Cyberpunk stories are often defined by towering skyscrapers covered in electronic billboards. These worlds are filled with utopian technology whose defective versions are all that is accessible to the public. If it’s not the monopolistic corporations controlling the populace, it’s the fascist government. While there are plenty of examples of these stories over the years that exemplify these traits such as Ridley Scott‘s Blade Runner and its sequel by Denis Villeneuve, I’ll be focusing on more recent entries in the genre, specifically Norimitsu Kaiho & Tomohisa Taguchi‘s Akudama Drive and Masahiko Otsuka & Yoshiki Usa‘s Cyberpunk: Edgerunners. Spoilers for both ahead.
Cyberpunk characters are victims of their environment. The protagonists struggle to find their own identity; to create a sense of control over their lives. It is that desire for freedom, to carve their own destiny, to form their own dreams, that is ultimately the downfall of these characters.
The citizens of Akudama Drive‘s Kansai are fed propaganda over the TV. The programming makes it appear as if the government protects them. However, the existence of the Executioners contradict this messaging. The Executioners operate as judge, jury and executioner for Kansai’s criminals, labelled “Akudama.” Along with Kansai’s police department, the two work in tandem to cease unrest. Whether the populace or the Akudama cause that unrest is irrelevant to them.
Their broken police system is what leads to Swindler’s involvement in the story. After refusing to pay for dinner using money she found on the ground dropped by someone nearby, she quickly finds herself in handcuffs. Due to her apparent selflessness, she, an ordinary person, winds up at the center of a mission for the most dangerous Akudama in Kansai. Within the span of a few hours, Swindler’s life changes for the worse, with her livelihood completely uprooted by Kansai’s corruption. He3r selflessness took away any chance of her living as an ordinary person.
David’s experience in Cyberpunk: Edgerunners isn’t all that different. Like Swindler, David is a member of the lower class of his city. He’s victim to the corporations that control Night City, particularly Militech and Arasaka. His mother wishes for a brighter future for him, one with David at the top of Arasaka Tower. While partially due to his age, David lacks his own grand ambitions.
The wrongful death of his mother drastically changes this. As a result, the fog around David was finally clear. He could see the true face of Night City. It devours all dreams that pass through it, leaving nothing behind but regret and anguish.
While still possessing no grand dream of his own, as a result of his mother’s death, David chooses to live each moment to his fullest. He wants to experience everything he can, as much as able. This is symbolized by his first cybernetic upgrade, the Sandevistan, allowing him to move faster than the eye can see. David’s consistent reliance on the Sandevistan creates an artificial specialty, as if no one else were as capable as him, is what leads him to burn out like a fuse.
David needed to be more. He needed to be better. That feeling of inadequacy leads him to make many wrong decisions.
Comparatively, Swindler could not accept her role as an Akudama. Her refusal to acknowledge her lack of normalcy does breed her more compassionate qualities. However, this destroys her understanding of the world around her. Her maternal relationship with Brother and Sister leads to her realization to how victimized the citizens of Kansai are by their fascist system. Swindler’s compassion and selflessness, established when she refused to pay using another person’s money at the start, creates a domino effect. There was no Akudama like Swindler, and now she’s a beacon. Swindler is a shining light that every citizen of Kansai looks towards by the end.
Like Swindler, David is that beacon for the depraved of Night City. In the second half of the series, David takes up a mentor role among the Edgerunners, filling the void left by his mentor, Maine. Like Maine, David’s only desire is to progress the dreams of others, especially his better half, Lucy.
While initially his addiction to enhancing his body was a symptom of his “live without thinking about the repercussions” attitude, by the final episode it transformed into something more selfless. David knew he would burn out just like Maine due to his cybernetic enhancements. Thus, he did everything he could to ensure Lucy’s dream could come true. All David wanted was her happiness. With his death a certainty, he had to ensure she would be happy without him.
With the knowledge Swindler has gained while working for and protecting Brother and Sister, Swindler realizes the unique situation she is in. That desire to return to be ordinary once more can be a vehicle for change. Once Swindler realizes how willing the Executioners and police are to declare citizens as Akudama and then execute them as such, she understands how her being seen as an ordinary person would bring everything crumbling down. She dies living up to the tale Hoodlum told about her. Swindler dies accepting her role as an Akudama masquerading as an ordinary person. She swindles all of Kansai’s civilians into thinking that she is exactly like them.
Swindler dies in hopes that others can live and accomplish their dreams. She sacrifices herself in hopes of a brighter tomorrow, one Brother and Sister get to see at the end of the tunnel as the sun rises for the first time in the series.
As they run towards the light, the series flashes to the sacrifices made by the Akudama. One such flash is of Swindler’s bloodstain on the crooked cross, as if to represent how bittersweet the siblings’ survival is.
Swindler never had a chance to return to normalcy. David never got to go to the moon with Lucy. They sacrificed their happy ending for the dreams of others, not realizing the emptiness they left behind.
Cyberpunk is towering buildings covered in neon lights, government propaganda and capitalistic flourish, but it is also about how ordinary people getting chewed up and spat out when they just wanted to live.
David and Swindler barely got to live in Cyberpunk: Edgerunners and Akudama Drive. Hopefully, others can live in their place.