The two pillars of cyberpunk in popular culture (i.e. you don’t have to read a book or watch anime) are Blade Runner and The Matrix. These hold up and inform everything else. For instance, cyberpunk in recent popular media like Westworld and Altered Carbon. Aside from being set in dystopian futures, what do these all have in common? What makes them cyberpunk? Setting aside the genre’s roots in William Gibson’s spot-on Chandler-esque sci-fi prose, what is cyberpunk all about? I would say identity in the face of advanced technology. What sets apart the human and the virtual. Blade Runner (both the original and the superlative sequel), The Matrix, Westworld, and Altered Carbon all explore the themes of who we are in a world where reality is so readily manipulated, where the digital and the incarnate intersect, where neural implants infiltrate human consciousness and human consciousness infiltrates cyberspace. “What is my consciousness?” cyberpunk asks. “Where is my mind?” it wonders. Ontology and even epistemology. In a secular world, they are the high-tech takes on what used to be theological issues.
Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t interested in any of this.
The premise of Cyberpunk 2077 is that you plug into your head a memory chip — excuse me, data shard — that contains a character. Now you co-exist with this character, who can only be seen and heard by you. He’s played by Keanu Reeves, his name is Johnny Silverhand, and he’s as dumb as you might guess from the name. Yes, he has a silver mechanical hand. And his name is Johnny Silverhand. Think of it as a convenient Mnemonic.
So what does developer CD Projekt do with this gimmick? They tell us that corporations are evil. Johnny Silverhand is a “rocker” — the term is used unironically — who got disillusioned. Fame and partying are hard on a guy. But in case that’s not enough to rouse angst, he gets a facile last-minute motivation added to the mix (get ready to cross “woman in refrigerator” off your character motivation bingo card). So Johnny Silverhand decides to 9/11 the local corporate skyscraper with a nuclear weapon. At which point, for reasons that are either unexplained or explained so poorly that I wiped them from my memory banks, his consciousness is written onto a top-secret high-tech experimental memory chip which sits around for fifty years. And then your character steals it and puts it into his or her head. So now you have a virtual rocker buddy. He appears from time to time to pontificate awkwardly about the evils of corporations. Johnny Silverhand is hard-rocking, hard-partying, and hardboiled, and boy does he hate corporations! He really puts the “dur” in Tyler Durden. You can disagree with him if you like, and the story would have you think it’s going to explore the push/pull between your will and his. But it’s not. Given how little the narrative matters, he’s just going to carry on about destroying evil corporations, waving his silver hand around, and intoning in Keanu Reeves’ best attempt at a super serious read. “Whoa, I know anarchy.”
But what themes are being explored here? How is this cyberpunk? I would argue it’s not. It’s little more than a talking McGuffin. Shadow Warrior 2 had a lot of fun with this idea by imagining the crass Lo Wang playing host to the soul of a prim and proper princess. We’ve all seen Fight Club, which is fully aware that it’s imaginary sidekick is full of shit. Most of us played Arkham Knight, which used its sidekick to explore the traditional Batman/Joker dialectic of order and chaos (I’m a sucker for that stuff, from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight all the way back to Apollo and Dionysus in Greek drama). But the concept in Cyberpunk 2077 is wasted on a poorly written and laughably executed character, dipped into a noncommittal story that ranges aimlessly until you have to pick one of about three endings.
There’s nothing inherently cyberpunk here. The whole push/pull of competing wills is pointless in a videogame based entirely on letting you say whatever you want, because that’s how open-worlds and CRPGs work. Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor is a grisly, grim, and sensually textured cyberpunk story that explores the concept of competing wills. I wish CD Projekt had watched that movie instead of poring over the visuals in Blade Runner for the umpteenth time. Because instead of doing anything meaningful with their premise, they seem to be laboring under the impression that it’s cyberpunk because Keanu Reeves was in The Matrix.
Their other claim to cyberpunk is 20 years old and largely unchanged. Cyberpunk 2077 uses the now familiar Deus Ex template, in which you move through a series of set pieces by choosing among stealth, combat, hacking, and dialogue, developing your character as you go. The conceptual cyberpunk in Deus Ex was mostly the idea of human augmentation, which has been a consistent theme in the series. Rather than leveling up your intelligence stat, you got an ocular implant. Same gameplay concept, different narrative approach. Which is fine. Theming matters. The Deus Ex games have consistently put the concept of augmented humanity at the forefront.
There’s plenty of augmented humanity stuff in Cyberpunk 2077 by virtue of the fact that there’s plenty of stuff in here. It’s a crowded game. I level up my intelligence and I get an ocular implant! Why not both? But at this point, after so many games like this, the chrome has worn off. It’s not so much a premise as yet another rote gameplay concept. It’s all so familiar. CD Projekt is doing the same things everyone else does, and the same things I’ve been doing since Deus Ex. It’s not cyberpunk when it’s just Videogame 101.
Consider hacking, which is a fundamental gameplay concept here and a fundamental part of cyberpunk as a genre. Hacking uses technology to subvert a situation. In gameplay terms, it means turning off turrets, applying damage without using a gun, and helping me stealth around by tapping into camera feeds. If I level up enough, it even lets me do advanced crowd control stuff. It’s all very familiar to anyone who plays videogames.
But hacking in cyberpunk — the genre, not the game — is an expression of the two-way connection between the human and the virtual. Meatspace and cyberspace. Moving between the limits of meatspace into the unlimited potential of virtual space. In Tron, the lightcycles can turn at 90-degree angles without losing speed. In The Matrix, Neo can leap over skyscrapers and dodge bullets. In cyberspace, you can access a bank server in Shanghai from a favela in Rio. Cyberspace is an expression of how everything is connected through an alternate world unfettered by the laws of physics and free from the limits of geography. People can interact virtually regardless of where they are. Cyberspace is an alternate level of reality, like the astral plane in a fantasy game, simultaneously underneath and between everything. And hacking is a way to control and subvert this reality in ways that feed back into the real world.
So then why is hacking in Cyberspace 2077 always a localized phenomenon with such a limited range of options? Why does hacking consist only of turrets, cameras, and damage effects, all requiring direct line of sight? Way back in 1988, in Interplay’s Neuromancer videogame, cyberspace was a whole other level of gameplay. Hacking was like entering another plane. It understood how technology had split reality into two levels, one virtual, the other incarnate. Cyberspace and meatspace. But there’s no gameplay at that level in Cyberpunk 2077. There are a couple of bad cinematics set in the game’s version of cyberspace. There are a few barely interactive cutscenes called “braindancing”. But that’s it. There’s hardly even an internet. Here is Cyberpunk 2077’s version of the virtual network that connects the world, the layer underneath and between everything:
A bunch of irrelevant fake websites. Flavor text. You can’t hack lore. You can’t even interact with it. This is cyberspace in Cyberpunk 2077. This is its virtual world. I might as well play Watch Dogs. It’s been 20 years since Deus Ex, yet CD Projekt hasn’t moved on. What’s cyberpunk to them is just a sci-fi skin on a passable Grand Theft Auto clone.
And even after I resign myself to playing this passable Grand Theft Auto, here’s where the issues start to pile up like a row of cars that don’t know better than to drive around a glitching pedestrian. And I’m not just talking about Cyberpunk 2077’s technical issues (this is a game shot through with the fallout of failed QA). I’m talking about basic design choices that aren’t necessarily failures. As with its adherence to the Deus Ex template, CD Projekt is doing the same things other games have been doing all along, working from the same basic assumptions without questioning those assumptions or even refining them. Because CD Projekt decided to neither reinvent the wheel nor rock the boat, this is a game comprised of pointless dialogue choices. There is no script. There is instead a flowchart and it’s my job to care enough to pick the story as I go. Am I compassionate? Am I smartass? Will I kick the puppy or pet the puppy? This absolves CD Projekt from the task of writing an actual character. They provide dots, I connect them, and together, we pretend we have drawn a character because I chose to pet a puppy.
But the fundamental fact about these choices is that they don’t matter as anything other than moment-to-moment role-playing within the narrow confines afforded by this dispassionate gamemaster. This is not choice-and-consequence in any meaningful way. The dialogue has no narrative or gameplay implications. I will eventually choose one of about three endings, regardless of how I treated the puppy. The journey to my selected ending is a series of empty choices, poorly integrated with the rest of the game and weakly disguised. As is often the case in these hollow dialogues, CD Projekt can’t even be bothered to keep up the charade. For instance, consider this moment with a character named Alt:
Here’s a closer look at the text:
Both of those mean the same thing. They mean the same thing. They accomplish the same thing. They could be a single line. Or either line would suffice as a substitute for the other. There is no reason for the game to stop here and ask my input. This is not interactivity; it’s busywork. It’s not drama; it’s clutter. Cyberpunk 2077 is full of this because it’s the established form of interactivity and drama in videogames. I choose what the character says even though it doesn’t matter. Okay, there are a few times when it matters a little. And maybe two or three times when it matters a lot. But overall, this is yet another narrative based on the assumption that I care to make meaningless choices in a morass of poorly written and irrelevant dialogue. Alphabet soup where a story should be.
(Some of the game’s characters leave you messages during the credits sequence. These vary based on which ending you chose. If you want to think of Cyberpunk 2077 as a choice-and-consequence game, there are your consequences. But you can’t carry them into the game, because you have to back up to a saved game if you want to keep playing. This is one of those open-world games that’s going to slam shut once the story is done.)
When it comes to scripting failures, Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t content to leave them in the story. Too many of the scripted missions conveniently ignore the actual game design. For instance, at one point, I’m tasked with protecting someone who’s going to do something illegal. He comes upon a policeman brandishing his weapon. But ah-ha, I have an implant in my cyberdeck that shuts down weapons! Naturally, I try to use this on the policeman. But that ability is conveniently missing because the mission is scripted so the policeman will kill the guy. Hacking can only subvert within the narrow confines of what’s allowed to be subverted, and sometimes not even that. To script their missions, CD Projekt is perfectly willing to suspend the tools they’ve given me. This is one of those games where someone dies in front of me in spite of the fact that I’ve got 87 healing potions in my pocket. If players accept that — they’ve been accepting it for as long as they’ve been playing videogames — there’s no reason they won’t accept a temporary hold on a weapon glitch implant. So Cyberpunk 2077 shrugs off the complicated work of game design and plows ahead.
Cyberpunk 2077 is one of those games with overbearing loot churn. Even if I play the crafting system to upgrade my preferred weapons, I’m constantly scooping up loot to break apart or sell. Which would normally be fine, since loot can be a part of worldbuilding. But let’s talk outfits, which is where the loot churn makes me look like a fool. With a world so full of loot, why do I have to look so silly when I’m minding my armor stat, which is the only gameplay rationale for what I’m wearing? At any given time, I dress like an outrageously costumed extra in a low-budget 80s sci-fi movie. Cyberpunk 2077 feels so bad about what it’s making me wear that it puts me in first-person view and turns off all the mirrors. But then I look down and see my pink sneakers with studded metal at the toes. I could have opted for the bad-ass cyberboots, but they have an armor rating of 28.4 to the pink sneakers’ armor rating of 30.2. Would I rather look cool when I can’t see myself, or would I rather risk yet another reload because I died in combat? And god help my dignity if I choose to ride a motorcycle.
Because there’s so much gear churn, supposedly as part of the worldbuilding, there’s a ton of loot, and therefore this is one of those games where you go through other people’s drawers. Pardon me, sir, while I plunder the sci-fi crates and desktops and dining room tables in your apartment. Did you need these 187 cyberbucks? What about this uncommon pistol that I’m just going to sell? You can keep the microwave burrito, because I don’t need food in this game since I already have 87 healing potions. But I’m taking this $1 ashtray, this $1 deck of cards, and this $3 bottle of perfume. Oops, I accidentally took your copy of The Lusty Argonian Maid, or whatever the title is of the lore text I’m never going to read. That’s how much I’m never going to read it. So much that I didn’t even read the title.
This is a game in which the worldbuilding is scattered across the landscape, and not just in loot. All these leaflets of raw text as if they were kicked out the door of a passing plane. Flyers I won’t read are everywhere, highlighted for my attention as if I cared. Cyberpunk 2077 has a thousand unimportant things to tell me. It is literally littered with wasted attempts at worldbuilding that I will never read because they’re not well written, they’re carelessly presented, and the game simply isn’t good enough to make me care. Rather than telling me a thousand unimportant things, why not highlight twenty of them with interesting visual presentations, or environmental storytelling, or quests, or even cutscenes? Why scatter the world with stuff that should have been tucked into a codex I can read if your game is good enough to make me care? Why leave so much trash lying around this otherwise beautifully rendered world?
This is a game that hasn’t settled on what’s important. Every prostitute in Jig-Jig City has an icon hovering over their head. Why? Are they more important than other NPCs? I decided to find out. So I paid my 100 cyberbucks. The results were embarrassingly bad. Have I been pranked? The joke’s not over, because there’s still an icon over every prostitute’s head. And this isn’t an in-world thing, which it should be. In this future, the gameplay elements that superimpose themselves over the world should be intentional. Because that’s how cyberpunk works. The real estate in front of my eyeballs is a valuable commodity. It’s called AR. CD Projekt should look it up. Or they can just watch that one episode of Altered Carbon when Joel Kinneman puts in the cyber contact lens. But CD Projekt can’t be bothered to create an interface integrated with the world they’re trying to build. So the prostitute’s icons are an element of the game interface and they’re stupefyingly pointless. Similarly, every food vendor gets an icon. Why? I don’t need food for healing in this game. I have those 87 healing potions, and I’m even playing on the hard difficulty level. Why would I ever need food? And I definitely don’t need drinks. Drinks replenish stamina, but since I’m not playing a melee build that relies on stamina, what do I care about stamina, and therefore drinks? Yet the vendors who sell food and drink are prominently highlighted in the gameworld. The same with the weapon vendors. I haven’t bought a weapon since it was a quest objective, and that weapon cost me zero cyberbucks, so technically I didn’t even buy it. But if I have a change of heart and decide to buy a weapon, those vendors will be easy to find.
Meanwhile, I have to refer to the minimap in the upper right hand corner for actual important gameplay information like where to go. Consider the GPS system used to guide me to destinations. Why is that shoved into the tiny minimap in the corner? Why not superimpose it on the world along with the icons highlighting the prostitutes? Especially when I’m driving and presumably trying not to hit other cars. Why do I get an in-world GPS trail during races, but not when I’m using cars for going to actual destinations? Cyberpunk 2077 should have taken its networked world to heart when it built its interface. Instead, it’s just doing the same things other games have been doing all along, working from the same basic assumptions without questioning those assumptions, and without even taking advantage of its unique setting.
Consider communications with the quest vendors. Many of the NPCs who give me quests call me on the videophone. Their images pop up onscreen, presumably because I have retinal implants for this. Sometimes we do the dance of pretending my dialogue is meaningful. Sometimes I’m even given the option to decline a quest. As if. Why would I ever decline a quest when there’s no penalty for instead ignoring it, when all the urging that I need to hurry is just narrative chaff, when a jam-packed quest log is no skin off anyone’s back? But many of the NPCs who give me quests just send me a text. Which would normally be fine. It’s less bother. Inset windows of character models popping up to tell me about a quest aren’t necessary (speaking of which, someone tell Delemain he doesn’t have to call me whenever I drive near his quest icons). But does CD Projekt know how texts actually work? How convenient they are? How they’re supposed to be easier than in-person conversations? Apparently not, because texts in Cyberpunk 2077 are even more obtuse than texts on my real-world flip phone. This is a game built on the concept of someone thoroughly wired into a networked future. So why does it use the same interface conventions that have plagued every fantasy world since Britannia?
A lot of my texts include pictures of cars. For some reason, the faction leader for each district is really gung-ho about selling me used cars. So they nag me with texts that include a picture of the car for sale. They don’t tell me the price. I have to go to the map screen, where the price is listed on the tooltip for the quest icon. Why a quest icon? Since when is buying a used car considered a quest? Other than in real life, I mean. I don’t understand why these NPCs in charge of a district’s gangs have been corralled into the business of hawking used cars. It’s demeaning, really. They’ve worked their way to the top, securing the position of lead quest vendor in their district, yet they’re spamming me with offers to buy their buddy’s unwanted car? When did I opt-in for this direct-contact Craigslist? And why are cars such a money sink in Cyberpunk 2077 when owning a car is meaningless and fast travel is more convenient? I mean, sure, these cars look cool. I wish I could say the same about how they drive (the less said about the races, the better). But it’s a shame CD Projekt couldn’t find a way to integrate their cool cyber cars into their game design. If they had, the poor NPC vendors tasked with selling them might have had an easier time.
Maybe it’s unfair to raise these objections to Cyberpunk 2077. CD Projekt is just doing the same things everyone else is doing. It’s not their job to fix the medium. So in that regard, Cyberpunk 2077 is fine as yet another example of RPGs and open worlds. If you don’t mind these conventions, if you can look past CD Projekt’s lack of ambition, if you’re willing to accept a AAA release with D-level quality assurance, if you can accept the state of these unimaginative game designs, you’ll get your solid forty to fifty hours of open-worlding in a beautiful setting. More power to you.
But I need a better game if I’m going to ignore these failings. Cyberpunk’s running time is littered with familiar problems and zero interest in their solutions. It’s a design cluttered with the failings of a hundred other designs. The safe and familiar failings of the medium that can’t be pinned to CD Projekt specifically, but are nevertheless embraced with something that feels like enthusiasm. So I sigh and carry on to the ending of my choice, looking in vain for the actual cyberpunk in a sprawl of contrived and bland sci-fi.
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