I’ve been binge-watching Cyberpunk 2077 reviews and playthroughs. The game looks amazing, and also amazingly glitchy. I have an older generation console, which means I’d either be getting a buggy mess or have to install massive updates, which with my internet connection would take forever. But what can one make of a game that gives us this:
And also this:
I’m sure I wouldn’t mind the bugs, though. My favorite game of all time is KotOR II. Fallout: New Vegas and Mass Effect: Andromeda are not far behind. Kids these days are spoiled; expecting their immersive sandbox RPGs to work perfectly. Why, in my day, we played KotOR on a backwards compatible Xbox 360 and the frame rate would slow down to, like, three frames per second during combat and the sound would randomly cut out. And we were grateful!
No, my real issue with this game is the same thing that makes me so interested in it: it’s too big. The time that I could spend in the neon dystopia of Night City, fighting street gangs and cyborgs, driving futuristic cars and customizing my avatar’s weaponry, abilities and appearance, is daunting.
But of course, that’s the whole selling point of the thing! We want to distract ourselves from daily life by escaping into an anarchic world polluted by drugs and depravity, and where the only law is made by ruthless mega-corporations. [Editor’s note: something about that sentence seems off–consider revising.] Who wouldn’t want that? But then I look at these skill trees and shake my head. There’s no way I’d have time for all this.
An aesthetic, at least to someone who appreciates it, is like a drug. The more of it you get, the more you need to get that same feeling it gave you on the first hit. The thrill of a bizarre techno-city that filmgoers of 1927 could get from Metropolis now requires 100GB of a high saturation battlefield with police chases and cyborgs. And Keanu Reeves–although somehow I feel if he were transported to 1927, he could have fit in to Fritz Lang’s world, too. Maybe he’s a time-traveling cyber-wizard.
There are a couple ways this trend of accelerating aesthetic experience can go: one is total immersion in VR worlds. The technology is almost there. I wouldn’t be one myself, but I can believe there are people who are so obsessed with aesthetic experiences, they would submerge their physical bodies in some type of suspended animation and don the headgear to live 24/7 in a simulation. If this sounds creepy–and/or reminds you of another film starring Mr. Reeves–it should. But not surprising. The hallmark of the classic decadent is, frankly, a weird obsession with aesthetic authenticity. As the crazed protagonist of Lovecraft’s 1922 short story The Hound put it:
Wearied with the commonplaces of a prosaic world; where even the joys of romance and adventure soon grow stale, St John and I had followed enthusiastically every aesthetic and intellectual movement which promised respite from our devastating ennui. The enigmas of the symbolists and the ecstasies of the pre-Raphaelites all were ours in their time, but each new mood was drained too soon, of its diverting novelty and appeal.
Only the somber philosophy of the decadents could help us, and this we found potent only by increasing gradually the depth and diabolism… till finally there remained for us only the more direct stimuli of unnatural personal experiences and adventures.
If you’re a horror fan who has never read The Hound, do yourself a favor and check it out–it’s one of HPL’s best. If, on the other hand, just reading that has skeeved you out so much you don’t even want to know what the narrator and St John got up to next, well, I can’t blame you. Let’s just say it ends badly for them.
While researching this post–yes, believe it or not, I actually do research on these things before I vomit them forth into the blogosphere–I found this fascinating US ad for Metropolis:
This looks like a poster for a musical comedy. Maybe even a parody of a musical comedy, as written by P.G. Wodehouse: “What ho! It seems young Freder has fallen into the soup once more…”
Can you imagine going to see the movie you think you’re getting based on that ad and actually seeing Metropolis? I’m not sure I can, although I’d sure like to. The dissonance is so strong that it’s actually beautiful. I don’t care if you’re running it on the best gaming PC with the best monitor in existence, I’ll bet you anything that Cyberpunk 2077 can’t hold a candle to the pure, unexpected, unadulterated shock of techno-decadentism you would get from that experience.
Which brings me to the other path I could see this aesthetic going: a future where cyber-aesthetes learn discipline, focus, and restraint. Values which are, admittedly, fundamentally not the values of a decadent… but hear me out on this.
I’ve used this analogy before, but think of entertainment media as a sort of expansion pack for your imagination. A book gives you raw words that you have to imagine. A black-and-white silent film like Metropolis gives you some images to work with, but it’s still not a whole visual world. A color film gives you more, a video game still more, and VR games are basically taking the place of your imagination.
The more you’re relying on media, the less you’re using your imagination. Which I totally understand, by the way. Using your imagination is hard. It’s awfully tempting to just sit back and let the computer do the work. And we’re right back to option one, where we lose ourselves in VR world.
Except, as we have seen, we’re already at the limits of how much of this we can take. At least, I am. I admit that your mileage may vary. But for me, the prospect is overwhelming. Immersion is supposed to be a feature, not a bug, and yet it’s also my principle reason for not buying this game.
But all that is really needed to experience an aesthetic–whether techno-decadentism or anything else–is imagination. Like Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous fictional detective said, “From a drop of water… a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other.” Likewise, a cyberpunk future can be inferred simply from reading a single sentence describing it. All that’s left is the imagining. The hard part is sharing it. But since the entire thesis of decadents is that art is personal, does that even matter that much? Surely anyone like-minded enough to care will be able to understand it well enough to share it.
Either we will learn enough self-discipline and mental concentration that we can satisfy our desire to create whole worlds made purely of imagination, without the need to manifest them through technology, or we will create simulation technology so powerful that our own most human qualities become obsolete.
As Paul Graham once wrote, “we’ll increasingly be defined by what we say no to.” Aesthetics, which are really just the crystallization of moods that we imagine, are wonderful and strange. But saying “no” to the ability to have such things created for us in simulations is increasingly our only hope of retaining the ability to imagine at all. And after all, saying “no” to what is normal and routine is the essence of counter-culture, punk, and decadence.