One of the most popular spectator sports at E3, the games industry’s yearly Los Angeles-based expo, is looking for moments of “humanity” lodged in amongst the thermonuclear trailers and dystopian hymns to shiny boxes and services. Whether cultivated by marketing teams or unscripted, these moments are grease to the wheels of a product showcase masquerading as a community get-together. 2017 gave us footage of a developer holding back tears when introduced by Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario and Zelda. 2018 saw Redlynx boss Antti Ilvessuo fall face-first through his own podium. And 2019, amongst other things, has given us Keanu Reeves.
The John Wick star plays a character in CD Projekt's 2020-bound Cyberpunk 2077, a grimy but glossy role-playing game in which players shoot, hack and hustle their way through a decadent near-future city. While well-regarded for its The Witcher fantasy series, CD Projekt hasn't exactly covered itself with glory lately. On the one hand, there was its defence (not quite walked back) of an alleged culture of overwork. On the other, its on-going flirtations with transphobia: one press image for Cyberpunk 2077 includes an advert fetishising the body of a trans person, which the developer has excused as the creation of an in-game corporation. But it was, as CD Projekt presumably hoped, easy to forget all that when Keanu walked on stage following his character’s debut. Here he was in the flesh: that familiar blend of brightness and wariness about the eyes, that stoop-shouldered lope, the hands spread like those of a pastor trying to fend off a crowd of zealous grannies.
Keanu Reeves is far from the first Hollywood actor to be piped through the gizzards of a videogame, but for better and worse, there is something fascinating in the resonance between his career and certain cultural drives in the industry today. Partly, this is because Reeves’s best-known roles triangulate a particular conception of masculinity which the creators of bigger-budget video games, still predominantly male, are indebted to.
There’s the ‘80s high school lunk he played in Bill and Ted, scorned by his elders and betters yet destined to inherit the earth. There’s Neo, the porcelain Messianic everyman from The Matrix, a programmer who bursts through society’s illusions despite his lack of brawn or status – the basis for a million alt-right memes. And latterly, there’s John Wick (whose already rather videogamey brawls and shoot-outs are now being adapted into a video game), the grieving assassin dragged back into the violent world he’d washed his hands of. These characters can be regarded almost as phases in the evolution of the blockbuster male video game protagonist: from carefree doofus, through militant nerd, to ageing, reluctant killer.
John Wick in particular captures an on-going moment in the culture of gamedev. Like many a revenge flick, it’s essentially a story about the creation of circumstances in which violence can be not just permitted, but relished. As Angelica Jade Bastién notes, the premise of the sorrowing hitman forced to resume his trade “metatextually capitalises on the story arc of Keanu Reeves, Action Star, regaining his title in the genre”, and draws power as much from our memories of the actor’s failures as his successes. It also maps pretty well onto the efforts of game developers to repackage erstwhile bloodthirsty ciphers for an older and more self-conscious audience. Consider Kratos, genocidal figurehead of the 14-year-old God of War series. In the 2018 game, like Wick, he’s a mournful recluse driven back into the quagmire following the death of his wife, his ogreish tendencies tempered by the presence of his teenage son.
As a star who can play the action man without actually playing an action man, Keanu is a useful reference point in such a mesh of self-justification.
If these roles say something about games, so too does Reeves’s acting, or as some would prefer his inability to act. He’s often condemned as all-surface and wooden, reciting rather than embodying his lines, but there are also critics who echo Reeves’s description of himself as a “minimalist” actor. Bastién has suggested that he is better understood as a silent film star, with “immense screen presence and a keen understanding of communicating story through physicality.” She also claims that there is a gender dynamic at work in both his performances and their reception, arguing that he “marries typically masculine and feminine qualities”. Bastién contrasts all this with the martyr-cult of macho self-transformation woven around actors like Marlon Brando. Reeves’s low-key portrayals, she suggests, make space for co-stars, whereas the likes of Johnny Depp try to upstage everybody.
From CD Projekt's perspective this lack of range is surely a non-issue – the point of bolting Keanu Reeves into Cyberpunk 2077 is precisely for Keanu to play Keanu. Beyond that, what Bastién calls Reeves’s mix of feminine and masculine-coded traits lends itself to the industry’s on-going turmoil about gender representation. Blockbuster publishers have spent much of the past few decades trying to resell traditionally male-oriented action licenses (including Halo, Tomb Raider and Gears of War) to an always-considerable, but increasingly vocal, audience of women. As a star who can play the action man without actually playing an action man, Keanu is a useful reference point in such a mesh of self-justification.
Reeves’s lack of expressivity also allows him, in the eyes of some critics, to serve as a canvas for intrigue, given an appropriately enigmatic role. In an article on Reeves’s turn as Scott in My Own Private Idaho, Marianna Martin writes that “the quality he brings to the screen most consistently, beyond an androgynous and vaguely exotic physical beauty, is a blankness into which almost anything can be projected.” There’s no casual connection, but this chimes with the enduring notion of the videogame protagonist as “blank tablet” for the player’s choices.
This idea dates from the founding days of the first-person shooter genre – it’s epitomised by Gordon Freeman, the mute crowbar-wielding hero of Valve's Half-Life games. It's especially prevalent in role-playing games like Cyberpunk 2077, which pride themselves on offering many solutions to every obstacle, be it a locked door or an unwilling accomplice. The blank-tablet premise falls over quickly in practice, because even in the absence of explicit characterisation, the range of actions offered by a developer inevitably determine who the player is playing. But it’s a popular conceit, nonetheless, not least because it allows developers to duck questions about the politics of each portrayal (for instance, its handling of transphobia), by tacitly laying the burden of answering those questions at the player's feet.
In Cyberpunk 2077 Keanu Reeves plays a digital phantom, the soul of a dead man patched into the protagonist’s brain by a malfunctioning microchip, larger than life yet intangible. This sums up his curious adjacency to a medium he himself seems little enamoured of (certainly the impression given by his bemused E3 appearance). Keanu Reeves is at the heart of a particular idea of the videogame: 20 years on from The Matrix, he is still the ghost in our machine.