Improving Cyberpunk: A Retrospective

Are0h dropped this 2024 May Wed 29

How it started

The story around Cyberpunk 2077 has become both a cautionary tale and a diet story of redemption.

On the one hand, CD Projekt Red followed a common trend of developers releasing unfinished games to cash in on the hype generated by high-profile trailers (that don't resemble gameplay) at high-profile events. On the other, they managed to polish and duct-tape a version of the game together that was playable and brought us into the world created by Mike Pondsmith in a way that had not been experienced previously.

Cyberpunk 2077 is a compelling example of managerial incompetence tinged with bigotry and what happens when corporate entities listen to what people say about their product and attempt to apply that information to improve it.

It's one of those stories where both the criticism and praise of it are valid.

I ignored the game for the first year or a year and a half as it was embroiled in controversy and legal trouble concerning CD Projekt Red's stated intentions with the game and what was delivered. It had gotten so bad that PlayStation decided to pull the game from their store, and when it returned a few months later, it still came with a warning, letting customers know about its problematic quality.

To their credit, the game developers soldiered on despite the justifiable hammering their product received in the media. Sentiment around the game began to change with the well-received and brutal Edge Runners anime coupled with the release of the 1.6 patch, which showcased a stable version of the game that was playable enough to experience the world of Night City without the technical issues marring a play through.

It was around this time I picked it up. I caught it on sale one day for the price of an overpriced cup of coffee, so I decided to give it a shot, as opinions around the title seemed to be shifting to a more positive posture.

Playing Cyberpunk

Honestly, my opinions of the game are still on a broad spectrum. Having been familiar with the work of Pondsmith already, it was incredible to exist in Night City, which, for the most part, was a faithful recounting of his vision, albeit filtered through the lens of accessibility to maximize its selling potential.

Compelling narratives about survival and identity were crunched into easily digestible chunks for gamers unfamiliar with that world they could connect to. Also, including Keanu Reeves to play the infamous Johnny Silverhand was a surprise I had not expected, but it also spoke to how much was being invested to make this game successful to the masses.

While I enjoyed the ability to navigate the dark and grimy corners of Night City, I also felt the game was simplified in a way that removed the agency of what it was to be a person in that place, thus downplaying the overall theme how difficult it was to not only survive in it but to retain one's humanity in a hyper-capitalist world where everyone was chipping away at their bodies to keep pace with the rapid decline of a failed society. Yes, those themes were present, but it felt watered down to the point of irrelevancy where the shock of violence took center stage rather than the context of the society that forced people to make such drastic and dehumanizing decisions regularly.

That said, I have spent 154 hours in the game, exploring its ins and outs, stories, and narratives. Having spent so much time in the game, despite its flaws, there is a great game in there.

Considering the needs of CD Projekt Red to sell the game based on the lofty expectations they created for it, I can understand why much of it has gone unrealized, to instead focus on a somewhat stable and smooth experience. There is also a cultural disconnect from a team of predominantly white European developers trying to interpret the social experiences of a world built-in part of the experiences of a Black American man, especially in the story of Silverhand, a white dude, invading the body of V, who could potentially be a Black character in the US, a place not known for respecting the agency and bodily autonomy of Black people.

However, having played the game extensively, a few tweaks could make it shine not just as an achievement in perseverance but as a piece of art that combines technical brilliance with a social awareness rarely seen in gaming today.

Let's get into my thoughts on how Cyberpunk 2077 could be improved to make it sing.

Survival in Night City

A major theme in the world of Cyberpunk is the survivability of the average person and the difficulties of making a living. You can get a sense of this daunting task by reading the various stories you uncover as you progress through the game that detail the cruelties that gangs and politicians visit upon the people. Walking around the city also helps to illustrate this by seeing many people who are unhoused, panhandling, and the pervasiveness of drug use, all tell-tale signs of concentrated poverty.

Some praise this kind of immersion as it illuminates the dire straights your character is navigating. Still, there is an intrinsic disconnect as your character does not experience this personally. After a brief intro that is aligned with one of the three available backgrounds, you are shown a montage of activities with Jacky that are meant to illustrate your rise from an average person to a notable mercenary in the city, complete with being gifted an apartment that serves as the humble base of operations. You are even gifted your first pieces of cybernetic implants.

In a city that is defined by the hardships of survival, you rarely experience any of them, with the main difficulty of the game being expressed through the common game trope of combat, which becomes less challenging the more you progress in the game, expanding the disconnect of complex it is to exist in Night City.

The game does itself a disservice by glossing over how V goes nothing to a person who is noteworthy for the attention of one of the more influential figures in the initial part of the game, Dexter DeShaun. It would serve the immersion in a much more tangible way to let the players experience V struggling to find resources for food and shelter and build a relationship with various ripper docs around the city who will let V skate on the price of modifications after reaching a certain level of affinity.

Survival mechanics that introduce a character having to maintain their wellness are commonplace in today's game, as well as reputation systems that dictate how others receive the character.

Adding these two features, in addition to letting the player navigate their rise with Jacky, who should be a more significant part of the narrative anyway, would hammer home how hard V has worked to get a break in Night City and connect the player to the challenges of living in that space by having to figure out how to meet their basic needs with the skills they develop over time.

This would connect V to the community around them in a way that cannot be achieved by a quick movie and reading other people's stories.

V as a member of community

Typically, I play games as a Black woman because I like seeing women being able to crack dudes in the face for being sexist and disrespectful garbage. I get a kick out of that. So my version of V was a queer Black woman who did not like guns but was very proficient with melee and thrown-bladed weapons. She was a decent net runner, but most of her enhancements centered around maximizing her combat ability and stealth to get in and out of situations without leaving a trace but efficiently dispatch gun-toting enemies if violence was required.

My decision-making around V prioritized her well-being in a space that did not care about people but also made allowances for people who were trying to do some good in a world where that wasn't rewarded. She was cruel in situations where she had to defend herself because one had to send a message. Still, she also had empathy for struggling people and only had terrible decisions available to them. For example, I only killed one cyber psycho, a condition crudely described as a mental break due to an overabundance of cybernetic implants, and that was by accident. When I read about the circumstances that lead to people's break from reality, it became clear that the catalyst to their condition was the world they lived in and the dehumanizing framework they had to navigate constantly—learning that made a difference in how my version of V approached these situations.

Despite the nuanced decisions I can make as a character, these decisions are not reflected in the world around me. Sure, I am known for my exploits as a violent badass in the mercenary world, but there is little to no acknowledgment of the subtler choices I make that fill out who V is as a person and not just a gun for hire.

No vendors recognized me because I helped a person in the neighborhood. Fixers forgot about me once I completed their tasks without commentary on how I went about them. There was virtually no variance in places I visited frequently, such as Lizzie's Bar.

Interactions in the city were static for a game that styled itself as a journey of a citizen rising to prominence by any means necessary and was supposed to stand out in that way. They did not deviate from their prescribed path, so you never get a sense that V's notoriety was changing outside of the statistical displays of 'street cred' shown when you paused the game.

Given the sheer size and depth of Night City, this is a glaring oversight to increase immersion in a subtle but significant way.

And speaking of Night City...

Make Night City the main character

Ok, I'm going to be honest. I'm a Johnny Silverhand hater. Yes, I understand he is a significant character in the lore of Cyberpunk and is a part of one the most significant events in the history of that world.

But for me, his story fell flat because 1. the white rocker aesthetic was dated, and 2. it felt bizarre that the main campaign said the white rocker, whose own memories were unreliable, was trying to take over the Black body of my version of V, who is also a woman. Admittedly, I don't expect a bunch of white Europeans to know how to navigate those cultural sensitivities with much skill. Still, the lack of effort to address that possibility was a major disconnect for me. I simply didn't care about the subtle redemption arc of an outdated and depressed white guy coming to terms with his situation at my expense.

This is not to say I don't think Silverhand should be in the game. He is, after all, part of the fabric that makes that world what it is. But the game would be better if his narrative were not the central campaign.

The part that redeemed the game wasn't the primary campaign but exploring Night City. I didn't keep returning to a bug-riddled game for the story of Silverhand. I kept coming back to dive deeper and deeper into the city itself.

The writing of the events, scenarios, and characters you experience while existing as an up-and-coming mercenary in Night City is a stark contrast to the plodding, often shallow story of coming to terms with Silverhand and his need to exist in a world that has left him behind. The primary campaign feels like a mediocre obituary to a person who has no idea who they are, while the highlight of the game is seeing the brutal, ugly, and yet captivating stories of the people who are trying to do the best they can.

There are many moments when continuing the main story felt like an interruption to scenarios billed as side-quests. A great example of this is the questline of Judy, a young and talented computer tech who made a living creating virtual pornography. Her story was an incredible dive into a person trying to find meaning and community in a place that valued nothing outside of making money. Through her, we experience an almost perfect distillation of the world of Cyberpunk and what it does to people as it slowly chips away at their hope and sanity, and the complicated decisions people make to retain a reason to keep going. There is a specific sequence in her story where she shares a visit to her hometown with you, which had been flooded years prior and was an underwater ghost town. She lets you into some moments that define her as a person and the hurt and memories that accompany it. There isn't any particular moral judgment to it; it's just a person sharing their vulnerabilities and insecurity around something important that was lost in an attempt to find a connection to replace it.

So many stories around Night City delve into these kinds of narratives around people, and the plethora of ways people survive makes it feel real in a way that I've rarely experienced in a game. These stories are so compelling that the main narrative feels cheap and flimsy by comparison.

This is not to say the primary campaign should be removed but rather deprioritized to focus on what makes that game shine. Unquestionably, that is the achievement of Nighty City and the effort put into rewarding your character for taking the time to express every nook and cranny you could.

But, ok, let's talk about the central story.

Make the main story optional and about Silverhand's fractured identity

As I've said, I'm utterly bored with the main story. I'm just not interested in a dead(ish) white dude coming to terms with his current predicament, which was a direct consequence of his actions.

But there is a compelling narrative about Silverhand that has more to do with what he is now rather than reliving those god-awful sequences of what he was.

As Pondesmith acknowledged, Silverhand's memories about his history are unreliable, and his retelling of his story over time cannot be trusted. However, you don't get a sense of this as his story is centered around him resolving his troubles.

A far more compelling narrative would be to explore this inconsistency and witness how Silverhand reacts to slowly realizing he is not actually what he remembers. Together, you both go on a journey of self-discovery of what this means, as both of you are altered versions of your original selves. Instead of focusing on an essentially reductive narrative about whose body it is (which is obviously V's), it could be recontextualized as two people engaging in a shared story of coming to terms with the consequences of what happened to both of them rather than an addled ride through the memories of someone that mostly fabricated.

Making this new story optional also opens up more storytelling and world-building opportunities. Instead of being brought a job by Jacky (RIP) by a random person you don't know, let V work their way up to meet Dexter. Let V go on jobs that slowly reveal the Silverhand thread to her. If V chooses to follow it, it goes deeper and deeper, so there is the context of why Silverhand is on the biochip that she and Jacky pilfer. V knows something is wrong with him initially because the information she has learned throughout her story does not align with what Silverhand tells her. This creates new possibilities for how V and Silverhand engage with each other outside of the trope of an angry, self-righteous white rocker who is only concerned about themselves to a fascinating story about two people forced to deal with the shared reality that they are not who they were and have to figure out who they are now.

Imagine the emotional impact of Silverhand realizing what Arasaka did to him by altering the core of who he was by changing his memories and seeing he's doing the same to V, continuing Arasaka's legacy of destroying people's lives with technology. Realizing that he has become the unintentional tool of what he hated is a much more compelling space to examine.

Honorable Mention: More Blackwall and Alt Cunningham

A big part of the game talks about the horror of Blackwall, the section of the Net that houses aggressive and murderous AIs. It was presented as a virtual wasteland that no one could survive.

However, one aspect of this that remains unresolved for me is the story of how Alt survived when she was soulkilled by Arasaka. I understand the implication that she became an AI after her body physically died. Still, I've always wanted to know more about that transition and how difficult it was for Alt to deal with her new reality. What was it like being stranded in a place known for its hostility and violence? How did she become such an influential figure in that space? Does she know how that process could be replicated for people who want to exist there? Does she want to be human again?

Not only do I want to know more about Alt, but I want to be able to explore Blackwall and experience what that place is like. There is a cyberdeck you can use where you can leverage Blackwall against enemies that have a physical consequence for you when you use it, and that's pretty cool, but I want to delve deeper into that. For example, what if one of the endings were you choosing to abandon your physical self and exist in Blackwall as an act of defiance and trying to convince Alt to be your guide? That would be a fantastic plot point to explore.

Finish Line

For what it's worth, Cyberpunk 2077 is worth the price I paid for it. The malign it received was well-deserved, but its progress from its disastrous launch should also be recognized.

The reality is that the history of how it was presented will always be a part of its redemption story. The incompetence of its managerial choices will always conflict with the efforts of its development team to right the ship. I hope CD Projekt Red learns from these experiences as they ramp up production for the sequel.

The game is an impressive achievement in realizing Pondesmith's vision into something we can all experience. It deserves credit for that. However, its flaws will be a part of that experience for the duration that we play and engage with it.

But the framework is there for something unique. It may not be realized for this version as there will not be any more significant upgrades to the game, but I've shown that good can become great with a little more imagination and social awareness about who is playing.

It will be interesting to see what direction the franchise goes in the future.