Dossier rouge neon

Cyberpunk 2077 : To live and die in Night City – Neon Red

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 fourth entry in the “To Live and Die in Night City” project, we’ll focus on the importance of the color red at the start of the game, before examining its narrative devices. These dissections of the game are based on version 2.1.

The previous sections of this dossier can be accessed by clicking on the following links:
Cyberpunk 2077 – To live and die in Night City : Why the FPS view is obvious
Cyberpunk 2077 – To live and die in Night City : The sphynx and the abyss of the self
Cyberpunk 2077 – To live and die in Night City : The four elements and the quest for balance

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

Red and black.
Red and black.

Misty always knew. When V joins Jackie after having the Kiroshi optics implanted, he overhears a conversation between the Valentino and his companion. The latter warns the mercenary to beware of anything red. A warning that doesn’t discourage the intrepid urban warriors, who then set off to meet a fixer who is about to entrust them with the most important mission of their career. And yet, it’s easy to see how the universe has gone out of its way to mark the duo’s journey with red spots that are as frequent as they are meaningful. These signals begin with the meeting between V and the fixer submitting the operation, Dexter DeShawn. Indeed, it’s hard to ignore the bold red vest that envelops the impressive figure, a garment that’s quite ordinary, but which takes on a much heavier meaning following Misty’s declarations. Similarly, the stare is taken at the imposing dark-red glasses: it couldn’t be more subtle. It’s ironic that, following this interview, every step leading up to the robbery will be punctuated by references to this color with its nefarious implications.

This planning is divided into two main activities: first, the client behind the mission, Evelyn Parker, must be met, followed by a recovery phase during which the mercenaries must obtain a technological prototype from a gang known as the Maelstrom. The members of this clan are easily identifiable, given their worship of cybernetic equipment, which leads them to disfigure themselves and replace their flesh with multiple implants and other aesthetic metal accessories. Often devoid of flesh on their faces, their opponents see only one thing before being exterminated: the burning red of the diodes and other luminous appendages that fill the hollow where the whites of their eyes once were. Once out of this moribund hive, V joins Evelyn to finalize preparations for the upcoming heist. The young woman’s design is interesting, for while Dexter is decked out in warm colors, including that red synonymous with danger, Evelyn is essentially dressed in blue, a cold color in contrast. However, she also wears red tights and purple-accented fur, as if this evil red were gradually rubbing off on her (a fact that her doom will unfortunately not contradict). Dexter’s vest and Evelyn’s stockings complement each other, and are the same sides of a coin tossed up in the air, like a wager on fate. However, in this game, everyone loses.

In a world as dense and colorful as Night City, it’s easy to find touches of red on almost every street corner. From signs to vehicles, from advertisements to clothing, most of these manifestations have no connection whatsoever with the predictions of Misty, Cassandra of the future despite herself. Yet there is one iteration that’s hard to avoid: the mega-corporation Arasaka, which Jackie and V are about to rob. While the company’s logo is clearly displayed in white atop the Arasaka Tower overlooking the city’s downtown core, several versions of the symbol appear in red, notably on advertising campaigns (see the “Extreme Performance” poster).

A poster advertising the body modifications marketed by Arasaka. The logo on the top left adopts the corporation's signature color, red, as does the jumpsuit of the athlete featured in the image.
A poster advertising the body modifications marketed by Arasaka. The logo on the top left adopts the corporation’s signature color, red, as does the jumpsuit of the athlete featured in the image.

Taking the exercise a step further, it’s funny to note that the name Arasaka ends in -aka, which means red in Japanese. Keeping with Japanese references, the heist takes place in the bowels of Konpeki Plaza, a renowned hotel catering to a discerning clientele (Konpeki Plaza, whose reception is adorned with – you guessed it – red decorative elements, as if the characters, crossing this threshold, were entering the belly of the whale). Konpeki can be translated as azure blue, which is logically opposed to Misty’s injunctions. However, it should be remembered that when the situation gets out of control, the establishment goes on alert to the… Code Red level. The exercise can go on for a long time, as when you notice the color of the Relic that V and Jackie have to steal, or when you realize the color of the lights that encircle the sign of the No-Tell Motel, the rallying point set up by the team. The corridor leading to the room in which V is to be executed is surrounded by another neon light, also blood-red.

Red has never represented danger so well, a danger that Jackie and V faced despite the risks, despite the warnings. It’s undeniable that Misty sensed, in her cards, in her gut, the jaws of nothingness about to close on her love. Signs sent by the universe that neither of the two mercenaries deigned to notice. However, the writing of this first act is not limited to this series of omens; on the contrary, the entire sequence is staged as a prediction of the twilight events to come. Indeed, the narrative construction of the preparations for the heist never ceases to summon symbolism, or even direct quotations, from the tragedy in progress. The teams from the various departments of the Polish development studio worked together to deliver the cruel auspices of a future impossible to escape. These clues appear right at the end of the introduction, i.e. after Sandra Dorsett’s rescue, when V joins Jackie at the noodle stand in front of megabuilding number ten. There, the Valentino discusses the fate usually reserved for mercenaries in a ruthless town like Night City – mercenaries used by fixers, then abandoned in a landfill. It’s hard to imagine, at that moment, that this is the fate that awaits V. The same goes for Judy, the genius programmer who, a little later, refers to the others as “corpses”. A term that points to the successive deaths of Jackie and V. It’s worth noting that, at the time of this statement, Evelyn is also on board, and that this thus prophesies her own demise a little later.

Fuck to Death
Fuck to Death

Other more or less discreet signs are hidden in the staging and graphic composition of certain sequences. A visit to Lizzie’s gives V the opportunity to walk through the various booths and changing rooms, until he comes across the club’s slogan, “Fuck to Death”. Later, on arrival at Konpeki Plaza, it’s possible to take your time browsing and examining the premises. Jackie will take advantage of this moment to wait a few moments, positioning himself at a strategic point in the hotel reception area. In fact, he’ll line up at the center of the vanishing lines that make up the immense room, which is lost in a horizon of light directed skyward, a sort of graphic representation of a luminous tunnel leading to the afterlife. It’s hard to imagine the Valentino’s fate being more visually obvious than this.

Jackie, unaware of the fate that awaits him.
Jackie, unaware of the fate that awaits him.

However, all the game’s warnings about the fate of our mercenary duo are not confined to their predicted demise. Other elements discreetly set up the various cogs and wheels of the mechanism that goes on behind the scenes, while happily contributing to the construction and coherence of Cyberpunk 2077‘s intra-diegetic world. The most obvious example comes at the start of the adventure, when Jackie drops V off in the parking lot of Megabuilding number 10. As the main character takes the elevator back to his apartment, the many screens that fill the cage activate to broadcast a TV show. It’s a typically American talk show, and the topic of the day is a brand-new technology called Relic. On the TV set, two opposing visions of this revolutionary biochip capable, according to its manufacturer Arasaka, of safeguarding an individual’s soul. A pragmatic scientist and a man of faith clash, each bringing his own opinion to bear on the aims of such a technology, as well as the moral and ethical issues involved. This exchange, which can be totally ignored given that it is not highlighted by the developers other than by the fact that it dresses up the elevator’s short elevation, nevertheless lays the foundations for one of the most fascinating reflections offered by the game, and by extension philosophy, as well as the entire genre that Cyberpunk 2077 aims to represent.

What’s more, the prologue’s structure takes up, and modernizes, that already applied in The Witcher: Wild Hunt. Indeed, both games feature a similar construction. First of all, both works lock access to the entire open world that constitutes the main playground. Wild Hunt confines its characters to the region of White Orchard and confronts them with a simple objective: to track down Yennefer. This section concludes with an action sequence that surpasses the various sequences experienced so far, namely a battle against a griffin, followed by a narrative sequence that unfolds the stakes ahead (finding Ciri this time), before allowing players to launch into the main adventure. This whole part of the game benefits from the presence of a guide and companion, in the form of Vesemir, who accompanies Geralt (the main character) in his objectives.

Cyberpunk 2077 works in exactly the same way, trapping V in Watson’s neighborhood, which is sealed off by the forces of law and order. His companion Jackie takes over Vesemir’s role and helps him prepare for a future high-stakes action scene (the sequence at Konpeki Plaza), which then leads to a compulsory narrative sequence (the escape and introduction of Johnny Silverhand), before allowing players to finally explore the open world freely. In both cases, the companions disappear at the end of this first act (Vesemir returns to the lands of the Sorcerer’s school, Jackie dies) and the sequence of events offers a trio of narrative axes to explore and resolve in order to find a solution to the problem at hand. In the case of Wild Hunt, the objective is to find Ciri, which means investigating the land of Velen, then the city of Novigrad and finally the heart of the Skellige archipelago (an axis locked by the payment of a fixed sum of money).

As far as Cyberpunk 2077 is concerned, V can explore the trails set out by Evelyn or the underworld of Night City, accept Takemura’s help and make use of his connections, or finally enlist the services of the queen of Fixers, Rogue, an option again put in place behind the barrier of paying a certain sum. The epilogue comes shortly after these three narrative tracks, while the Wild Hunt epilogue only takes place after the conclusion of a final narrative segment, the developers having wished to offer a shorter main adventure in Cyberpunk 2077 than in their previous game (a policy, however, circumvented by the presence of essential side quests which not only could have been integrated into the main plot without a hitch, but whose completion also develops access to new endings for the game).

Beyond pure narrative construction, this first act, which is generous in content, establishes unspoken rules about how the game world works. The gangs crossed at the start of the game are just a preview of the multiple jousts to come (represented by the NCPD missions), the rescue mission introduces the fixing system (which is justified in gameplay terms by the various contracts that will be offered to V throughout the game, as well as the introduction of a notion of reputation), while the unexpected intervention of the MaxTac during the journey following Sandra’s rescue serves to illustrate the phenomenal difference in power that separates V and Jackie from his soldiers at the cutting edge of efficiency (while laying the foundations for a legendary boss fight in the last quarter of Phantom Liberty, the only boss fight to be preceded by a preparation phase, in order to emphasize the tension and danger of the sequence). In this way, the first act naturally manages to lay the foundations for the various layers of Cyberpunk 2077, be they narrative, thematic or simply pure gameplay.

Evelyn, a troubled character in red and blue.
Evelyn, a troubled character in red and blue.

The universe is, at last, revealed in bits and pieces, but consciously incorporated into the unfolding of the various missions. From the Scavengers and the human trafficking they instigate, to the existence of the Trauma Team and the connection of individuals to various networks, to the illegal and violent sensory dances, sometimes derived from an illicit market, all these elements help weave the contours of a world in perdition. It’s worth noting that the first dance seen by V, the one recording the convenience store robbery, ends with the thug’s murder, annihilated by a bullet to the head. This is also the fate that awaits V a few hours later, deleted by Dex. Other elements set the scene for the rest of the story, such as the sequence taking place at the Afterlife, a meeting place for fixers and mercenaries and the lair of Queen Rogue, built on the remains of an old abandoned morgue. The establishment’s logo alone displays an electrocardiogram (referring to the “flat line”, the expression used in the game world to designate “deceased” status), while the club’s name itself means “afterlife” in French.

Once again, the undertones of V’s inevitable demise couldn’t be clearer, and even more so when we link them to Jackie’s dialogue with his mother on the telephone when we join him there, during which he announces that everything will be all right… Then, to finish with the Afterlife, how can we fail to mention the few words exchanged with waitress Claire, who talks about the cocktails concocted in honor of the great names who have fallen in Night City, from David Martinez (Cyberpunk: Edgerunners) to Morgan Blackhand (absent from the game at the behest of Mike Pondsmith, designer of the paper role-playing game on which Cyberpunk 2077 is based), not to mention the famous Johnny Silverhand drinks shared by Jackie and V, the late rocker about to make a stunning comeback in V’s mind.

It’s clear from these few paragraphs that the team behind the game didn’t hesitate to fine-tune the writing and staging of this first act, in order to present the rules and contours of Night City as naturally as possible, while distilling discreet clues as to what’s to come and what the game is really about. The philosophy applied to this environmental storytelling (the various flashes to be read, the broadcasts, the staging, etc.) is, moreover, applied to proportions that go far beyond the game’s simple first act. Those who take the time to explore the various pieces of information scattered throughout their excursions into the darker side of Night City will be rewarded by the discovery of a coherent and logical world, as when a fixer-upper contract leads us to remove the person responsible for an accident, an accident we witnessed during an NCPD intervention we attended earlier.

In the same way, several microplots dissociated from the main quest finish off the urban web, including those concerning the ignominy caused by Jotaro Shobo (an odious Tyger Claws officer), or even beliefs in a demonic deity born of artificial intelligence, not forgetting snippets of a plot dedicated to mind control that culminates in one of the game’s most interesting and disturbing quests, “Dream On“. By plunging down the rabbit hole alongside the developers, into the galleries of the world they’ve created and refined over the years, it’s possible to discover a labyrinth whose ramifications offer a unique reward, that of understanding a little more of the universe that surrounds V, and therefore the possibility of plunging a little deeper into it with each mystery solved.

Bonus: everything to do with rebel artificial intelligence and the Blackwall is shown in red in the game, from Song Bird to Altiera Cunningham.
Bonus: everything to do with rebel artificial intelligence and the Blackwall is shown in red in the game, from Song Bird to Altiera Cunningham.

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