Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t look weird enough to be edgy

CD Projekt Red

At E3 2019, there are two versions of Cyberpunk 2077. First, there’s the version that developer CD Projekt Red — best known for the Witcher series — is teasing in interviews, presentations, swag, and posters lining the walls of its promotional booth. It’s a narratively deep role-playing game set in a cutthroat world where people change their bodies radically according to the whims of employers and cultural fads, trying to survive in an economic system that objectifies and exploits them in surreal ways.

Then, there’s the thing that CD Projekt Red is showing behind closed doors: a good-looking but generic shooter-RPG hybrid with an ‘80s retro-futuristic sensibility and a grab bag of William Gibson references. The closer Cyberpunk gets to its release date next April, the more likely it seems that this will be the game’s final form. It also seems increasingly less likely to earn the moments that critics at E3 have called racist or transphobic — but that the developers say are just depicting a gritty future.

Cyberpunk’s latest demo has attracted controversy for a couple of reasons. Rock Paper Shotgun pointed out troubling racial undertones with the demo mission, where players infiltrate an abandoned mall to fight a gang dubbed the “Animals” that appears primarily composed of people of color. (CD Projekt Red later said this wouldn’t be true in the final game.) And a commentator on Twitter noted an in-game ad that seems to creepily fetishize trans women.

The Cyberpunk team says things are more complex than that. “We consider the city itself, Night City, almost the main antagonist of the game,” says CD Projekt Red senior level designer Miles Tost. “It’s not a nice place to be. It shouldn’t be a place where people go, at the end of our game, ‘I would like to live here.’”

The advertisement’s artist, for example, has told Polygon that she was trying to show corporations exploiting people’s sexuality. “People in the ads of Cyberpunk 2077 are horribly objectified, but that’s very much intentionally so,” says Tost. “Since this is a dystopian exaggeration of how things will develop, so [are] our ads — we have some really terrible ads that you look at in the game and go ‘Ah, this place is pretty fucked.’ It’s supposed to really get this reaction out of you.”

It’s possible to imagine a game that justifies this. Cyberpunk 2077 could contrast these ads with the real experience of trans and gender-nonconforming people in this future, for instance, or create a world where sexual expression is so genuinely weird that our current identity labels no longer apply. After all, this is supposed to be a place where people can change body parts constantly — to the point where (as shown in posters and trailers) some people have three mouths and others have none.

In the actual Cyberpunk demo, though, CD Projekt Red seems to downplay weirdness at every turn. Body modification is a big part of the game, and we’re supposed to have extensive character customization options for our protagonist V. “There’s a really high degree of options for players to really build a character that they want to play,” says Tost.

The demo, however, showed us two versions of V (one male, one female) who both seemed like generic, trim-bodied video game characters with some circuitry lines around their faces; one had nondescript mechanical arms. The major non-player characters were relatively average-looking humans, too, with the exception of one ‘roided-out Animals boss. That’s a perfectly valid design approach, but it doesn’t really sell the idea that we’re in a radically different future.

The demo was simply bland in general. As previously mentioned, V has to infiltrate the base of a gang called the Animals, who are guarding a surveillance van that could spell trouble for Night City’s underworld. V is trying to ingratiate him- or herself with a different gang called the Voodoo Boys, since their leader could help V learn more about a mysterious brain chip that apparently holds the secret to immortality. That chip also contains the digital ghost of a helpful character named Johnny Silverhand — who is essentially a clone of Keanu Reeves in mirrored shades and leather pants.

These are all fun ideas, but the main mission’s gameplay was largely a reskinning, albeit an unusually gruesome one, on average immersive sim-influenced gameplay. The female “strong solo” V could pull open doors with her arms. The male netrunner could hack cameras to turn them off, hack robot boxers to attack their partners, or hack people’s mechanical limbs to make them kill themselves. But it felt more like a series of scripted events than an organic system that you could learn and exploit. I didn’t see the kind of complex level design that games like Deus Ex or Hitman have excelled at, and despite their very different powers, the gameplay vibe for both Vs felt similar. They’d generally walk around a series of large spaces shooting and strangling people either loudly or quietly, sometimes opening a door or hacking an item in a unique way.

The full game might feel better fleshed out. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure that the variety here is as high as possible,” says Tost. That includes adding dialogue role-playing options; players can select a background like “street kid” or corporate defector and gain access to special conversation trees. Again, though, the demo didn’t really show us how rich those are — the options there seemed limited to asides that might give you a little bit of extra information, not the kind of full-fledged unlockable paths that games like Harebrained Schemes’ Shadowrun series offer.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of sneaking around abandoned malls and hanging out with the leather-clad ghost of Keanu Reeves. And I love some of the game’s ideas, like characters you can’t talk to until you’ve gotten the correct translation software. But so far, everything points to Cyberpunk 2077 being a by-the-numbers open-world role-playing game with some unusually cool, but disappointingly underexplored lore and aesthetic motifs. And if that’s true, then it’s hard to imagine the game really earning its moments of edginess.

Tost says the game is broadly trying to be inclusive and not make players feel unwelcome. The idea of being gay or straight in the world of Cyberpunk 2077 is “basically is a non-issue,” for example — “now that I think about it, maybe that’s actually one of the aspects of life that might have been better than here [in the present].”

He acknowledges, however, that it can be tricky to depict bigotry or oppression as part of a fully realized world, rather than just seeming to throw it in players’ faces. “We can’t allow for ourselves to make things look like an accident,” he says. “If you show that the choices are being made deliberately to bring context to the world and explain a certain situation or circumstance in the society and the world as a whole, I think that’s something that players can pick up on and understand.”

I’d love to see CD Projekt Red actually pull that off. I just personally haven’t seen that larger dystopian world established beyond (sometimes literal) window dressing. This isn’t a problem unique to Cyberpunk 2077; it’s something that a lot of big-budget games struggle with. The Deus Ex series, which is set in a similar cyberpunk world, tried to explore oppression with an ill-advised “mechanical apartheid” storyline. But the theme was a terrible fit for a cyborg power fantasy. Cyberpunk 2077’s dystopia doesn’t seem quite so on-the-nose, but it also seems to be playing with heavy themes without truly delving into them.

The more directly a game (or movie, or book) evokes real, ugly social problems, the more carefully it needs to approach them. That’s the difference between exploitation and commentary — and Cyberpunk 2077 hasn’t shown that it’s deep enough for the latter.

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I’m disappointed about how scripted the powers seem to be. Part of why I love Hitman and Watch Dogs is being able to use the environment in wacky, wonderful ways that push the boundaries of the NPC AI. 2077 doesn;t seem to have any of those qualities.

man, Hitman is such a sleeper of a game. You’re thinking "whoopty doo, another stealth assassin game" then you’re hitting targets in the most insane ways and then you’re rewarded for killing them again using a different method.

Glad I got the first one through Humble Bundle or whatever it was. I would’ve passed on it otherwise but man oh man, is it actually good.

If the Witcher 3 was any indication I think the game is on good hands. I don’t think they want to shoot themselves in the foot.

I think thats a key here. I read another early review of 2077 (I believe it was on Poly) that "had concerns" about the combat mechanics but sort of complimented the RPG, social commentary, and story elements. Seems like people are having a hard time deciding whats good and what isnt, probably because its too soon to tell.

If 2077 is anything like other CDR games, the story and social commentary will be solid. Combat has never really been amazing in their games, but its also never been a serious distraction. Im all for not over hyping stuff pre-release, but we also have to be careful with over stating our "concerns" pre-release as well.

Trying to decide if it’s too early to have this deep a level of concern or if this piece is justified…

The development team in general has been super cagey about story details for obvious reasons. So what’s left to show except demos of gameplay that don’t delve too deeply into spoiler territory?

This naturally can leave a somewhat shallow feeling. So I guess what I’m saying is we probably need a final game in our hands before we can make judgments about how their world and the story they’re planning to tell come together. Demos won’t give us the context we need for such judgments.

Given this, I fall back on looking at the credentials of the team in charge of development. They’ve earned some confidence, so I’ll remain optimistic that we’ll get something special out of this team.

Agreed – it rubs me the wrong way when critics make bold claims when they’re mostly in the dark too. Critics should ask the tough questions, sure, but shouldn’t bolder claims be reserved for release? Or at least qualified?

Sometimes, articles like this confuse me because they’re too early to speculate on certain things, but too late for the developers to incorporate any feedback into the game. In this case, release is 2020, so it may not be too late at all, but other articles aren’t quite so timely and sometimes remark very pointedly about a game just prior to release.

And doesn’t that rub anyone else the wrong way?

Fingers crossed it won’t be what William Gibson (and by extension this article) had feared: a mere futuristic GTA skin.

Cyberpunk is an aesthetic, sure, but it also started out as a wonderful proving ground for truly inventive ideas and projections. The footage so far has just made it look like the usual crime-world rigamarole with gunplay and upgrades. Even if it doesn’t do anything ambitious I’m sure it’ll be fun either way.

I guess you don’t get that’s the point. If they wanted to spoil the story and make the demo less interactive, why didn’t they just make a demo out of the game ending? They intentionally kept it strictly gameplay. And for the fact that it’s a demo of a game that is well over 20 hours, it’s no wonder why it would seem bland for an RPG when you can’t see how a character can progress from start to finish. Also, it’s great that you’d be listening to people who would be willing to throw generalized labels over any game or media. I mean, if it’s open world and you can steal cars and shoot pedestrians, it’s a GTA clone amirite?

Ah yes, this is the part where we judge the narrative value of a story we know nothing about.

What judgement? The article is pretty clear about laying out concerns, while stating that we don’t know enough to make a final judgement. It goes into how similar games have fared, and provides a lot of context for the concerns that have been raised.

What judgement?

"Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t look weird enough to be edgy"

That’s an observation and opinion, not a judgement.

lol okay, if that’s what’s getting you in a twist.

Images only work if it’s https.

yeah, ok.

Observation and opinions are basically the definition of a judgement. What else would you use to judge something you don’t have many facts on?

Here’s the difference
"Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t look weird enough to be edgy"
Statement of personal observation.

"Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t weird enough to be edgy"
Judgement, stating fact (still subjective, but not in the same way)

ench, let me first say that I’m a big fan of yours – if you check your comment history, you might notice I ‘rec’ your comments a lot for good reason.

Just to add to this, if we’re going to talk very minute details, I read the headline as:
"Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t look weird enough to be edgy"

As in "look weird" is the verb (?) or is a judgement of stating fact. As in "look weird" is not a substitute for "in my personal opinion, it appears weird".

Given the rest of the article and Adi saying "It’s possible to imagine a game…where sexual expression is so genuinely weird that our current identity labels no longer apply…though, CD Projekt Red seems to downplay weirdness at every turn", that’s how I interpreted the title.

What do you think?

Wow, thank you for your insight. So useful.

  • sarcasm *

Just don’t bother, man. It’s obvious he has no actual point if he’s choosing to nitpick the difference between "judgment" and "opinion."

Concerns are just with the recent demo, because the last demo they showed seemed to be more on point with what people are wanting.

Judging from reviews, Cyberpunk in flim and games walk an interesting tightrope: on one hand deemed too safe to be genuinely interesting, on the other, too problematic for showing societal problems.

I think a lot of it will come down to how the main character reacts (or can react) to the world they’re in. I have zero problem with them creating a world that has serious issues – the whole point is what agency the main character (and side-characters) have within that world.

Take The Witcher 3: It’s bursting with sexist, racist, and xenophobic characters. But most of the quests involve helping or protecting women, "monsters", or other marginalized living things. Do most of the answers still involve killing things? Yep. Could it have been better? Of course!

I’m encouraged by the responses from the dev team so far. I don’t pre-order, but I’m definitely still looking forward to this game.

I think this is a valid assessment. How the character reacts or doesn’t react is a much better judgement than by what’s actually in the game. Putting in more serious issues makes it more believable as a dark world hard-to-grasp realities.

How about now

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