The Passion of Night City
Like millions of other folks, I spent a solid chunk of my December holiday embedded in the eerily lifelike world of Cyberpunk 2077, the latest big-budget, open-world video game by Polish studio CD Projekt Red. Heading into Cyberpunk’s setting—the futuristic Northern California metropolis of Night City—I expected a world characterized by rigid secularity. For all their philosophical meditations on the nature of humanity, canonical cyberpunk sources like the Blade Runner film series or Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash are almost totally devoid of spirituality or transcendence.
It soon became clear, though, that Cyberpunk wasn’t the average AAA title. Beyond all the bullets and explosions and next-generation visuals, it’s impossible to miss the fact that, on a storytelling level, CD Projekt Red operates from a very different philosophical perspective than, say, Ubisoft or Electronic Arts: Warsaw is a rather different place from Los Angeles, particularly in an age of dominance by the conservative-populist Law and Justice party. And this means that (at least for me), Cyberpunk contains some genuinely haunting moments—though these are not found in the title’s flourishes of grand melodrama, but rather in an optional, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it narrative thread that confronts theological questions head-on.
Partway through a quest for personal survival—or, as Dante Alighieri might have said it, midway upon the journey of our life—the player’s character stumbles across a cryptic side mission entitled simply Sinnerman. Undertaking the mission allows the player to meet ex-convict Joshua Stephenson, who has become a devout Christian during his time in prison. Joshua’s devotion, however, goes rather beyond church attendance, Bible studies, and faithful discipleship. In an effort to shock a decadent society out of its anomie, Joshua intends to undergo a literal crucifixion—a rite that evokes a famous real-world practice in the Philippines—while simultaneously recording a “braindance”—a fully immersive virtual-reality experience that allows a third party to temporarily experience the recorded neurological patterns of another person under particular circumstances. For instance, purchasing a braindance originally captured by an astronaut would allow the user to truly feel, viscerally, what it would be like to experience outer space. Joshua’s braindance, for its part, will allow the user to truly experience the horror of Jesus’s crucifixion.
Dark, indeed—but still darker is the fact that a private corporation stands to benefit handsomely from Joshua’s courage. The usual consumers of braindances are decadent elites with an appetite for mainlining hyperviolent or sexually explicit content. And for this jaded audience, a braindance capturing the experience of actual torture and death is simply the latest means of inducing an endorphin rush—not, in any sense, an opportunity for individuals to draw closer to their Savior. There are shades here of the early Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits,” in which—in a bone-chilling climactic sequence—the protagonist’s display of raw, revolutionary, deeply felt emotion is only apprehended, by an irony-poisoned audience, as an elaborate bit of performance art.
Despite all this, Joshua remains undeterred. Regardless of the player’s actions, Joshua goes through with the crucifixion, willingly participating in the death of Christ in painfully literal fashion. The player is offered the choice to pray with him before his sacrifice—repeating the Lord’s Prayer, the Jewish Amidah, a hymn from the Rig Veda, or something extemporaneous. And following that moment, the player may subsequently undertake a participatory role in the crucifixion, hammering in the nails one by one while uttering the words of the criminals and Roman soldiers who were there on Good Friday. Joshua dies, and his mission is completed.
Without a doubt, it’s the most disquieting sequence I’ve ever played through in a video game. It’s one thing to acknowledge, within the comfortable distance permitted by academic theology, that it was our sins that nailed Jesus to the cross; it is quite another to experience, from a first-person camera perspective, the driving of the nails into innocent flesh, or to hear one’s own character utter the words, even while playing the role of an actor, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
Perhaps the question that troubles me most deeply is whether, in a decadent world, a work like Joshua’s braindance (or, in the real world, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ) is truly capable of being received in the deeply Christian spirit out of which it may have emerged. All such adaptations of the Passion narrative are hamstrung by their necessary reliance on the strictly empirical—whether the sights and sounds of a scourging, or the more expansive sensory palette of a Cyberpunk braindance. Utterly inaccessible, no matter how intricate the Passion imagery on display, is the true interiority of Christ—that is, the fact that Jesus not only suffered physically, but also bore the weight of guilt and shame that follow from the world’s sins. In the words of “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted,” a hymn that never ceases to leave a lump in my throat:
Tell me, ye who hear Him groaning,
Was there ever grief like His?
Friends through fear His cause disowning,
Foes insulting His distress;
Many hands were raised to wound Him,
None would intervene to save;
But the deepest stroke that pierced Him
Was the stroke that justice gave.
Brutal Passion imagery alone cannot capture that truth—and perhaps, for those for whom the Christian story is not a story to which they have committed themselves at the deepest level, that reality is out of reach altogether, such that the story of the death of Christ is simply stripped of its cosmic significance. Indeed, Cyberpunk’s Joshua sequence manages to turn its own moral dilemma back on the player, raising the question of whether this whole element of Cyberpunk 2077 itself is simply an exploitative means of startling a “gamer” audience long inured to images of violent tragedy and death.
But on further reflection, perhaps this gap between image and comprehension should be unsurprising. If, as we Christians confess, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; [and] chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong,” it should be admitted openly that the reality of the Passion can remain, within a secular milieu, only incompletely grasped. Indeed, perhaps it is remarkable enough that the Passion is acknowledged at all—including in realms as distant as Cyberpunk’s dystopian urban landscape.
And that fact, within a Western world growing ever more distant from its Christian roots, is something worth appreciating.