Help! I Have This Recurring Nightmare of Explaining Cyberpunk 2077 to Civilised People.

In Engine Screenshots by The Author

Well, it’s out and it’s good at what it does, even if nobody could have anticipated it would be distributed this poorly nor deviate so much from the amount of people it should be converting to true believers. Nope, it’s not the Covid 19 Vaccine it’s a Cyberpunk videogame set in 2077. Abbreviated to Cyberpunk 2077 for decreasingly anomalous marketing purposes.

By similar measures it is around 69.99 USD, marketed with piss yellow as its trademark colour and it’s everywhere. And I do mean bloody everywhere. What kind of sophisticated targeted algorhythmic advertising lead the Yahoo world news page for Travel and Tourism to give me banner ads of this game before I’d clicked any other links? With a (faulty) adblocker on? At 2am? When I had already purchased the game three days prior? This mass market and digital distribution process has since pulled one of the largest whoopsies in the history of said industrial process which has, guess what, lead to it being bloody everywhere all over again. The male avatar of V peers over the top of every webpage I visit and over the side of 40% of busses that pass, pistol gingerly pointed in the air as if to say ‘just taking a break from shooting gonks to check you’ve made your preorder. Oop, we’re off to the next stop, don’t forget the artbook!’

All this has extended the usual 15 minutes AAA games are afforded at the front of box office pop culture to a good solid 17 minutes which means you have to see more of those ads and someone is going to have to explain to you, paid up members of the online liberal broadsheet elite, just what it is. I’m going to take an advised ten or so minutes to do so; the culmination of a 42 hour playthrough, a dozen or so articles and half a dozen reviews read, several anecdotal experiences from other players and god help us all, the artbook.

An allegorical pumping up of one Mike Pondsmith’s inner city childhood into the tabletop game named for the sub-genre it seeks to be endemic of, Cyberpunk is a project in taking both Sci-fi as current social commentary and Games Master lead roleplay as an alternative to player centric or cinematic gameplay/screenplay to it’s logical extreme. A game in which, as Pondsmith is repeatedly quoted as saying, the object is not to win but to survive. It has had several iterations over the decades, including some tepidly received entries that are in fact set after 2077, spanning punk rock allegory to Allen Moore esque retro futuristic dystopia to futuristic techno-transcendence to a man with nice facial hair staring at you at the top of webpage after webpage, occasionally clocking off to allow his female twin to take over the role.

Don’t worry, all that’s irrelevant. At least, that’s what Cyberpunk 2077 seems to say with it’s every in-game second. An assembly of tech-fetishist imagery and ‘wot if me mum wasn’t me mum’ Black Mirror tier speculative fiction intrigue so absurdly good at what it does well as to mask the fact that it is intended as a cul de sac for both the medium and the message it serves. My worry, 41.6 hours later (thanks, Steam) is that I’ve still little idea whether or not this was intentional.

The itemised list of what it does and doesn’t do well was fortunately laid bare in around a tenth of that time, an expedient bit of help for someone writing about the game who had, on my scouts honour, played one hour of The Witcher 2 (one of the developer’s previous titles) decided it wasn’t my cup of tea and completely forbade myself from watching a single trailer or clip or gameplay preview for eight solid years. Not one. This piece is not the reflex action of someone with a set of expectations for the game, this is the response of someone who remembers Akira and thinks ‘who could be embarrassed about sharing an aesthetic with this?’ Hint: it’s Cyberpunk and the cringe starts at the character select screen.

First thing’s first: dicks. Dicks on men, dicks on women, circumcised and decidedly not, with three different sizes to choose from (and a seemingly ersatz vagina too!) A straightforwardly bounding leap for trans representation or a novelty borne of wanting to test different jiggle physics properties with the same animation set? I leave it to more informed voices. More informed and very, very pissed off voices. If I may throw a cis voice in to the din, however, what the hell is going on with the non-binary characters? True, the locking off of the femme and masculine voices to the respective sexes could probably be shifted by typing something nifty in an ini. file but the subsequent 50 hours or so being misgendered is baffling considering the tendency of the industry to record they/them pronouns as contextual placeholders for lengthy dialogue in cutscenes. The assets are there and they are locked off for the sake of it, every criticism Ubisoft received for not being able to give their Assassin’s Creed lead female animations when there plenty of females already running around the game is valid here.

Except it’s not the ‘other 50% of gamers’ anointed by the historical victory of Gamergate into the priority list of commissioning producers everywhere that were being slighted, it’s trans people — name’s not on the list see, you’ll have to go through another few of these before you’re allowed to complain. Besides, go the semi-literate 400 word Reddit comments, it’s just an accident, an aberration of the games’ systems, you want emergent gameplay don’t you? How many different “groups” do you want it to cater to? Well, it’s a bit rich considering that the same neglect allows naysayers to cry ‘look they programmed in trans sex scenes!’ by which they mean, all the sex scenes are cringingly edited to make them genital free and all the potential shags neglect to mention even the most residual preference for cis or trans partners. You know, the exact effort which could have brought a non binary protagonist into the fold.

Equally rich on the taste buds, if I may swerve back into my lane here, is the fact that one ‘accidental’ confluence of the game’s systems lead to a reviewer with epilepsy having a seizure. Not from a one in a million faulty interpretation of advanced visual effects by her graphics card, mind you, from one of several extended sequences depicting entry into a VR sensory world which use a machine modelled on the actual machine used to induce seizures in a clinical environment. In a game flagshipping the use of Ray Tracing (individually animated projections of photorealistic light) in non VR games. I mean, you’d better hope that was an aberration — small difference that it makes now. In the time it took owners of non-review copies of the game to get to the sequence in question the reviewer had her comment section posit why this had been allowed to pass quality assurance, posit instead that she must have faked this episode, decided that the inclusion, nay enhancement of actively harmful imagery and the shipping of semi-proprietary technology on $3000 graphics cards to make that imagery lifelike was her fault and sent their threats of violence.

I’ve chosen to foreground these topics before getting into the nitty gritty of playthrough for two reasons. One, they’re the things you’ve been seeing foot after foot of column inches on for the passed week. Two, all the worst examples of these things happen between selecting New Game and the title card. A three to four hour long bombast of random sequence breaks, remarkably efficient writing and a difficulty curve drawn by Jackson Pollack in which the remaining game world remains a compelling prospect but all of the things you will do in the game are laid bare.

There was a time and a place in which game design like this, minus the seizures and the corrupted save files, thrived and thrilled. I would move V from setpiece to setpiece, each used to telegraph shifts in loyalty or to introduce new characters and factions, each time with slightly elevated challenge and slightly more complicated mechanics. When I pressed the M key, an area roughly the size of Birmingham would appear across the screen covered in Icons but none of them justified deviating from my character’s — my V’s — well established motivation: to overcome corporate oversight and sabotage of her life and indulge her friend Jackie’s fantasy of becoming a famous mercenary in the city’s ‘Big Leagues.’ I slapped a sight on a shotgun, read a couple of PDA entries and otherwise didn’t deviate from this path, acutely aware via the feeling of my hand being held that it wasn’t yet time to wring the game out for similarities to Grand Theft Auto. I wasn’t sure if this sense of gameyness was a criticism when I was playing and I’m still not entirely sure now. What I am certain of is some prelapsarian form of taking these different levels and stages and ordering them into a campaign for the player character’s quest, I seem to recall that being done effectively before.

Things continue at a similar pace, sometimes gaited at a trundle othertimes a gallop (depending on how often a bug would break a quest objective) and myself and V patiently waited for the setpieces to let up long enough to allow for a leisurely drive or for one of the factions to get more than a single sentence introduction. We were happy in the holding pattern regardless; aside from the stunning art direction, sound design and music supervision are particularly taught, lending feedback to gunfights and brawls which chip away at the concrete impression that slightly elevated gangbanger V is infact pretty invincible. It’s a necessary tweak considering that pillar never fell; if you know what’s good for you then you’ll be playing on hard, I got through my playthrough with 3 (three) cybernetic modifications and died to an enemy bullet exactly twice. Driving is implemented with a decent degree of competence, too, though making the city blaze past at 100kph turned the car into a great fumigation hose blasting all the visual bugs along in front of it.

The amateur entomology took no breaks during sequences meant to develop characters. Unable to attach these people to factions that were tangibly different from the procession of eccentrically dressed gangbangers I’d been killing for hours it often fell upon a group of three to five women to raise the stakes and introduce the lore via a set of conversation trees. This was the last chance for the game to root a concrete sense of purpose for each firefight and car chase, rather than simply between them and they kept bugging out. Annoying in and of itself, this is something which creates fundamental damage when the job of describing how the various sections of gameplay works becomes the supporting ladies’ sole, bug ridden assignment because it reveals that these different sections are islands. The tight gunplay, the visually splendorous driving, the braindance sequences which dollop an appreciable change of pace into the game in the form of detective work (as well as slowing down layers of sound and visual design that are over all too quickly in a regular firefight) they all, over the course of 40 hours, come to resemble the fucking Bering Strait. Giving a proper vertical slice of the experience of playing Cyberpunk 2077 is next to impossible, which is probably why you’ve seen so many articles on it. The reason so many of them have been pejorative is because, however gushing the excitement to shoot or drive or hunt or stalk or jump or shag in this game, the open world which links these islands together is a slideshow of the game’s worst technical and artistic decisions. Pedestrians slide about as holograms, occasionally spiking with activity when there is a gunshot nearby and responding to being punched with the same sound effect as hitting a wall and little else. The same six newsflashes play repeatedly as V occupies some kind of singularity where the political situation outside Night City almost never changes and the main plot is more than happy to echo this.

This, if we may venture into mild spoiler territory, is the main source of frustration. Once the initial heist demonstrates the stakes involved in V’s lifestyle and the motivations of the people who share it, the whole curtain lifting for getting quests, heists, gigs, assassinations or romances which should now affect the whole city, should risk corporate war with every turn, should change what every sign in every neighbourhood says, goes up to reveal… Keanu Reeves, hurtling himself with scenery chewing energy into a role which, despite going through all the motions of creating a fully 3 dimensional lead and supporting character (it’s complicated) seems to exist to test your tolerance of his behaviour measured against the good will towards his public persona. You could do something with this considering the character he is playing is an obnoxious anti-establishment rock star but the game ends before it does. What’s made time for is a constant exercise in daring the player to deviate from their path with Johnny Silverhand, something which we’re repeatedly told is lethal whilst the increasingly huge setpieces Silverhand often literally walks you into claim more lives and create more explosions, all as it becomes clearer and clearer these are scenes in a story about saving one life.

The denouement I ended up with was particularly problematic in this sense. Taking into account all the information I’d gained from working with the factions the game allows to be fleshed out, I knew that only my terminator cum provocatrix avatar could stand up to the armed forces one side of a huge corporate coup had mustered and that my allies stood to lose the most by being tangled up in the manipulations of the loyalist side of the coup I had aligned myself with. I went out of my way to cause as much damage to the militant side of Johnny’s least favourite corporation as possible, whilst saving the greatest number of innocent lives and creating the circumstances in which they were likely to drain their good will and resources in a proxy war with Militech, their all American counterparts. I had the lethal biochip out of my head, all of my friends were alive and the mendacious Arasaka corp.’s dead and dying filled the halls of their skyscraper. Cue a grilling from Johnny about how I had left behind my principles, repeated history, abandoned the dream of ending the corporatocracy and some other Matrix era directionless gen X bullshit. I had spent the excellent side quests developing my V only to lose her to Johnny’s version of V — though not as literally as I could have done, judging by the other endings — only to then be told in the middle of my grief for a character I’d spent 40 hours developing that I had roleplayed Johnny’s V wrong. Long term implications for the game world are delivered via a TV screen, the credits are long enough to gestate an elephant, all that.

But no, what should be nitpicks trying to whither down a solid core is instead a series of very tightly designed systems incapable of explaining why they’ve taken on a filmic, cinematic precedent. This is the second or third most well known tabletop roleplaying game in the world, was there no alternative to a 90% visual distribution of these characters and their narrative? Was the whole rip away from control from the player and do an extended tribute to The Prodigy’s video for Smack My Bitch Up to advance the plot incase the gamerz were too thick to do it really supposed to by funny after the fifth time? Was the absolute alienation of the main plot by any of the great ‘Side Jobs’ V embarks on, making new friends and enemies and deepening her understanding of the psyche of the city, some kind of novel way of showing how far astray Johnny’s illusions had sent you? Or did it serve to drop all the side characters down convenient holes where they could return for endgame and expansion content? The game’s plot is embarrassed by its subplots, which themselves are so episodically dramatic that they are embarrassed by the setting which in and of itself is playing second fiddle to a 25 hour long campaign which should have been the prologue.

Why does the entire narrative corral itself into a plot cul-de-sac, the only reason to venture down which is to see an extended Keanu Reeves cameo? Are CD Projekt Red convinced they are somehow trimming the fat from an overburdened, hefting beast, trying to streamline Pondsmith’s original vision of experiencing thousands of stories down every avenue? If so, why is the game locked off after the resolution of the main tension? Why did I finish the game with a ‘common’ grade handgun I’d upgraded a few times? Why do the skylines and sunken villages and sounds of gunfire leading to empty alleys scream of cut content?

I think Cyberpunk 2077 is a game held hostage by the prospect of undermining a narrative with asset heavy set pieces and an expensive voice cast. A character development free, world building free holding pattern meant to tide players over for 4 to 8 weeks until a Downloadable Content roadmap could be put out. It wouldn’t have been the first or the last to have pulled this tactic. The trouble is explaining the extent to which deviating from this predetermined path held anyone trying to analyse the game hostage via the kind of saturation marketing which reassured the unthinking blobules of fanboyism that they knew everything about the game — and dared anyone on the periphery to say otherwise.

By the end of this marketing process, a process always tinged with the piss yellow edgelord tone which the likes of Doom Eternal were using parodiously, said unthinking fanboys could — with their usual degree of partial technical accuracy — claim to know more about the game than not only the people reviewing it but also the people writing it, localising it and distributing it, processes often leant plausibility in the finished product by untold hours of harsh, punishing crunch time in the studio. In pissing off all of these different groups for the benefit of fuck-you-got-mine pre order crowd CD Project Red alienated all the talented and dedicated musicians, environment artists, concept artists, critics and side content writers who are responsible for elevating this thing above the level of a particularly well executed Fallout 4 overhaul mod. The islands these features occupy being further pushed out to the horizon by the cynical overuse of the strategy of pointing to them and going ‘remember how this bit didn’t usher guffaws of disapproval from the trans community. Or how this bit had, like, 80% fewer bugs than the rest of the game until we tried to patch it?’

What’s most worrysome is that CD Project Red’s attempts at contrition and recourse that we’ve seen over the past couple of days seem to have the final goal of distributing a product which would bring all these disparate glimmers of brilliance (that in house incidental animation engine combined with a one size fits all vocap technology makes for easily some of the best character work in any videogame, ever, for example) back together into a single experience which, whether played through once, twice or five times without a single error, would still fail to explain why a studio tasked with elevating eurojank fantasy IPs for the past 18 odd years decided to spend tens of millions of dollars, all of their good will, the better part of a decade, their reputation with several vulnerable facets of their audience and thousands of recording booth hours remaking Grand Theft Auto 4 with cooler clothes. The next evolution in interactive entertainment or what’s come before rendered with compelling semi-exclusive technologies and aesthetics? Worth waiting a few months to purchase so their modders can get their hands on it or worth sending death threats to a disabled girl over?

What is Cyberpunk 2077? The loss of control. The slow burning of a strawman version of a product depicted in bad faith marketing to buy a window of time in which a corporation could subject their staff to miserable conditions in order to serve up an end result which made yaysayers and naysayers miserable in equal measure. Who is to blame? The diplomatic answer is that the picture is still emerging but the real answer is that the developer’s were genuinely interested in bucking the trends of the aesthetically drained, emotionally bereft games as live service madrassa which has come to make up the majority of the market. They believed it made them, to one extent or another, immune to the kind of backlash that caused all the nastiest stories to come out of this situation despite repeated warnings. How does a construct of fiction so massive and nigh impenetrable fuck up the concept of death of the author so spectacularly? How does a machine which (when bug free) is immeasurably efficient at taking in aesthetic and shoving out verisimilitude make such amateur work of narrative design? And how did we manage to breed a section of the internet which is both furious at these flaws and happy to use the mention of their existence to justify barely human behaviour? The loss of control is all I can muster at this stage. Not responsibility, mind you, nor merit or ambition either but the loss of control. And too many banner ads.

Narrative Design, Violence, Discrimination, Disability, Technology, Bad Videogames. Gratitude for every single view or read.

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