Cyberpunk 2077 is dad rock, not new wave

Viewed from a distance — say, from the vast desert outskirts known as the Badlands — Night City looks like a beacon, so massive and promising in its potential that many denizens of Cyberpunk 2077’s brutal future see it as a place where they might escape their hardscrabble lives and fulfill their dreams. And yet, as the game reminds us again and again, those who come to Night City seeking a better life often find only hardship, struggle, and loneliness.

Like the city in which it is set, Cyberpunk 2077 may give off one impression when regarded from afar, one carefully constructed through years of marketing hype, but once players experience it up close, they’ll find that the truth is something else. On one hand, it’s a more earnest and sincere game than all its edgy marketing has suggested. On the other, though the word cyberpunk evokes a radical vision of the future, there’s nothing revolutionary on offer here. Instead, it’s a game obsessed with the past.

C’mon, tell me, who are you?

Image: CD Projekt Red via Polygon

Before you hit the streets of Night City, you’ll construct your version of the game’s central character, V, in a process indicative of one of Cyberpunk 2077’s most glaring problems. For whatever reason, among all the hairstyles and eyes and makeup and tattoos you might expect, genitals are included as part of the character creation process, with two penis options — and three size settings for each! — and one vagina. (You can also opt not to select genitals at all, always viewing your V in panties or boxers at a bare minimum.)

CD Projekt Red has faced criticism for Cyberpunk 2077’s marketing — in particular, the usage of a sexualized trans model in a promotional poster, as well as the flippant tone used in much of the game’s advertising and social media. Many fans feel uncertain about how Cyberpunk 2077 will approach sensitive topics that will invariably come up for the marginalized characters who exist in the game’s huge and diverse open world.

CD Projekt Red has also been scrutinized for its work practices, particularly with regard to “crunch,” a common games industry practice of long hours of overtime lasting weeks or months. CD Projekt co-founder Marcin Iwiński said that he wanted the company to be “more humane,” and pledged a “non-obligatory crunch policy.” However, CD Projekt Red ultimately imposed obligatory crunch on some employees, pushing workers to crunch for extended periods amid monthslong delays.

Thankfully, your character’s gender is not tied to your choice of genitals. You can create a dude with a vagina or a lady with a penis, that’s no problem. But because of everything else about how the game handles trans identity, this hardly feels like the progressive step it should be. Rather than just letting you pick your pronouns independently of all your other character creation choices, your pronouns are assigned based on your selection of voice: Pick the “feminine” voice and your pronouns are she/her, and vice versa. (There are no nonbinary pronoun options.) As a trans woman with a voice that many would not describe as “feminine,” this direct linking of gender identity to having a voice that sounds “masculine” or “feminine” feels weirdly essentializing.

I could have forgiven it if the rest of the game took strides to humanize trans identities, but boy, it sure doesn’t. Ubiquitous throughout Night City are ads for a beverage called Chromanticure that feature a female-coded model with a penis visible through her skintight clothing, making it clear that in Cyberpunk 2077, trans bodies are objectified and commodified. Some cis bodies are, too, of course, but the crucial difference is that, as V, we constantly meet, interact with, and form relationships with cis characters who have far more dimension than the surface of any sexualized image on a billboard. The same can’t be said of trans characters. Even if you opt to play as a trans V, she’s not particularly well-defined. The game is about what you see through her eyes and what she goes through, not about who she is as a person.

Image: CD Projekt Red via Polygon

In my 40-plus hours in Night City, I never met a single character of any significance whom the game made clear was trans, and one of the only queer-coded characters I encountered was an extremely unsavory cybernetic surgeon who does extremely unsavory things. I did spot a trans flag on one character’s vehicle, though that hardly counts as positive trans representation and doesn’t even necessarily mean the character is trans. It felt more like a way for Cyberpunk 2077’s creators to say they had included positive trans representation without actually putting thought into it or making trans people a visible part of the makeup of Night City.

I get that Cyberpunk’s dark future is intended not as a goal, but as something for humanity to avoid. As Mike Pondsmith, creator of the Cyberpunk tabletop game, has put it, “The Cyberpunk future is a warning; not an aspiration.” There’s real potential for a grim world like the one Cyberpunk 2077 offers to serve as a lens through which our own world is critiqued, but the developers at CD Projekt Red failed to do anything with the trans options and identities they incorporated into the game to make them function in this way, and as V, you never have the option to say or do anything about it. The objectification of trans people is just background texture, nothing more.

For elements like the inescapable dehumanization of trans people on imagery throughout the city to function as any kind of critique of transphobia, the game itself would need to create tension around those images by showing us humanized trans people navigating that world. But it doesn’t. The result is a game in which transphobic players (of which there will be many) can just laugh at us by using the character creator to generate models they consider worthy of mockery and derision and by gagging at the Chromanticure ads they see everywhere, or perhaps by fetishizing the model while continuing to see trans people as objects of desire but not as full human beings. Meanwhile, we trans players are left wanting in its world for depictions that humanize us.

Here in 2020, people boldly and bravely hack gender all the time. And yes, I know that Cyberpunk 2077 takes place on a separate timeline in which the year 2020 looked very different than it does for us, but it’s still a world in which people push their bodies to the extreme of technological modification, sometimes swapping out eyes or limbs like they’re changing clothes. You’d think transgressing gender norms would be pretty commonplace, too, and that as a result, a fundamentally different understanding of gender and of trans identity would have taken root in the world.

You belong to the city

Image: CD Projekt Red via Polygon

As deeply unfortunate as this is, it’s but one facet of Cyberpunk 2077, a game that demands to be reckoned with in all of its messy, multifaceted entirety. V may be the central character of the game, but unlike Geralt in CD Projekt Red’s previous game, The Witcher 3, she is not the star. No, the star is Night City itself, vast and intricate, intimidating and awe-inspiring. To its credit, the Night City of Cyberpunk 2077 is not just an amalgamation of imagery lifted from other influential sources, but an original creation that incorporates many signifiers of cyberpunk genre flavor (lots of Japanese kanji in neon, airships slowly drifting through the sky) while also feeling like a place we haven’t seen before.

Steam may issue forth from every surface, but this isn’t the shadowy aesthetic allure of Blade Runner. Night City is something altogether uglier and more chaotic than that, with its skyline of awkward megabuildings resembling a landscape assembled by a child out of chunky toy blocks. Drawing on the timeline of the metropolis as established across multiple generations of the tabletop role-playing game, the cluttered, ramshackle feel of the city’s districts makes sense given its history as a place that has seen tremendous destruction and upheaval, and is never all that far removed from the most recent crisis that necessitated massive rebuilding efforts.

This turbulent history isn’t just something you feel in the look and design of the city. It’s something the narrative brings to thrilling life, too. You don’t need to be familiar with the specifics of Cyberpunk’s timeline going into Cyberpunk 2077 to appreciate all the ways in which your time in Night City is textured by a richly detailed past. Whether you’re passing through derelict maglev tunnels that speak to generations of abandoned infrastructure or you’re witnessing the violent rise of tensions that have been brewing in one of the world’s most powerful corporations for generations, Night City feels like much more than just a backdrop for a cyberpunk-flavored open-world adventure.

We built this city on rock and roll

Image: CD Projekt Red

Nothing in Cyberpunk 2077 brings you into closer contact with Night City’s storied past than Johnny Silverhand, the once-legendary rock star whose digitized consciousness takes up residence in your head via a highly sought-after biochip you slot into your brain during a heist gone sideways. Johnny is central to some of the biggest upheavals in Night City history, and as you carry the cybernetic construct of his personality around with you, playable flashbacks thrust you into that history, giving you a taste both of the blur of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll that made up much of his life, and of the anticorporate actions that have him branded as a terrorist in some people’s eyes.

In the Cyberpunk tabletop RPG, one of the playable classes is the rockerboy, a term for any musician or artist whose work stirs up public sentiment against evil corporations or other social ills. To me, the rockerboys are the one thing that prevents Cyberpunk as a property from being wholly defined by cynicism and violence. There’s something earnest and hopeful about the fact that the tabletop game wants players to see themselves not just as heavily armed solos and skilled netrunners, but also as artists whose creative output has the potential to change the world for the better. Of course, you can’t play as a rockerboy in Cyberpunk 2077, because V is a merc by trade, but that earnest ideology is still present in Johnny. Even if it’s covered up by layers of affected detachment, he’s still prone to reminiscing about the old days by saying grandiose things like this: “We fought for beauty. Not knowin’ what was good or true, was only the beautiful that meant a damn thing to us.”

This is what I least expected about Cyberpunk 2077: that its notions of “cool” are so tied up in the digital persona of a past-his-prime rocker that the game sometimes feels like looking through your uncle’s musty record collection while he talks about how great the Rolling Stones are. When William Gibson’s genre-defining novels like Neuromancer and Count Zero first appeared in the mid-’80s, they were thrilling in part because they offered a vision of the future that felt entirely new, and with it, a whole new vision of “cool.” I believe there’s still potential for cyberpunk stories to be so boldly visionary and relevant, but Cyberpunk 2077 prefers to look back, an attitude reflected not just through Johnny’s efforts to avenge old grudges and to recapture the glory days of his band Samurai. In fact, the game’s entire worldview feels like the product of someone who’s about 30 years behind the times, who may have been rebellious and liberated once but who nowadays doesn’t understand why it’s messed up to call sex workers “whores,” as Johnny routinely does.

Image: CD Projekt Red via Polygon

Johnny is played, of course, by Keanu Reeves, and I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. Johnny is an asshole, with an ego as big as Night City, whose every word is uttered as if it’s so important that the whole world should take heed. But with Reeves’ charisma in play, this nigh-insufferable character remains just barely sufferable. Full disclosure: I’m a huge Keanu Reeves fan. I think there’s a vulnerability to him that makes even characters like John Wick, who in other hands might feel completely inaccessible and irredeemable, recognizably human.

So it is here, too. Reeves’ natural tendencies as an actor help offset the worst tendencies of the character he’s playing, such that we can still understand, if only barely, why his old bandmates and other associates put up with him at all. This game isn’t the best vehicle for Reeves’ work, because while he provides both voice-over and motion capture for Johnny, there’s sometimes a disconnect between the two, moments where the animations Johnny performs don’t quite reflect the urgency or intensity of what he’s saying. And yet, I was always glad to walk into some dimly lit motel room or exclusive bar and find Johnny lurking in the corner, visible only to V, ready with some world-weary quip. Night City may be the star of Cyberpunk 2077, but Johnny Silverhand is its soul — weathered, outmoded, often tiresome, yet still weirdly compelling.

I’ve got a job to do

There is one thing Cyberpunk 2077 gets right about the genre from which it takes its name: Many of the best cyberpunk stories are heist stories. They’re stories of planning and logistics, with lots of moving pieces and key players, each one bringing their own crucial skills to the mix. The game is at its best when it leans hard into this, as it does in the opening hours, which take their time introducing a number of accomplices and have you all laying the groundwork for the big job that brings V into contact with Johnny and sets the rest of the plot in motion.

One of the great strengths of The Witcher 3 was that it really took its time with people and relationships. Similarly, Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t afraid to slow down for both plot and character development. Those tightly plotted early hours in particular, with their clandestine meetings at which characters obsess over gathering intel and acquiring all the necessary gear to accomplish an audacious crime, pull you into V’s life as a merc with her eyes on joining the exclusive ranks of Night City’s criminal elite.

Image: CD Projekt Red via Polygon

But what about the nuts-and-bolts stuff of doing V’s work? Cyberpunk 2077’s combat is fine, but other games, particularly the two Deus Ex games of the past decade, have much more effectively delivered on the fantasy of being a cybernetically augmented individual whose abilities enable them to approach situations in a number of creative and rewarding ways. Here, sneaking your way through gang-infested warehouses or corporate lobbies, you can hack objects to distract enemies or short-circuit their optics to blind them temporarily, but these abilities feel pretty tame compared to the opportunities for zany, emergent hacking mayhem offered in games like Watch Dogs: Legion.

Guns in Cyberpunk 2077 do have a hefty, nasty brutality to them, and there’s some fleeting novelty in doing things like charging up a shot on a “power” weapon to blast an enemy through cover, but I had hoped for a more distinctive cyberpunk flavor in my Cyberpunk combat. Even the hacking minigame that you have to complete when performing certain actions is dead simple, and never did the game try to replicate the thrill of really hacking the ’net the way I’ve been dreaming of doing since I first read Neuromancer long ago. At a certain point I started finding katanas with pretty ridiculous damage output, after which my approach to combat (playing on the recommended Hard difficulty setting) often involved just rushing enemies and slashing them to bits, which provided a certain frenetic fun. The combat, while serviceable, isn’t a reason in and of itself for anyone to play this game. The reason to play is for the world and its people.

A little of that human touch

Along with its use of heist structure, the other thing Cyberpunk 2077 gets right about the best cyberpunk stories is that cyberspace and other genre trappings should be more than just plot devices; they should be ways to explore ideas like mortality, identity, spirituality, and transcendence. With a construct of Johnny Silverhand lodged in V’s brain, slowly overwriting her identity, these philosophical concerns are built right into the narrative, as it sometimes becomes unclear where one character ends and the other begins. Unfortunately, Cyberpunk 2077’s main storyline doesn’t quite stick the landing. It reaches for big meaning in the end, but the result is more muddled and confusing than mysterious.

Image: CD Projekt Red via Polygon

Thankfully, surrounding the main storyline are a few substantial side quests with better payoffs. V can choose to help out a brilliant young techie who wants to put a group of exploited sex workers in charge of their own club, or a strong-willed nomad and her clan out in the Badlands. I was always grateful for any excuse to venture out into the spare beauty of the Badlands, those wide-open spaces a welcome antidote to the claustrophobic crush of Night City.

One of my fears about Cyberpunk 2077 was that it was going to be so cynical and nihilistic that playing it would be like wallowing in grim hopelessness, that the cheapness of human life in the game’s world would be mirrored by the game itself. But that’s not the case. It’s easy to lose the human thread in the overwhelming glut of stuff Cyberpunk 2077 puts on your plate, with your map plastered with crimes you can violently “neutralize” for a reward from the police, and fixers constantly sending you text messages about underdeveloped one-off jobs you can take on to earn a bit of extra cash. But the humanity is there, if you look for it.

And that humanity is the saving grace of this alluring yet uneven and deeply flawed game. I can’t deny that Night City wowed me with its scale, its verticality, and its sense of history. But I wish I could see people like me on its streets as something more than objects. I wish that the game’s politics were more radical. Yes, I know I shouldn’t look to a colossal game that was itself produced under exploitative labor conditions to lead the charge of anticapitalist liberation, but I wish the sparks of Johnny Silverhand’s ideological rage got to burn brighter, that Cyberpunk 2077 felt more interested in envisioning new futures than in reminiscing over bygone glories. Neither its gameplay nor its narrative can imagine the bold possibilities that I find so central to the best of cyberpunk. But what it does offer is visions of people trying to make do and get by in a world that’s trying to eat them alive, and sometimes those people get by with a little help from their friends. It’s not the revolution I hoped for, but it’s something.

Cyberpunk 2077 will be released Dec. 10 on Google Stadia, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One; PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X versions are scheduled for 2021. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by CD Projekt Red. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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