Games

Cyberpunk 2077's Dystopian Cities Are Already Here

The sprawling capitalist nightmare of Night City is reflected deep in the heart of the Lone Star state.
December 17, 2020, 2:49pm
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Image: Getty Images

Night City, the sprawling setting for Cyberpunk 2077, is meant to depict a dystopian vision of California. The steel and concrete monster rests along the Pacific coast in the center of the state, about 4-6 hours outside of Los Angeles depending on traffic. With its swaying palm trees and big blue sky, Night City may seem like it’s a pure invention of California. But I've already been to a place that looks and feels a lot like Night City, but it’s in Texas. Dallas in particular, is the city I can't help but think about as I drive through Cyberpunk 2077.

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Cyberpunk 2077 constantly assaults the player with its aesthetic. Obscene neon signs and billboards pulse over dull concrete and steel buildings. The future is tacky and puerile. A short drive through a confusing mixmaster of elevated highways can take the player from the rich and vibrant neighborhoods of Vista Del Rey to the abandoned construction of Pacifica.

If the confusing highway system and relentless glowing billboards get tiresome, a player can hop on Highway 9 and ride it into the outskirts. After a drizzling of suburbs, the city comes to an abrupt stop. Suddenly, there’s miles of wasteland around you with the glittering obscenity in your rearview. Sure, you could head into that wasteland but you’ll just burn down highways that never seem to end, down long stretches that can’t seem to do anything but put you back in the city.

This is the exact same sensation I have when I drive out of any north Texas city and look at it in my rearview. In Cyberpunk 2077, it's a desert that surrounds my car. In Dallas, it’s miles of empty grassland, which is just a different kind of desolation.

The world is full of cyberpunk dystopias. Night City contains glimmers of Shanghai, Los Angeles, and Kowloon. Like Gibson said, the future is here; it's just not evenly distributed. Increasingly, wealth and power is moving to Texas. Elon Musk and other tech billionaires are fleeing California for the Lone Star State. Oracle and Hewlitt Packard are moving to Texas

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Joe Rogan, the man behind the most popular podcast on the planet, moved to Texas and said he found freedom there. The freedom Texas offers is the freedom for the rich to do whatever the fuck they want. It’s a great place for the wealthy to flee and build their pleasure gardens after they’ve accelerated the dystopia elsewhere. 

Texas is the most cyberpunk state in the union, and Dallas its grotesque crown jewel. Sure, Austin is the seat of the state's political power and is the most well known and—according to white folks—the most culturally relevant. And yeah, Houston is a thriving metropolitan coast hub that’s actually the most culturally relevant city in Texas

But Dallas is where the money’s at, it’s where the most people live, and it’s got a world class museum that’s also a shopping mall. It’s a place obsessed with itself, constantly asking if it’s a world class city, always measuring itself against Los Angeles and New York City. It’s got a children’s science museum paid for by a billionaire where kids can learn about the economic benefits of fracking from a singing cowboy before hopping onto a ride that will show them what it’s like to be inside the massive drill bit that’s extracting natural gas from under them.

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There’s a district, several city blocks, unofficially set aside just for strip clubs; so many megachurches it’s an academic curiosity; and a mall where you can get some plastic surgery done. In NorthPark Center, the aforementioned world class art museum, shoppers can ogle Andy Warhol originals while waiting in line at Starbucks. Priceless paintings hang above a Rolex store and across from a small pond where ducks with clipped wings gather and eat what patrons throw them.

Dallas is built into the aesthetic legacy of the cyberpunk genre. RoboCop is set in Detroit, but it was filmed in Dallas. The brutalist OCP Building is actually Dallas City Hall. Visiting the soundstage in the suburb of Los Colinas where parts of RoboCop were filmed is a rite of passage for area middle schoolers. When I went, the tour guide delighted us with the story of how the scene where the killer drone ED-209 slaughters an executive ruined the floor of the soundstage because there was so much fake blood.

Almost thirty years after RoboCop, the Dallas Police Department strapped an explosive to a robot and used it to kill an active shooter downtown. It was the first time an American police department had used a robot to kill someone.

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In the last place I lived before leaving the Dallas area, I was within walking distance of a Bahá'í, a well-guarded Isma'ili mosque, and a damn good ramen noodle place. Right before I moved away, the town where I lived—just another suburb integrated into the sprawling Dallas city-scape—had paved the coastline of every lake, stream, and river within the town.

Dallas is what would happen if the GOP built Disneyland. It’s a city built by a lack of regulation, conservative politics, and bullshit. It’s a city where the multi-million dollar mansions of Highland Park are a mere 20 minute drive from the West Dallas superfund site. The mainly hispanic neighborhoods of West Dallas repave their driveways and build additions to their homes using the toxic remnants left behind by a lead car battery smelting plant that fled the area in 1984. In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency praised Dallas for building abundant affordable housing on the site of a toxic nightmare. That’s cyberpunk.

Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City shouldn’t exist. In the lore of the game world, entrepreneur Richard Night built a city in the desert of California because he was tired of government regulation. He wanted a place corporations could be free to be corporations. He called it Coronado City and his utopia of ultimate federal largesse became the oppressive dystopia of Cyberpunk 2077. He was murdered there, and the residents rechristened it Night City in his name.

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Like Night City, Dallas once harbored utopian dreamers. In 1855, French, Belgian and Swiss socialists attempted to build a utopian paradise along the Trinity River. They called it La Réunion. The dreamers couldn’t cut it and integrated into the city just five years later. In 1978, the city constructed a towering 500 foot building with a huge ball on top of it. The bizarre balled building dominates the Dallas skyline and it’s called Reunion Tower, named for the neighborhood in which it stands, a place where European socialists once tried to build something different. Dallas wouldn’t let them though, and then it took their name and erected a massive tombstone on the site of the project.

Also like Night City, Dallas shouldn’t exist. It sits on a huge flat chunk of land in the middle of the country. Geographically, there’s not much to recommend. There’s no mountains, no hills, no forests, and precious little water. But there are highways and warehouses—a confusing mix of roads that will take you anywhere you want to go in the city’s 9,200 (and expanding) square miles. 

Along the way, you can buy just about anything you could ever hope to own. Somewhere in Dallas is an Amazon warehouse with your package in it, just waiting to move to a different part of the country. DFW airport, an important international business hub, is bigger than the island of Manhattan. I know this because Dallas proudly proclaims it from billboards you see as you enter and exit the place. Its Twitter account also loves to repeat the fact.

Night City and Dallas demand attention. They’re grotesque, garish, and mean places. They’re both places where rich men tend to believe in their own lies.

For all its swagger and attempts to shock players with sobering visions of the future, Cyberpunk 2077 mostly trails behind the horror and havoc technology has brought to our lives. If you want to see just how weird technology will get and the kind of inequality it will breed, just read Motherboard on any given week. Cyberpunk 2077 does, however, do a good job of describing the dystopia we already have. If Night City seems foreign and futuristic to you, you just haven't been to the right part of Texas.