Focus - Cyberpunk 2077 - To live and die in Night City : The four elements and the quest for balance

Cyberpunk 2077 – To live and die in Night City : The four elements and the quest for balance

This text is part of a series of articles dedicated to Cyberpunk 2077. Each article will aim to help understand the game’s game design choices and mechanics, as well as grasping its essence through analysis of the overflowing symbolism exploited by the scriptwriters and developers. For this third entry in the “To Live and Die in Night City” project, we take a closer look at the presence of the four elements: air, water, earth and fire. These dissections of the game are based on version 2.1.

The first part of this dossier can be accessed by clicking on the following link:
Cyberpunk 2077 – To live and die in Night City : Why the FPS view is obvious

The second part of this dossier can be accessed by clicking on the following link:
Cyberpunk 2077 – To live and die in Night City : The sphynx and the abyss of the self

Please note that this text assumes you have finished Cyberpunk 2077 and its Phantom Liberty expansion.

The rain that falls on Night City conceals Judy's tears.
The rain that falls on Night City conceals Judy’s tears.

As the game draws to a close, a new side-quest appears, inviting V to meet a mysterious wandering monk, a mystical anomaly planted not far from a Downtown dedicated entirely to finance and corpos. In a short mission entitled Imagine, a direct reference to John Lennon’s famous composition of the same name, the mercenary indulges in a brief meditation. This exercise is repeated a total of four times, each iteration confronting V with a different discourse and setting. The second such quest is called Stairway to Heaven, this time in reference to Led Zeppelin, while the next, Poem of the Atoms, evokes Armand Amar. The final fragment of this journey is Meetings along the edge, crystallizing a composition by Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar. In addition to illustrating these quests with a handful of references to musical pieces celebrated for their emphasis on universal equilibrium as the horizon for humanity, the meditation sequences entrusted by the monk each illustrate one of the four elements cited to describe the matter that makes up the cosmos.

Fire, water, wind and earth are thus successively introduced to V, who achieves, through these few moments of breath, a state of harmony that he cannot afford to caress in the course of his mercenary activities. In addition to the mystical parenthesis constituted by this succession of encounters, a kind of esoteric insert whose first outlines are sketched out by Misty’s presence at the start of the game, the monk’s discourse insists on the fact that V is just one piece in the great puzzle formed by the universe, a piece among many others which, in a search for meaning, tries to fit in as best it can among its fellow creatures (see The Sphynx and the Abyss of the Self). To achieve this, the character must enter into a state of resonance with the different strata of the cosmos, which are themselves differentiated by their nature. The four elements are the receptacle of this thinking: though different, they contribute to the overall balance of the world, and are found at multiple points scattered throughout V’s journey. These points blossom, among other things, during the various quests dedicated to the protagonist’s allies, quests that are annexed in name only, and which only emerge at the conclusion of the story.

The return of Samurai, or the quest of a man who wanted to feel complete again.
The return of Samurai, or the quest of a man who wanted to feel complete again.

Each of the game’s four main narrative threads revolves around a secondary but paradoxically central character. Together with Judy Alvarez, V will attempt to regain control of the CLOUDS, a club whose doll trade is run by a few pundits from the local gang, the Tyger Claws. Alongside the nomadic Panam Palmer, he’ll try to ensure the prosperity of her clan, the Aldecaldos. Following River Ward, V will track down a heinous serial killer who’s been the talk of the town. And finally, by meeting Kerry Eurodyne, the main character and Johnny Silverhand will attempt to offer the Samurai group one last hurrah. Four in-game sagas, four elements. To understand the meaning of the message conveyed by the monk and, by extension, the scriptwriters, let’s take as an example the most obvious illustration of this immersion in the elements.

Immersion comes into play when, at the beginning of the storyline surrounding Judy’s character, V and Judy dive into a man-made lake to explore the ruins of an ancient suburb now buried under water. This final fragment of Alvarez’s story features no action sequences, and is one of those few timeless bubbles that serve only to develop the secondary characters, while reinforcing their closeness to V. Judy’s scuba dive conjures up a host of themes relating to a world subject to perpetual change and the inflexible course of time, subjects supported by the presence of incursions of sound, echoes of the memories of a young woman lulled by nostalgia for a life that no longer exists (note Phantom Liberty: the same narrative mechanism will be taken up and reinforced in the game’s expansion, when V explores Songbird’s youthful memories).

Water freezes this embellished past and puts into perspective man’s place in the millennia that follow. This characterization of Judy’s character is evident early on in the game, with hints of her passion for diving appearing during a visit to her apartment, which contains a box full of diving equipment, as well as murals depicting an aquatic voyage and fauna. Moreover, it’s in a far from innocuous location that the duo confront the vision of Evelyn Parker’s corpse, lying in a bathtub: a location that marks both the doll’s desire to wash and purify herself following the atrocities she has suffered, but also demonstrates once again the bond she has with her friend Judy who, unlike V, is already in osmosis with an element – water.

When the tumult of the city gives way to the murmur of the drops.
When the tumult of the city gives way to the murmur of the drops.

Panam Palmer is a nomad, and she and her clan have appropriated the devastated lands that separate Night City from other megalopolises. True conquerors of the sand dunes encircling the remnants of civilization, it would be easy to think that the element associated with the Aldecaldos’ quest (the name given to the clan to which Panam belongs) is land. However, such an assumption would be misleading. Like city-dwellers from urban centers, nomads live within a framework imposed on them (in this case, vast natural areas), without seeking to challenge it. Desolate expanses are synonymous with freedom for the Aldecaldos, but they are not an element to be tamed, as clan members ensure their subsistence by raiding convoys, trading, etc, without ever seeking to challenge it.

The key element of the nomadic side-quest, V, Panam and his head of household, Saul Bright, will be confronted with it during the course of the game, in the form of a merciless storm. After freeing Saul from the clutches of an enemy clan on the way home, nature rumbles and envelops the plains in its wrath. No longer able to move about without risk, the trio take advantage of the remains of a cabin for protection and rest. The central element here is the wind, which forces the characters to come face to face with themselves, free to discover and perhaps understand each other a little more. The element acts as an impetus, forcing the protagonists to forge bonds. It’s interesting to note the presence of the abandoned wind turbines surrounding the first site of the nomads’ camp. A few years ago, the town drew its energy from the wind, before the climate changed drastically. The wind turbines may symbolize the nomads, those individuals outside the city who belong to another, bygone world.

Meeting with Panam.
Meeting with Panam.

Then there’s River Ward, who unfortunately has fewer quests than the other secondary characters. A disillusioned cop, River gives Cyberpunk 2077 a storyline reminiscent of thrillers and crime thrillers. By delving into the thoughts of a notorious criminal, V and his companion will attempt the impossible in order to free the murderer’s last victims, all confined within the walls of an undisclosed location. One thing leads to another, and River and V discover the location in question and go there without delay. The lair of the beast turns out to be an agricultural farm, now disused and entirely devoted to the horrors of its owner. In addition to the numerous references to psychology and cinema (River’s short quests are reminiscent of the sticky aesthetics of David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) or the macabre onirism of Tarsem Singh’s The Cell (2000)), this time the plot focuses on an element that plays a negative role in relation to V’s objectives. Agriculture, which is closely linked to the location where the action takes place – the farm – obviously evokes the earth, and should therefore evoke positive concepts. However, the serial killer subverts this initial objective, turning the land into a place of death. The element here is a force that opposes V’s desires.

Finally, the last of these four elements is, of course, linked to Kerry Eurodyne’s quests. The rocker having buckled under the weight of corpos and a life of excess, all he needs is a spark to rekindle the flame his heart harbored in his prime. It’s no coincidence that a handful of missions with him end in fire (as evidenced by the explosion of a truck containing musical equipment – synonymous with creation – or, later, that of the yacht moored in the bay – a vehicle here evoking escape), or that the singer manages to resurrect Samurai during a concert in a bar named Red Dirt. And which element is best designated by this color? Fire as an element is therefore totally ambivalent, both a source of destruction and resurrection. Note: More broadly, the term “red dirt” refers to a sub-genre of country music.

Fish holograms haunt the city's nerve center.
Fish holograms haunt the city’s nerve center.

Now that we’ve pointed out these various references to the four elements scattered throughout the game’s four major side-quests, let’s take a step back in time; sure, Judy escapes from reality by disappearing beneath the black, silent waters of Laguna Bend, yet wasn’t she some time earlier negotiating the future of the clouds (the CLOUDS), in the air (a decisive meeting being held at the top of a megabuilding, close to the heavens)? After saving as many lives as possible, doesn’t River confide in V while overlooking the city, perched atop a water tower (water, incidentally, sharing the lexical field of his own first name, “river” meaning “river” in English). Didn’t Kerry try to escape the consequences of his destructive impulses by throwing himself into the sea shortly before the boat exploded? And Panam, didn’t she unleash the fire aboard the Basilisk, pulverizing the invader who was trying to annihilate her family? A freedom-loving family, treading the soil of American soil, as mentioned above.

But then, if each character doesn’t keep the emphasis on just one of the elements, diluting instead in the tide of these four symbolic and primitive forces, what could possibly be the message conveyed here by the developers? Isn’t V himself confronted with these symbols through the meditation sessions he shares with the monk? On the contrary, each of them is intrinsically valueless unless it is confronted with the other three. They all lead to a single goal: the quest for universal balance.

The monk V meets is central to this search. Of course, the various meditations revolve around the four elements and stand on their own, but that’s not all. It is possible to pay the enigmatic Buddhist at each of these interactions, a detail that might seem trivial were it not for the fact that the various amounts offered are a precise succession of numbers, namely 144, 233, 377 and 610 Eurodollars respectively. This series is in fact taken from the Fibonacci sequence, a mathematical sequence in which each number is made up of the sum of the two preceding ones. Or, to put it another way, each number only exists thanks to the balance carried by a set that precedes and completes it. As if a given state were only the consequence of previous actions. Or, to put it another way, nothing can persist on its own without something else to give it meaning. V himself, in his quest for survival, does not hesitate to link himself to these same elements. Indeed, the main quest rarely leaves the mercenary to face his destiny alone.

The first of these supports crystallizes in the form of Jackie Welles, V’s companion during the first part of the adventure. In addition to his boorish appearance, Jackie also serves to illustrate this complementarity imagined by the fusion of elements mentioned earlier. Indeed, the mercenary has a love affair with Misty, who doesn’t hesitate to highlight the most mystical symbols of this adventure, through her predictions (beware of the color red) or the presence of the mandala. The game highlights the complementarity that takes shape when V is supported by a companion during his missions, whether it’s the inflexible Takemura when scouting out a warehouse held by Arasaka, or Solomon when infiltrating an enemy’s tower. However, it’s Johnny Silverhand’s almost constant presence that makes this notion of complementarity most effective.

The fallen rocker alone embodies this elemental maelstrom, although he is anything but a balanced character. At least until a certain point in the adventure. In the course of his journey, Johnny will have dominated the air (his arrival on the Arasaka tower by helicopter), fire (the nuclear explosion) and even water (the bar serving as a landmark for the fixers in 2020 is called Atlantis, the English name of the legendary sunken city, Atlantis). To achieve the balance he so lacks, and finally dominate the fourth element, he must find his grave, or rather the place where his body is supposed to rest, underground in an oil field. The bond between V and Silverhand is strengthened by a moving sequence of redemption and acceptance, supported by the players’ dialogue choices. By accepting each other, despite their obvious complexities and fractures, the two characters can unite to face a rousing finale.

Johnny in the middle of an oil field, an image charged with dense, powerful symbolism.
Johnny in the middle of an oil field, an image charged with dense, powerful symbolism.

Behind its effigy of unbridled triple-A Western spectacle, Cyberpunk 2077 conceals a fine, complex style of writing, marked by refined symbolism but always imbued with astonishing sagacity. By unfolding so many personal journeys through its multiple characters, the game manages to weave a closeness between V, a virtual avatar of consistent thickness, and his companions with varied personalities. Update 2.1 reinforces this orientation by allowing players to enjoy a level of complicity hitherto unseen in the game, thanks to a closer relationship between V and his partners. V’s adventure imposes the impossibility of fighting against the universe and the forces at work within it, making the living beings that traverse it no more than ephemeral components of a cosmos in perpetual search of balance. And yet, this balance is revealed not by destroying the forces sent by Arasaka in an apocalyptic finale, nor by ridding the city’s alleys of the gangs that run Night City, but rather by plunging into the depths of ourselves, in search of our place in this world.

Jackie understood this long before V did, as evidenced by the presence of the mandala in the spare room of her garage, a personal and intimate den cut off from the absurd bustle of the city. “Mandala” is a Sanskrit term, the language used to write Buddhist and Hindu religious or esoteric texts, and can be translated as “circle”. By extension, mandalas can also represent belonging to a community, or even an environment. Originally used to refer to mythology, mandalas have become meditation tools that are still used today. The presence of such an element in Jackie’s intimate bedroom reveals the character’s desire to integrate himself into the universe around him, to be part of something greater than himself. The circle, a recurring figure throughout the game, from the metaphorical ouroboros of corpos devouring each other in turn, to the moon hanging in the sky, taunting the grounded population, and the ultimate goal for freedom-seekers like So Mi or Lucy (Cyberpunk: Edgerunners), to the organization of the megalopolis, built around a central circular square hosting the eternal dance of condemned holographic fish in their concrete and chrome aquarium.

Regardless of the ending chosen by players at the game’s conclusion, one thing remains the same: V has reached the end of a cycle. His journey has led him to discover himself, through the perpetual exchanges shared with Silverhand, while learning to find his place within the universe, as represented by the various side quests and the bonds forged with secondary characters. This is why Cyberpunk 2077 is unlike any other game. It’s not a game in which we save the world. It’s a game in which V decides to save himself. Or not. By extension, the adventure is thought-provoking, prompting players to question their own role within this universal chaos. In Cyberpunk 2077, many of the ins and outs remain out of reach for the protagonist, whose personal development is more important than the future of the world and its inhabitants. So it’s no coincidence that each stage of the epic is punctuated by the discovery of cards from the Tarot deck, one of the most effective tools for learning about oneself.

The entrance to the Buddhist temple.
The entrance to the Buddhist temple.

In the same way, the presence of multiple choices in dialogues, while not disrupting the main storyline, serves another, much more clever purpose. The answers given throughout the game are in no way intended to drastically change the events recounted by the development team, which confines itself to telling the desired story from the outset, but instead serve as a mirror of the player’s personality. These choices tell us much more about ourselves than we might imagine, and while they obviously serve the purpose of immersion, they are nonetheless digital witnesses to our convictions and beliefs.

By delving into V’s thoughts, we’re really delving into our own, with the aim of, who knows, growing out of it.

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