Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t the game many people wanted. In many other ways, however, it’s the game we deserve. Beyond the most obvious reasons why it exists (one rhymes with “honey”), an enormous questions remains: Why now? Why this particular retro-flavored amalgamation of grand theft cyberpunk? We’re talking about an endeavour that took nearly a decade of development and well over a year of marketing focused squarely on next-gen consoles. And now that the game has finally launched — cornucopia of warts and all — was it worth the wait?
After taking in the sights and sounds of the most over-hyped game in recent history, I’ve struggled to determine what the game is trying to say. And after sitting on this particular egg for several weeks, I’ve realized there is nothing particularly profound about 2077. Plumbing the depths of its world-building takes less than the scrape of a well-manicured fingernail, and it feels, at best, like a Frankenstein’s monster come to life after eight years… only to be roundly, righteously critiqued for its premature launch.
Heading into Night City as a street kid, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I’d mostly stayed away from the frenetic online 2077 lead-up. Now, a few weeks after its release, we’ve all heard more than enough about the janky gameplay (I highly don’t recommend the swimming) and ulcer-inducing rollout. I’m less interested in why this thing ended up so comically undercooked, and more into how the equivalent of a multimillion dollar Hot Topic RPG became — for a moment in time — such a massive touchpoint for games. Ironically, the most memorable part of Cyberpunk 2077 has become how everyone pretends it didn’t happen, in the same way you avoid remembering adolescent years spent pining for Jonathan Taylor Thomas on Home Improvement.
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For all the complexity and genre-based history of developer CD Projekt Red has tried to weave into Cyberpunk 2077, this particular manifestation of cyberpunk remains as a very specific adaptation of the Cyberpunk 2020 franchise created by Mike Pondsmith via R. Talsorian Games. This, in itself, can be misleading simply by virtue of the game’s name. It stakes a decisive claim to one of the most visually impactful, and most importantly, incredibly fractured entertainment genres in our collective history.
Cyberpunk today conjures immediate visions of an 80s-tinged future, but is far from a one-size-fits-all skin for fictional dystopias. Many of the people who rang in this new genre are far removed from current realities. It is a genre that just as often exalts transhumanism as regressive gender and identity values held over from old-school science fiction. 2077 isn’t particularly progressive in any such regard. It’s got an almost sophomoric flavor to the way it handles the dichotomy between humankind and technology. It’s a placebo that coats the brain like a high-end lubricant; if you want to tune out and turn off, it’s absolutely easy to do that while running around the streets of Pacifica or roaring down a highway on a stolen bike. But you can’t really do cyberpunk without, in some way, engaging with the politics at the heart of the genre: transnational anxiety and xenophobia, capitalism on steroids, and corporate oligarchy.
My protagonist, V, is a street kid. That means she’s tough as nails (or tries to be) and lives by a certain code. I tentatively started the same introduction quests as a nomad and a corpo — the two other available classes in the game — only to find that all roads, unsurprisingly, lead to the same story foundation. You watch your best friend die and become an unwilling host to an unwelcome, mental guest. While 2077 doesn’t quite let you fly by the seat of your pants in the same way as pen-and-paper, it’s very much on-the-rails in terms of how it pigeonholes itself as a playground for crime and decadence.
In this sense, V’s early-to-mid-game trajectory mirrors the same neoliberal sensibilities as the cyberpunk genre as a whole; she runs on a sense of aspiration and momentum, comforted by the belief that she’ll move up in the world as long as she keeps hustling and building her reputation. It’s all about the free flow of information and capital at any cost. This is a foundational part of many cyberpunk stories — aided here by Night City’s many fixers who help V get jobs. Similarly, in the name of propagating its own cultural capital, CDPR spent the last year assailing us with tacky reminders of how edgy and mind-blowing 2077 would be when it finally released. It’s actually kind of incredible how the company instantly blew all that goodwill and real-world street cred within days of the game’s launch.
There’s also something really disconcerting about watching this enormous hype machine try to replicate fleeting moments of humanity. At times it manages to hit the right notes (in the dollhouse when V pries information from a willing, human sex doll only to spend an intimate moment with them; watching Jackie’s enormous hands clamped around a small set of chopsticks) and then absolutely falls apart when it comes to Johnny Silverhand. These are the on-rails segments. The addition of celebrity cameos just bolsters 2077’s shine without any accompanying source of light. There are some likeable characters. There are some memorable side quests. There are guns, clothes, cars, hats, grenades, knives, and a pet bowl on the floor in V’s apartment that made me wonder aloud where the cat was. It is, in short, A Video Game. And — unlike often smaller and more thoughtfully-made games that have transcended this label — that is all it is.
For size queens, the scope and scale of a role-playing game are the ultimate hallmarks of success. If you go by these metrics, then 2077 is something of a win. It is big. For some, it is beautiful. At least a couple of renowned game designers have shared fond screenshots of Night City denizens on Twitter, accompanied by bashful confessions that they’re actually enjoying themselves in the game.
Publicly being “into” 2077 has become a sort of moral quandary, curving us back to the same angry, circular discussions about whether it’s possible to separate art and the artist, ethical media consumption, and why people choose to sink their time into expansive immersions. I believe all of these things are intensely personal choices that require a requisite level of conviction. On another level, I am so bone-achingly tired of Cyberpunk 2077 that I have to pump myself up to ignite my PS4 Pro and keep going because it’s become the red-headed stepchild of my professional community. I simply do not wish to think about it any more than I think about Baby Yoda memes — fleetingly, over breakfast — or the last time I tried a new brand of shampoo.
I hope that one day we’ll see alternative early concepts from CDPR devs: ideas and dreams from before 2077 took its current form, seemingly thanks to mismanagement. In my heart I’d like to think that there was perhaps a different vision for this particular cyberpunk world — one in which a CMYK dystopia riddled with lazy options and low-hanging fruit didn’t end up as the final product. But then again, this is what seems to really get some people going. It’s the chance to escape, to be a technicolor asshole in a game that unironically mirrors all the terrible shit that it criticizes.
For now, 2077 has been relegated to a weird, shame-y limbo. At least until CDPR re-mounts a second campaign to echo the mea culpas it’s issued for a half-baked game. And when it returns, it’ll be interesting to watch a fresh round of absurd collective amnesia unfold around its promised improvements. Will we even perceive it? Only time will tell.
It goes without saying that if CDPR were a character, it would undoubtedly be a corpo. Not a very efficient one, either. In fact, my next playthrough (when I eventually force myself to do another proper run) will be one where I role-play as a studio executive. Maybe the fixers could even enforce crunch while I slog it out on the streets of Night City…