Plurality as Portrayed in Cyberpunk 2077 and Xenoblade Chronicles 2Read time in minutes: 12
NOTE: This essay contains spoilers for Cyberpunk 2077 and Xenoblade Chronicles 2. If you want to experience either of these games without spoilers, go do that and come back to this essay later. It will still be around. And by spoilers, I mean major spoilers that may ruin the big reveals for you.
Recently there have been a few high profile AAA games that portray plurality as a part of the core storyline. Plurality is a very delicate topic for these kinds of media to cover because it is so easy for people to fall into shallow, tired and harmful stereotypes. In this essay I will contrast how Cyberpunk 2077 and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 handle the topic of plurality and how it normalizes or stigmatizes it.
Plurality is a state of being where there is more than one individual in a single body. For frequently asked questions about it, look here so I don't have to repeat myself yet again. Plurality is generally stigmatized by society as a result of countless cultural, religious and media biases. Generally media that mentions or has plurality as a core part of the storyline falls into one of two categories:
- Stigmatization, where the plural characters are shown as weird or other as a result of their plurality. This can result in plurality being further stigmatized by consumers of the media, which furthers cultural and religious biases and generally makes it less safe for people to self-identify as plural without social or professional consequences.
- Empowerment, where the plural characters are shown in a completely normal way and even benefitting from their plurality. This kind of empowerment usually stands in the face of cultural biases, which stands out in the mind of consumers of that media. Such empowerment has a side effect of making plurality more normalized, which makes it safer for people to openly identify as plural without risking unnecessary social or professional risks.
Cyberpunk 2077 and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 are excellent examples of both types of media.
Cyberpunk 2077 - V & Johnny Silverhand
In the world of Cyberpunk 2077, corporations have taken over. Neon lights and corpo advertisements paint the skies. In this world you play as V, a blank slate of a character that just wants to make a name for themselves in the stories and legends of Night City.
V ends up becoming plural as a side effect of a comedy of errors involving stealing an experimental Bio-chip from the penthouse of an Arasaka hotel. One of the first encounters V has with Johnny involve Johnny threatening to kill V. The Bio-chip that Johnny’s personality engram is stored on is slowly and invasively overwriting V, which gives V the storytelling impetus to find a way to either get rid of or neutralize the threat Johnny poses.
From the beginning the relationship between V and Johnny is set up as confrontational and antagonistic one. V and Johnny fight about their situation and what to do about it. This creates a disordered kind of existence between them, where they are fighting between eachother until things mellow out and Johnny starts to show his softer side. There are points where Johnny takes over and gets the body he and V inhabit to safety (hotels or doctors, however I’m not sure if Johnny’s motivations for doing that are to save himself or to save V), but overall the relationship between them is scarred by that horrible first impression. The lack of trust between Johnny and V actively hinders them from doing things.
One of the first things that Johnny says to V is a direct reference to the cultural stigmas against plurality, which is something along the lines of “welcome to your worst nightmare”. Later in the story, during a conversation with the spiritualist Misty, Misty makes a remark about being alone with your thoughts. V replies by saying “Be alone with my thoughts? Near on unachievable these days.”, which is a somewhat accurate statement for what co-conscious (multiple individuals being able to speak at once) plurality is like.
However the two characters end up forging a somewhat fickle bond, each learning from the other and even starting to miss eachother when they aren’t present. At one point, right after V takes the pill that suppresses Johnny, there is this tangible feeling of regret that is all too familiar to me. V is suddenly alone and almost cries in the absence. V and Johnny plan things together (even though it’s mostly V actually executing them), leading them to collectively come up with ideas that surpass what they could have created on their own.
Later in the story, if you choose the bad ending you end up getting involved in a corporate clusterfuck in the Arasaka corporation’s internal drama. However as a side effect of this you get the Bio-chip, and with it Johnny removed. When you do this, you are left a shallow shell of your former self. You spend untold months in testing. When you are asked word association questions, the first thing that comes to mind for “positive” things are Johnny, and when you are asked about “negative” things the first thing that comes to mind is “V”. There is a tangible feeling of regret about this decision, leading V to ultimately contemplate suicide, but V never quite gets to make that choice. V legitimately formed a bond of blood and iron with Johnny, and even though they were reluctant brain buddies at best, V ends up respecting Johnny even more in his absence than in his presence. This by itself is actually a fairly empowering message for plurality, showing the strengths that it can reveal.
On the other hand, during the main story if you let Johnny take over he wrecks V’s body with drugs, sex, alcohol and hookers. You can take the rockerboy out of the nightlife, but you can’t take the nightlife out of the rockerboy. Even more sadistically, he sits there in the background and berates V while V is suffering the hangover that Johnny caused. This kind of thing stigmatizes plurality because it makes it seem like Johnny is only moral while V is watching, however the moment V’s back is turned the beast is unleashed. This kind of portrayal only serves to stigmatize other plural people. I am not sure if this was the intention of the writers of the game, but that is the effect that portrayal has.
Overall I feel there is a very mixed stigmatized-leaning view of plurality in Cyberpunk 2077. I am sure there are many more examples hidden in the game that could be pulled up for either side of this argument, but these are the main ones that stand out to me.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 - Pyra & Mythra
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 takes place in the world of Alrest, a cloud-coated planet where people live on the backs of giant animals called Titans. Human society has evolved completely around Titans and Blades, a sort of living weapon whose attacks are powered by Titan ether. You play as Rex, a naiive salvager that gets a hilariously high-paying job and gets involved in a clusterfuck of world-changing proportions as a result. This job kicks off a series of events that puts him in contact with a blade named Pyra.
Pyra and Mythra are two haves of a legendary Blade called the Aegis. The Aegis has unspeakable power and is a highly valuable target. Pyra and Mythra are plural as a side effect of past events that resulted in Mythra needing to hide herself and past events. Mythra, who is normally kinda punky/tsundere created Pyra as a compatible opposite to herself in order to hide away from the world.
After Mythra is revealed, Rex is very confused. There is this pent-up sexual tension between Pyra and Rex for a lot of the main story (that is never resolved), and this reveal that his absolute waifu of a blade has another side is a bit of a shock. However he persists and gets to know Mythra for who she is, and as a result his relationship with Pyra grows stronger.
In combat Pyra and Mythra have different effects and specialties. Pyra’s combat style is all about surgical and precise strikes with fire attacks, and Mythra is an area-of-effect risky choice that can get you killed if you are not careful. When you unlock the ability to freely switch between the two of them, picking between Pyra and Mythra becomes a strategic choice, albeit one you can make at any point during combat. Pyra and Mythra have their own skill trees, and in general they are treated as genuinely separate people that just happen to share a body. The instant switching also is an accurate representation of how plural systems can do it as well. With practice you can switch mid-sentence without skipping a beat.
As in Cyberpunk 2077, Pyra and Mythra are co-conscious and able to discuss things with eachother. There are also points where Mythra makes slightly puntastic/rude remarks internally, causing Pyra to groan or hush her, which really feels familiar to how Nicole (one of my system) behaves. Pyra and Mythra also share the same voice actor, which really helps sell the plurality in my book.
As the story goes on, the bond between Rex, Pyra and Mythra continues to grow. Rex trusts them implicitly and really gets to know them as themselves. The other characters in the party also accept Pyra and Mythra for who they are. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has the most empowering take on plurality I have ever seen.
Cyberpunk 2077 and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 both cover plurality in very different ways and as such have very different effects on players. The message of empowerment that Xenoblade (and some of the later parts of Cyberpunk in isolation, I guess) has is such a compelling normal compared to how other media treats the topic. This core theme of empowerment, trust and collaboration could probably lead to even more compelling stories beyond anything that has been put out there before.
If you are writing media that contains a plural character, take Cyberpunk 2077 as an example of what not to do. Consult with people that are actually plural. Take their advice seriously. Most of all, don’t demonize the subject (even though it is really easy to want to). You will just end up hurting people.