This article contains major story spoilers for the opening of Cyberpunk 2077 and parts of Panam’s questline.
Death in video games is not a new concept. It’s typical that we, as players, are directly responsible for death, or at least actively die in gruesome (and sometimes comical) ways. Killing is such an intrinsic part of most games that the player can be desensitized to it, and by extension, can move on quickly from a character’s demise whether they want to or not. That’s often encouraged by AAA game design.
Depending on genre, a player can be tasked with killing and moving on right up until credits roll. There’s no time to reflect. That’s just how it works. If by some chance the player is given a chance to mourn, it might be some insensitive gesture — like the frequently mocked “press F to pay respects” scene from Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. There’s a difference between death in cutscenes and death in active gameplay, but the overall concept is the same: the player moves on, because death is normalized, and grieving isn’t part of the “experience.”
Cyberpunk 2077 instead encourages the player to pause and grieve (and help others do the same ), while keeping the memory of the deceased alive through organic, in-game conversations. It’s so rare to see time — not to mention resources that were already stretched thin by the game’s troubled development — dedicated to these kinds of quests. I immediately jumped at the chance to attend the funeral of Jackie Wells, short-lived companion to player-character V.
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After sending Jackie’s body to his family, a side quest titled “Heroes” becomes available. V has the option to help Mama Welles, Jackie’s mother, put together his funeral. You go through his things and pick something to place on his ofrenda. It’s a quiet moment where the player can look around his personal effects while Jackie’s partner, Misty, goes over their history together and —︱what he was like as a person. I listened thoughtfully as she explained the importance of every object Jackie held dear. There was a rare bottle of whiskey, a prized basketball, and a worn copy of For Whom The Bell Tolls. I wound up choosing the book before convincing Misty to attend the funeral. Although it would be hard for her, she needed the closure, and so did V.
The player may not have known Jackie for very long, but we know that V did. There’s a montage that tells us how close the two became during V’s rise in Night City, but it’s also shown through active gameplay. The ofrenda itself is visited by Jackie’s friends, who each take turns recalling their favorite memories of him. When it came to my turn, V gingerly placed her chosen item on the altar and ripped a shot of tequila in his honor. After mingling and taking the time to speak to everyone in attendance, it was back to business as usual. The story of Cyberpunk 2077 needed to move forward without Jackie. But, to my surprise, Jackie was kept alive through conversations that kept happening in the game. He wasn’t even the only NPC to have people mourn him.
V can go back and visit Misty after the funeral to ask how she’s doing. Misty reciprocates, and the player can respond accordingly. When hitting up Afterlife, the club where Jackie and V began their journey together in earnest,, the bartender Claire will inquire about your fallen friend. V can request his custom drink to be immortalized for all to enjoy. The exchange can only happen once, but still feels genuine and real. The game hasn’t forgotten about Jackie. It encourages us, in the regular course of play, not to forget him either.
The memorials continue when players finally meet Panam and progress through a few of her story quests. During the mission “Riders on The Storm,” we see Scorpion, one of Panam’s longtime friends, also die in combat. Her other companion Mitch survives and texts V later on, asking them to help honor Scorpion’s memory. In “I’ll Fly Away”, the two drive Scorpion’s beloved car off a ledge with explosives, ending in a predictable display of fire and glory. Mitch thanks the player, saying it’s what Scorpion would have wanted.
Later on, Panam strikes up a conversation about loss. She asks V if they’ve ever lost someone. Once again you can acknowledge Jackie’s passing, weaving the two experiences together with Panam. When you, Panam, and her crew sit around a fire to drink, she raises a toast to Jackie. It’s another example of keeping his character alive even in death, long after other games would leave him behind. That really stuck out to me throughout the game. There are other instances for V to mention Jackie in passing, actively, in-game, in the same way I might talk about a loved one who died in reality. Cyberpunk is a game of characters who wish to be remembered in death just as much as in life, and Jackie serves as a great testament to that.
Death will always be present in games both AAA and independent, but it still isn’t the norm to leave space for characters and NPCs alike to grieve. It might seem trivial or silly to grieve the loss of fictional characters as the player-character, but it makes an impact. And that’s all a good, memorable character needs to do.