Letters from Night City: Cyberpunk 2077

A screenshot from Cyberpunk 2077, an RPG by CD Projekt RED.

Spoiler warning and housekeeping

Hello! This piece is discussing a just-released game, and a big one, at that.

I avoid major spoilers in this piece; one story item that does get mentioned is a potential romance option, and a still from an end cutscene with them (but not with an explanation of how we got there).

Anything else spoiler-y is to illustrate the functions of the game, not explain the plot. The main plotline is not discussed.

Thanks again to my wonderful patrons on Patreon for supporting this piece. Patrons get audio or a YouTube video of me reading this piece, as well.

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“Woof, this is a mess.”

If that was my only thought about Cyberpunk 2077, it’d be easy to just brush it off as a dumpster fire, and move on. But no, it’s a bit more complicated than that, and it’s taken me a couple weeks of playing and processing to get comfortable enough to write about it myself.

Cyberpunk 2077 is a very weird game. It’s weird because it represents a type of warped relationship between consumers, developers, and expectations.

For consumers, their expectation of the game creates pressure on the developer to deliver. The things they create or discussions they have spread this expectation to other people. They also may not think critically about the game itself, attacking non-believers. Their happiness may also hinge on their ability to separate themselves from the game itself, or think critically about it. This may be difficult for some people.

For the people making the game (not just the developers), their statements about the game frequently lie by omission: they tell you just enough to get an image of the game inside your head, but not how it might happen. No developer is ever going to come out and purposefully stop a hype train once it’s started, and when a board of investors catches that hype, the stakes become higher.

A screenshot from Cyberpunk 2077, an RPG by CD Projekt RED.
All of the images in this piece were taken with the game’s photo mode; it produces some great shots.

It’s easy for this to feel like a competition; if we’re trying to see what’s “worse”, you can look at the culture of crunch and abusive working environments and say “yeah, duh, it’s more on the devs.” However, after seeing the massive amount of disappointment at Cyberpunk from the public, some of it seems very… self-inflicted.

It feels like the same symptoms of attachment, sunk-cost and hope that leads Star Citizen to continue to bilk its backers of money. However, since Cyberpunk wasn’t a crowdfunded game, the situation is a bit less sinister — the cries of “this game was supposed to change my life and the way I play games forever!” just feels a bit too familiar.

Going into Cyberpunk for the first time, I chose the Street Kid background (from the three available, the other two being “Corpo” and “Nomad”). My background meant I got a brief scene of a theft gone bad, and meeting my new best friend, Jackie Welles.

From there, I got taken on a whirlwind story that I’m not really going to spoil. However, I can say that its implementation felt a lot like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, another of CD Projekt Red’s games.

A lot of Cyberpunk feels borrowed from Witcher. Things like the quests being divided into Major, Minor and “Gigs” that you can pick up as contract work. The GPS system for the cars works the exact same as it did for your horse in Witcher. Signposts for fast-travel have been replaced by data terminals. Gear in Cyberpunk can be crafted for optimal stat rolls like gear could in Wild Hunt.

It all kind of feels like they sat down at a table, thought “okay, what can we port over from Witcher, since we’ve done all the work there already?” The problem is that some of those systems feel extraneous, and in the worst cases, they feel like they don’t fit into the idea of what the game is.

A screenshot from Cyberpunk 2077, an RPG by CD Projekt RED.

Dining in Night City

For instance, in Witcher, you pick up a number of “Junk” objects, like candelabras, necklaces, and other trinkets. These are pretty much for you to sell or disassemble for crafting, and thankfully they don’t weigh anything, so you never have to worry about being punished in your inventory for taking them.

The same thing exists in Cyberpunk, and thankfully you can get a perk that automatically disassembles Junk, instead of needing to sell the items or breaking them down manually.

However, you end up with similar problems to Witcher, where you get a number of different items that exist only to give you buffs (ie, health replenishment or stamina boosts) outside of combat for a limited time (5-10 minutes). While there was a great potential for variety and flavor (both literally and narratively) in these items, every single food item exists to give you one buff that does the same thing.

Every drink gives you “Hydration”; this means you’ll accumulate dozens of the same type of item in one playthrough, and if your tendency (like me) is to pick up everything that isn’t nailed down, you’ll stare at a backpack full of items that are difficult to use or dispose of.

These items cannot be bound to a hotkey, and take four-five clicks to activate; because you can’t use them in a fight, it becomes much easier to just spam your inhalable drugs to replenish health, because you get hundreds of them, and they can be used whenever you want.

This seems like something minor and nitpicky, but it relates to a bigger problem: Cyberpunk wants you to enjoy and immerse yourself into the Night City they’ve built for you, but it isn’t as fleshed out or interactive as it could be.

For instance, in the Yakuza games, you’re given a very meticulously-crafted set of districts, each with their own interactable buildings and restaurants. Those restaurants have very specific, unique menus, with descriptions and bonuses for exploring combinations of food. Often, you’ll get a popup if you order something like beer and edamame at a bar, which will say “yeah, this is the usual ‘drink and a snack’ people will get.” This makes you feel like you got an idea of how people act and live in the city.

A screenshot from Cyberpunk 2077, an RPG by CD Projekt RED.

In Cyberpunk 2077, talking to a ramen shop street vendor will open up a dialog that just sells you the same thing you’d find in a vending machine. This feels disappointing at best, and jarring at worst — in terms of interactables or things that actually make you feel like a citizen of this massive metropolis, there’s surprisingly little.

A post on /r/CyberpunkGame kind of summed it up when they complained about there being only two prostitutes in the game (one male, one female). I know that seems super pedantic and weird to complain about, but if you’re going to sell this capitalist dystopia as being somewhere to lost in, there’s nothing you can really do to entertain yourself, or just take a step away from your missions.

Instead, prostitutes and restaurants seem included to check off a box, but the thought to their design and impact in the world stops after that box is checked. Despite the setting being ripe with opportunities to help us live in it, the opportunities aren’t taken.

For example, braindances are interactive movies that allow citizens of Night City to jack into a person’s previously-recorded perspective and senses.

In the main plot, they’re used a lot to do things like investigate a recording of a murder from different angles, or plan out a heist on a building. In the world, though, they’re used to basically live out an experience for entertainment, like sex, action, or intrigue.

You can buy braindances from a vendor as an item, and you have the hardware to play them. However, the game doesn’t let you play them for fun; the item is functionless, and you can’t enter a braindance unless the plot demands it. This feels like a massive “we didn’t have enough time to do this” example, but it serves to damage the whole idea of immersing yourself in the setting.

As I thought about this, I kept catching myself and thinking “well, what did I expect?”

Did I expect a fully-immersive game that allows me to live a different life? Games like Fallout: New Vegas or Skyrim don’t even allow me to do that without mods, and they’re still very limited in terms of what you can actually do. Grand Theft Auto V has full mods conversions that allow you to play as a police officer in its game world, and role-play as one too. You’re expected to follow procedure and act the part, not just get to wear the uniform and mess around like you normally would.

Even that is a massive undertaking by a developer, and expecting that level of care and work, along with the stereotypical “big main plot” feels like it’s asking too much.

Even with my desire to remain detached from expectation, it feels like it crept in there anyway. I wanted to be part of Cyberpunk in the same way the pen-and-paper RPG would allow me to.

It felt like that kind of adventure was implied, but never promised.

A screenshot from Cyberpunk 2077, an RPG by CD Projekt RED.

Cyberpunk 2077 feels like it’s Skyrim, Fallout, Witcher, or any of those other games: you’ve got a big giant world, a main story to follow, and other things to do if you want to distract yourself. However, it doesn’t give you enough room or freedom to actually just live in the world, and I think that’s what a lot of people wanted.

Going back to my choice of “Street Kid” over “Corpo” or “Nomad”, I think people wanted the ability to completely ignore the other “tracks”, and actually just live as a member of a mega-company, or roam the badlands as a scavenger. The idea that you could experience something completely different, and play a role in a role-playing game felt core to the experience.

Instead, each of these starts just funnels you into the exact same starting point of the main story. It’s led to a weird realization that once I finished the story and got the ending I wanted, I have no desire to go back. Yes, there’s different responses based on these backgrounds, but these feel few and far between, and not worthy of another 40+ hours just to get them.

I’m not sure if that’s because they planned to give things a much bigger scope, or if that this is what they meant to give us all along. If they meant to give us “just another Skyrim“, where and how did the messaging spiral to something else entirely?

Again, I’m not sure if I’m allowed to be disappointed. Things feel like they should be implemented with a lot more depth, but I’m not sure if this was promised, or something that my mind filled in with expectations. Skyrim has the same half-baked implementations of housing customization, romance/marriage and asset purchasing as Cyberpunk does, but it’s almost like it felt that this was supposed to be where it realized its potential.

It felt more disappointing that these things fell short because it doesn’t feel like time has improved our chances of getting something better. If Fallout 3 was jokingly derided as “Skyrim, with guns,” it feels apt to mention that parts of Cyberpunk 2077 feel like “Witcher 3, with guns”.

A screenshot from Cyberpunk 2077, an RPG by CD Projekt RED.

It’s funny, because I wanted to start this piece with the big positive that Night City as like, a modelled environment looks like the strongest part of the game.

Every alley and corner feels like it’s placed with intention, and even something simple as a warehouse lot has a lot of different details, paths, and visual variety. The street art, bars and markets all feel alive from an aesthetic standpoint, and it honestly made me miss wandering around Tokyo, Toronto, and New York.

However, when you actually look for things to do in that city, it can feel a bit hollow. Like I said with the restaurant example, I wanted more that separated the different districts and spaces into their own identity. Night City may be the city of dreams, but there’s not much to do in terms of tourism besides admiring the architecture.

It’s a shame, because I found most of the residents (or people I interacted with for quests) to be very well-written, voiced, and fleshed out. My fixers (who rarely were involved with the main story) still felt compelling and that they were business associates. My romantic interest had depth, and there was a feeling of the relationship mattering when usually it disappears after the “achievement unlocked” of getting a sex cutscene.

That’s probably what’s the most frustrating about this. While it feels like too much expectation to want Cyberpunk 2077 to advance the RPG genre in a monumental way, it did improve some things that had become formulaic.

In games like Mass Effect, Fallout or Witcher, completing a romance questline meant that that character pretty much vanished from the game in terms of importance. If they didn’t, your romance rarely mattered, because not every player is going to pursue a character, and adding new sets of voice lines to cover that possibility is a huge investment.

A screenshot from Cyberpunk 2077, an RPG by CD Projekt RED.
Potential spoiler image: hover/tap on mobile to show.

When I romanced my choice in the game, I got a text message from a secondary NPC in the plot line, asking me if I wanted advice on getting closer to her. When I finished it, I met my “in-laws” on another mission, and the dialog reflected me hooking up their friend. I’d get text messages that essentially said “Hey, I miss you.”

Just these little moments made me feel like the choice I made mattered, and the relationship I built actually influenced the rest of the story. I think myself and other people want every decision to matter like that, not just a big “tent pole” one like a romantic partner.

Coming back to the question of “what did I expect?” feels frustrating, because what myself and others want out of this kind of game feels impossible, logistically. You aren’t going to get a meaty, multi-hour romance with a character, because that’s not what the game is. It isn’t a dating simulator. It had a story, and a plot you’re following start to finish.

I feel like if that scope was better communicated, the confusing feelings would be easier to reconcile with.

In a perfect game (with unlimited scope, budget, and time) every character I worked with would matter, and every choice would open up new, unique possibilities. In a game like Cyberpunk, I would want to have the option to live a completely different life from the developers’ intentions (again, with that level of detail) if we want to.

In real life, though, the amount of writing, voiced lines, coding and design to make that happen would mean that vast stretches of the game would never be seen by the average player, and potentially wasted entirely.

What I know of the process of developing means that type of vision will probably not be realized any time soon, and that’s completely okay. I just think that if gaming is going to continue with these hype cycles, it has to be prepared for peoples’ expectations to balloon along with the marketing budget.

While I’d love to say that I was perfect and didn’t get sucked into the hype, I’d be lying if I did. I never expecting Cyberpunk 2077 to be the game of my dreams, but there was a small part of me that let that hope take hold. It’s frustrating, because there was a reason I messed up my sleep schedule for a couple days straight: I was genuinely sucked into the world, and what it showed me.

When I finished the game, I was left with a reminder of what could have been, and it’s frustrating to think we won’t know the upper ceiling of what’s possible until many months of patches, updates, and (hopefully) new content.

It almost feels a bit weird to just say “yeah, maybe it’ll be solid in a year or two when the ‘complete edition’ comes out;” I’d like to hope we can reach a point where an ambitious project can be made, released, and succeed without all these asterisks attached.


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