[The following essay contains SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
You either lose your mind or die. No in between.
That quote is Cyberpunk: Edgerunners in a nutshell. Elaborating on the themes established in CD Projekt Red’s open-world FPS (itself an adaptation of Mike Pondsmith’s classic tabletop RPG), Studio Trigger’s tie-in anime represents the very best that this niche sci-fi subgenre has to offer. Over the course of ten lean, mean episodes, director Hiroyuki Imaishi paints a neon-drenched, nihilistic nightmare of capitalism gone awry—a feast for the eyes… and a bullet straight to the viewer’s morale.
In the show’s setting of Night City—which one character, observing from the outskirts, describes as resembling a “cage made out of light”—true equality prevails... insomuch as everyone is utterly insignificant. From the average working stiff struggling from paycheck to paycheck (and when your in-home washing machine requires a monthly licensing fee, every penny is precious) to the mid-level desk jockey desperate to claw his way to the top of the social ladder, the decaying metropolis’ economy is intentionally designed to fail, fueled by thwarted ambition. As long as its residents dream of owning things that they’ll never be able to afford, the cogs of the system keep on turning, benefitting only a privileged few—and grinding the rest into a fine paste that lubricates the machinery.
On the fringes of this broken society lurk the eponymous Edgerunners—cybernetic mercenaries that sell their deadly skills to the highest bidder. In theory, these “freelancers” personify the counterculture, sticking it to “The Man” by making money on their own terms. In practice, however, their independence is entirely illusory; they’re corporate stooges in all but name, exploited to commit acts of sabotage, subterfuge, espionage, and murder on behalf of the wealthy elite. And because they don’t appear on any official company payroll, they’re totally expendable.
When death comes for our protagonists, it arrives without glamor, fanfare, or ceremony, striking abruptly and brutally; even those with the richest backstories and most sympathetic of motivations are mercilessly snuffed out, their goals reduced to a gory pile of viscera and shattered chrome. This is, of course, consistent with the source material, in which cocktails are named after “heroes” not to celebrate their accomplishments, but rather to commemorate how spectacularly they flatlined.
You don’t make a name as a cyberpunk by how you live. You’re remembered by how you die.
And if you think you’re “special” enough to escape such a grim fate… well, you’re just plain delusional, choom.