I have been loving Cyberpunk 2077. Despite all of the angry fans and litigious investors complaining about bugs and lies, I am having a wonderful time. Seeing the game be so viciously attacked has been disheartening to me, as I want to see CD Projekt Red continue to grow and improve as a game dev. They don’t make perfect games, far from it, but their passion and talent and creativity are obvious. As such, I have kept my criticisms of Cyberpunk 2077 to myself. I didn’t want to add to the critical bonfire after all. But now that the flames seem to be dying down a bit, now that the game is increasing in stability and public support has become a bit more prevalent, I feel comfortable discussing some of the issues I have with the title. For the record these are not issues with bugs (which I have certainly experienced) or allegedly missing features. No, they’re issues with roleplaying, the RP in RPG.
When I play an RPG the roleplaying is of utmost importance to me. I can go play Doom Eternal if I want a gameplay-focused experience with the shooting and the explosions and the screaming. I bought Cyberpunk 2077 to be lost in a world and a character, to forget my grim present day reality and disappear into a neon-lit world of intrigue and romance and robots. And while the world is immersive, something is wrong. I am not my character. I am seeing the world through his eyes, but V is not me. I feel that I’ve done little to decide his personality, his outlook, his philosophy. And that’s a problem for me, because that limits my ability to roleplay. That, in turn, limits of level of immersion. And that damages the overall experience of playing the game. The game is still fun, the storyline is still enjoyable, but something is off. And I want to talk about why.
Cyberpunk 2077 reminds me a great deal of 2015’s Fallout 4, and not just because of all the bugs. In earlier Fallout games you controlled a silent protagonist. The dialogue options you had your disposal were diverse, and as such you could really shape the character’s personality. They could be kind or cruel, sarcastic or genuine, angry or calm… the choice was largely yours. In Fallout 4 they decided to give the character a voice, as well as a largely predetermined personality. You could get pissed at people from time to time, but you were fundamentally a good person. Any time you got an opportunity to do something evil, like run the Institute or slaughter some farmers in the Nuka World expansion, it felt incongruous with the character’s nature. Now, I generally play these games as a fairly nice person because being mean is depressing, but I also like to determine the character’s overall morality for myself. Morality is a complex thing. Perhaps he’ll kill only as a last resort, or do so indiscriminately. Perhaps he’ll only steal in times of desperation to feed his starving family or, in my case, to afford a better shotgun. My characters in Fallout 3 and New Vegas were complex, and the way they acted in the moment was determined by how I felt I would act if I were in their shoes. In Fallout 4, and Cyberpunk 2077, things were different.
Fallout 4 had a problem where you would have several dialogue choices that all meant the same thing. You could tell Preston Garvey that you would check on some settlers in an earnest way or a sarcastic way, but at the end of the day you were still gonna go check on some settlers. You couldn’t tell Preston that you were trying to find the guy who murdered your wife and kidnapped your son and maybe you’d deal with some settler’s potatoes being stolen by radiated bears when you got back. Cyberpunk 2077 often has the same problem. I felt this frequently during my playthrough, but the example that springs to mind is the first time I met Panam (whose name annoys me because I feel like I’m romancing an airline). Panam was complaining about the fixer who brought us together, Rogue, and I could understand why: Panam owed a favor and so she was essentially being forced to help me. I had multiple dialogue options, but to my surprise all of them were defending Rogue. Even though I felt for Panam’s situation, and I didn’t have any affection for Rogue whatsoever, I could only make excuses for my fixer. I couldn’t tell Panam “screw Rogue, she can’t tell you what to do, and after this mission is over I think we should go to the Afterlife and yell at her together.” All I could say was “Well, I’m sure she has her reasons.” Moments like that aren’t dealbreakers, but they’re frustrating, and they happen a lot in this game.
Another big problem with Cyberpunk 2077’s narrative is a little thing called ludonarrative dissonance: an issue that arises when a game’s narrative conflicts with its gameplay. Once again we can take it back to Fallout. The first game I played in the series was Fallout 3 which began (after its excruciatingly long prologue) with my father disappearing. This immediately concerned me, not only because my dad was a nice guy but because he was Liam Neeson. It was 2008, and Liam Neeson had just discovered that he was really good at karate-chopping people. A glorious new action star was emerging, and I would not allow him to be snuffed out before his time. So I ran across the map to try to find my dad. Along the way I’d bump into all kinds of fun and interesting sidequests and I’d say “I’ll do this afterwards, I gotta find my dad!” And then I found my dad, and the game ended and the credits rolled and I was very upset. They would later fix this issue with the Broken Steel expansion, but the problem still remains: don’t get me all fired up about saving Liam Neeson and then punish me for rushing to do it.
In Fallout 4 they pull the same thing. This time I was less gung ho, but throughout the entire game while I was dressing up as an old timey radio character to fight petty crime or helping a radio DJ to sound like the Fonz I’d occasionally think “Oh yeah, the guy who murdered my wife and kidnapped my son is still at large. And I’m over here doing an escort quest for a robot that brews its own beer. That’s a little strange…” In Cyberpunk 2077 you’re not trying to save a loved one. Instead, you’re the one who’s in peril. At this point we’ll be getting into some light spoilers, the first of which is that Keanu Reeves is inside you and he’s taking control of your body. This will kill you, and do so fairly rapidly according to my ripperdoc/friend Viktor Vector. (As an aside, is this the same Viktor Vector from the Victor Vector series of point and click games that my father and I and nobody else played in the 90s? He spells his name a little differently and looks a lot less geeky, but maybe he went through some kinda midlife crisis after Yondo died. I’m not judging.) So, at the beginning of Act 2, the game tells you two things at the exact same time:
1. You are about to die. You may have a chance, but there’s not much time. I’m sorry.
2. Go have fun! Explore the open world! Take your time! There’s a smartgun that sings Rihanna songs and a sentient vending machine and a GLaDOS cameo! Yaaaaaaaaaay!
So then you’ll go off and do some goofy sidequest and try to forget that you’re dying. You’ll lose yourself in the moment, you’ll start having a grand old time, and then the screen will begin to shake and V will collapse to the ground and cry out in pain and struggle to breathe and maybe vomit a little. And then you’ll stand back up and the screen will go back to normal and you’ll continue on with whatever fun little trifle you were engaging in, perhaps with a bit less enthusiasm. This game refuses to let you forget that you’re dying. It does make some sense: putting the main character in peril obviously invests you in his story and gives your actions purpose. At the same time, adding a ticking clock element to a game that does not actually have a ticking clock is a little weird, especially when the clock is depressing.
In addition, I have heard that once you beat the game the open-world reverts back to your life pre-final mission. This in itself is fine. Lots of games do it, and it allows you to have an Earth-shaking finale but then still head back to the same open world that you’ve grown to love. However, considering the specifics of this game that’s a bit of an issue. Having not completed the game myself I don’t know whether or not I will succeed in getting Johnny Silverhand out of my head. But if I do and I survive and go off to live a beautiful life with whoever I decided to romance (Amazing romance options in this game by the way! TWO for each gender! What a bounty!), then my victory will be shortlived. Even after my triumph I will still be forced to experience this fun and engaging open-world as a character who is currently dying. And that makes me a little sad. Maybe CD Projekt Red will put a Bethesda and give us some DLC where the character is not constantly dying all the time, but I doubt it. The ludonarrative dissonance will continue, and I can’t help but feel that’s a missed opportunity.
In short, I love Cyberpunk 2077. I could have seen the end hours ago, but I’m putting it off because saying goodbye to this story will be sad. Also, I’m still not done romancing Kerry. I just hope that CD Projekt Red survives this, that they get through all of the lawsuits and the bad press and the furious fanbase with their company intact. I hope they get to work on Cyberpunk 2077 2, or whatever it’ll be called, and make it everything we all hoped this game would be. I think it’s within their ability, particularly if they’re given the budget and support that they deserve. The issues I have are reasonably easy fixes. Make the dialogue options more diverse. Have more events in the game be impacted by said dialogue. Finally, don’t make the game about how I need to do something RIGHT NOW and then encourage me to screw around in a giant open world for hours helping automated cabs with their existential crises. Also, sorry if I ruined the GLaDOS cameo for you. Yes, she talks about cake.