Transphobia, Trans Character Creation, and Cyberpunk 2077
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Mild Content Warning: Discussion of Transphobia
During E3 2019, Nvidia announced that they were partnering with CD Projekt Red to bring real-time ray tracing to Cyberpunk 2077 at launch. The announcement post on Nvidia’s website featured two 4K screenshots of the ray tracing build in action. In one of the screenshots, an in-game advertisement for the in-universe beverage Chromanticore could be spotted, depicting a female figure with an enormous erect penis in a skin-tight bodysuit and the tagline “mix it up.” Is this image, and the game’s use of it, transphobic?
Charlie Hall of Polygon questioned art director Kasia Redesiuk, who’s responsible for all of Cyberpunk 2077’s in game advertisements, about the image and its depiction of a trans model. She explained that the purpose of the image, in depicting a trans body in a deliberately harmful, hyper-sexualized way, “is all to show that [much like in our modern world], hypersexualization in advertisements is just terrible… It was a conscious choice on our end to show that in this world — a world where you are a cyberpunk, a person fighting against corporations. That [advertisement] is what you’re fighting against.” Reportedly, the world of Cyberpunk 2077 includes many trans and gender-nonconforming people, which is why an advertisement targeting that demographic appears in the game.Whether that means that trans and gender-nonconforming characters will actually appear in the game outside of a poster is unclear, however. This is, as far as I’m aware, the first indication that trans and gender-nonconforming characters will be depicted in the game at all, and the only material from the game the public has yet seen showing how these characters will be depicted, and this is a problem. Redesiuk noted that “Personally, for me, this person is sexy… I think that sexy bodies are sexy. Full disclosure: I love female bodies. I love male bodies. I love bodies in between… However, I hate it when it’s used commercially. And that’s exactly what we want to show by doing this... showing how big corporations use people’s bodies against them,” failing to realize that the image in question is itself a harmful reproduction of this phenomenon of people’s bodies being used against them. CDPR are willing to include trans bodies in its game (very much a logical and necessary inclusion in a cyberpunk setting), but are not willing to award trans people any agency or autonomy within it. In Cyberpunk 2077, as it stands, trans people are nothing more than erotic window dressing, sexy props for a shallow anti-corporate thesis, fetish objects for players to ogle at then look up on /r/rule34 later. The game isn’t out yet, though — there may be other trans and gender-nonconforming characters in the game, characters who you can talk to and who are depicted sympathetically and who aren’t sexualized. Even if that were the case, there’s still something else to consider — what exactly about a trans body is related to the tagline “mix it up?” Trans people are statistically “uncommon,” sure, but trans bodies themselves are perfectly normal and unremarkable, and this could only be more true in 2077 in a world in which cybernetics have fundamentally altered societal ideas about the body and normalcy. In what way is a woman with a penis, cybernetic or otherwise, “mixed up?” Why is her body thought to be abnormal in a world where no body is “normal?” In this way, even if we assume the best of intentions on the part of CDPR, we can see how the Chromanticore ad betrays those intentions in its othering of trans bodies. The ad is transphobic, and it is farcical — it’s incongruous with the fiction of the world and the conceits of its cyberpunk setting. It doesn’t follow its own logic down to a meaningful conclusion.
Taking all of this into consideration, one can’t help but wonder — if CDPR are willing to depict trans bodies in this way, are they willing to let the player character occupy such a body? How could Redesiuk’s defense of the Chromanticore ad possibly hold water if V couldn’t be expressed as trans? At last year’s E3, following a then closed-doors demo of the game, Patrick Klepek of Waypoint (now Vice Games) questioned quest designer Patrick Mills about the notion of a gender fluid character creator after noting that the options for gender in the demo were limited to a binary male and female. Mills response was simply, “It’s too early to say, but it’s definitely something that we’ve looked at.” Following the controversy this year with regards to the Chromanticore ad, quest director Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz told Gamasutra that the team “wants” to give players more freedom in character creation in the final game, explaining, “For example, we want to do this thing where, as you create your character, after you choose the body type, you can, for example, use physical traits as you build your face that could be assigned to a man or a woman… The idea is to mix all of those up,” repeating (maybe unintentionally or well-meaningly) the transphobic tagline from before. If we’re being generous, this would be the beginnings of a step in the right direction, but it would not be enough on its own. Assuming the Chromanticore ad makes it into the final game unaltered, for there to be the possibility of it being read as anything other than transphobic, there would need to be trans and gender non-comforming characters throughout the game (a logical and necessary inclusion in a cyberpunk setting) depicted with an appropriate nuance (i.e. not just chicks with dicks, and certainly not people who lost touch with their humanity for cybernetically transitioning) who could act as an intermediary for the harm associated with the advertisement. Ideally, these characters would react to it or a similar situation with a similar harm so that the commentary isn’t left inexplicit — their mere presence wouldn’t be enough. In this way, the loop opened by the advertisement is closed by the characters’ relationships to it in the text, and the messaging that Redesiuk explained was the intention behind the image is completed. Otherwise, the loop is left open and directed outwards at trans people generally. It’s not enough to just expand options in character creation, but it is necessary, and it’s possibly a good sign that CDPR say they’re beginning to think about it more seriously. To that end, what kind of options should be available in character creation, and what kind of changes should be made?
The first change, which Tomaszkiewicz spoke to the effect of, would be to decouple gender and the body in character creation. Every hairstyle, every facial trait, every voice, every clothing option, and every genitalia should be available regardless of your choice of gender. Additionally, there should be an option to freely enter character customization again once the game has begun to alter any of your original choices. In the upcoming Animal Crossing: New Horizons, every facial part and hairstyle will reportedly be gender-free, and characters can be customized at any time. Although it might not be right for Cyberpunk 2077 for characters to be able to be customized at literally any time, this is the kind of freedom in character expression CDPR should be aiming for. There’s some merit, especially in a cyberpunk setting, in fictionalizing the process of character customization and putting it in-universe, like how most games ask you to go to a barber to change your hairstyle. There’s an appealing pragmatism, however, and the benefit of sidestepping any unfortunate pitfalls in following after New Horizons and just making it available from a menu. Whatever path CDPR take, it’s reasonable to expect them to make some kind of change to this end based on what they’ve said, but it alone wouldn’t be enough. The second change, and a crucially important one, would be to include an option or options for nonbinary genders instead of just a binary male or female. Making changes towards a less gender-restricted character creation and then leaving out a gender-neutral option of some kind, presuming the gender of your character is still a choice the game asks you to make at all, would be an incredible mistake. Tomaszkiewicz acknowledged nonbinary genders as a concern in the Gamasutra piece, but whether that amounts to a commitment to addressing that concern remains to be seen. A good example of a game that includes an option for this is Supergiant Games’ Pyre, which lets you choose between masculine, feminine, and gender neutral pronouns, and allows you to freely alter your choice from the options menu. Pyre doesn’t feature character customization — your character isn’t actually visually represented at all, so the choice really only amounts to one of pronouns — but there’s still very much some role playing to be done in the game, and the addition of a gender neutral pronoun goes a long way to bring players into that role. The first time your gender is referenced in Pyre, the game throws in a gender at random, and then you can mouseover and click to change it before continuing. It’s so subtle one might miss it, but the matter-of-fact way in which it treats the choice and the option of a gender neutral pronoun itself is really remarkable, and one CDPR could stand to take notes from.
These two changes, I think, would largely be sufficient insofar as character creation is concerned, but it would all come down to the way CDPR implement them, how the world your character is put into reacts to your choices in character creation, and so on. Optimistically, the criticism CDPR have received could lead them down a path that has a positive effect on Cyberpunk 2077 and on games culture generally. Personally though, I won’t be holding my breath.