The following contains spoilers for Cyberpunk 2077. Obviously.
I beat Cyberpunk 2077 last night, and I wish there was some way for me to excise its ending from the rest of the game so I could enjoy it without caveats and asterisks. I didn’t like CD Projekt Red’s latest, not just because it crashed on my PlayStation 5 no less than twenty times over my 30 hours spent playing, but also because it’s a universe full of draining cynicism with no silver lining, has a reductive view of sex and gender, is loaded with racial stereotypes, has some straight up abhorrent treatment of sex workers, and uses suicide for shock value.
Note: protagonist V’s gender presentation is up to the player, but as I played a male V, I’ll be referring to him as such throughout.
All of the above garbage makes the moments where characters shine hard to reconcile, as it’s difficult to conceive the same team that carelessly tossed aside a character by way of off-screen suicide could also write scenes like V attending his best friend Jackie’s ofrenda. But for every stride Cyberpunk 2077 makes with good writing, there is a rake ready and waiting for when its foot hits the ground. Which is incredibly frustrating, because I think, in a different game, the ending I got would have been a really powerful moment. But it’s hard for me to ignore the dark cloud of everything else I had to pass through to get there hanging over it.
The main thing that made the ending work for me was, despite what I think was ultimately a mostly flat performance by Keanu Reeves, the core premise of the character Johnny Silverhand worked for me. This is a long-dead terrorist whose digital consciousness has been inserted into the mind of V, and it’s slowly eating away at his mind until his body will be usurped by the rocker turned cautionary tale.
As V, you can take on an adversarial relationship with Johnny, or you can cooperate and maybe, just maybe, become friends on the way. I found the friendship path more rewarding, and happened upon genuinely touching moments in the process. I let Johnny take over to reconnect with lost friends, maybe settle a score or two, and we even went to where his body had been unceremoniously buried by the Arasaka megacorporation he died trying to attack. We sat there at his unmarked grave and he realized that he’d died only to be forgotten. The impact he attempted to leave was for nothing, and no one ever knew where he was buried.
You can react to this in a few ways, but you start by carving his initials into a piece of scrap metal. It’s not much, but it’s something that signifies that he’s there. When Johnny asks what you would write on his actual grave, you can establish the kind of relationship V and his unwilling digital parasite have. You can give him a platitude, say he was a living legend in Night City. You can be antagonistic and call him a terrorist and an asshole. Or you can do what I did, and say he was “the guy who saved my life.”
If I took nothing else from Cyberpunk 2077, I really enjoyed the relationship between V and Johnny. In a game full of artifice, it’s one of the only stories the game told that felt natural and touching to me. There are others like Judy, Panam, and yeah, even my asshole Cyberpunk 2077 boyfriend Kerry, but Johnny’s story had its hooks deep in me. The segments where Johnny and V’s situation was the focus were broken up by all the aforementioned garbage. So by the time it circled back around, I was surprised it could be genuine and heartfelt, as if I’d forgotten that it had been consistently so the whole time.
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All of this comes together in the final moments. The short summary is that, in the last mission, V is dying, and he’s dying fast. There are a handful of options for how you seek out help based on if you’ve completed specific side quests. I went with letting Johnny take over V’s body to collaborate with Rogue, his ex-lover and one of the most well-connected people in Night City. We would infiltrate Arasaka’s headquarters and jack into a server called Mikoshi, where V’s mind would be rebuilt and returned to his body, removing Johnny from the picture. However, because the entire process has had adverse effects on V’s body, even if he was to return as the sole inhabitant, he’d only have months to live. However, Johnny would be able to live in V’s body without issue. A decision has to be made.
I was playing as Johnny when I had to make the choice, all of which was portrayed in a digital environment. V is telling him to take his body and live a new life, but I went against his wishes and started to walk down a hallway toward a light that would remove Johnny from V’s consciousness entirely. V fights him, even physically at one point, for not taking over and letting him have his body back for only a few short months. And that’s a justified reaction. It’s hard to imagine not becoming close to someone who was inside your head, who you bonded with despite the circumstances. Thinking of V’s perspective, it probably feels like a waste. But when I was making the decision as Johnny, I saw it as a penance for robbing V of whatever life he might have had if the rocker hadn’t been unknowingly uploaded into his brain in the first place.
Before Johnny can step into the light, V asks that he remember him in whatever form he takes in this digital world. He knows Johnny is going to outlive him this way, but he gives in and accepts that he still has a little time left with those he cares about.
After that, V wakes up in a luxurious home with his lover by his side. He’s become a Night City legend. He’s on borrowed time, so he wants to make the most of it. The game ends with him going to space to pull off a job no one in Night City would dare to attempt. Because really, what does he have to lose? In a conversation with a sex worker named Angel some 20 hours of gameplay prior, I said as V that my fear was that I’d die without leaving something to be remembered for. What better way to be remembered than by doing something no one would ever even try? It’s the kind of tragic, bittersweet melancholy that gets me going. And as a person who pursued a friendship with Johnny, it was the perfect note to end the game on with the tools I was given.
That’s my biggest struggle with Cyberpunk 2077. When it wants to raise interesting questions and dilemmas, tie them to strong character writing, and make all of it culminate in a meaningful choice, it’s capable of doing so. But it also wants to be edgy, it wants to pretend nothing matters, and it won’t stop fucking being shitty to nearly everyone. There are crumbs of a game with things to say found in the in-between, but they’re swallowed whole by a world that elevates the worst of itself and asserts that’s all there is. Whatever meaning Cyberpunk 2077 wants to convey is drowned out in its attempts to make a mockery of others and its belief that this is as good as things can get. It’s so at odds with itself, and it’s hard to tell where one person’s perception of what this world is ends and where someone’s more hopeful vision of what it could be begins.
Even with those sparks of connection, I feel like it’s impossible for me to take anything of value from Cyberpunk 2077. And since it’s clear that somebody in the creative team was trying to make it all mean something, that’s just a huge fucking shame.