In the first ten minutes of the game, I watch my boss casually murder the European Space Council with a phone call. See, there is a crisis taking place involving the company I work for (Arasaka), the Council, and Frankfurt. In order to buy some time to find a way out of said crisis, my boss murders the council.
I watch sparks fly from the ports on their necks, screams fill the air, and blip. The live feed ends. Just another day of working for a megacorporation.
In this dystopian rendition of a futuristic America — specifically Northern California — created by CD Projekt RED, capitalism and megacorporations rule without limits. It should be no surprise that letting corporations have free rein sucks.
However, this is not the first time we’ve seen stories that throw us into such a futuristic yet familiar world.
Infamous dystopian movies such as Blade Runner showcase a dreary world fueled by tech, wracked with environmental catastrophes, and filled with oppression. Video games such as the Deus Ex series grapple with trans-humanism, corporation control, and dependence on technology.
Cyberpunk 2077 has big shoes to fill and is already rife with controversy, cliches, and performance issues that should not be dismissed.
In this piece, my focus lies purely in the narrative. Does Cyberpunk 2077 really have something to say? Time to pop the hood and take a long, hard look.
Walk, Don’t Drive in Night City
Cyberpunk 2077 takes us to Night City, a megalopolis crammed with millions of people, chatty AIs that sometimes occupy your local vending machine, and ads playing 24/7 on every street corner.
Night City is filled with bright lights and technological wonders, but in no way does it hide the rot and bleak horror that consumes it.
It’s our home and depending on the life path you choose, we’ve tried to distance ourselves from the city (i.e. Street Kid path revealed we left for Atlanta for two years). It’s for a good reason.
Take a walk down Night City’s streets and look for yourself. Trash is everywhere and the waters are toxic (you can buy a gallon of clean water for $99 Eddies). Children wander about the streets with handguns. Gunshots compete against the loud advertisements for NiCola (Taste the love!) And the local station will remark cheerily on the radio that there has been a 300% increase of homelessness and NCPD is requesting aid in their Catch-and-Release program.
Most of Night City’s population has become desensitized to the violence, economic disparities, and corruption about them. If you’re not careful, you may become part of the indifferent masses.
Night City becomes a multi-layered and complicated entity because of Cyberpunk’s environmental storytelling and lore. If you take the time to read the shards, walk Night City’s streets, take in its architecture, and listen to the different programs playing on the radio/TV, you’ll find a city of awe and misery.
I spent a good ten minutes watching the television in my play through. While ridiculous advertisements will flood the screen, the news stations and talk show host programs are rich with information on the state of Night City. They, also, foreshadow what will come to pass in our own story.
So if you decide to venture into Night City yourself, make sure you walk.
The Fool’s Journey
Misty, our best friend’s girlfriend, leans over the counter and asks if we’d like a tarot reading. Say ‘yes’ and a card she’ll draw referencing you is The Fool.
The Fool is a starting point, symbolizing the beginning of a journey with unlimited possibilities. It’s, also, a sign of someone not being mindful of their surroundings, just about ready to plunge off a building.
Fast forward to the last moments of the game. Misty will ask to do another tarot reading. The Fool appears again.
I’m still a Fool and for good reason; I never develop a goal of my own beyond ‘get the Relic chip out of my skull.’
V, the protagonist, finds themselves surrounded by people with big dreams, goals, and purpose. I would argue that Cyberpunk 2077 draws its best moments from them and in their stubbornness to improve the community they inhabit.
Panam, a former Aldecaldo nomad, will do all she can to protect her family. Judy, a braindance tech, wants to liberate the Clouds from gang ownership so the dolls can have a safer workplace. River, a NCPD detective, wants to bring justice to Night City’s streets, despite NCPD’s ineffectiveness and kowtowing to mob and corporate demands. Takemura, former bodyguard to the head of Arasaka, wishes to reveal the truth behind his boss’ death.
While I’ll lend a hand in their ambitious efforts to improve Night City or find justice, V never becomes invested in these causes or in specific groups meaningfully.
“You can side with corporations and cops as easily as gangs and fixers, making whatever anti-establishment sentiments the game professes to explore feel hollow.” — Riley Macleod
Our actions never spill into Night City, but rather, remain confined to the discrete space the mission takes place in.
My street cred, despite being maxed out, does not grant me any power or protection. I can murder hundreds of people and the environment does not react to my violence (except if I hurt someone who does not have a criminal record — yikes).
Even my actions towards myself, such as deciding to invest in augmentations, hold no bearing. Nothing happens to you if you choose to continue to replace bits and pieces of yourself with tech. No one will remark on it directly, despite NPCs such as Claire (our racing companion) expressing that the more we augment, the less human we become.
The Cyberpunk 2077 universe brims with potential to explore concepts such as transhumanism, violence and brutality in society, identity, evil corporations, and more. The themes lurk in the background noise of Night City, but are not sufficiently developed or reinforced in the protagonist and storyline.
With V’s goal and story restricted to separating themself from Johnny Silverhand (self-proclaimed anarchist rocker stuck in my head), V never develops as a character. Their story never brings actual value to this dystopian world.
V will start and end their journey as The Fool.
Don’t Overlook The Side Missions
Cyberpunk 2077 shines with incredible potential, but falls short with its surface level exploration in the main storyline. I found superb storytelling and memorable moments, instead, in the side missions.
A vending machine named Brendan, who will share a joke and console Night City’s citizens, charmed me. A rogue taxi AI left me bemused as it complained I was going too fast the moment I went over 50 mph.
I found myself in awe as I walked across the Net with the Voodoo Boys, code and information taking form in bluish lights blinking all around me. Or the somber beauty in exploring Judy’s hometown while neurally linked, her memories echoing in my skull.
Then there were the missions that left me hollowed out and reminded me that Night City is horrific.
The veteran you speak with in a rundown apartment complex, who shares the horrors of war they still live with. They quietly ask to be left alone and I don’t want to leave. But the game won’t let me continue a conversation. As I walk away, a gunshot goes off behind me.
Or Evelyn Parker, finding out what came of her after our failed heist. Learning of the incredible abuse she faced and her quiet end left me empty. Useless.
These minor stories scattered across Night City remind me I can do so much more with my skills and influence.
Forget this fruitless attempt to save my life (I barely gain a few extra months of life anyhow).
I want to destroy the Maelstrom gang for what they’ve done to Evelyn and to so many others.
I want to to hack the insurance companies that stopped covering the meds and treatment for those now suffering with cyberpsychosis.
I want to find justice for Jackie, my best friend, who has their digitized soul stuck in that soul prison dubbed Mikoshi.
I want so badly to change Night City. I want to be that legend: the one who fought for a better Night City. Yet, I never get the opportunity to be that and more.
Night City is an engrossing and bleak world filled with technology, corruption, and hardship. However, it becomes difficult to find a stake in Night City when we act as a bystander to its societal issues.
We partake in noble efforts, only because they’re led by our NPC chooms (friends). We are violent and dangerous without regard, because there are no consequences. We criticize corporations, but we do nothing to stop them.
Even Johnny Silverhand is a strange vessel of an anti-establishment message. We learn that he really targeted Arasaka Tower because Arasaka kidnapped his girlfriend and led to her death. Killing thousands of employees did nothing to Arasaka nor help those disenfranchised in Night City. Even Johnny’s talk of destroying Mikoshi, Arasaka’s “soul prison”, so all the constructs (digitized souls) are free is a plan with no real thought.
Cyberpunk’s story is not terrible. The problem is, despite Night City being rich in lore and featuring intriguing side characters, the game’s messaging becomes lost in translation because the linear plot undermines opportunities to meaningfully explore the issues plaguing Night City.
While I’m curious to see what comes of Cyberpunk 2077 as time passes. For now, I shall root for my Night City chooms and their drive to fight for a better tomorrow.
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