Sometimes I forget I live in New York City. Sure, I’m hit with a battering ram of a reminder when my enormous rent bill shows up, but even when I ride the subway to Manhattan or see some of my best friends who have lived here their whole lives, it often feels like I’m just visiting.
When I started working here at Kotaku last December, I used a screenshot of Cyberpunk 2077 as the top image for my intro post. It showed my custom main character V on his boyfriend Kerry Eurodyne’s back deck, posing with the metropolis capitalist hellscape of Night City in the background. In that piece, I went into how I had been trying to move into a big city for a long time, and now I finally did it. It was the end of a decade-long journey to leave the conservative confines of small-town Georgia. As happy as I am to be here, I often feel like the fish in that last scene of Finding Nemo, who, after escaping a dentist’s office aquarium and reaching the sea, look at each other and ask “now what?”
Getting lost in Night City
Cyberpunk 2077 was always a flawed game, but it created a convincing illusion of living in a city. I found a lot of comfort in roleplaying a gay man in Night City, who had flashy clothes, a vibrant social life that often involved clubbing, a group of queer friends in Judy and Claire, a sexy, trash bag boyfriend, and a sense of community I didn’t have in Georgia.
Most of my friends in my real-life small town had long moved on by the time I got out of there. There was nothing to stay for if you weren’t starting your own family, and even if that had been my plan, there weren’t exactly people for a queer men to start a family with. Living in a town with only a few thousand people, just a few restaurants that weren’t fast-food chains, and a primarily conservative, cishet, white population drained all the spirit out of me for the first 30 years of my life.
And Cyberpunk 2077 drains my spirit in an entirely different way. It puts on an elaborate display of the hellish gristmill it projects we’ll all live in 50 years from now, embodied in the ways Night City tears down everyone who lives in it. My Streetkid V grew up in this city, and has seen the ways it disproportionately harms the poor while they bleed in service of the rich. Even as he ascends to the ranks of Night City legend as a mercenary, he doesn’t lose sight of the way companies like the AI-driven Arasaka Corporation treat people like their property to be used and discarded.
Even though I didn’t live in a metropolis like Night City, I’d been long accustomed to those feelings of frustration toward capitalism and how it’s kept me and everyone I know and love under its boot. I come from a lower-middle class family, and spent most of my 20s below the poverty line, barely able to afford even the relatively cheap rent I paid in Georgia while working through college and after I graduated with a degree no employer asked me about and a lot of student debt. I invested my time and energy into a journalism degree in pursuit of a job like the one I have now, foolishly thinking it was a surefire way to end up in a city like the one I live in now, only for it to take a decade of work to make it there. I made it, but I’ve watched dozens of colleagues get ground into dust on the way here.
Cyberpunk 2077 and the real world
Cyberpunk 2077 embodies a lot of my feelings about my profession and the broad state of late-stage capitalism we live in. It doesn’t have hope that systems can change, but it does have hope that together, we can survive them. Corpos promising immortality in the form of an AI reconstruction of your psyche can’t save you, but human connections can. The trouble for me was that, in real life, those connections were facilitated by Discord calls and the occasional flight to visit friends. To live in Georgia was to be isolated, and the weight of loneliness I would feel as I tried to sleep every night was often too much to bear.
I don’t play open-world games very often, but throughout 2022, I would turn my PlayStation 5 on in the dead of night just to put on V’s best outfit and drive around Night City without any real goal in mind, finding solace in the dense city. I’d often set the in-game clock to nighttime so I could see the neon signs and billboards lit up and imagine I’m in a city that, even if it embodied the worst of this country’s systemic issues, had corners of belonging to fill. I would swing by Kerry’s mansion just to sit on the couch and chat. I’d visit the Afterlife bar and see Claire. Then I’d summon Jackie’s motorcycle to my location and drive past the skyscrapers to imagine who and what might be inside them.
The past few years have been filled with constant delays to my moving plans. The pandemic hit in 2020, just after I started another journalism job that actually paid me a living wage. I had a medical procedure that I spent years preparing for that would have been upended entirely if I moved across the country. Then I was laid off from my last job before starting here. When I finally got the job at Kotaku, I had the final interview through a banded-shut jaw, but I was so desperate to get out of Georgia and into a city that I put myself through hell to make it work.
Now I’m here, and after nine months, I’m playing Cyberpunk 2077 again for the first time since moving into the big city thanks to the Phantom Liberty expansion. As glad as I am to be in NYC, I can’t ignore the familiar feeling of warmth I get when inhabiting V again in a virtual city. It turns out, playing through the story of a guy who spent his life in a dangerous, expansive city is somewhat more soothing than the culture shock of actually moving to a city after years on the opposite side of the country.
To be clear, I’m fine. I’m more than fine. Even after going through probably the hardest year of my life, I know if I had been living in Georgia during half of things I went through in 2023 I would have been so much worse off. But decades of dreaming of a place can’t prepare you for what it feels like to move there, thousand miles away from everything you’ve ever known.
I’m lucky enough that some of my best friends are already here, and I at the very least knew most of my coworkers before I moved to New York City. So I was able to, in some ways, circumvent the debilitating loneliness that often accompanies a cross-country move. But even so, it still doesn’t feel like I’ve found “home” here, yet. A lot of the time I spend with others is latching onto a part of their lives instead of building something that feels like “mine.”
I catch glimpses of a future life that’s mine when I sit on my friend’s back deck and hear the sound of the shuttle passing by, or when I’m able to in-person check on a friend who seems to be going through a hard time. Hell, the welled-up feeling I get when I walk past skyscrapers in Manhattan stirs more emotion in me than any part of that small town in Georgia did in 30 years. But those moments like taking in the scenery remind me of the things I did in Cyberpunk 2077, as if that’s my only frame of reference when an actual city lies glittering before me.
Gizmodo published a piece in August about how, in the age of technology, we become so attuned to facsimiles of our lives that we forget how to interact with them when they’re right in front of us—like struggling to flirt with someone in person when you’re used to talking on apps or navigating a new place without the assistance of a GPS. In some ways, I feel like Night City is that facsimile I’m tuned into, despite now living in a major city. I stare, awestruck, at giant buildings on my way home and wonder what goes on inside, but I never go inside to find out. Every native New Yorker tells me about all the great food that’s here, but I still often fall back on ol’ reliable chain restaurants because I get nervous trying out new things by myself. That isn’t helped by how much of a toll moving to one of the most expensive cities in the country without any financial assistance took on me. The cost of a late-night Wendy’s Doordash sometimes feels like the difference between paying rent or getting evicted.
But some of that is what I expected. I knew that, despite it being framed as an exaggerated commentary on American cities, Night City is pretty true to life. We are already in the capitalist hellscape CD Projekt Red lovingly crafted. But living in a place where I can find people like Kerry and Judy, places like Afterlife, and a community like the Aldecaldos was always the goal, even if it meant dragging myself to a city that is built upon so many platitudes. We don’t have to congregate in these expensive cities, but we do in order to find people like us just trying to get by, who are all also hoping to make even the slightest difference before we’re gone.
Night City is a constant reminder that we’re all just debts to be collected, statistics to be compiled and sold to the highest bidder, or cells on a spreadsheet. Living in New York City has reminded me of the same realities, but unlike V, I’m still trying to find my place in it. Some days living in the city makes me feel like I only exist so different forces can cut pieces from me—the MTA, my landlord, Google’s SEO whims. I’m just the articles I write, the bills I pay, the food I buy. But every now and then I go on a date with a stranger who’s been here his whole life and he takes me to the San Gennaro festival, which I wouldn’t have gone to by myself, or one of my friends recommends we go to a barcade that has indie games set up in arcade cabinets that I had no idea existed. It’s then that it feels like those pieces of me the city takes are slowly put back together. I still don’t know what feeling of “home” I’m looking for here, but I’m still looking and waiting for that moment when it all clicks. That has to count for something, right?
Cyberpunk 2077 helped me more vividly imagine a life I dreamt of for so long. Now I’m here, in a city that could be in the game, and it’s no longer something I’m just aspiring to reach, it’s something I can touch and shape. I don’t know that I’ll be a New York City legend like V was to Night City, but at least here there are days I feel like I can be something.