CD Projekt Red don't often go in for celebrity voice actors. They did cast Charles Dance as the Nilfgaardian Emperor Emhyr var Emreis in The Witcher 3, and he brought the same regal menace to the role he brought to Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones. Casting Keanu Reeves as Johnny Silverhand in Cyberpunk 2077 achieves something similar. Silverhand is a beloved figure who inspires adoration—during the glimpse of the character creation screen we saw during the demo, he was listed among the childhood heroes you can choose.
That rapturous reaction Keanu got when he walked out on stage at E3? You're breathtaking? That's how people in the world of Cyberpunk 2077 would react to Johnny Silverhand.
So who is he? Johnny Silverhand goes all the way back to the first printing of the Cyberpunk rulebook from 1988, where he appears as a central character in a short story and introductory adventure called Never Fade Away. His backstory is that he was a soldier in the Second Central American Conflict—you can see the dog tags from those days around Keanu's neck in the trailer—a war in which the US experimented on its own troops with combat drugs and risky cybernetics. Johnny deserted, set himself up with a new identity, and moved to Night City.
There he started a band called Samurai with a fellow ex-soldier named Kerry Eurodyne. After a couple years playing Night City's bars and clubs they were signed by Universal, and when their single Blistering Love went to number one on "EuroRadio," they suddenly became one of the biggest bands in the world. Samurai still have fans in 2077, as the jacket V wears has their logo on it, some 69 years after they broke up in 2008.
In the tabletop game Rockers are one of the roles players can choose, like classes in D&D. They're charismatic rebels who use their music to inspire political change, even revolutions. Johnny's music became explicitly political after Samurai's break-up, when a rival label unearthed the truth of his desertion and tried to blackmail him into signing with them. Instead he went public, owning up to his past and releasing a solo album called SINS of Your Brothers about his experiences as a soldier. It forced the government to own up to its wartime atrocities, and made him even more famous.
In 2012 Johnny's girlfriend, a netrunner named Alt Cunningham, was kidnapped by the Arasaka Corporation. She'd developed a program called Soulkiller, a way of digitizing people's minds and even transferring them between bodies, as proprietary work for another corporation. Arasaka wanted her to recreate a new version of Soulkiller just for them.
Johnny put together a team of Edgerunners, the cyberpunks of Cyberpunk 2020, to rescue Alt. As a distraction he got his bandmates together and put on a free concert in the park directly across from Arasaka's office building. When he led the crowd across the street toward the building a twitchy guard opened fire, resulting in a riot. During the chaos Johnny and his team fought their way through the building, only to find Alt's body, which he carried away.
Unbeknownst to him, Alt had uploaded herself into the building's computers using Soulkiller, and was in the middle of turning those defenses against her captors, after which she planned to return to her body and escape. The tragic twist: Johnny's interference left her trapped in the mainframe, a ghost in the machine. (Reeves' modern-day popular persona is so tied up in the 'sad Keanu' meme and his own personal tragedies, it's hard not to see some symmetry here, too.)
Johnny showed up again in the final book for the Cyberpunk 2020 line, which was set in 2024 during the Fourth Corporate War. Johnny was out for revenge against Arasaka, having learned that Alt survived as an AI in their possession and was being forced to develop Soulkiller v3.0 for them. Once again Johnny led a team of Edgerunners into Arasaka territory, but was pinned down by their security forces, led by a cyborg named Adam Smasher.
Johnny threw himself at them as a distraction, allowing his team's netrunner, Spider Murphy, time to rescue Alt and send her out into the Net. Smasher shot Johnny with an autoshotgun, tearing him in half. Then, to cement the fact he was definitely dead, a nuclear weapon was detonated in the building, reducing it and a portion of Night City around it to radioactive rubble (something the city may still be dealing with in Cyberpunk 2077).
Obviously Johnny's back by the time of the videogame, decades later. But as they trailer showed he's not entirely real. He's a digitization living on a chip in V's head. Which presents an intriguing possibility—here's how the Cyberpunk 2020 rulebook described Alt's Soulkiller program:
"The original Soulkiller started as a matrix to contain artificial personalities. She'd studied the concept, worked out the parameters for creating a storage matrix. She'd been fascinated and awed to discover the same matrix could contain living engrams; transfer them from computer to body and even back again. It was immortality."
Presumably Johnny was uploaded using Soulkiller at some point before his meat body took a dirt nap, explaining how he's still around in 2077. Alt is probably still out there somewhere, too. And if Johnny's managed to survive as a digital ghost on a brain chip holding the secret to digital immortality, that sounds like a perfect excuse to have everybody in Night City gunning for it—and you.