literal Oscar winner, multiple shipped games that I wrote and ten years of critical writing behind my back, I kinda think it’s safe to dismiss that criticism out of hand).

Look, don’t get me wrong, I am probably wrong about lots of shit. Articles I wrote when I was 18 and 19, I look back at now and cringe. Sometimes they had good points but I just didn’t know enough to express them well enough not to cringe at the execution a decade or more later. Back then, you could say I “had potential,” in the most dismissive way possible, and you’d’ve been right.

But here’s the point: when gamers get it in their head that something is a certain way — that Ellie is a good mom because she is nice to her adopted child (before abandoning him!) or that Garrus is a good friend because he says nice things to you (about how cool it would be if you could kill people without due process!) — they stop thinking critically about it. They go “this is how it is and nothing will change that.”

And look, I am here to write persuasive essays; while my essays may not always actually convince you to abandon your position, my goal is to encourage you to expand how you think about things by providing you with knowledge and perspective that’s hopefully outside your own. I am not trying to be The Authority Who Must Be Respected, I just want to be as interesting as I can be within the scope of good faith.

So, here I am, ready to talk about Cyberpunk 2077, a game I liked a great deal, even when I wasn’t really expecting to. I’d become so ambivalent to the years and years of hype and the insufferable fanbase that I’d even forgotten I’d preordered it.

As of the time I started writing this, and between then and now, when I’m writing this specific paragraph and have just edited the past several, a Cyberpunk anime has come out, which has encouraged people to revisit the game, and surprise, surprise, after a few years of intensive patching, Cyberpunk 2077 is closer to the state it should’ve launched in, and it is, genuinely, an excellent video game in many respects.

But that hasn’t stopped the well from being poisoned, as it were. As best I can tell, it was poisoned for a few reasons, most obviously being the fact that it never should have released on last-generation consoles and shipped long before it was done, leading to a somewhat buggy game on launch. As a PC player, it was in line with most other AAA releases, even better than quite a few of them.

(remember this Assasin’s Creed Unity glitch? not my screenshot)

Other complaints included things like “the cyberpunk twitter account did normal social media manager things and tried to capitalize on internet celebrities like Elon Musk to help raise their profile,” which is annoying, but not the game’s fault. That’s social media shit. Don’t worry about it.

Another thing was a massive, intense hatred of the overhyped fanboys that came with those attempts to capitalize on Musk’s attention; the game outsold The Witcher 3 in large part because people who hadn’t been interested in CD Projekt Red’s previous titles were very much into Cyberpunk, so you ended up with some of those insufferable Musk fanboys. But hey, getting mad at a product because you don’t like some of the people who like it’s kind of silly. Some of the worst people I’ve ever met were people I met because we both liked the same bands. I just thought capitalism was bad and they really liked it. What’re you gonna do? There’s a good NPR piece called “Scott Pilgrim vs the Unfortunate Tendency to Review the Audience” that I think is worth reading.

Here’s an excerpt:

After referring to the first part of the movie as a “dork-pandering assault,” The Boston Phoenix reviewer goes on to say that Michael Cera’s performance is “irritating” in part because of “the non-stop Pavlovian laugh track provided by the audience at the screening I attended.” (As far as I know, that’s a first: “You made the audience laugh, you irritating actor in a comedy, and that’s what’s wrong with you.”)

Then there was that whole thing where, upon finding out that CD Projekt had not been truthful about refusing to do crunch, a lot of people who had used their platforms to loudly advocate for the studio seemed to become embarrassed they got duped, and suddenly, you had people with hundreds of thousands of followers slinging anything and everything they could at the game rather than just admitting they were lied to and they believed it.

We ended up with a potent mix of “the game has problems, but it also has staunch defenders who are wrong about things, and now respected voices in games journalism are saying it’s the worst thing ever” (you may note, however, that studios that crunch much worse with games that, at least in my experience, were equally buggy, like, say, Naughty Dog, did not get the same level of scrutiny and demands for boycotts).

This meant that someone went “if you like the game, you couldn’t possibly be truthful about it,” which was bad, but then some people took it into “so I couldn’t possibly be truthful about it either, and I’ve decided to be as untruthful as possible.”

This is how you end up with people claiming absurd things like a staff member discussing Emile Durkheim’s sacred/profane dichotomy as it relates to Cyberpunk (the game) via the cyberpunk (the genre) work Ghost in the Shell during an interview is somehow meant to be offensive to a specific group of people. It’s not. It’s a question about whether or not religious dogmas about what is sacred actually matter and why the game must do things that appear profane in a world where the body is so modifiable that it is no longer something society at large considers sacred. It’s about how society perceives itself once one of the most important elements of religion is no longer in the picture — it’s about how suddenly losing your arm doesn’t really matter, and how much of a Ship of Theseus can you really be until you stop being you?

That’s a really fun discussion, but it’s not really the point of this piece, so I’ve decided to leave it at this one paragraph to illustrate a point: there’s a lot of bad faith discussion about cyberpunk going around, especially with regards to what it means to be cyberpunk.

Lucky for you, I’m the guy who was going to get my doctorate in post-war cinema (emphasizing noir and westerns) before I decided that cost too much money to do, and who did a whole capstone project on “punk” as a narrative genre (which is completely different from and unrelated to punk as a musical genre). So, if you were looking for just one guy out there who could speak to this topic, well, hey. You could do a lot worse than me.

Here’s the thing: we know that the human brain is wired to be resistant to changing its beliefs (this protects us from being gullible!), so someone might, say, like Ellie because she was a snarky lil’ kid in The Last of Us and they might hate to see someone make a completely uncontroversial claim that The Last of Us 2 succeeds at what it set out to do because, as players, they liked her in the last game, and they’ll be damned if anyone says anything, no matter how true, that makes Ellie look bad. We’ve illustrated this already with the anecdotes above. I hope that by bringing your attention to it, you’ll at least do me the courtesy of trying to follow along. I hope whether you disagree with me or not at the end of this piece, you approached it with openness and a willingness to question the things you might’ve been hearing about Cyberpunk the past few years.

I want to cut through the bad faith. All that irrelevant hogshit that has nothing to do with the game — that stuff isn’t so much context as it is distraction.

Here’s what I’m asking you to do: let me walk you through what I’m thinking. When you get to the end, I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not my case is good enough, but please bear with me; I know I’m asking you to go against what some of you have been hearing for years at this point, and uprooting deeply held beliefs is hard. Please just take me seriously and understand that I’m doing my absolute best here.

I’m about to tell you why Cyberpunk is one of the best anti-cop pieces of media the world’s ever seen.

(unlike Mass Effect 2 and 3’s bootlickin’ cop fantasy lmaooooo)

ok this one is relevant

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Media Is Complicated

I know if you’re one of those people who’s looking at Cyberpunk 2077 and going “look, it’s a game where you can take a lot of jobs for the police and get paid to do it, which isn’t very punk; you’re working for The Man and that’s kinda fucked up,” you might want to just shut me out but… like, all I’m asking for is a chance to write something that you might find interesting. I think I can persuasively argue that Cyberpunk 2077 has something interesting to say about cops that isn’t obvious, especially if you’ve got a lot of other reasons to dislike it and thus aren’t willing to give it the time of day, but even if you disagree with my ultimate conclusion, I’m sure some of the stuff I’m going to present here will at least be stuff you find interesting. Let’s feed our curiosity!

“Doc, there are other problems with the game. The management lied about crunch, for instance. There are portrayals of trans characters that are deeply troubling. The game was buggy as shit on launch and cars don’t even have their own AI!”

These are all valid concerns, and they’re not all concerns I have good answers for. One of my favorite recent movies, The Color Out of Space, was directed by Richard Stanley, and we recently discovered that Stanley has done some really awful things to people throughout his career. I enjoyed the movie when I thought Stanley was a good dude who was down on his luck; that he is apparently a bad person doesn’t change the reaction I had to the movie, does it?

My reaction when I watched The Color Out of Space for the first time was genuine — the new information about Stanley has changed how I feel, but that information does not possess the ability to go back in time and make me feel differently than I did before; the work still impacted me in a specific way. It has left its mark, and it made me a better artist. Sucks that I can’t endorse it anymore, but I can’t undo what it did to me either.

And that’s the thing here; if our goal is to offer honest criticism of something, then we can’t try to use something like “a bad person worked on this” or “in hindsight, some of the politics were messed up” (playing Mass Effect’s rerelease has me realizing just how neoliberal its politics are and how bad that is) as a way of discounting everything. If we’re to be literate in our understanding of games, if we wish to truly deepen our understanding of the knowledge of the craft so that we can make better art, then one of the first things we need to do is go “do I feel this way because of the thing the art did, or do I feel this way because of something else?”

It wasn’t right for a reviewer to blame Scott Pilgrim because he personally didn’t like it when an audience laughed aloud at a comedy, it’s not right for someone to say an album’s bad because it has a song that was her and her ex’s song before a bad breakup, and it won’t be right for you or I to shit on Cyberpunk 2077 for things that Cyberpunk 2077 didn’t fuckin’ do, y’know?

before i decided on copaganda as the focus, i was thinking about writing about how cyberpunk goes hard on actually discussing poverty in a way that’s more than just bad hollywood poverty porn. as someone who lived in poverty and is barely above that line now, this game meant a lot to me because of that. maybe next time.

I feel as if there’s been a trend over the past decade or so of games criticism where people say “well, this game was made by a good person so the game is entirely good” when maybe it’s actually not a very good game, or “this game was made by a bad person so it’s all bad” when maybe it’s actually got some lessons we can learn.

Imagine throwing out weird fiction as a genre because of Lovecraft’s racism; we’d lose so many good stories that take what worked and discard what didn’t; to be honest critics and artists, we must develop real literacy in the form. That means that we need to view works as multifaceted and complex rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I have friends who found a lot of personal representation in the television show Lovecraft Country, for instance. That show couldn’t exist without Lovecraft, so if we cut off Lovecraft’s fiction, rather than try to understand what makes his works frightening and then use those mechanisms to do interesting things with it that weren’t what Lovecraft would’ve wanted (and, in the case of Lovecraft Country, are a refutation of Lovecraft’s horrific ideals), I think that’s a productive thing.

The way internet discourse takes something difficult and multifaceted and often goes “well, let’s de-complicate this and just throw it out” never seems to go well; all the great writers seem to be the ones who don’t do this, it’s fanfic kids on tumblr who claim to be a “novelist” but never manage to get published who want to declare things they don’t like as off limits. We don’t have to be as pathetic as that.

It’s a bit lazy for me to say here that “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism,” but it’s true. It’s more useful, perhaps, to say that it’s extremely unlikely that any work you enjoy will be ideologically pure; I know I did my best to make Adios, my recent game about a pig farmer trying to quit helping the mob dispose of human corpses, good from an ideological perspective, but I also wrote the game’s core characters as flawed people; their viewpoints are not ideologically pure. Fifteen years ago, I didn’t recognize the problems with Mass Effect’s neoliberal politics. I still like the game, though. I just don’t endorse its worldview.

I’ve seen a lot of people say “depiction does not equal endorsement,” and that’s true, but I’d also say consumption doesn’t inherently mean endorsement either. I watched Gangs of New York last night. It’s got racism in it; doesn’t mean I’m endorsing the racism. Nobody ever stands up and gives a speech saying “hey, racism is wrong,” either — but they don’t need to, because the entire movie is about why that shit’s wrong. The movie shows you how that racism leads to a fuckin’ tragedy. It shouldn’t have to spell it out for you; if you’ve got a modicum of intelligence, you can figure this out.

And yet, time and time again, I see people going “why didn’t this work of fiction say that this bad thing is bad?” as if some level of speechifying would have somehow justified the game showing you subtext. Remember that bit in Should Art Say Things? and Does Art Say Things? where I cited Ursula K. LeGuin pointing out that if she wanted to write a sermon she’d just write a fuckin’ sermon? Yeah. That still applies here.

And that’s… kinda the first problem Cyberpunk runs into when it comes to critical analysis? You’ve got people going “well, the game doesn’t outright state that “the cops are bad,” but it shouldn’t fucking have to, should it? Because it spends the entire time screaming in your face that cops are bad. Every single mission you do involving the cops has about as much subtlety as the meteor that created the Chixulub crater (the same meteor that killed the dinosaurs).

Here’s the thing: every person who said “but Garrus hot” is valid — I know several of them, and they all firmly believe that black lives matter and cops are tools of capital that empower a racist culture. You can do both things; wanting to bang an armored lobster man from a fictional story doesn’t mean endorsing cops in the real world.

I am not trying to hit you with a thought-terminating cliche here; I am not trying to kill any and every criticism of the game by pointing out the folly of rejecting a game for doing anything wrong. Just because it’s okay to consume fiction that isn’t entirely ideologically pure doesn’t mean that we are endorsing it or that we can’t talk about the are problems. But we must not close ourselves off to everything just because it isn’t sermonizing at us at all times.

As clearly as I can, what I’m trying to say is it’s good for us to examine all media as thoughtfully as we can, not using any one element to wholly discard or embrace the work. We want to know what the work is doing to us, and whether that’s a good, neutral, or bad thing. If we are untruthful with ourselves about the work, then we can never truly understand how work impacts us. If we cannot understand how the work impacts us, then we cannot make impactful work ourselves. We must be truthful, even if that means saying “this game that has some really shit elements also did some really cool shit we can steal and use in better works later.”

I mean, if you know me, this mindset shouldn’t entirely come as a surprise; D.W. Griffith made a movie where Klansmen were heroes. He also invented camera shots that we use to this day because he helped pioneer the language. We don’t have to pretend those camera shots are useless and make worse movies just because we don’t want to touch something D.W. Griffith made, y’know? I often use the quote “all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun,” which Jean-Luc Godard claims Griffith once said.

not my picture

Heck, I made a game starting from that premise, to put the idea to the test, and that game seemed to have a positive impact on people. Maybe Griffith did bad, but because of his career, I have been able to do good.

Dril’s famous proclamation “drunk driving may kill a lot of people, but it also helps a lot of people get to work on time, so, it;s impossible to say if its bad or not,” is not what I’m saying here. It’s very possible to say if something is bad or not. But when a magazine like Car & Driver tells you a car gets great mileage and will kill you if its airbags go off because of how poorly they’re designed… well, nobody acts like they’re defending bad airbags because of the mileage remark, right? We recognize these as two separate points around the same topic.

Over the years, I’ve encountered a certain kind of person who believes that if something is said or done, then something else will be endangered by it. Now, that process can be true when that something is false — if someone makes blood libel claims, for instance, we know that this leads to racist attacks on the people being libeled; we can see that it’s happened throughout history.

But I’ve seen people take this much, much further, to the point where they will literally throw the baby out with the bathwater; they will, say, cover for someone who does harm with the argument that calling out that harm would somehow create more harm. If you decide “because this game does something I don’t like, I’m going to lie about it,” you cede any high ground immediately. You just give it up, toss it out, throw it away.

Take, for instance, the argument that Cyberpunk isn’t truly punk. I saw people argue that punks are counterculture (because of the musical genre), and because punks are counterculture, and we live in a capitalist society, being a punk must mean being inherently anticapitalist. If you’re anticapitalist, they argued, then you are definitionally not transphobic, not racist, not hateful, or anything else. Because Cyberpunk has been accused of racism and transphobia, it must not, they argue, be ‘truly’ punk.

But… why did the Dead Kennedys write a song called “nazi punks get fucked?” The movie Green Room is literally about nazis who are into punk music trying to murder members of a punk band that does not share their hateful ideals. Nazis are counterculture, and the prevailing culture did kind of kick their ass in World War II. While they’re making a a comeback in the current fascist climate (which is driven entirely by late-stage capitalism pushing people to desperation and seeking someone to blame — which is why fascism always rises in times of economic crisis, and why the biggest fix for it would literally be universal basic income), to argue that Nazis cannot definitionally be punk is like saying “this bridge isn’t out because I like bridges!”

Well, yeah, dude, bridges are cool, but this one is out, and if you tell people that it’s safe — the way you argue that being punk is all these really good things that you argue are safe — you’re giving cover to the bad guys. You say the road is safe, and people will drive on down it, thinking all punks are good and trusting every nazi punk they meet, because… “if they’re punks, they must not be nazis.”

I get it: the definition of punk is counterculture, and right now, as I’m writing this, we’re in a world where Donald Trump, a man who literally kept a book about Hitler on his night stand, was the President of the United States. But… come on. “Punk,” as a concept, debuted when nazis were still the butt of the joke in the Blues Brothers. Nazis were very counter culture then, because the culture was anti-nazi. That the climate has shifted does not mean that the nazi punks went away! They still exist! They still claim punk as their own! Just because they’re gaining power doesn’t mean they went away.

What is a fascist anyways? It’s a nationalist who believes two contradictory things: first, that they are the underdog (you know, counterculture!), and second, that they are inherently superior to and stronger than (which would mean they couldn’t be the underdogs) the people they are fighting against by virtue of their culture (for instance, a lot of ecofascists are drawn to Norse pagan imagery, a lot of christofascists are obsessed with being born into the right faith, and so on). By holding these two contradictory beliefs, they are able to fuel the belief that violence against the people they deem inferior to them are justified.

That means that even if nazis dominate every aspect of the government and economy in the United States today, they will still love the aesthetics of punk, because being punk is being the underdog, and being the underdog is how they justify doing violence.

So when people lie about things — whether you mislead or you are misled — we give protection to the things that we ostensibly argue against. We must be unflinchingly truthful, even if we’re worried that saying “yeah, punk has a nazi problem” or “yeah, cyberpunk has its origins in some pretty bad viewpoints like orientalism and the misogyny of noir caused by men returning from world war 2 to find women had their jobs in the factories and became afraid of being replaced,” will somehow… do something vague and bad, we’re actually supporting the very thing we want to endorse.

I remember back in the Boy Scouts, one of our assistant scoutmasters would routinely lie to us boys to try to motivate us to work harder; you know what that did? It made us feel we couldn’t trust him and he lost any ability to motivate us that he had. Because of this and encounters like it, yeah, I believe in being totally honest about what things are doing, because dishonesty creates resentment which turns people against the dishonest person, even if they were dishonest for the right reasons.

Here’s a concrete example: back in the day, I studied a particular lens of theory. While I think that lens is good, a landmark work in the field, written back in the 70s, includes homophobia, which the author has since renounced, even writing a successor essay that’s much less commonly cited. Around that time, a big influencer referenced (without naming the essay itself but citing the theory it described) that homophobic essay around the same time; that influencer also said some other demonstrably untrue things, but they did it out of a (hopefully sincere) desire to promote a particular theory that I think is admirable.

So, discussing this, and some other serious issues with the person’s essays (because, as you may have noticed, I have very strong opinions about making sure all of our work is above reproach in order to be constructive), I noticed some extremely strong pushback. At one point, someone basically said “yeah, it doesn’t matter if this person is wrong; by criticizing them, you’re going to give ammunition to the people who oppose this!”

What happened was that other people — the people who oppose a genuinely good philosophical lens because they’re shitty people — pointed out the obvious weaknesses in the argument. They then went “see? if this person will lie to you about this, how can you trust anything about their worldview?” and a lot of gullible idiots went “wow! Okay! They’re obviously wrong about a lot of stuff so they must be wrong about everything! This viewpoint must actually be bad!”

By being dishonest — and giving cover to that dishonesty — people picked up on the very obvious criticisms of the work and were easily able to sway people into thinking that if that person would lie about one thing, they’ d lie about everything. If you never lie, then no one can prove you’re acting in bad faith. If no one could reasonably argue you’ve acted in bad faith, then they can’t say “so you see, this person is probably wrong about everything else.” Being willing to identify the flaws in our own arguments makes us more likely to win, not less.

The dishonesty performed on behalf of a good thing empowered bad people to convince neutral people that the good thing was actually bad.

Don’t lie. Never lie.

There is never a situation where the truth will make the world worse. In fact, if you’ve got a disaffected teen on the internet and you lie to him, and he’s already hurt and angry and confused at the world, and someone tells him you are lying… he’s going to trust them.

Fun fact: that’s literally how Nazis recruit people.

(I know some people like to reference the meme that some nazis do of “well you’re not nice to me so I’ve decided to say murder okay” but this isn’t that. I’m talking about verified, actual nazi recruiting tactics that anti-nazi organizations have repeatedly identified as a key method of recruiting people to nazi shit. That’s very different than a Christian Republican saying “because you memed on me online, I’ve decided genocide is cool.”)

Nazis find people who are disaffected, cut off, and alone, and they provide them with community. So if you tell the kid something he knows is blatantly untrue, then he’ll run right into the open arms of the people who are willing to go “yeah that person lied to you,” and he’ll become susceptible to their lies instead.

So. Be truthful. No matter what, be truthful. There is no excuse to do anything else.

I know it can be scary to feel that pointing holes in an argument you know in your heart of hearts to be true might feel like drilling holes in a boat while you’re in the middle of the ocean, but it’s not. It’s someone saying “hey, this boat has a leak! We need to plug it!” If we can plug that leak, then the boat won’t sink. Identifying the leak is not the same as sinking the ship — and it will almost certainly keep the boat afloat, which is our goal. Egg on our face doesn’t fuckin matter.

The truth strengthens your argument. If you get in a discussion about the game and you cannot be truthful, you cannot convince the person you’re arguing with that you’re correct, because they already know you don’t respect them enough to be honest. If you’re right, then admitting the weaknesses of your argument won’t actually hurt you, because if you’re right about reality, then flubbing the execution won’t make you any less right.

I find it troubling that some people have been not just wrong, but I think intentionally dishonest about Cyberpunk, because to them, Cyberpunk 2077 does some things wrong, and therefore, they’re willing to do anything to try to tear it down, because they worry the things it does wrong will do untold amounts of harm if left unchecked. Thing is, most people know you’re bullshitting when you bullshit, so what you’re doing is empowering some real awful people by being dishonest.

It’s important to be able to say what’s good and bad about something, rather than pretending that consumption is endorsement of the totality of the work. You are not a bad person because you consumed media some kids on tumblr decided was bad. You are not a good person because you consumed a wholesome cartoon where the characters look at the camera and say “that’s why it’s important to be nice to people!”

I mean, hell, Stephen Universe is one of the most positive, affirming shows I’ve ever seen, and it constantly tries to tell you to see other people as just as meaningful and important as you, and that didn’t stop the fan community from producing some of the most evil, hateful shit I’ve ever seen and chasing not one but two of the show’s actual artists offline because the fandom was mad the artists had drawn some fan art of a fictional pairing that the fandom didn’t approve of because they’d imagined something totally different. Neither was canon, but the fans thought it was okay to hurt anybody who upset them.

Your consumption does not define your worth or your moral standing as a human being. Who you are is about your ability to put good into the world and what bad you can prevent or repair.

This is why — surprise, surprise, we brought this full circle — you’re absolutely fine for wanting to bang the Garrus Vakarian, a literal fascist murderous cop, an idea which is wholly supported by the game Mass Effect. He’s hot, guys in uniform are a fetish for people. You can say ‘fuck the police’ and still want a stripper cop at your bridal shower. It’s fine. You’re fine. He’s not real. Do whatever you want — you’re only a bad person if you try to pretend he isn’t fascist or espouse his views in the real world.

More on him later.

So, what I want to do here, in part 1, which is about copaganda, and part 2, which is about what “punk” actually is, is provide you with a lot of information that will make your arguments against the bad shit stronger. To do that, I’m going to have to tear down the arguments that are about as strong as a termite-riddled house. That way, nobody can accuse us of being dishonest, and they won’t be able to beat us.

I’m going to give you the best information I can on what copaganda is so when you actually see it, you can tear it a new fuckin’ asshole. But to do that, I’m going to have to argue that Cyberpunk is absolutely not copaganda.

Now, I’d be a pretty big hypocrite if I said “as a result of this, all the arguments against Cyberpunk 2077 are bogus and this is a piece about convincing you that it’s good.” Look, what follows isn’t a comprehensive list of complaints about the game, but I’ll do my best to address what I can.

by the way, the sinnerman questline is probably one of the most profoundly moving stories in a video game

Management lied about crunch. They told us they’d keep healthy hours when working on the game and they didn’t do that. That’s objectively bad. There’s an argument to be made that if you praise the game at all, management might see that as incentive to keep crunching; I’m not sure how true that is, because I’ve never seen someone crunch, create a bad product, and go “oh, maybe crunch was the problem.” People who believe in crunch have unwavering faith in its efficacy regardless of evidence, because people who believe in crunch are stupid motherfuckers.

If the section above wasn’t enough, let me make it clear: I find people who opine — not so many words — something along the lines of “if you are honest about a thing that might incentivize bad behavior, so you should lie about it” never have a valid point. If a game was great despite crunch — and it is always despite crunch — then we should say as much. Call out crunch wherever it is, boycott studios, but always tell the truth about the media you’re critiquing. If none of us bought the game made with crunch, the guys who made it would eventually get jobs elsewhere and they’d go right back to crunching, because people who crunch do not possess the self-awareness to realize that crunch is fuckin’ bad.

CDPR’s management already made back their costs in preorders — I don’t think they’ll learn their lesson if we pretend nothing about the game’s narrative is good.

The Game is Buggy. Yeah well, Red Dead Redemption is praised as one of the greatest video games ever made and it’s got tons of weird bugs.

I get that when we spend $60 on a game, especially after two economic collapses, when minimum wage is stagnant but costs for most things are going up, we want our games to work. I get that it’s frustrating when a game doesn’t work. But making games work is hard, especially open world games, and while Red Dead Redemption never got any significant patches that I can recall, CD Projekt Red has worked tirelessly to patch the game with massive updates that have dramatically improved the experience.

The game shipped earlier than it should have. It’s that simple.

And, more importantly, me finding a character t-posing before slowly flying into the sky, or cars not actually having AI and just driving on a path? That’s like, whatever, dude. Nobody cared about all the bugs I had in The Last of Us 2 despite it being an absurdly expensive AAA video game, and it wasn’t even an open world game. Instead, reviews largely fail to mention bugs in The Last of Us 2, a game that crashed my PS4 and required me to to reload checkpoints! Supposedly, it’s the most awarded game in history. I’ve had worse issues in everything from Mass Effect Andromeda to Battlefield 4.

Games aren’t perfect, the devs are doing their best, and none of this has any bearing on what the game says about cops. That’s what this piece is about, and that’s what we’re gonna focus on.

The game having a crash has nothing to do with what the script or the mission design is doing. It’s an unfortunate technical issue, but we can praise the game for the things it does right while criticizing the things it does wrong. We can do both; it isn’t a contradiction. For many people, it was a buggy piece of shit. For me, it was not notably more buggy than many other AAA experiences I had, and I was actually surprised to hear people acting like it was the buggiest game in the universe. Years after its release, Fallout: New Vegas remains dramatically less stable, but it’s a fan favorite game and people will literally call you a bad person for criticizing anything about it. I’ve had worse experiences with Destiny 2 giving me like 25 Weasel errors in the span of about two hours, which forced me out of the game, before I called it quits, and Destiny 2 is a massive success.

I’m not going to lie — I think there’s a lot of reasons people dislike the game. They dislike the seven years of hype. They disliked the shitty fans (can you really be a fan of an unreleased game?) who acted like it would change the world prior to its release. They disliked the Elon Musk association.

There was a subset of people who would routinely attack games made by various developers just because they had an association with Xbox (for instance, before Control came to PlayStation, there was a cohort of people on gigantic forums like ResetEra and NeoGAF who would enter every single thread about Remedy’s games to go “but [PlayStation exclusive] Naughty Dog games look better,” and those same people would enter CD Projekt Red threads when The Witcher 3 came out to say that it was a bad game because Bloodborne, a PlayStation exclusive, was better.

The biggest tonal shift I noticed in feedback happened after a major journalist who’d been very supportive of the studio found out they’d been crunching; his tone on the game soured very loudly and very publicly; I watched what felt like the entire industry spin around and suddenly decide CD Projekt RED was no longer the critical darling that made The Witcher 3, but the worst studio ever.

Now, I can’t speak to working conditions at CDPR, other than I know people who work there and they’ve never complained to me about the working conditions, but I have a policy of never asking anyone anything about their jobs unless I absolutely must, in order to avoid getting anyone in trouble.

There are other complaints out there. Given how long these essays take me to write, and given how many edits I’ve done, I can’t be sure if the word count is the same, but right this second, as I’m writing, I’m 7,742 words (7,743) in (7,744 — fun fact, it started at 3,052, in the first draft and 5,072 in the second), and I hopefully have made this point: a game can do a lot of things wrong, and some of those things I feel unqualified to speak on, others aren’t relevant, and others, yeah, they’re absolutely shitty but that shouldn’t distract us from the actual point.

Maybe I get it wrong, maybe I get it right, I dunno. I’m confident in what I’m about to say and I know I’m doing my best, but I recognize my human fallibility. If you want to talk about this or anything else I write, I’m pretty much always glad to do so unless I’m really tired. The goal is collaboration; we’re all in this together, and we want this beautiful, transcendental art form to get better.

So let’s talk about why cops suck ass.

How Cops Convinced Society It Needed Them

I was writing about something completely different on Twitter (the sequel to “should art say things?” which is called “does art say things?” (and when I wrote this originally, I did not have a link handy because it wasn’t done; now I do, because I actually finished the piece between when I wrote the first draft of this and now. I cascade my articles a lot) when someone reminded me of a really curious phenomenon called “the CSI effect,” which is where jurors in real life court cases will assume, incorrectly, that evidence they are asked to evaluate should be like the evidence on shows like CSI or Law and Order. If the evidence is not like that, the jurors have a tendency to reject the evidence as not being good enough, even though it absolutely is.

The great big secret of how art influences people is this: it doesn’t make us change our morals, but it can influence our beliefs. When we see Inspector Tequila shoot a bunch of gangsters in a hospital, we do not resolve to go shoot a bunch of gangsters in a hospital ourselves, but if someone says “keep him on the line so I can track him,” we might think that phone tracking takes time and in the real world, cops keep people on the line in order to track them (which is completely untrue).

I remember reading years ago about some study that allegedly “proved” that video games made kids more violent. As I recall, his study basically went “we don’t have any evidence but there was a different study showing that kids who watch a video cassette — because this study was so old that they still used VHS tapes — of violence and then are encouraged by adults to be violent will act violently in the ways shown on the tape” or something to that effect.

I looked into every study I could find on video games and violence and for some reason that Anderson dude showed up on all of them (which is not indicative of a healthy research field; it indicates that someone is publishing a whole lot to justify his department’s existence), and all of them followed the same basic “well yeah we saw a slight uptick in violence but it’s not really reproduceable but we’re gonna claim we proved it anyways.”

Protip, Craig, when your university posts a press release like this, we can pretty safely discount it because this kind of nonsensically breathless “conclusively proven” phrasing isn’t something we see on good studies. This kind of hyperbole tends to come from people seeking attention for salacious claims.

All the serious, good faith (bad faith “I want to prove video games cause violence” practically religious dogma vs the good faith “do video games cause violence? let’s find out!” approach) studies about video game violence came from a much broader group of people, and didn’t include this one weird guy from some university in Iowa who was mad about games for some reason. Those studies all say that games don’t increase aggression and might actually reduce it.

Games are a bit like hypnotism — they can’t make you do something you don’t want to do (another common myth: hypnotism is mind control!). No one can be hypnotized into murder when they wouldn’t otherwise, no matter how cool movies like Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure are, but tons of movies provide us with misinformation about how the world works.

Getting hit on the head so hard you get knocked out will probably kill you. Police don’t have to give you one phone call (they do have to give you a call to arrange legal representation, as I understand it) or tell you if they’re an undercover cop. Depressurization in space doesn’t cause you to freeze instantly (also you aren’t getting sucked into space, you’re getting blown out into it). You can report people missing the second you think you need to; the whole “you must wait 24 hours” thing is a complete fabrication.

Some of these tropes extend themselves into games; shooting a 55 gallon drum full of motor oil won’t cause it to explode, even if it is red, silencers aren’t actually silent, and shotgun pellets don’t turn to confetti after ten feet.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can impact your worldview. That’s how propaganda works, after all.

I dunno how true this is (it might be a myth I’ve heard!), but back in school, they told me that in advertising, if you want to get someone’s attention, you need to tell them about something at least three times to get it to stick (I’ve heard this same rule of thumb in game tutorials, which is why Dead Space says “cut off their limbs” in three forms, audio, video, and text, in its opening level). Propaganda repeats things until you believe them to be true; it’s why Donald Trump is as successful as he is — repeat a lie enough and a not-insignificant number of people will believe you.

But, hey, I don’t support Trump, so what gives! Despite having heard those lies, I knew they were lies. That’s because propaganda isn’t magic; where hypnotism can’t make someone do things they wouldn’t do otherwise, propaganda works best on people who aren’t going to consciously reject it. If you had latent racist views, Trump will validate what you were already feeling. If you aren’t a racist, he might have no impact at all. What’s important, though, is to be vigiliant, because you don’t always know what latent views you might have!

So, if someone says to you “monosodium glutamate is poisonous,” and you have no reason not to distrust them, and you don’t have any interest in finding out whether or not MSG actually is poisonous, you might find yourself viewing foods that proudly proclaim “no MSG!” as being inherently better than the other foods ,and you might find yourself avoiding MSG. They’re also preying on that part of the human brain that sees “our product DOESN’T have X” as “they’re making a point of excluding an ingredient, so i guess it’s bad?” without them actually saying X is bad). It might not occur to you to question whether or not MSG is bad. You might not learn about the truth behind opposition to MSG, which is that some racists opposed it ’cause a Japanese guy named Kikunae Ikeda invented it and racists tend to hate on things made by people who aren’t like them, no matter how good it tastes.

What you gotta understand is how easy it is for propaganda to impact large swathes of the human population, and I can almost guarantee that you yourself have fallen prey to propaganda at one point or another because that’s how it’s meant to work. Someone is trying to trick you while making sure you don’t know it’s a trick. They will simply lie to you and treat it like it’s a fact so often while knowing you have no reason to actually dig into it (because society only works if we trust each other and it’s impossible to be a person who verifies every single statement they encounter). Lies are just gonna get through, no matter how much common sense you and I possess.

Some of them aren’t even really meant to be lies. We talked about this in our The Last of Us piece, right? To recap: The Last of Us pulls its primary story beats not from human nature, but from other stories, and it does so with such carelessness while acting as if it has something to say about human nature that it can mislead the audience into understanding how human beings actually work.

The funny thing is, the reason a lot of the zombie apocalypse stories that feature characters betraying the group in some weird way, a kind of — as someone put it to me on Twitter — Hobbesian cage match, is that these things happened because they were surprising. They happen in the stories because they are twists. You expect people to behave one way, and then a guy gets bit by a zombie and doesn’t show it because of the tension that creates; when a story like The Last of Us comes along and just copies all the twists without understanding why they’re there while acting as if it has something to say about humanity at large — and judging by interviews that game director Neil Druckmann has given on the game, it seems pretty clear that he thinks his games Have Something To Say (protip: if someone sincerely claims that their art is important, they are probably incapable of ever making something capital-I important) — they end up saying things that aren’t true. Work like that has no value. It’s just telling us something about ourselves that isn’t true.

Unfortunately, they have that propagandistic effect.

For a practical example, think about how many preppers were unprepared for Covid. You had people who bragged about how society would break down during a zombie apocalypse, but their belief was that because they had guns, they were totally ready to defend themselves… and they didn’t even have toilet paper. Nobody ever came for them, the siege they all prepared themselves for was a figment of their zombie movie-watching propaganda. We know in actual survival scenarios, humans tend to work together to ensure their own survival, because there’s strength in numbers and humans are fundamentally a tribal/familial species. But here we have an example of media dictating human behavior, working not like mind control or brainwashing, but propaganda. We see people thinking “the world is this way” despite having no real life experience with it because they watched a lot of bad movies.

These bad decisions, like with the CSI effect, can have devastating real life consequences. When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia defended torture, despite all the science we have saying torture doesn’t work, his justification was “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles…. He saved hundreds of thousands of lives, Are you going to convict Jack Bauer? Say that criminal law is against him? ‘You have the right to a jury trial?’ Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don’t think so.”

Jack Bauer did not save Los Angeles. He did not save thousands of lives. It was all something written by some fellas named Howard Gordon & Manny Coto, and the best part is that the nuke still goes off and people die. Jack torturing Graem (my browser insists that this cannot be the right way to spell his name, but I checked) in that episode did nothing. Scalia couldn’t even get that right. Jack’s torture didn’t work.

Scalia may have been referring to a different torture scene, but do you see those names Howard Gordon & Manny Coto? Yeah, those are the people who made it all up. Jack Bauer isn’t real, he’s a guy played by an actor named Kiefer Sutherland. Y’know, this loveable scamp.

Yet here we have one of the most influential judges in the world (he died tho, rest in piss) saying “we should be allowed to torture people because some guys tried to entertain us on prime time TV and I can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality.” He was using a hypothetical that never happened to justify a real activity that science tells us wouldn’t have helped.

This is a guy who was ostensibly a lot more qualified than any of us — someone who was expected to bear some of the responsibility of keeping society running for hundreds of millions of people… and he just completely got brain fried thanks to a dumb tv show (or, at the very least, he thought we were brain fried enough to buy his claim because, what, he just really wanted to ensure people could be tortured even though we know it doesn’t work). Do you see how powerful propaganda is? This is a guy who should be above this kind of stuff, but here he is, a fool, an idiot, a complete fuckin moron, suckered in by something he should’ve been aware was a complete and total evil.

If he isn’t immune, then you aren’t fucking immune, friends.

Antonin Scalia was allowing injustice to happen — lives to be ruined — because he saw it in a television show one time and thought, incorrectly, that it might do some good. That’s pretty gosh darn reprehensible, isn’t it?

Just The Facts, Ma’am

Humans have been recording history for about six thousand years, give or take. The oldest known civilization is the Mesopotamian Civilization, which started around 4,000 BC.

But nobody thought the cops were any good until 1949.

If I did my math right, for just 0.01% of all human history, humans have thought cops were largely a force for good. For the other 99.9% of time, cops have either not existed or were largely the butt of jokes, which is where we get things like the Keystone Cops and resolutions from the cops whining about how Hollywood made fun of them.

Here’s a pie chart visualizing just how much of human history cops have been perceived as the good guys by society at large. You might not be able to see it, but that 0.01% of time slice is there, I assure you.

What happened in 1949?

Well, let’s set the stage. Here’s the Washington Post:

Hollywood needed the cooperation of the Los Angeles Police Department to preserve its stars’ reputations. The rape and manslaughter trials of silent-film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in the early 1920s and federal tax investigations of actors including Tom Mix tarnished the industry. Later, LAPD historian Joe Domanick wrote, cooperation between the movie business and police ensured discretion for “carousing wild men like Errol Flynn and homosexual stars.”

The increasing complexity of Hollywood productions created strong logistical imperatives for the movie business to play nice with police. Like Simon decades later, movie studios needed permits to shoot on city streets, and police officers to enforce those permits, roping off thoroughfares and working off-duty as security.

But, you’re probably wondering, what happened in 1949?

Joe Friday. Joe fuckin’ Friday is what happened.

You might know him as Jack Webb, the creator of the television show Dragnet, and he came along at a time when cops were largely seen, especially in Los Angeles, California, as pretty awful people. They were corrupt, being investigated for that corruption, and doing everything in their power to make the world worse for everyone around them, a lot like today.

L.A. Confidential is a movie that sheds light on the LAPD at the time, if you were ever wanting a good starting place to get the sense of what it was like. A key element of the film is Kevin Spacey’s character, “Hollywood Jack,” a corrupt cop who works as an advisor to a television show called Badge of Honor (which I believe is fiction, but directly inspired by Jack Webb’s relationship with the police for making Dragnet). His job is to make the cops look good, upstanding, and courageous, while he himself is a slimeball piece of shit behind the scenes, like every other cop in the movie.

Christopher Sharrett writes, in “Jack Webb and the Vagaries of Right-Wing TV Entertainment” (it’s on JSTOR so I can’t link it, sorry!)

Dragnet was conceived at a time when the institution was fast losing legitimacy with the urban poor and even sectors of the middle class, but the show is more than a defense of the police. It wants to define “American values” and to separate the righteous not just from criminals but from all the mis fits, oddities, and malcontents who pollute the American landscape.

More:

Webb’s show served specific institutional needs. NBC, the sponsoring network, was obviously one institution invested in the program; the other was the LAPD. The latter provided Webb with an encumbrance he insisted on, not only to aid the show’s verisimilitude but also to permit him to be an advocate for the LAPD and its controversial chief William H. Parker. In later manifestations of the show, Webb paid homage to whoever was at the particular moment in charge of the LAPD. Webb also used the names of actual LAPD officers for his walk-on cops, including DeWayne Wolfer, a forensics investigator whom some researchers have viewed as a central figure in covering up information pertaining to the Robert F. Kennedy assassination.

“You are doing more for law enforcement than anyone else in the entertainment field,” a cop allegedly wrote to Webb.

Webb claimed, falsely, that his show was realistic, which is why Dragnet’s faux documentary style was bolstered by the claim each episode made:

“Ladies and gentlemen, the story you’re about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.”

It’s a bold claim, and it tries to misdirect you with that bit about the names being changed; it’s one thing to say “based on a true story,” because people expect you to take artistic license, but when you specify what has been changed, and you act as if it’s only the names, then you are telling your audience that everything else is true. It’s a lie by misdirection.

The show would routinely show police critics as unhinged and ridiculous, giving great care to show its cops as even-headed, never afraid, always courageous, and dedicated to the truth as loyal public servants who believed only in the public good. While cowardly cops shot 27 black men in the back in a 2 year time span, Dragnet’s cops would stoically pursue justice for any and all. “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts,” was practically Joe Friday’s catch phrase, a way of convincing you, me, and everybody else that cops were good people. The LAPD’s racial segregation policies, of course, were never a subject of the show’s attention.

The LAPD benefited tremendously from the arrangement; they got to tell him what episodes to shoot and what topics to avoid — LAPD feedback was a command, not a suggestion — and that practice continues to this day. The LAPD’s media relations division literally lies to people and tries to get the media to help them maintain the lie.

Think about that for a second: we have the police, assorted organizations nationwide of people with zero accountability, people who will literally harass political rivals, who get to help shape your reality through propaganda by controlling what people do and do not say about them, and everyone just goes along with it.

The LAPD benefited in other ways; not only did they exert narrative control and used that to shape perception of the police just as easily as video games make shotguns seem like confetti throwers, they also profited from the show — Webb gave something like six percent of the show’s profits to the LAPD in various ways.

Of course, it wasn’t a one-sided deal; Webb relied on police resources to create a sense of authenticity, which made his show all that more compelling. He had sets that were identical to the real world, technical advisers who could provide him with badges and guns. The police got him shooting permits, gave him cops — a term the pigs found disrespectful and ultimately got banned from the show in 1953 — as extras, and provided resources that helped him keep his costs down, making it easier to keep his propaganda efforts on the air.

Dragnet’s popularity in flagrant defiance of the truth makes sense, of course, because the basic premise is hugely entertaining. Who doesn’t love it when The Riddler is out there setting up bombs all over Gotham and Batman has to stop him? The tense cat and mouse game, the slow unfolding of the clues, the discovery of the unknown enemy and the desperate struggle to save lives is absolutely enthralling. House is a detective show in the form of a medical drama. Boston Legal is the same thing, but for lawyers. All procedurals follow that same basic pattern: there is a threat, and through investigation and no small amount of drama, our heroes save the day. Of course people eat that shit up.

When I say “propaganda efforts,” you may go “ah, you sure about that? Maybe this Webb fella didn’t realize what he was doing, maybe he was just a sucker being used by the LAPD.” Unfortunately, he wasn’t a rube, he was a deliberate and malicious propagandist. Sharrett argues, convincingly and honestly not controversially, that Webb was a right-wing ideologue, invested not in the truth, but his grievances. When he rebooted the show, Webb’s villains were, as Sharrett puts it, “…a full array of “others” who serve as raw meat for his angry, voracious ideological appetite: hippies, protestors, pot smokers, black militants, liberal intellectuals, and a gaggle of miscellaneous social misfits constitute an army of opposition that is always the fantasy life of the Right.”

Dragnet inspired a massive glut of shows, all following the same basic premise. Whether that was F.B.I., a show that J. Edgar Hoover (y’know, the racist weirdo who hated commies and minorities and tried to ruin Martin Luther King, Jr) had so much influence over that he could decide who to cast based on their politics, or whether that’s more modern shows like Law and Order or CSI, the police procedural as we know it today owes everything to Dragnet.

Remember when I argued that, for the purpose of this essay, we mustn’t look away from the truth? That we must be unflinching because the truth makes us stronger and the lies weaken us? Well, for Vox, writer Constance Grady makes an interesting point:

CBS’s Blue Bloods aired an episode in 2014 in which a Black suspect throws himself out of a third-floor window to frame a blameless white officer for police brutality, the implication being that criticisms of the existing system do nothing but make life easier for criminals and harder for our heroic boys in blue.

As Batman would say, “this is the weapon of the enemy. We do not use it.” If cops will use propaganda to lie and say that criticizing them is really just making it harder for them to help us, then we must not be like that, even if that means, as I’m about to start arguing, that Cyberpunk 2077 is relentless in its willingness to tell you just how awful the cops are.

They say the best way to sell a lie is to keep some truth to it, and Jack Webb was nothing if not a shameless liar; all those LAPD resources that helped that greedy bastard keep his propaganda on the air gave him the appearance of truthfulness, but an accurate use of a police badge or filming inside police headquarters shouldn’t con us into thinking that the cops are also earnest seekers of truth and justice.

In this great piece on Dragnet’s legacy, the author points out that at his death, Webb was given a police badge to carry him off into the afterlife, concluding, “…people tend to shape history by choosing which facts to include and which to discard.”

So.

Let’s talk about some facts that the cop shows tend to avoid.

But Cops Are Good, Right? …Right?

I remember hearing that the cops in my neighborhood were always looking for kids from the high school to steal weed from so they could sell it on their own. But that’s just one city, right? Surely that isn’t the norm. How could it be? Aren’t there good cops?

Sure, let’s look at one: Adrian Schoolcraft, a cop who recorded proof of “evidence that arrest quotas were leading to police abuses such as wrongful arrests, while the emphasis on fighting crime sometimes resulted in underreporting of crimes to keep the numbers down.”

What did he get for this heroic work? First he was reassigned to desk duty, and then the NYPD sent a unit to illegally break into his apartment, kidnap him, and forcibly detain him in a psychiatric ward (harder to get out of those than to be held for crimes, as I understand it) for six days as retaliation.

In case you were wondering what happened to good cops, that’s what happened. Thing is, police forces are like gangs that nobody does anything about because of copaganda; they look the other way, assuming the alternative would be worse, but time and time again, cops are just jackbooted thugs with guns and a license to kill commit murders and kidnappings and get away with it. Movies and games tell us that cops are upstanding, hard-working, highly-trained professionals, when in reality, they get scared of barking dogs and end up murdering nearby women instead, or they shoot dogs behind a fence because they can’t control their own.

Someone who was on some “blue lives matter” shit a few years back told me that everyone who was killed by cops without due process deserved it because “they weren’t complying.” First off, you shouldn’t be murdered because you aren’t compliant; the law doesn’t demand the death penalty for noncompliance. Second, we only have the word of the murderers in some of these cases. If you murdered someone because you were bad at your job, would you be truthful about it? Think about the cost! You’d lose your job! You’d go to jail! Most people would try to lie about it; few people are proud murderers, so it might not be best to uncritically accept the word of people you know killed somebody and investigate themselves and find no wrongdoing.

Lastly… look up at the examples I gave you. A cop murdered a woman taking a nap because he couldn’t fucking shoot straight in a situation where he shouldn’t have been shooting at all. That’s not someone who deserved to die for non-compliance. That’s criminal negligence on the part of the cop. If you fucked up so badly that you killed someone at your job because you shot when you absolutely should not have and killed an innocent bystander who you weren’t even supposed to be shooting at, would you be able to get away without consequences?

Just the other day, a friend asked me if I’d seen the video of a cop who was trying to help her fellow cops wrestle a guy to the floor; apparently, she mishandled her gun, it went off, and the cops all assumed someone else fired, so they executed the guy then and there. Her own stupidity led to someone else being killed, and they would’ve covered it up if people hadn’t been recording.

You think cops are highly-trained and competent professionals? They won’t even let you become a cop if you’re intelligent.

But it’s not just incompetence or a misguided honor code, it’s pure malice directed towards the general population, like the Baltimore cops who planted guns to justify harming innocent people. I’ve heard about towns you should avoid if you don’t want to get a ticket for speeding; you don’t have to be speeding, certain cops in vacation towns just like to accuse people who are from out of town of speeding because they get a bonus when people can’t show up to court because it would cost too much to come back as opposed to just paying an extra fine for missing court.

I remember reading years ago about how cops would literally walk to a person’s door, demand to be let in, and then use that person’s house as a way to surveil someone else. In one case, the cops took over a family’s house, tied them up and forced them to lay on the floor while the cops hung out all day, observing someone across the street, and shot the family dog with pepper bullets. They were observing the wrong house.

One time someone threatened to fire me, which, at the time, would’ve ruined my life and put me out on the street, because I stayed five minutes late at work trying to finish a job my boss insisted had to be done that night. Why is it that some guy can get away with doing orders of magnitude more damage to people? Why is it that people can literally fuck up so badly that they kill people and pets and have their lives ruined as a result?

You may notice I’m not even mentioning some of the more famous recent cases which led to entire nation-wide protests. This is ’cause sometimes when you start seeing details familiar to you, you go “yeah, yeah, I’ve heard this all before,” and I want you to slow down, read this, and really think about how awful the police are. Hopefully, I’m giving you more ammo for the argument.

For the people who are pro-cop, there’s another reason: they’re prepared with arguments. Often, these arguments are absolutely moronic — “this person was resisting arrest,” they might say, because some right-wing pundit with a Facebook channel called Police 4 Jesus or The Daily Wire says a lot of things really fast and hopes you won’t be critical enough to listen.

(it’s an argumentative tactic; overwhelm someone with statements you say with conviction and people will buy that you know what you’re talking about, which is how The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro brands himself, and it’s why his dad posted all those videos of him that got the memes about “leftists destroyed with facts and logic” going. It’s a literal propaganda campaign)

So if we present them with topics they don’t have thought-terminating statements for, stuff they can’t just regurgitate because they heard it from some internet demagogue, then they actually have to think. I say “George Floyd,” and they’ve heard all the propaganda. I mention cases they’ve never heard of, and now they actually have to think about it, because the demagogues didn’t tell them what to think. They have to think for themselves. You wanna convince someone of something? First thing you do is make sure they can’t just wriggle out of it by repeating some factoid they heard somewhere and use it to shut down, rather than critically and meaningfully engage. We have so much ammo; all they have are propaganda for a few big stories. We can get around the lies by being unflinchingly truthful.

So, if you were expecting me to mention a bunch of very high profile cases, those are the two reasons I’m not doing it. It’s because I recognize how high profile they are; it’s more interesting to tell you about all the other things you’d never heard of than it is to tell you what you already know.

The fucked up thing is, as a society, we just let cops do it. I realize the dangers of saying “we” here. I don’t like cops; in fact, I want to write a cop story based entirely on things cops actually do, rather than things cops want us to say about them. Society protects them — when it’s the cop’s word against yours in court, the cop always wins. When the cop commits murder, they get paid leave and a job as a cop in the next city over (in some districts, cops are largely not even locals! they’re policing someone else’s neighborhood, an occupying force rather than a neighborhood protector).

There are no consequences for the actions they take regularly, unless someone caught it on film, and even then, justice to their victims isn’t guaranteed. This is because copaganda has convinced society that their relatively recent invention — that 0.01% of history — is necessary to societal function. We shouldn’t have been surprised when Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd, even though practically every American saw the video of him murdering a man right before our eyes. It should have been taken for granted that he would go away for life, but unfortunately, we live in a world where copaganda has been so pervasive that you’ve got guys like Antonin Scalia saying cops should be allowed to break the law because of that one time a fictional character was depicted as saving a lot of fictional people.

It’s fucked up, is what I’m saying.

And with this knowledge that it’s incredibly fucked up, I hope I have established two things: first, that copaganda is bad, and second, that you now know that I ardently oppose copaganda, because it makes the world a worse place. Remember when I asked you to give me a shot? Well, hopefully, if you were skeptical that I’d be anti-cop, you’re starting to get that I have, at least, done my due diligence and am giving you my absolute best. I know what copaganda is, so when I say “this ain’t it,” I know how fucked up it would be if I was being careless. All this detail? All these thousands of words? This is me making sure you are as serious about why copaganda is as bad as I am, so you know I ain’t fuckin around. You know how I got here, and you know how fuckin seriously I’m taking this.

So here we fuckin go. Cyberpunk time.

Of COURSE Cyberpunk is Anti-Cop!!!

“One officer down, so I guess you’re all screwed, cause the NCPD will not let that go!”

That’s one of the first things you hear when booting up Cyberpunk 2077 for the first time, and it’s far from the only one. As you’re driving through Night City with Jackie, your best bud, a gunship drops from the air and you find yourself witnessing a targeted assassination by the police.

“Doesn’t look like your average bust…” you say. Jackie agrees, and replies “Cause they ain’t your average badges. That’s MaxTac — NCPD’s apex predators. MTac rolls in when things fly outta hand. Gonks out there, though, just a midday snack for ’em.”

Usually, we have courts and things to deal with this, but not so much in night city; if MaxTac decides they want you dead, then they are going to do everything, and I mean everything, in their power to put you in the ground.

Despite this, since Cyberpunk 2077 came out, someone noticed that there are a subset of missions in Cyberpunk 2077 called “NCPD scanner hustles.” They’re the simplest kind of mission in the game; go to a marked location on the map, assassinate some people on the behalf of the cops, and continue about your day. They’ll pay you. They do this because they don’t want to handle it themselves — you’re who they’re outsourcing, basically. In other words, they’re incompetent or lazy or both. But still, somehow, once someone started claiming that working for the cops made you pro-cop, everyone bought into this shit and it turned into a very, very stupid meme for very, very stupid people.

Now, look, I think you have to be a total fucking idiot to think that’s an endorsement of the police; it’s absurd to claim that a game is pro-cop because can take on optional missions on the behalf of the police in a dystopian video game that’s thematically about how it’s wrong to aspire to make a name for yourself in a dystopia. That certainly didn’t stop a whole bunch of media illiterate dipshits from trying to make that very claim, though.

Never mind that most of the side content in the game comes from every other gang — you’ll do work for everybody in the game. Like, if someone told you “you can find work for the Valentinos or Maelstrom in Cyberpunk 2077, so it’s a pro-gang game,” you’d laugh at them for being a complete fuckin idiot, so why would you accept them saying the same thing about the cops?

You’d have to shut your entire critical brain capacity off in order to make that leap, and yet, time and time again, people made that very leap. There is no justification for this mindset; there is no room for error here. The game literally starts off telling you that the cops are the fuckin’ enemy.

Do I sound a bit annoyed? Miffed? Nonplussed? If you’ve read the rest of my work, you know this isn’t typical for me, but here I am, pretty goddamn fuckin’ irked. Well, fellas, that’s because I’ve never come across such a goddamn stupid, unjustified set of opinions before, and now I’m going to dismantle them with a rhetorical sledgehammer.

But you know what? In the interest of being truthful — because, like I said before, if we are dishonest, we give people ammunition to discount us — let’s talk about two things the game does that make it sound like it might be a bit pro-cop. First, there’s the description of cops in the game’s database, which says “Nevertheless, some badges still wholeheartedly believe in defending ordinary citizens and making sure the urban jungle doesn’t descend into complete chaos.”

Now, I could point out that CD Projekt has always had its databases written from specific perspectives in the game and they’re not always reliable, like how all the Witcher databases are written by the player character Geralt’s friend Dandelion, who is a big fan of Geralt, but I don’t remember whose perspective is in the database, so I can’t be absolutely sure that it’s meant to be anything other than neutral. I’ll leave that one up to you to decide.

The second thing that might make you think Cyberpunk is pro-cop is a speech by a policewoman who says the NCPD is doing everything it can, like she’s about to ask for more funding. It’s something that’s discussed in one of the news blasts that plays during a loading screen in the game. But, hey, cops lie all the time, and their greedy demands for increased militarization are met, happily, by the federal government. But while cops whine about being underfunded, their salaries are rising, even though when cops decided to show people how necessary they were and stopped policing, crime went down too.

In other words, if you’re going to truthfully depict a cop, you’d need to depict them claiming to be underdogs and demanding more cash as a result. That doesn’t mean you’re claiming this is the right thing to do, any more than claiming the guys who set that bus on fire in Hobo With a Shotgun make the movie anti-children by depicting characters who want to murder children.

I found the video, so here it is, with the host, Ziggy going to town on this spokesperson, pointing out the NCPD literally cannot do its job and keep people safe, identifying that the cops literally took thirty minutes to arrive at a shooting where over seven hundred rounds were fired sure is a helluva thing to hear. Plus, you know, if you played the game, they can literally show up the second you commit a crime, so “we’re understaffed” is a bullshit claim that even the mechanics don’t support.

But, hey, maybe despite this, it’s all CD Projekt Red’s fault. Maybe they celebrate the cops, turning you into some sort of heroic white hat?

Nuh-uh. First, police brutality is baked into the game’s mechanics. Minding your own business? The Night City Police Department, particularly MaxTac, do not care. The first time I interacted with the cops, I tried to stop them from harassing someone who I thought they were mugging, not realizing I was looking at MaxTac. That went well.

How many times have I found myself walking along, minding my own business, when the overly-aggressive NCPD cops decide to get violent, because it feels like more times than I can count, but one particular incident sticks out.

There I was, minding my own business, crafting some weapons to sell for eddies — that’s what they call cash in Night City — and finding that the place I intended to sell the weapons was out of cash. It happens, but hey, now I’m overburdened, which means my character is going to walk super slow until I can get my inventory carry weight down to something my character can actually manage. You carry too much, sometimes it happens. Don’t ask me how I can craft weapons with the parts I have and the overall weight will magically increase beyond carryable levels, because that involves way too much of an explanation to matter for this piece.

(when I write essays like these, I assume about half my audience are neurosurgeons who are interested in what I have to say but are unfamiliar with games, so I like to explain things even if they seem simple enough to people who play games regularly like many of you!)

So I find myself walking slowly down the sidewalk, not that far from another store that’s got the cash to buy what I’m selling, when a cop, in the process of terrorizing a citizen, decides he isn’t really a fan of my presence. I think he told me not to look at him, but honestly, I don’t remember what he said. What I do remember is that I stepped as far away as I could, practically hugging the wall of the building on the other side of the sidewalk, and smooshed my face into it, and it wasn’t enough.

Several minutes later, the situation had escalated to the point that, as I recall, they brought in MaxTac. I won, but I had to drop some of the crafted weapons I’d been making as well. Oh well, there was a ton of loot to pick up for some reason.

It definitely wasn’t the only time that happened.

But, hey, systems and narrative contradict all the time. Do we got any more evidence?

Well, sure.

Case Studies

Let’s take Scrolls Before Swine, a gig where NCPD officer — and, funnily enough, a tv show consultant like the guys who helped Jack Webb on Dragnet — Aaron McCarlson wants you to commit a robbery on his behalf. I guess that eight seasons of Cops n’ Chops weren’t enough. He wants you to get evidence that he can’t, and he doesn’t mind if you kill people along the way. Okay, okay, fair enough. But maybe I’m reading too much into it, maybe — oh, wait, no, the last dialogue choice in the game, which really puts the cherry on top of the weird behavior he exhibits throughout the gig, includes the question “they’re for the investigation, right?” The context of that gig sure makes it seem like some weird shit’s going on. But, hey, that could be just a hunch, and you know detectives can’t act on hunches (even though that’s literally what Aaron McCarlson just did, heh).

Another quest, Dirty Biz, has you finding footage of a murder where the NCPD gave up on the investigation. Those murders? Well… a theme gets established here, and it ain’t great: NCPD doesn’t care if kids die — seriously, the BD’s tagged as “child/forced/death” or something like that, as I recall. A BD, or “brain dance,” is a term for the tech they record and watch the footage on, directly inspired by the recordings from that cool Ralph Fiennes movie Strange Days, a movie conceived by James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, who directed it.

Interesting fact about Strange Days: it was inspired in part by the footage of the Rodney King beating that led to the 1992 LA Riots (when the four officers who beat him and were recorded doing it were acquited) — and the Rodney King footage was recorded because the incident occurred from across the street from the bar in another James Cameron movie, Terminator 2. George Holliday had been making amateur recordings of the Terminator 2 production and, as a result, was on location and his camera with him when the beatings occurred.

Kinda interesting how that all links up, right?

Okay, okay, but that’s happenstance, right? All we really got is that the NCPD gave up a gig about child murders. They couldn’t make headway, even though it was pretty damn easy for you.

We got more?

We got more.

How about On a Tight Leash, where an officer literally just pays you to kill a guy he believes is guilty because he’s not allowed to do it himself? What about the Psycho Killer questline, where part of the description mentions our “heroic badges” being cowards who run away at the mere mention of a cyberpsycho (a person who replaces so much of their body with technology they lose their minds).

And the thing is, the Psycho Killer questlines almost always depict a human being being pushed to the breaking point, whether it’s a guy who was denied health insurance or a woman who was forced into joining the police.

“Forced into what?”

Yeah. She’s in the game.

And Melissa Rory just so happened to be the very first character we saw from Cyberpunk 2077 nine years ago.

Tell me something. If you’re one of those fellas who’s out there on the internet talking about how Cyberpunk is an anti-cop game because you can do work for the cops, what did you think of the trailer that very clearly indicated (and the game has since backed this up) that the first thing CD Projekt wanted you to know about Cyberpunk is that cops will literally kidnap people and force them into becoming cops?

Maybe that was important to them.

Only Pain’s mission description begins like so:

“To serve and protect…” Funny, would’ve thought “To extort and torture” might fit better…

It’s a mission that starts with you being encouraged to kill some cops who are beating the shit out of some guy because they’re trying to extort him.

What about Woman of La Mancha? It’s got a “good cop” who’s investigating a crime, but someone’s put a bounty on her head. Wanna guess what your job is? If you guessed “to put a stop to her investigation,” you’d be right. Who could have been responsible for this?

…if she makes any real headway — means bad biz for her cop buddies’ finances

Ah.

Yes.

Her superiors in the NCPD put a hit out on her because she’s trying to stop corruption. Remind you of Adrian Schoolcraft at all?

Then there’s Happy Together, a quest about a cop who’s been through some real shit — because Cyberpunk’s actually an extremely well-written game, the cops aren’t just cartoon villains; some of them have real depth, like the pair of real warm assholes near your apartment shit-talking your neighbor. Turns out he’s a cop too, but some shit went down, and a good friend of his died, and now Juan and Nadia are ‘checking in on him’ by being real fuckin’ assholes to a grieving man. Seriously, they’re all “oh man the fuck up” and shit to the guy, and he’s so fucked up by it that if you don’t treat things carefully, he’ll literally commit suicide.

Let’s not forget that the notes at multiple gigs do even more to excoriate the police, mirroring the real world sweeps of homeless camps that police do to brutalize people who need support, not the wanton destruction of what little they have.

And then there’s River.

Run, River, Run

One of the heftiest questlines in the game is about a cop named River, and you might not know it, but he’s actually a good dude.

He’s such a good dude, in fact, that the NCPD suspends him because he’s trying to find out who killed the Mayor, and his partner Harold sabotages that. Turns out Harold isn’t just trying to stop River from solving the crime — he had a much more direct hand in the coverup. Here’s River trying to do his job and the NCPD decides to punish him for it, but it’s not just that he gets suspended.

Nah, in River’s extensive questline, you find out that his nephew’s been kidnapped, and, as punishment for refusing to let go of the mayoral case, River’s being denied any police support into the kidnapping. It falls to you and River to solve the crime, which you do, because, once again, you’re more competent than anybody in the NCPD even if they did want to help.

River’s entire story is really about the police and how they fail the system; it lets you play the part of a detective, sure, but Cyberpunk is neo-noir, and neo-noir was noir, and noir was so often about private detectives like Sam Spade. Its got its own problems as a genre, like the latent misogyny rampant in post-war noirs that stemmed from the fear of competition from women in the workforce by GIs who were coming back scarred from World War II and were trying to reintegrate into society, but femme fatales aside, noir as a genre is a genre about pain, about grappling with our deepest struggles, rather than a genre like the police procedural that’s designed entirely as a means of propaganda.

Where a procedural protagonist is often a brilliant hero, solving crimes and saving the people, a noir protagonist is often down on his luck, prone to make mistakes, unable to see what’s write in front of him, doing his best to make it in a world that he’s not sure is worth living in anymore. Noir can be constructive; some noir stories use tropes about women poorly, but it’s not an entirely unsalvageable genre like the police procedural.

So you, as V, operate very much as a noir protagonist — in Cyberpunk, you’re literally dying, desperate for a cure, and finding none. You’re taken advantage of, used, chewed up, spat out onto the street and told to take care of yourself; that you partner with River, the one good cop (of two, remember the La Mancha quest?) in a city that punishes cops for doing the right thing doesn’t make you a cop-supporter in the least.

I couldn’t find a single mission where the cops came out looking good. Not one. At every turn, they’re apathetic at best, intentionally malicious at worse.

The game sure doesn’t fuckin’ endorse ’em. But it does offer you missions on their behalf, which both hammers home the point that they’re evil and makes it abundantly clear that working for them is a morally compromising act… which makes sense, given that it’s a fuckin’ dystopia. You don’t get to be morally pure, not in a world that won’t let you. This is Night City, folks.

Okay Let’s Conclude This Shit

And that’s… honestly, that’s it. That’s the game. It doesn’t support a reading that encourages you to interpret it as pro-cop. At best, you’ve got an entry that tries to tell you cops are good guys, but you’ve got mountains of evidence to the contrary.

I don’t know how anyone could honestly interpret Cyberpunk 2077 as a game that supports the police; by any definition of copaganda, Cyberpunk is anything but. It is impossible to come up with a good faith interpretation that working for the cops makes the game a pro-cop game. Anyone making this has to be completely unwilling to understand the genre.

I’m going to talk about what Cyberpunk as a genre is (and, therefore, some important defining characteristics) in part 2, but a constant fucking theme of the entire goddamn genre is characters doing jobs that morally compromise them for the sake of survival. It’s a bad world, a genre born out of the fuckin Vietnam era, when a bunch of kids watched their government force people to fight and die on their behalf. You think William Gibson characters like Molly Millions wanted to be a meat puppet? You think Case was a good guy for taking the job that led to the events of Neuromancer? Dude was a fucking smuggler. You think Hiro Protagonist working on the behalf of the United States government made him a fucking saint? Of course not. Even Blade Runner’s titular blade runner, Deckard, is literally working for the fucking cops.

To claim that Cyberpunk isn’t punk because there are optional side gigs that your character can take on the behalf of the biggest gang in Night City requires you to ignore everything about Cyberpunk as a genre. You literally cannot be more directly Cyberpunk than this. If anything, CD Projekt Red constantly manages to nail the genre with the utmost accuracy, something the game’s detractors gleefully fail to do.

We need to be honest, fellas, and even if we dislike the game, even if we dislike things about the game, we can’t argue that it is copaganda; to do so disarms the actual copaganda out there, it empowers the cops to make the world a worse place. So let’s be honest, no matter what.

Anyways, here’s some advice from the NCPD to you. Hope it helps you stay alive in Night City, cause the cops sure won’t.

repeating this here because the piece is long and my doctor’s expenses the past two weeks were over $500:

If you think my work has value and you want to help me out financially, that would be great because being disabled in America is expensive. I’m putting all this out there for free because hey, I used to be in poverty and couldn’t get by without government assistance; I know what it’s like not to have resources available to you that other people have in spades. I don’t believe people should be denied access to educational materials like these just because they’re poor. My hope is that those of you who are able to support are willing to help not just me, but the people who can’t afford a lot of access to other game design materials. If you’re able to help and you think this goal of providing access to people who need it is good, here’s how you can help me keep writing:

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Other ways to help include sharing my game Adios with people, leaving reviews if you liked it, and telling people about my articles. Also, if you’re a publisher, I literally have the best narrative team in the entire world (consisting of television and movie writers who have written some absolutely stellar stuff), and we are about to begin pitching a strategy RPG that is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. If that seems up your alley, slide into my twitter DMs.

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Doc Burford

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.