Cyberpunk 2077’s Human Connections Help Me Tolerate Its Cynicism

In a game full of abject misery, I'll hold onto the moments where people care.

At a glance, Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t a game I would say I feel conflicted on, because I’m pretty sure I’m not enjoying it. Some of that is because open-world games have to tick very specific boxes for me to get invested, and the first-person perspective makes it more cumbersome to navigate than I’d like. But that’s not even taking into account that I’ve been dealing with multiple crashes, a handful of bugs that required me to reload saves, and my issues have been way less egregious than some things people are experiencing playing on older consoles. All of that exists beneath crass treatment of trans people, women, and people of color, and a marketing campaign that both leaned into that and deliberately deceived people in the process. All of this was happening while the developers at CD Projekt Red were crunching to get it past the finish line. To call Cyberpunk 2077 a fraught game is putting it lightly.

I’ve put about 16 hours into this game, and almost every mission has had me at an emotional flatline. This is a world that CD Projekt Red considers “a warning” about the future of humanity more than something to aspire to, but some would argue its particular capitalist dystopia already exists in our world. For all the thrills Night City offers, you’re constantly dealing with the horrible realities of it.

Spoilers for Cyberpunk 2077 follow:

In the time I’ve spent playing as V, I’ve seen so many awful things. I experienced a snuff film in the first person through a virtual reality simulation to analyze it, then used what I learned from it to storm an abandoned power plant where sex workers were being tortured. I watched my best friend Jackie die as he was trying to pull off one big heist that would set him for life, then I had to look his mother in the eye at his ofrenda and tell stories of the person he wished he could be instead of the person he felt he had to be. And as I keep playing Cyberpunk 2077, it always feels like the open secrets I’m about to uncover are only going to get worse, even after I’ve experienced plenty that has already placed Night City’s repulsive nature front and center. No one’s life, happiness, or agency is worth preserving if it gets in the way of profit.

Cyberpunk 2077 has been a lot of misery, with very little silver lining. The Last of Us Part II is my favorite game of 2020, but while it’s built on a foundation of pain, it’s not without moments of light and ultimately ends on a moment of hope that attempts to make everything that came before feel like it meant something. Cyberpunk 2077 is so unabashedly cynical and trying to be edgy that it weighs on me every time I boot it up, especially when it is only letting me make very small, precise cuts to bigger problems. I can save Evelyn Parker from being tortured for profit, but the inhumane treatment of sex workers runs deep in Night City so my disruption feels like a blip on the radar of something ingrained. It’s hard to feel like I’m fighting for a better world when so much of this game’s story seems so insular and focused on V’s problems that just so happen to overlap with how bad things are.

But every now and again, the needle moves ever so slightly.

More Cyberpunk 2077:

My favorite scene of Cyberpunk 2077 so far has been in a quest called Automatic Love. In it, V goes to a “dollhouse,” which, on the surface, seems to be an establishment for those seeking the services of sex workers. This is all in the interest of intel for the larger mission: trying to find a way to excise Johnny Silverhand, the digital recreation of a dead terrorist that is slowly but surely taking over V’s brain. When I got there, I was assigned a “doll” named Angel, I went into his booth and was expecting it to be another one of Cyberpunk 2077’s moments of using sex for shock value, but I got something very different.

Presumably through a scan that happens as you enter the establishment, Angel knew a lot about me. He knew I was dying, and tapped into fears of not simply passing away, but also not being remembered for anything. There’s some choice involved, so you can color whether or not V is distraught at the idea or indifferent, but Angel laid in the bed with me and offered advice, comfort, and a moment of repose from the horrors of Night City. If you take the right dialogue options, V will have a line where they say they don’t want to go back out there. And you don’t have to. Not immediately, at least. You can lay on the bed with Angel for as long as you want. It’s the one moment I’ve seen so far where V is able to talk openly about their possible death in a way that isn’t communicated through violence and anger. It was one of the few moments in Cyberpunk 2077 where I felt a connection with anyone here. Even if it was just that: a moment.

I haven’t seen Cyberpunk 2077 through to the end, so I can’t say myself if there’s a point to all the heinous things I’ve had to experience so far. But between those long stretches of hardship I’ve seen Judy care for Evelyn when she’d been tortured beyond my comprehension. I walked through Jackie’s home with his girlfriend Misty as we reminisced on the life he had and dreamt of the life he wanted. And even if it was quickly ruined by the plot requiring me to question him, Angel was the first one to ask how I was doing and really let me answer. 

Night City is a terrible place without much, if anything, that redeems it, and Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t exactly an enticing package for me to deal with all of that rot. Yet finding the scraps of human connection has been the one respite I’ve had in all of this. If the game thinks the system is broken and that the world we live in is beyond redemption, I’ll have to take solace in the moments where people are still capable of caring about one another. I want to find a moment like this that doesn’t feel fleeting or get choked out by Keanu Reeves appearing in the background to taunt me and tell me none of it matters. If those flickers of compassion are all that we have to cling to, they have to matter, right? Otherwise, this is all for nothing.