How Cyberpunk 2077 Uses Asian Culture as Window Dressing

Cyberpunk 2077 recently had its first public gameplay reveal. In its 48-minute long demo, we got a good look at its mechanics and the world the player will inhabit. The gameplay itself looked rather fun and engaging, but something kept bothering me: the treatment and usage of Asian culture. East Asian culture was being used to simply dress up the world in a shallow way in the demo, which is troubling since it is using and discarding a small part of a real culture without giving it the respect and representation it deserves.

The classic academic definition of Orientalism refers to Western culture’s patronizing representation of North Africa, the Middle East, and for the argument of this piece, Asia. Fetishization of Asian cultures is implicit within Orientalism. Some Western media appropriates Asian iconography, language, and society and only picks the attractive aspects of them while ignoring the other parts of the culture as a whole. This leads to an incomplete picture of Asian culture in the West. Overall, it is the view that the East is an exotic place that is mythologized but simultaneously not accurately portrayed.

Cyberpunk 2077 Orientalism: How It Disrespects Chinese and Japanese Language

So how does Cyberpunk 2077 fall into Orientalist trappings and only uses East Asian culture as window dressing? The gameplay reveal was full of random smatterings of Chinese and Japanese language strewn about in the world. You can hear a few NPCs speaking Japanese and Chinese around the game. The most egregious example of this misuse of an Asian language is when the protagonist V passes by an advert for some soda brand and it screams in Japanese that most of its Western audience won’t understand, like Mr. Sparkle from The Simpsons or Joey’s advert for Ichiban lipstick for men from Friends.

Cyberpunk 2077 Vending Machine

This usage of Japanese culture just further reinforces Japanese stereotypes and packages it for a Western audience to regurgitate ad nauseam without ever considering what Japan really is like. Additionally, no one comments on the use of Chinese or Japanese or even mentions some kind of East Asian diaspora, so it is simply there as window dressing and “world building.” Eastern Asian language is simply there as another part of this fantastical setting to wow western audiences. Regardless of what they’re actually saying, Asian languages are posited as cool and exotic and are a cheap way to invoke a futuristic universe.

Cyberpunk 2077 Orientalism: How the Game Appropriates Japanese and Chinese Iconography

Cyberpunk 2077 Katana

The usage of Samurai iconography in V’s apartment is also alarming. You can see space for katanas in her armory and the jacket she equips is part of a brand called Samurai. The brand’s logo blends the iconography of Terminator and Japanese Men-yoroi (facial armor worn by feudal Samurai). This is a perfect example of the game’s apparent colonialist attitude: take a piece of East Asian iconography that has deep meaning and cultural context, mesh it with something that fits in the wider western culture as a whole, and market it based on its exoticism and vague link to how “cool” Japan is.

I highly suspect the game will use Chinese cultural aesthetics in a similar way by only using it as an exotic backdrop for a Western audience to play in and never consider seriously. I dread to think whether they will only have Chinese characters as NPCs or in some kind of stereotypical Triad gang. However, as I am not Chinese, it is not my place to really say or analyze since I simply am not from that society. But knowing the genre and what I’ve seen so far, I’m not too confident CD Projekt RED will treat it with the appropriate amount of care.

Cyberpunk 2077 Random Chinese

I don’t want CD Projekt Red to outright remove these aspects of Cyberpunk 2077. It’s not the use of Asian iconography, aesthetics, and language by itself, it is how limited and shallow its representation of Asian culture is. To improve they could add more East Asian diaspora into the crowds, allow players to have a backstory based on their racial background, have major characters who are East Asian, explain how so much East Asian culture has seeped into America and not just leave it as exotic window dressing for the game to look futuristic. I just want a better representation of Asia in the game than we have been given.

So why does this matter and, more importantly, why should you care? Well, it matters because it’s a piss-poor representation of Asia. It only takes incomplete slices of East Asian society that for whatever reason (read: racism and colonialism) is seen as cool and exotic and just dumps it into its world. And in doing so, Cyberpunk 2077 is disingenuously representing Asia. Hell, it’s only showing Chinese and Japanese aesthetics! It seems to ignore the cultures of a large majority of other Asian countries, such as Korea, Vietnam, and India to name a few.

It alienates and eroticizes Asian people and their way of life to a point where it is a parody. The game reinforces these lazy, racist stereotypes of my country by again regurgitating ideas that are hundreds of years old, just in a wrapping of what the 1980s thought the near-future would be like. It’s a shallow use of my – and millions of others’ – culture that really doesn’t show what Asian culture and experience is actually like.

Cyberpunk 2077 Orientalism: Cyberpunk Has Always Been Like This

cyberpunk 2077 blade runner

This isn’t unlike the problematic issues found in the Cyberpunk genre as a whole. Ridley Scott’s classic 1982 film Blade Runner is the most obvious example here since it falls into the very same trappings. Chinese and Japanese language is strewn about casually without any mention of diaspora, and the only East Asian characters – in a film filled with East Asian aesthetics and iconography – are the noodle salesman and eyeball maker. Hell, these Orientalist issues were present from the beginning of the genre with the seminal novel Neuromancer. It is set in a futuristic Chiba, Japan but does not have any Japanese characters, let alone protagonists, which shows that this problematic Orientalist view has been apparent in cyberpunk since the beginning.

Cyberpunk 2077 Orientalism: There Is Some Hope

But I do understand it’s still a little too early to judge the game so harshly and with such finality. This gameplay demo is one vertical slice of a game still early in its development. Who knows if the game’s representation of East Asian is only limited to what I’ve laid out before? The full game might have a deep respect and proper representation of East Asian culture and this demo just did a poor job at showing that.

Maybe I will be able to play as or alongside a kick-ass Japanese diaspora who struggles with their place in the West, whilst still being genuine to their Japanese heritage. The studio could even add some more Asian characters to properly contextualize everything in the game. It might even change in the months and potentially years before it fully releases and speaking out could help spark CD Projekt RED to course correct. And that’s what I – and others like me – want: CD Projekt RED to learn from their mistakes. It’s just that what they have shown so far worries me.

I love my home country’s culture. It has been an important part of my upbringing, and even more so since I have left Japan. All I want is for it to be used in a respectful manner that gives it the recognition and representation that it deserves. CD Projekt RED has been known to give cultures and games the deep thought and reverence they deserve, so it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for them to do this for East Asia as well. But instead, the gameplay demo for Cyberpunk 2077 showed me that they want to stick with the tired Orientalism so inherent in the DNA of the cyberpunk genre. The game could have been a forward facing and progressive example of what cyberpunk should be, not relying on old stereotypes. I can only hope the whole game doesn’t stick to this ironically dated worldview.