I'm all-in on Cyberpunk 2077, but one element of the E3 demo disappointed me
Writing for a game like Cyberpunk 2077 can't be easy. CD Projekt Red quest designer Patrick Mills commented on as much in our interview with him a few weeks ago at E3. "It takes a critical eye," he explained. "I love [America] in the way that you love someone you've known for a very long time, and you know their flaws, and sometimes those flaws are overwhelming." And, you know, I loved the Cyberpunk 2077 E3 demo as much as Bryan did in his preview, but there's was one flaw that left me disappointed - and it's worth talking about.
Cyberpunk 2077 takes place in the titular year in the location of Night City, a futuristic mega-city sandwiched between Los Angeles and San Francisco. In terms of the diverse make-up of its citizens, it resembles those two places now and how they likely will look in another sixty years, with charactersof different races and ethnicities visible in every part of the city. This is a major change for CD Projekt Red, as it's a radically different setting from the majority white, European feudal world of The Witcher 3. It's not just the difference between castles and skyscrapers, but also a huge change in demographic make-up of the setting.
This is a good thing, but there's a catch - while the demo made me want to fall in love with Cyberpunk 2077, I encountered a major road-block right out of the gate: disappointing, painfully stereotypical dialogue and writing around its most prominent Latino character. If CD Projekt Red wants to make me fully believe and invest in the world of Cyberpunk 2077, the writing of people of color in this game needs to strive to push away from the sort of stereotypical, unrealistic dialogue I witnessed in this otherwise superb demo.
While the demo follows the protagonist V, she’s accompanied for most of it by a friend named Jackie Welles, who is Latino. According to CD Projekt Red, Jackie is “a gun for hire... a highly skilled assassin. In the Wild West setting, he’d surely be a gunslinger or bounty hunter. 2077 has him as a cyber-punk, just outside the big league. And he really wants to get into the game.” In the demo, Jackie is a cool, endearing character.
On paper, his character sounds fine, and even for the first two minutes of the demo, I was impressed with the fact that he didn’t have a stereotypical Hispanic accent. This was a pleasant surprise because media has a long history of “othering” Hispanic people through distinctly heavy accents despite the fact that accents that heavy aren't all that common. As a result, I was excited that one of my favorite studios was incorporating a Latino character in its main cast, and more importantly, that things were off to a good start. That feeling didn't last, however - while he lacked the stereotypical accent, Jackie's spoken dialogue paralleled the classic Latino stereotypes closely.
In an audio recording of the demo that we took, Jackie goes an average of four sentences without randomly inserting a Spanish word in his otherwise English sentences. To add to that point, the words tend to be the popular words that non-Spanish speakers know of — words like culo (ass), pendejo (Mexican slang for an idiot), puta (slut), and hombres (men). Jackie says sentences like, “Put some pants on your culo and get down here,” “Shit eating suits, vamonos (let’s go),” and “I’ll stand. Can’t move on your culo. Makes you an easy target.” They are never full Spanish sentences that exist on their own; there are one or two random and simple Spanish words shoved in his sentences that make them feel unnatural and jarring. This trope is pretty common in movies, too, and it's fairly likely this is where the developers and writers picked it up.
While I can’t speak for every Latino person in the world, I can speak for myself, and I can speak for living my entire life in Miami, one of the cities in America with the highest population of Latinos, a massive 67.7%. Miami is home to thousands of different Latinos: Cubans, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Dominicans, and more. The town I grew up in is almost 100% Latino. In short, I know a lot of Latinos. Throughout my entire life, I have never heard any English-speaking Latinos speak like Jackie. No Latin person who speaks English and Spanish - especially if English is their first language since it appears to be Jackie’s - inserts one or two Spanish words in the middle of almost every sentence. At a glance, this can seem like a splash of color for characterization, but it remains jarring - and there are surely better ways to achieve the desired effect.
It feels as if the writing is screaming that this character is Latino, when the point to any character is that one aspect of their identity should not encompass their entire character. By inserting Spanish words in what feels like practically every other sentence Jackie says, the game seems to be trying to constantly remind you of his Latin identity in a way that is both extremely stereotypical and incredibly redundant; we know he’s a Latin person thanks to the first time he says something in Spanish. When a situation goes south, it might make sense that he would briefly curse or unthinkingly speak in another language. When it happens almost every minute in a fifty-minute demo, Jackie feels less of a person and more of a stereotypical caricature of what a Latin person is. Combine this with the fact that the area the demo takes place in, Heywood, is described as “predominantly Latino... a massive suburban housing district, with an underlying gang problem,” thus falling into the extremely worn out media tradition of portraying Latinos as gang members, and I'm left concerned about how the writing of Cyberpunk's gritty future will make use of present-day stereotypes.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is my favorite game ever, and CD Projekt Red is a developer I'll follow to pretty much any project - after The Witcher, I'm fully invested. I have a genuine love and respect for the work this company does, and of course I thus want Cyberpunk 2077 to be best game it can be. But, as Mills said of Cyberpunk's portrayal of a broken America, sometimes the best criticism comes from evaluating the things you love because you wish for them to be better. Visibility matters, and while I appreciate the genuine efforts of the studio to portray a diverse society, this sort of stereotype-as-shortcut writing should be a serious concern in the process of making the Night City seem real and believable.
The truth is that visibility isn’t important when the representation itself is poor because marginalized people — as redundant as this might sound to say, but we keep having to repeatedly assert this — are real people, and we deserve more than crumbs of representation. Representation isn’t necessarily good representation, and when that representation feels like it harms the people it’s supposed to represent more than it does them and their identities justice, can we be happy about such representation at all?
I’ve seen dozens of articles exploring how gorgeous Cyberpunk 2077 looks, whether the first-person shooter component of this RPG looks like it works, its liberal use of profanity and nudity, and the structure of the sidequests. All of these are highly valid topics to discuss, obviously, and it's certainly easier to talk about when a game looks this good: you can heap praise on and that always feels good to do. The misguided dialogue for Jackie is something I haven’t seen any discourse about - and that's a shame, especially when other people who saw the demo mentioned having similar thoughts in-person at the show.
My criticism of Jackie’s stereotypical dialogue doesn’t affect how much I was blown away by everything else in the demo, just as how spectacular the demo was doesn’t eliminate the fact that Jackie’s writing is already extremely flawed. One of the goals of every RPG is to portray a believable world with believable characters, and while CD Projekt Red is a master at creating immersive worlds, the studio’s distance from America and American culture already appears at least partially evident through what we were able to see behind closed doors. CD Projekt Red should research further, hire people of color that they can consult with on the accuracy and respectfulness of their writing, and commit to making their diverse cyberpunk world as believable as possible. As a fan of CD Projekt Red, I know they are committed to doing the best work they can to provide the best player experience possible -- after all, Mills said in our interview that, "it's actually been a big focus for us to make sure we're accurately portraying the world that we want to take you to. It's a lot of research, a lot of talking to people, and a lot of reading. It's also a lot of creation, and not being afraid to change things when we make them wrong."
I hope the studio is able to recognize what is wrong with Jackie's character and take the necessary steps to make him a more believable character. With how invisible we tend to be in the media, a triple-A studio incorporating a major Latino character in its game's cast is the type of visibility that carries a weight and responsibility to do right by the character's identity. Cyberpunk 2077 is a way away from release, with the developers promising it'll only come out "when it's ready" - so I hope that a deeper consideration of how the diverse range of characters in the game are represented is taken going forwards.