A review of Cyberpunk 2077 through the lens of the cyberpunk and RPG genres
The release of CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 has not passed under even the least-aware gamer’s radar. The new CD Projekt Red(CDPR) flagship project has made the rounds in an expansive marketing system that has mis-sold the game to a detrimental degree. The release, which was meant for November, is unpolished in terms of story and role-playing game(RPG) elements, and unrefined in terms of its core gameplay.
I have no qualms about the bugs or optimization problems. My system ran it fine with no problems that couldn’t be resolved on my end. I’m more intrigued by the pitfalls around the game’s narrative and bare RPG aspects.
Cyberpunk as a genre is a very loaded topic to tackle. It is not unprecedented to have games in the cyberpunk genre. Considering the predecessors like Detroit: Become Human and the Deus Ex series, CDPR’s news release could have followed in those games’ footsteps. However, those games weren’t touted as redefining the roleplaying game landscape or having extremely intricate AI and worldbuilding. Cyberpunk as a genre, born from the myriad genre-defining features like Blade Runner(1982) and William Gibson’s Neuromancer, usually contains a science fiction story that questions human relation to technology or cybernetics. Blade Runner(1982) saw Deckard question humanity in the face of lifelike artificial intelligence. The Matrix (1999) executes its themes through Neo’s heroic journey as a way to emphasize reality in a net-focused future.
Cyberpunk 2020, the tabletop predecessor to the videogame, explores the technological hellscape of a corporate-dominated world and how players fit into the dystopia. Cyberpunk 2077 is no more cyberpunk than _Star War_s is historical fiction despite taking place “a long time ago.” While CDPR’s cyberpunk foray does feature corporate domination and high-tech interfacing, it is only set dressing with game mechanics like hacking for what is plainly a sci-fi skinned, barebones version of Grand Theft Auto. The cyberpunk of CDPR’s latest project is hardly introspective and asks nothing of the player to associate the cyber ideas with the narrative.
While Cyberpunk 2077 is obviously it’s own game, the Grand Theft Auto comparison is derived from how the world interacts with the player and how travel around the world is facilitated through vehicles. I find the gameplay and gunplay similar, though what is stripped down is definitely the wanted system; you can’t sneeze without a cop teleporting on top of you.
Night City’s Map: unsure on the validity of it in the current iteration of the game. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Cyberpunk as set dressing isn’t unfamiliar in media. This fact itself doesn’t hinder the experience of Cyberpunk 2077, though the title of the game implies it to be more than a superficial backdrop to a shoot ’em up. It’s common to see cyberpunk used as a set dressing in television shows like Altered Carbon season 2 or in music videos like Lil Nas X’s Panini. Games like Fallout and Far Cry have used cyberpunk as an aesthetic choice to demonstrate a shift in gameplay and narrative, like when confronting synths in Fallout or the zany hyper-stylized design of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. Cyberpunk 2077 uses cyberpunk aesthetically, similarly to a magic system to flesh out their fantasy world.
The player’s agency when confronted with technology or cybernetics is nonexistent. In a cyberpunk narrative, like the two Blade Runner movies or The Matrix series, the characters interact and react to the technology available to them, or at best the technology that defines them. Certain characters in The Matrix films are unable to jack-in to the Matrix, born of flesh and blood, so they interact with the world differently. Cyberpunk as a genre should draw importance to the connection of humanity and technology; Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t allow the player to choose how the technology is used, nor do they get a choice in rejecting it entirely. There is little in the way of genre-defining characteristics in the narrative or player-based gameplay that link it directly to cyberpunk. Instead, technology is thrust on the player at every corner and the player’s agency is derived from who they get to kill with it, not what futuristic ideas they interact with. Likewise, it’s far more cyberpunk to play Skyrim on a refrigerator than it is to play Cyberpunk 2077.
Character Creation and Narrative
Creating a character is a defining moment for an RPG. While Cyberpunk 2077 does feature a lot of great character options, it fails to compete with games nearly a decade older.
The player character, “V,” is such a non-entity that it has diminishing returns on the playability of this character and customization options, whether cosmetic or story. In games like Skyrim, a blank slate character is more than enough to build an engaging story and persona around. CDPR struggles to allow the player to actually write upon that slate. While given the freedom to roam Night City, it is a puzzling matter to craft a life for the player in the nearly empty character narratives of the game. In CDPR’s Witcher series, the monster hunter Geralt of Rivia is already a fleshed-out character with relationships and history to be uncovered while also swashbuckling and monster hunting. Players’ agency in Witcher is mostly defined by choices that affect relationships to Geralt and political intrigue between countries or lords. “V”, on the other hand, is such a blank slate the developers felt it necessary to tightly handhold the player’s story engagement. V will never be what the player wants and is instead held on a short leash, restricted to what the developers require for the story as they are pulled along by the writers.
If there is a more intricate and branching roleplay narrative it isn’t apparent; I’ve played through the first hours of the game multiple times and finished the first act to try to get different results, but it’s useless. Not even the option of a pacifist play through.