I haven’t finished Cyberpunk yet, and with the whole Christmas period on top of me suddenly, I need to get something together that summarises the wonderful things about this game without constructing prose. In one sense, this is a shortcut way of writing an article when time is tight and I have dozens of different things to say—I hope you don’t feel I’m going cheap on you. After all, in another sense, this is a 1 to 1 map of my thoughts as I’ve been playing Cyberpunk 2077. You get to the end of a game and you can organise your feelings into something formed and choate, but I increasingly sense there’s value to showing my work. The experience of playing open-world games is rapid and dizzying, as moments, images, mechanics, the choreographed and the spontaneous-organic come and dematerialise in fast and cyclic succession. A story for another time perhaps, but open-world games feel to me representative, at least in a symbolic or semiotic way, of the internal stream of consciousness—the flow of ideas, premises, and abstract nouns, sometimes parallel, such as their meanings complement, and sometimes on top, beneath, and within one another, so their resistance and anticonfluentialism forges, like the coalescence of elements, new, examinable substances. It would be interesting to minute a playing session of Cyberpunk 2077 and record in atomic detail all things one sees and experiences during, say, an ordinary sixty minutes game time. Consider this an incipient attempt to record my opinions on an open-world game while mimicking the accelerated, bricolage nature of the open-world game itself.
- Night City is a real dump. I’m reminded sometimes of the Liberty City of Grand Theft Auto IV, in areas like Megabuilding 10 and Kabuki Market, which are saturated by people and metropolitan detritus. I’m reminded also of the Los Santos of Grand Theft Auto V, which feels uncannily, unimpressively empty—but whereas in GTAV that emptiness betrays more a disinterest on Rockstar’s part towards creating something plausible and aesthetically remarkable, in Cyberpunk 2077 the often empty highways and main streets confer the fractious and diasporic nature of the city itself, a place that is both literally enormous and divided along so many cultural and economic lines that there a swathes of it totally absent of all human union. The culture of Night City, and perhaps the entire world in which Cyberpunk takes place, is fragmented, individualistic, and spiritualises the self and personal assertion. It is also a world that has withdrawn into cyberspace. As such, the place you physically live becomes subordinate. Even if the occasional lack of cars and people on the streets is the result of some technical limitation, it is a technical limitation which, in this case, informs a greater presentation.
- I like that some areas of the Badlands are completely untraversable, owing to all the discarded old appliances and shopping carts. Ignoring Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, Judge Dredd, or others, one of the nearest comparisons I can think of for Night City’s design is the United States of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy.
- How often can you convincingly argue that the side missions and optional ‘stuff’ in open-world games somehow inform the central story? Normally, it’s like you’re doing all the ambient, non-vital quests as a means to get your money’s worth, or have some kind of lower-stakes fun outside the actual substance of the main game. It ends up killing the characterisation. Why is John Marston helping a guy collect parts for his flying machine when all John wants is to get back to his family? Why is the Sole Survivor in Fallout 4 building a kennel for some dog he found when his son is missing? But the central plot of Cyberpunk 2077 uniformly involves paying people—information needs buying, officials need bribing, palms must be greased. And so all the ulterior stuff becomes not just mechanically but narratively necessary. V is a mercenary. V needs money to fund his investigation. You get the impression someone at CDPR actually thought about this, and that’s more than you can say about a lot of open-world game developers.
- There is a scene in this game that ranks among the best—and could be the best—moments in recent videogame history. I mean, I know that’s a hack way of saying it, but if I think back over the last maybe five or ten years, this part really leaps out. It’s a long time since a mainstream game made me feel much of anything, or did something, dramatically, that had an impact on me. It’s when you go to Clouds, the brothel where you plug into a computer and it analyses your personality to select the ‘joytoy’ best suited to your desires. V is reluctant. Johnny is cynical. I was expecting some lousy sex scene, some low-imagination, ‘anti-capitalist’ peep show about how even sex has become automated in the future. But you go in and what your joytoy does is ask V how he’s feeling, talk to him about the fact he’s dying, that he’s alone. And he responds and they lie on the bed together and hold hands and he explains how frightened he is, and has no one. And it becomes this really beautiful, really bizarre character moment. It’s incredibly bittersweet, since it’s the first and perhaps only time someone really reaches out to listen to V, and the only time he responds in kind. At the same time, he’s paying for it, and the joytoy is running a personality program that compels them to act based on V’s customer data. It’s the most real emotional moment in the game, but it’s also fake, and when it’s over, V goes back to all-business, street-tough mode, and seems to reject everything he’s just felt. But we’ve seen it and know it’s there. I don’t want to over scrutinise it too much—it’s just good writing, and I haven’t played a videogame in a long time that allows for the playable character to be this vulnerable. Maybe Arthur Morgan when he talks about his son, or sits with the nun at the train station.
- This is a game about sex workers, the poor, the dying, the people living on the fringes of society. I mean, that sounds like a kind of marketing line, like how they say Watch Dogs is about taking down the government or Far Cry 5 is about ‘America’ or some shit, but then the games truncate, dodge, equivocate and patronise, and only use these Big Themes as makeup. But Cyberpunk 2077 really gets behind its cast of characters and the realities, good and bad, of their lives. Everyone’s trying to make a living. Everyone’s trying to stay strong. And it’s not like the characters are all just stand-ins or vectors for the game’s more theoretical, essayistic machinations about money and power—it’s not like a treatise, using human struggle as rhetoric. When you find Evelyn chained to that bed, it’s about Evelyn. When you pour the whisky into the fire on Jackie’s shrine, the game wants you to think about Jackie. Yes, there is a greater ideological anger in Cyberpunk 2077, but it’s much more a game about struggling, impoverished, desperate and damaged people trying to get by. It’s a human story first, and the people that it focuses on I don’t think have ever gotten a look in in other games of this size and popularity. Again, maybe Red Dead Redemption 2 and the vagabond collective that constitutes Dutch’s gang, but even then, compared to Cyberpunk, where you have to watch a snuff movie to find your friend because she’s been sold into slavery, and then she commits suicide after, RDR2 looks positively romantic. There’s a lot of pain in Cyberpunk. A lot of reality. A lot of human dignity.
- Johnny Silverhand is a real douche, but he’s your only real company, and he’s played by the most charismatic movie star of the last 25 years, so you gradually like having him around. He’s egotistical, selfish, vulgar, misogynist—but that starts to peel back. It’s a great performance and I guess testament to just how lacking and rudimentary most videogames are, because I’m so impressed and grateful that there’s some material dynamic and relationship between the two central characters.
Ed Smith is one of the co-founders of Bullet Points Monthly. His Twitter handle is @esmithwriter.