Before I write my 2020 year-in-review, I wanted to put proverbial pen to equally proverbial paper about my time with the last two games I played in 2020, starting with one of the most avidly discussed games of the year: Cyberpunk 2077.
The discourse around the release of Cyberpunk is fascinating in its own right, but I’m not about to get into much of that. Like others, my experience with the game was impacted by expectations based on unfulfilled promises and years of hype, but I did my best to distance my immediate experience with the game from what I thought the game “should” be. It was hard, though, as it always is when a game is hyped to hell and back. And I’m not here to cast blame, as I think the fault in this particular situation is spread pretty equally between CD Projekt Red, gamers, and media coverage. The more I played the game, the more I felt empathy for anyone having to review it. Every time I found myself disappointed at something I felt was missing or underdeveloped in the game, I tried to take a step back and gain some perspective. What would I think of this game if I had never heard anything about it? If I had never played The Witcher 3? If I had no clue about what this game was supposed to be? So my thoughts here are mostly a result of a struggle to maintain that perspective while also being honest with myself about the many ways this game failed me. [Spoilers ahead]
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my experience in Night City. As a fan of open-world RPGs, I really liked some of the core gameplay, and the narrative was also pretty solid. I love getting absolutely immersed in RPGs – feeling like I am in this world, living this life, making these choices. But I frequently felt like the game kept me from feeling thoroughly immersed and lost in the fantasy of this really cool world that the developers built for me. It started with the character creator. While I was able to make a character that did look a lot like me, I was kind of surprised by how limited my choices were, especially because you can’t change them later. I went into this game with the perception that everyone’s V would be super unique, but given how (relatively) limited the options are in the character creator, I imagine there are a lot of very similar looking Vs out there. That wouldn’t be a big deal if you could go out into the world and get custom tattoos, hair styles, eyes, etc., but you can’t.
That (admittedly very minor) disappointment set the tone for my early hours in the game. Every new mechanic or system came with some level of “…oh. Okay.” The driving is very unsatisfying, the shooting felt loose and imprecise until I got a very good gun, the city streets felt empty and not nearly as bustling and full of life as I’d expected, and then there were the numerous bugs and crashes that have been widely documented by others. I played the PS4 version on a PS5, so it wasn’t even the worst version of it. It crashed 36 times in my playthrough, and virtually every play session was filled with little odd bugs and glitches here and there. Cars falling from the sky, sound going in and out, objects floating where they shouldn’t be, I fell through the floor a couple of times, and more. The clunkiness wasn’t limited to the bugs, though. There seemed to be some questionable design and balance issues, too. The biggest of these confusing decisions is probably how shallow the life paths seemed. From the previews and interviews released over the last couple of years, I was expecting the opening hours of the game to be spent on a very specific set of missions that shaped your character through the lens of whatever life path you chose. As a Nomad, I was looking forward to hours in the desert, learning combat and exploration while hearing tell of the seedy and shady deals going on in the big, scary city. The game had different plans. I started in a garage in the desert, sure. Then a very stereotypical small-town sheriff came in and gave me a very stereotypical “your kind ain’t welcome ‘round here *spits*” lecture. I say “stereotypical” but I was into it. “I’m just passing through,” I said to him, certain he would rue the day he treated me so sore. I just knew our paths would cross again as I went about my business in their small rural town. He would probably be my first rival. A nemesis I’d have to take down just before embarking on my ultimate journey into the heart of the city.
The game said “lol cute story but no. Go to the city. Go to the city now,” and almost immediately put me on course to head to the city. Worse, I couldn’t even explore the opening desert area. I left that garage after reassuring the sheriff I meant no trouble, parked at a nearby diner to look around and start exploring the world, and almost as soon as I got out of my car I had a warrant issued and the police chased me down and killed me. For stepping out of my car. This was a game design choice. One that seems specifically meant to dissuade exploration and experimentation. They wanted me to stay on track and get to the mission that would bring me to the city, so I barely felt like my life path choice meant anything. I was talking with my friend Tab at the time, and we agreed that it feels like the developers must have gutted the life paths. After that brief rural opening, there is a fast moving montage of my exploits with my new friend, Jackie. This seemed like shorthand meant to make up for all of the character development and gameplay onboarding that was supposed to take place in the opening life path section of the game. Further, once I was in the city and doing missions, some things felt unbalanced, like stealth and hacking. Later in the game, I appreciated the different ways that you could approach some missions. It was clear that real thought had gone into making some levels satisfying regardless if you went in and hacked everything, snuck around and took people down stealthily, or charged in guns blazing. Early on, however, the hacking and stealthing paths seemed impossible or just out of reach, even if you allocated lots of perk points to those skills. Now, that could be poor, lazy design and balance, but if you imagine that a chunk of the early game was jettisoned, it actually makes sense. If players were meant to spend 10-15 hours doing missions and exploring their respective life paths before starting the shared mainline missions, then they would probably have enough experience/perk points to take on those early missions in a variety of ways, instead of being forced to defaulting to mainly guns.
I didn’t want to spend this much time griping, but here we are, I guess. Before I get into the things I liked, one last complaint. In pre-release material, CD Projekt Red made a big deal about the myriad styles in the game and your ability to mix and match to find a style that best fits “your” V (which, let me slip in an extra complaint and say that I felt like V was very much not “mine,” and I wish I had had more influence over his behavior and attitude). Maybe there are combinations of clothing that work, but I was almost always walking around town looking like a goofy, gaudy Kevin Federline impersonator (you are very welcome for that incredibly dated reference). It’s a byproduct of an RPG where everything is stat based, sure, but that conflicts with the immersive aspect of an open-world narrative where you’re really trying to inhabit your character. I can mix and match elements to create an okay looking outfit, or I can actually survive gunfights and pick the pieces that have the best stats. I chose the latter, and because the game is in first person I would often forget about what I was wearing. I would start getting into the story and feeling really in-character, like an up-and-coming badass, ready to climb my way to the top of Night City. Then I would see something cool and pop into screenshot mode. And I ope.
Okay, okay, I can hear you saying “didn’t you say you liked the game and enjoyed your time with it? That’s not what I’m reading here.” And now I can hear you saying “uh, how can you hear me? I’m not a real person and even if I were, we’d be miles apart.” And I have no answer for that other than to say stop sassing me, dear fictitious reader. I did mostly enjoy my time with the game. While the game certainly looks and feels clunky in places, there was also a lot of visual flair that I appreciated. I’m not at all an expert in the cyberpunk genre, but in my limited experience with it (mostly in film) I’ve seen a lot of noir and neo-noir influence, and I think it would be fun to study this game a bit more closely and look at how the style adds to or changes the meaning of some of the visuals. For example, the use of shadow (slatted or barred, particularly) is a key marker of the style, and certain scenes in the game used shadows in a very noir-esque way. In this shot, look at the use of lighting:
Barred shadows are often used to create a sense of mystery and distrust, sometimes conveying that the person they are cast on is dangerous or should be caged. The femme fatale, another staple of the genre, is usually the one framed in these shadows, and as her name implies, she is pretty often responsible for death later in the story. In the above shot, it’s Johnny Silverhand that is shadowed by straight but imperfectly spaced light coming through window shades. At this point in the story, Johnny’s motivations are still suspect. In our first encounter, he tried to kill me, but since then we’d established a tenuous but slightly more stable partnership. Still, the shadow here makes it clear that he may be the “femme” fatale, because in the fore of the shot there is a candle which ensures that no shadow falls on the only woman in the shot, Hanako Arasaka. She, in her royal-looking red and gold and regal gaze, is on one side of Johnny, while Goro Takemura, who is visually presented as a servant here (hands clasped, just having served her tea), is on his other side. We’ve come to trust Goro, who saved our life and was our partner on the mission that led to this exact moment. Our attention is on them, but Johnny’s placement between them, distance, and position in shadows, conveys a lot of meaning and contributes to his development as a character in relation to us. After a big gunfight where Hanako is “rescued” from us, we pass out, only to wake up in a seedy motel room, where this scene then takes place:
Two of the same characters (the woman is a stand-in or vessel for Hanako) in the same positions, but note how the shadows have changed. Johnny, who is closer now, is completely lost in shadow, and Hanako, who in the previous scene refused to help us, is now the one framed in lines of shadow. With her previous refusal to believe V and Goro, her intentions are now suspect (why does she want to talk now, and why send a “doll”?), and thus we have reason to doubt and suspect her. This suspicion plays an important role in her involvement in the main story and, eventually, your choices that affect the ending of the game. So, while the moment-to-moment visuals of the game weren’t always perfect, there is a lot of cool and important visual flair and framing going on, and this is just one example of that.
Another visual thing that I appreciated was the lighting and reflections. No, I’m not talking about the mirrors that are somehow less user friendly in the future. I mean the reflections on water or wet streets (another visual feature of the noir style, but I digress). I would often catch myself stopping my bike to take a screenshot of the way a sign or building was reflecting off of the slick street. The rain itself looked like butt, but the resulting streets after a rain were nice. Or the way the reflection of this neon sign reveals the texture of the wallpaper by reflecting differently off of the shiny and matte parts of it, and how it also reflects softly off of the gun I’m holding.
I mostly liked the main story, but it was some of the side quests and subplots that really stuck with me, for better or worse. There were a couple of storylines that I felt wrapped up too hastily, like Judy and Evelyn’s, but there were some really impactful moments within those stories. It was moments like those, whether dire or celebratory, that made the overall sloppiness of the game that much more disappointing. The cool or dark or fun stories that they weave shows that CD Projekt Red has retained some of the talent that contributed to some of the stellar storytelling in The Witcher 3, so it’s sad to see it buried under the game’s other issues. I gave a spoiler warning at the beginning of the post, but I’ll throw another one out because I’m about to go into a bit of detail about one of the game’s most memorable side quests. Said quest begins innocuously enough, with you agreeing to help someone avenge his murdered wife by killing her killer. It turns out the murderer is in police protection and on his way to be crucified on air to seemingly atone for his sins. Has he really repented? Is he being manipulated by the corporations? These are questions asked of you as you shift your aid from the widower to the convicted murderer. In the end, if you make the choices I did, you end of being the one physically nailing him to a wooden cross in front of cameras. It’s a pretty grotesque scene, but it’s not played for shock in the same way it might have played out in a Grand Theft Auto game. It’s dealing in visual shock, certainly, but it is also doing what interesting science fiction or futuristic stories do and asking what becomes of certain social elements in the future. In this city, which is well established by this point in the story to be a battleground for corporate greed and opportunist greed, where everything seems packaged and sold for the masses, what becomes of something like Christianity? This quest offers a pretty grim answer: it’s still thriving, so much so that the audience for this live execution is big enough to be worth some corp a whole lot of money.
Speaking of that quest, the producer who is tasked with keeping the doomed convict on schedule is Rachel, and while she might have been a major beeyatch, she was also a major hottie, and it made me wish the romance system was bigger and more flexible. I’m glad they kept romances in the game, because I’d read rumors that they might end up being cut as they neared deadline and were making significant content cuts to make their final release window. But in early preview discussions of the game, it seemed like maybe they’d planned on allowing players to romance a number of characters. As it stands, I think no matter what the build your V is, every player only has two possible characters that they can romance. For me, it was Panam and River. I really liked Judy and would have loved to romance her, but I do like that they give characters their own sexuality and everyone isn’t just magically bisexual, like they are in other games with romance systems. Do I want the option to date everyone? Sure. But I can’t deny that it helps to define characters better if their sexuality is a part of their character and not a result of giving players a chance to bang everyone. Having said that, it would be great and more in line with the original promise of Night City if there were a number of characters to romance throughout the city. Like Rachel, who is not a good person and is probably very mean but who would probably step on my neck if I asked nicely and offered something of value to her career. So, yes, please.
I spent a lot of time with this game (even got the platinum trophy!) so I could go on, but I’ll quickly tack on a few thoughts and then wrap this up. The racing was pretty bad, but I thought it was important to have a trans character in such a prominent role (even if she was imperfect). I really liked Goro, which made his final message to you in most of the endings very sad. They really did him dirty. I liked that Keanu had such a big role, and I enjoyed the relationship between V and Johnny a lot. Overall, as I said, I did like playing the game; it was just frustratingly unfinished and sloppy. As an English teacher, it reminded me of the kind of paper I might grade where I’m like “this is an excellent draft! Now let’s make it an excellent paper.” Because, as a draft, this game does introduce some really cool ideas and systems. It just has some formatting and grammar issues that make it hard to “read.” I think Cyberpunk 2078 (or whatever it ends up being called) will be a realization of all of the ambition that went unfulfilled with this entry.