Early in Cyberpunk 2077’s main campaign, your character, V, attends the ofrenda, or wake, of your best friend Jackie Welles, who dies in the game’s opening mission. It’s a solemn event, which feels like an earnest and sincere attempt at reckoning with the emotional outcome of a non-player-character’s death. No F’s need be pressed to pay respects here. Instead, you must sit and listen to the sorrowful sendoffs of characters who once knew Jackie, who called him friend, family, lover. Once the ofrenda finally wraps, my V leaves the bar. I open the door leading out onto the rain-slicked Night City streets and glance up, to see a massive billboard hanging overhead selling some kind of future-viagra and depicting a man feverishly feasting on someone’s ass.
Cyberpunk is rife with similar tonal contradictions; disruptions in the signal; static; fuzz; blistering noise. But buried within its core are honest and sincere narratives, spelling out authentic human dramas. And when you are able to interact with these stories, to reach out and touch them, to lose yourself in their intricately woven narrative threads, it feels like playing the game as it was meant to be experienced. The problem is that so much of the rest of Cyberpunk serves to complicate and dilute the stuff that makes it good.
Like a stymied netrunner, I am constantly hitting the game’s defensive countermeasures, its ICE: gamey cruft that clogs my display, binds my hands, shorts out my link, and dumps me back into myself, stuck with the understanding that I am still playing a tentpole megabudget videogame.
This interference was at its peak when the game first released in 2020. Characters dropped through geometry and disappeared into the void, cars would lose their wheels randomly and explode; the simulation had come undone, its calamitous code spilling outside its seams, to reviled and comic effect. The game was widely panned as a result, cast as a failure. If what Cyberpunk was going for was the creation of a lifelike world, it had missed the mark. And in failing that, it dragged the curtain down, exposing the artifice in a way that betrayed not just itself, but the rest of the medium too.
Now, several years later, the bugs have been eradicated, the simulation is finally whole. One layer of countermeasures has been cleared. Now we can see much more clearly than we ever could before, experience the game as it was ostensibly meant to be experienced. But the image still feels cloudy, the connection is still shaky. This can no longer be blamed on bugs and glitches. Instead, something deeper and more structural keeps us barred from the game’s authentic heart, something owing more to the kind of game Cyberpunk is than to the glitches that once kept us stuck spiraling in its outer orbit.
After all, crass billboards and cartoonish world building are not bugs. There’s a flatness to the environment and setting, the busy streets of Night City, that cannot be attributed to malfunctioning code. If I squint, if I glance at the colors and the shapes flashing across the screen, I can almost convince myself that I am living the edgerunning dream, that I’m one of those “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” to quote Hackers quoting Neuromancer.
But then I’ll walk up to an NPC, rendered in luscious detail, wearing the finest neo-futuristic rags, prompt them to speak, and listen to them spout something completely nonsensical and inane; bottom of the barrel GTA-core quips to the effect of “I’ll beat you up” or “Hey honey, want a good time?” Or I’ll try and smoothly pull my car over to start a mission and get it wedged against an indestructible lamppost. Or I’ll enter a gorgeously laid out interior space only to start a basic shooting gallery-style encounter with a horde of screaming, jabbering, inhuman enemies, who will rush at me endlessly until they’re all dead, corpses full of loot of various rarity levels.
I’m still stuck in the trite confines of the videogamey simulation, still pinging along its periphery, missing the meat at the core of the thing. On this metanarrative level, Cyberpunk does inadvertently wind up being the perfect cyberpunk videogame. It places me in the position of an intrepid hacker, trying to access the secret core where it hides its pathos, its tenderness, its legitimately touching moments as a story. But I keep running into defenses, distractions.
In the new Phantom Liberty expansion, I might look into the eyes of the character Soloman Reed, played by Idris Elba, and perceive his pain, his sorrow, and his regret at being a government agent who was betrayed by his own people and forced, in turn, to betray others. Then he’ll drive off, giving me an arbitrary number of days to wait until the next stage of his mission, just enough time to get into the expansion’s many side missions, to fill up my time with its fluffier micro-activities. I lost count, for example, of the number of cars I stole for El Capitan before realizing it was an activity which would never significantly change or advance in any way. There are many similar dead ends and blind corners which confuse me and lead me far away from my goal.
The thing is, it’s not just Cyberpunk that’s cyberpunk. By the same measure, most AAA videogames qualify too. They’re all putting up ICE in the form of open-world time-wasting filler, activities that clog up your mission queue and short circuit your pleasure centers. We jack in, expecting something real, something honest, something that hits deep and connects with us emotionally. And it’s there sometimes. It’s hard for a piece of art touched by human hands to be entirely devoid of heart.
But it’s almost always buried deep. As if developers wanted to keep their more meaningful work away from their audience, for as much of the time as possible. Perhaps because if it were more easily accessible, players would whine about the ease with which they gobbled up all the game’s Content. So we’re served countermeasures in the form of gameplay busywork. Wind-up toys and self-playing pianos. Dolls and toy soldiers marching about in set loops. We sit limp at the controls, our ports fried, our eyes glazed over. We think we’ve gotten what we wanted but we’re stuck permanently in the maze.
When the glitches were too offensively obvious, in those early months following Cyberpunk's release, gamers rebelled. But now that they’ve been smoothed over, we happily settle in, soak it all up, drift off into the ether, far out of reach of anything authentic, or true.
Yussef Cole, one of Bullet Points’ editors, is a writer and motion graphic designer. His writing on games stems from an appreciation of the medium tied with a desire to tear it all down so that something better might be built. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.