Six thoughts about Cyberpunk 2077

A lot of words about a three-year-old computer game.

Computer games are funny things. I’ll often have a wholesome happy Nintendo game on the go, something with blue skies and what the BBFC refers to as ‘mild threat’ but generally stay away from anything more challenging.

For some reason, Cyberpunk 2077 appealed to some nerdy William Gibson, ‘Johnny Mnemonic’, the-future-won’t-be-shiny-but-scruffy, dystopic part of me. I knew fairly little about it going in other than Keanu Reeves is in it (probably popping up once or twice), it used to be full of game-breaking bugs (but that’s probably ok now) despite the fact it was in development since the stone age, and it might be based on a card game maybe?

I am probably not the ideal audience.

After the six weeks or so of playing I immediately did two things:

  • Sent a message to my friends saying “boy do I have #opinions“
  • Eagerly started a replay, something which I have never done with any game before.

My pal Mike is what I’d consider to be a proper gamer. He knows what’s going on with gaming in general, plays things I’ve never heard of, thinks carefully about them. Hell, he wrote an entire blog about a ship in Dishonored 2 that is so considered and engaging that the developers of the game included an easter egg about him in the sequel. Which is just about the coolest thing imaginable.

“You’re playing Cyberpunk 2077?” he said. “I’m pretty interested in your thoughts about it."

Well, ok then. A spoiler-free summary of my thoughts.

(Disclaimer: this isn’t going to get me a cameo in Cyberpunk 2078.)

Thought one: Jeez oh man the story is incredible

Maybe I’m just too used to “get to the castle to save the princess” and am too unaware of what the general gaming industry is doing. When a game boots up I expect the story to be secondary to the action and that I’ll mostly be going from action-packed mission to stealthy reconnaissance mission with a pretty simple overarching narrative.

Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t do that. It makes you care about the people around you and presents you with narrative choices where you could be brutal to them… but you choose not to. It carefully constructs a meaningful life, a tragic ticking clock, a slowly built relationship, proper twists.

A spoiler-free example: I expected Keanu to pop up for the odd cameo in a cutscene here and there. From about hour three onwards he’s a near constant companion. You may think he’s just going to be this annoying asshole for the remainder of the story but he’s a fully rounded character who develops alongside you.

You can, if you like, develop relationships. The affect the ending you experience. I ended up seeing two very different conclusions to the game (a save bug, which we’ll get to later) and they are totally different. One gave your relationship with Keanu’s character full prominence, the other put your romantic partner (which, to be clear, isn’t just a love interest) front and centre. Both were emotional, both were satisfying, and I’d have been happy with either.

There’s a whole cast who mean something to you but are people in their own right. Vik, Jackie, Alt, Judy, Panam, Rogue… All serve the plot but they could all be off having their own adventures and often seem to.

If nothing else, play this game for the story. It’s a thoughtful dystopian near future action film, but you decide how it goes. Some of those choices are minor (for example, I started off choosing to be a salaryman and within half an hour I seemed to be on a generic street scruff path that any choice probably went towards), some are major. It’s the best piece of interactive fiction I can think of and truly achieves the early nineties CD-ROM dream of movies where you choose the outcome.

I loved it, and it’s a desire to see other narrative paths which has compelled me to play again straight away. And let’s not forget that the game is still mostly going from action-packed mission to stealthy reconnaissance mission. It’s very very well done.

Thought two: It’s a totally believable world

A story only works when it feels like it could be real. The characters live in a world where everyone augments their body with digital upgrades, where holograms are everywhere, and where knowledge is acquired by pushing a microchip into your brain. It’s all far from where we are right now, yet the world is cohesive and seems entirely true.

The story might be a dystopia but the city is authentic. You’re far more likely to see homeless citizens than shiny robotic receptionists. Some of those homeless people will chat to you, ask for change. You can give them some money if you like; their response to whether you do or don’t is unique. You can go down any alley or behind any building and there’s a unique accumulation of dirt and grime and rubbish, or go out into the desert and find ruined buildings that are just there and serve no real purpose.

Much of the world is a palimpsest, a realistic accumulation of the new over the old with every scruffiness that this implies. It’s not a place which just dropped into the world but feels like a real city.

Thought three: The city itself is jaw-dropping

Part of the believability of the world is the design of the city. Every building, every street, every bridge or path or vending machine or advertisement or knackered lift is a rich and complex and considered place.

Despite its sprawl, there is no area which is less detailed than any other. Easy to understand the long development time given this level of detail and attention.

Which is, in itself, a bit of a drawback.

Maybe, like me, you played the last Grand Theft Auto. After a few hours in the game, you get a real feel for the city. You know, roughly, how to navigate from the airport to the movie studio, or out to the badlands and the dusty airport there. You got a general sense of the world, an easy way to navigate around.

I never had that with Cyberpunk. I’d drop a pin and follow the map. I grew to recognise some key locations within themselves, but I would never be able to get there without a guide or a quick travel point. Arasaka Tower’s probably in the swanky district to the west, but if I was out in the desert with the Aldecaldos I wouldn’t be able to get there. Even loading up the city map I’d have to spend ages trying to locate the general area before I even got close to finding the building itself. I visited Jig Jig Street half a dozen times during the game, the same with V’s flat, but I have absolutely no idea where in the city either one is located.

Maybe, like me, you’ve been visiting a major metropolis like London over dozens of years. You know where your favourite places are and how to get there - Southbank, Borough Market, Spitalfields - and over time you visit other places and add them to your knowledge. That doesn’t happen with Cyberpunk 2077, and it’s a shame.

Thought four: Lol git gud noob

This is an action game, but it’s also an RPG. It has a lot of the annoying aspects of RPG hidden away a little but they’re there and they hindered my enjoyment of the game.

Until the very end of the game I missed that I could craft items I’d come across from scrap and other items I’d scavenged. A single pop-up probably told me this; if so it was very brief and never mentioned again. There was no tutorial. I feel that I missed a lot of opportunity to gain tools to progress far quicker than I did because crafting is on a sub menu and never really signposted.

Given far more prominence is the skill tree, but boy is it baffling. There are five or six general areas; on each you level up the area but then earn the ability to gain or improve skills within each area. Two levels of levelling up. Oh and another form of levelling up elsewhere, but let’s not go into that.

I thought I should spread my levelling up points generally across all area. Not so, it seems. I ended up with a balanced character who could do a lot but nothing particularly well. The game told me multiple times that I could effectively refund my credits and experiment with other options, so at one point when I didn’t have enough strength to break into a security room I did just that and discovered that you could refund generally level up areas once per game but only once I’d reallocated my power ups. Suddenly I had a strongish character when I didn’t particularly want a strongish character.

Apparently this is all a known structure from RPGs. It’s not to me. It seems hostile to casuals, is badly explained, and impeded my enjoyment.

Knowing what I do now, my newer playthrough focuses on hacking skills. I liked that bit of the game and was frustrated that some hacking options appeared closed to me. Not this time, pal.

Thought five: Bugs are annoying

When the game released over three years ago it was essentially broken. On some platforms the characters didn’t really load. Elsewhere characters clipped into and out of buildings. Progression at times was impossible. For a work that aims for immersion, these bugs were catastrophic.

Three years later most of those bugs are fixed. Most but not all. Those that persist still break the immersion.

The handful that I experienced were minor. Meeting Takemura in a diner, a head appeared out of the floor. Walking down a set of stairs in the middle of town, a character insisted on walking along the handrail. In the middle of a mission, Johnny Silverhand chatted a bit, disappeared as per usual, but his cigarette still hung there in midair. Chatting around a campfire, a dialogue prompt encouraged me to pick up a beer and drink; pressing it caused my hand to go down, clasp around the bottle, but then to bring precisely nothing to my mouth and to gulp at midair.

Annoying. Not gamebreaking in the main.

I had two more frustrating bugs.

Towards the end of act two I hit a run of missions where I needed to wait for a character to get back to me. They all stacked on top of each other. I had pretty much nothing to do because every one of my missions told me to wait. It was only when I was frustrated with waiting that I realised: this is a bug. A full reboot later and suddenly everyone wants my attention. The one I chose to do first progressed the story way too quickly.

Worse was when I got to the end of the game and battled what transpires to be the final boss. It took a few attempts but I managed it after a few hours of trying. But as soon as that enemy’s power was depleted I had a hard crash. Couldn’t get out of it. Couldn’t get around it. Had to reset my computer… and start the fight from the start.

By all accounts I got away lightly. This is three years after launch on a very standard computer configuration (an unmodified Steam Deck). I understand that games like this are massive and complex and need to run on consoles and cloud platforms and all sorts of places… but this is rubbish.

Thought six: PC games are annoying, too

I love my Nintendo Switch. I buy Katamari Damacy yet again1, put it into the console, load it up, and everything works. I can play on the sofa and not bother anyone else. I don’t need to be at a desk while I’m rolling up Ultraman at the behest of my drunken father who also happens to be god2.

The Steam Deck’s a nice attempt to do the same for PCs but it’s stymied by the millions of possible RAM-and-CPU-and-GPU-and-everything-else combinations on that platform. I don’t care about DLSS HDR multi collusional frame rate enhancements, I just want the game to get going as quickly as possible and for it to look as good as possible and play as well as possible. There is a Steam Deck preset and that seemed ok for the most part, yet any website I visited about the game encouraged me to mess around with every possible option.

The Steam Deck’s a wonderful attempt to simplify PC gaming and expand the audience for games that are otherwise unavailable to most of us. The things I played on it initially were all things I’d played elsewhere - the classic Monkey Island games, both Portals, Firewatch, and Super Monkey Ball. Going beyond what I’d normally consider - what would normally be available to me - has been wonderful. I don’t play these big budget games, and maybe had a prejudice that they’d be mindless and grindy and shades of grey and brown and no fun.

I took a risk on Cyberpunk 2077. And I’m very glad I did. I cannot wait to discover more.

  1. If you never have, you really should. It’s the definition of joy. ↩︎

  2. Seriously. Such a great game. ↩︎