Cyberpunk 2077’s worst flaw is being bland, and ultimately saying nothing
This article contains minor spoilers for the main story of Cyberpunk 2077.
After a huge, staged sequence that took ten hours of planning, I’m in an abandoned building with an ally and a hostage - a hostage we weren’t supposed to kidnap. There’s no power here. Blue and purple light drips through the cracks in the decayed roof. Detritus from the previous residents litter the floor, now caked in soot, dust.
I sit down with the hostage, intent on convincing her that our side of the story is the correct one. Mid-interrogation. A boarded up window to her right shields us from prying eyes. I turn my head, noticing something flicker behind the boards. The window erupts into gunfire. A flying personnel carrier smashes through the wall. Armoured soldiers pour out, snatch the hostage, and vanish. Charges detonate and the floor disappears beneath me.
I sprawl into the messy foundations of the building. Red flares burst into life. Soldiers rise from the darkness, shotguns ready. I fight my way out, blasting holes into the baddies with a revolver. A grenade hits me dead in the chest, and explodes at my feet. I slam an inhaler, rush the grenade thrower and blow his leg off with two rounds. There’s one solider left, and my revolver clicks over, out of rounds. I draw my katana and swing for the final solider’s head. I miss, hit a wall. I bring up my quickhack, fry his internal circuits, buying me precious seconds to reorientate, and use the opportunity to swing my blade clean through his throat. Then I run.
Some time later. Out of the city, in a motel in the middle of nowhere. A single fan turns overhead. Broken blinds separate thin, blue streaks from the emergency light outside. The floor is littered with needles, bottles. A moment of silence. Reflecting on the chaos, before an engine fades in. Head lights under the door. A knock. In the dim, faded motel room, a woman enters, sits at the table by the window. Lights a cigarette. Her eyes flicker red, as the hostage reaches out through the NET, taking over this woman’s body, and we speak, quietly. We speak of the chaos that was. Of what’s to come. The cigarette burns in the ash tray, gathering the streaks of blue light in segments, as if anxious to call attention to the evening. Her red eyes flicker. Alive, but with the life of another.
This is Cyberpunk 2077 at its best. A crazy, busy, anxious pastiche of Blade Runner, Heat and The Witcher 3. More so than any of its influences, Cyberpunk bills itself as an examination of the inevitable autocratic technology companies that run our lives today. Like Blade Runner and Firefly, Cyberpunk imagines a future where corporations and east asian culture become the predominant voice in capitalism: that the technological expertise of the Japanese and the proposed ubiquity of Chinese culture will topple the west in a delicious, awkward mess.
But Cyberpunk, when it’s at home, isn’t really any of those things. It is in flashes. Certainly the story moves into that territory but never commits. Instead, it’s a hard boiled crime story, erring into noir, very often landing V alongside The Witcher 3’s Geralt. Unlike The Witcher, you can custom your protagonist V. Down to gender, voice, appearance, clothing, but you’re still playing within degrees of V. In the same way that you’re free to be various interpretations of Geralt in The Witcher 3, you’re still tied to things that character might do. And, like its predecessor, Cyberpunk is far more concerned with stats, skills and gear than it is with you reinventing V’s personality.
The primary verbs here are shoot, hide, and drive - it’s a first person role playing game in the most direct sense. In fact, the most characterisation of your V will come from how you stack your perks and levels. I ended up leaning heavily into Technology and Cool, stats which allowed me to hack the world around me, and stealth about respectively. It meant a lot of my play time was spent using quickhacking to distract enemies, repositioning them, and using silenced pistols to finish the job. It leant to my V feeling cautious, but underhanded. That I was willing to hack into the implants of others in order to get the job done rubbed nicely against the game’s themes, particularly where Johnny was concerned.
In particular, one argument Johnny and I got into after I helped a corpo - this world’s idea of a wall street money man working for these big multinationals. Johnny laughed at me, wondered at how easily I was bought off to do their bidding. I bit back, told him to go fuck himself, that was a person who needed help. And he accused me of not really wanting to stop the corporations or their implants, because it benefited me.
And… well, he was right. My entire character build relied on the manipulation of the cyber implants every single person has in their bodies. From turning off cybernetic eye implants to frying someone’s circuits inside out, I need people to be filling their bodies with corporate branded cyberwear so I can be effective in combat.
In a different playthrough this conversation with Johnny is a non-starter: just more noise to fill up cutscenes between important story beats. But this confluence of my build and understanding of the world surfaced an emergent moment.
Moments crystalise themselves from these RPG systems because the stats you choose to level up change how you interact with the world. My outstanding memory from The Witcher 3 is a simple one. I’d been riding toward one of the final quests in the story, deep in introspection. This build of Geralt had focused on sword play and potions, forsaking magic almost entirely. Sunset gave way to evening. A huge, full moon eclipsed the night. Off the road a ways, an ankle deep lake reached out, a giant, silver coin by moonlight. At its centre, a winding, ancient tree. I took Roach off the path, dismounted. I approached the tree. A cry of alarm, and bandits poured from within the tree. Torches ignited, arrows flew.
I took the highwaymen to task with my iron sword. We danced in the shallow water, stepping to and fro, disrupting the moon’s reflection. I cut the men and women folk to ribbons, set them on fire. And with each that fell, blood polluted the water. Dozens of bodies, and yet more rushed to the fray. Minutes later, the final bandit fell to my blade.
The peaceful lake, only moments before a silent, beautiful reflection of the heavens, now a ruined, polluted distortion of cruelness. The devastation so perfectly mirrored Geralt’s interiority. The struggle at the end of this story and the frustrating contrast between divinity, witching and the austerity of humanity.
These moments are what make CDPR’s games unique. That their unscripted kismet can only occur in the midst of huge, overlapping systems is the very life blood of Role Playing Games. This is the magic of Dungeons and Dragons, of the Cyberpunk tabletop game, of the original Fallout series.
Jason Schrier recently reported that during a general meeting, CDPR employees pointed out it was hypocritical to make a game about exploitative corporations while the studio conducted so much crunch. But… is it? Is the game about exploitative corporations?
That ally I mentioned before, in the abandoned apartment complex, he was the bodyguard to the head of a huge, multinational tech giant. His character is both central to the plot, and our first real insight into how these corps work. He is a staunch samurai stereotype: he believes in honour as a guiding principle, and recruits you in his quest to obtain justice for his dead boss. He ends up bending his standards to work with you. And seems to have an active disdain for your life and friends, but recognises your utility.
The closest his involvement comes to critiquing the corporations is an optional conversation while reconning a base you’ll need to break in to. You sit on the roof and talk to him about his childhood. About being raised to serve in the armed forces for Saburo Arasaka. He tells you about his prodigious appointment to Saburo’s bodyguard, that he stood out from all others raised to serve. I think the game wanted this to be an ‘oh shit’ moment - as if the concept of these men being raised to do this one job of violence is shocking. But it isn’t. In fact, this seems to be very fabric of Night City and the world of Cyberpunk. Doing violence is mostly the only thing you can do.
This is a departure from The Witcher 3 that centralised Geralt, a man who did far more than just hunt monsters or stab dudes. The degrees of Geralt include his great capacity for empathy, his even greater capacity for altruism. And sure, you can play a Geralt who doesn’t do those things, but the innate care Geralt has for the world around him emerges despite his resentment of those who inhabit it. He won’t just kill any monster, he seeks a reason, and only rarely terminates sentient creatures. V is happy to kill bad guys in the same way Geralt is, but V is not afforded the same range of interactions as Geralt, not exactly.
In writing this, it’s hard to say with confidence the range of interactions V can have mechanically. Emotionally, V may as well be Geralt. No matter how you play it (unless you lean into being truly a corporate serving monster) V is a criminal with a heart of gold. In the game’s best moments, you feel a bit like Malcom Reynolds, dishing out your version of vigilante justice against bad actors in corporations or criminals-but-worse-than-your-friends-who-are-criminals. It seems the world of Cyberpunk is content with suggesting we should rail against the corporations - punk indeed - but comes up short in proposing a solution.
The best we’re offered is Johnny Silverhand’s mission of anarchy and destruction, that has as much maturity and follow through as a teenager discovering Dookie for the first time. Where V is the kind hearted Robin Hood, Johnny lives at the extreme end of freedom. His idea of escaping the corporations is not going to live off the land, it’s to blow the damn corporations sky high. Break the system man! Like, thanks Tyler Durden, real insightful.
And this is ultimately where the weight of the setting dissolves into the rules of the game. Cyberpunk 2077 is not a critique of modern capitalism, of the Time Warners and Verizons and Disneys who will soon own the air we breathe. Instead, Cyberpunk is, in all ways, an evolution of the rule set from the board game. The issue is, unlike Dungeons and Dragons, Cyberpunk doesn’t really have an established world. You can’t point to the Forgotten Realms equivalent, with decades of history and lore. The board game imagines a future that splits from our own in 1990. Mega corps take over, the middle east becomes a blasted wasteland, and you, the players, work out of Night City, as in the game. Really, the main meat of the board game came from the relationship between style, hit points, and combat. Without going too deep, the board game focused on style, and unlike most other tabletop RPG’s, you don’t necessarily get more hit points with each level. So you amass more and more cool, interesting ways to mess people up. But you never get more bullet resistant, nor do they. Combat becomes this tense, heart pounding race to lethality. It’s about how quickly you can get to the kill, and how good you can look doing it.
There’s some other problematic stuff about cyberware and cyberpsychosis, but a system constructed on attitude and violence is the game. Cyberware is about what it lets you do in combat, what rules it lets you break. Netrunning is about inhabiting cool cyberspace and interpreting the NET how your runner wants. These ideas are not so much about the why of the world, but the what of it. And Cyberpunk 2077 suffers because of it.
Everyone in the game walks around with dope cybernetic implants. Every third person has a completely metal leg or arm or scalp. Everyone in this world has cybernetic eyes, weird replacement hands, organs. But it’s never clear exactly why.
As V, these cybernetic mods give you stat bonuses or unlock unique abilities. But outside of the criminals you fight, the general population doesn’t seem to have a tremendous use for their implants. In the missions where you’re interacting with your friends (and not doing combat), the cybernetics are primarily used for recreation. Two missions see you sync up your implants with someone else so you can feel what they feel (there is a very freaky sex scene involving this as well, would recommend). This is not adequate justification for why every single person is crammed full of mods. Contemporaries that address these ideas go to great lengths to ensure the motivation for cyber modification is explored within their narratives. The issue of transhumanism is centralised in Deus Ex. The very concept of humanity is the question at the heart of Blade Runner 2049. And Cyberpunk 2077 contains these ideas, but does not go to lengths to explore them, not really.
One side quest sees you tracking down people with Cyberpsychosis. In the board game, Cyberpsychosis is what happens when you get so full of cyber parts you’re ‘no longer human’ - which, yeah, yikes. In the game, Cyberpsychosis has no known origin, and you’re helping the police try to get to the bottom of it. If you’ve played The Witcher 3, you might be thinking that this is classic CDPR. A random side quest ends up unfolding in close parallel to the main story and helps uncover hidden truths behind the world, and might even assist your ability to make better decisions in the story. Uh, nope.
Cyberpsychosis has very little to do with the rest of the game. The closest we get to a discussion of transhumanism is in one of the endings where you get to watch the world react to something similar on TV. You can’t debate it with anyone, you can’t be a part of the decision, you just… watch it on TV.
I’m not sure this detracts from the moment to moment. The aesthetics of the world so perfectly capture the way I remember Blade Runner, even shades of Fallout. But by the end of the story, the game had more to say about Johnny and V’s relationship than the world - which is not a criticism, so much as an observation. A lot of heat the game’s marketing received around its treatment of trans rights, and deep rooted ableism end up feeling mostly justified. Because the text includes these, but does not critique or examine them. There is little meaningful discussion of these ideas in the text. And I think this is the overwhelming feeling walking away from Cyberpunk 2077. That, like the board game, if the focus is entirely on aesthetics, it’s hard to convince yourself there’s anything of substance here.