Cyberpunk 2077’s Story Is At Odds With Its Open World Design
Over the Christmas holidays I’ve gotten really into Cyberpunk 2077. My housemate bought it on my PS5 while in a fugue state one night as he downloaded the Witcher Gwent game that came included with PS Plus. I initially thought this was a U2 scenario where the game had simply installed itself on my console, which would have been very cyberpunk. But, when I saw my credit card bill I realised what had actually happened – less cyberpunk and more cybersecurity risk.
It sat dormant on my hard drive for a while until another journalist recommended Studio Trigger’s Edgerunners anime to me. The show inspired me to create a netrunner monowire build and make Night City tremble before me. Somehow, I’ve managed to stay relatively free of story spoilers for the years-old game, so I didn’t know what to expect at all when first delving into CDPR’s neon dystopia.
At first, there was the usual open world fare. Side quests, a smaller starting area to get to grips with everything, and a rags to riches criminal storyline bubbled away as V took this metropolis by storm. There’s a lot to distract yourself with in Night City. Countless gigs to earn money and street cred, underground fight clubs, illegal street racing, and hunting down cyberpsychos all demand your attention. I’ve been loving every second. I bumped the difficulty down to easy so that I feel like a deadly cyber assassin and I’m having a blast. But, like with many RPGs, the story and the open world design are completely at odds with each other.
Cyberpunk 2077 spoilers follow.
Once V pops in the Relic and gets popped herself by the hands of Dexter DeShawn following the assassination of Yoronobu Arasaka, Johnny Silverhand’s mind starts to bleed into and take over her own. She’s given a few weeks, at most, to live. This happens just a few hours into the campaign, so why am I meant to care about anything other than my own survival? I know V dies at the end, so I want to give them a proper send off, but I shouldn’t know that, so I should be bombing through the main quests as fast as cyborgly possible.
Those booting up Cyberpunk at launch would have been incentivised to leave all the side content behind until the post-game, only to find there isn’t one because V is dead. We’re given a dense sandbox to play in accompanied by a story that puts blinders on us before railroading us toward the finish line, it makes no sense.
V is an established character within the game. No matter your origin story, she has at least six months in the criminal underworld, rising through the ranks with her choom Jackie. She’s sarcastic, self-centered, glory-hungry, and fairly ruthless. She wouldn’t give two shits about stopping cyberpsycho attacks or taking down Tyger Claws with her life hanging by a thread.
Death in Night CIty is all about being remembered, so you could argue that V is doing all of this to raise her rep and get a drink named after her in the Afterlife, but helping the NCPD stop petty crimes isn’t the way to do that. Taking on the corpos or pulling off big heists is the fastest way to achieve that glory, and she needs to prioritise jobs that she can get done quickly on account of only having a few weeks left.
Doing the main story as fast as possible is the only thing that makes any sense for V because from her – and a new player’s – point of view, it’s the only shot she’s got at survival. It’s hard to feel an emotional connection to a character and city when you know you’re doomed to die, and while I love the way Johnny SIlverhand is integrated into the game, the story would work a lot better if we played through V’s first six months with Jackie and had the current start of the game be the midpoint. That way, V’s last few weeks would be about not only fighting for her life, but tying up loose ends in case she doesn’t make it.
As the game stands, there aren’t any emotional stakes. Some character I made a few hours ago is gonna die, who cares? If you don’t know the end and rush the story you end up feeling cheated, locked out of all the side content you thought you could leave ‘til later. If you do know the end, then there’s a disconnect between what the character’s motivations should be and the way you’re playing them. It’s a lose-lose.
The way I’m trying to play it off in my head is that her death sentence has made V want to impart some positive change on the city before her demise. That might make more sense for a street kid and not my nomad V, but it’s the best I can come up with right now. It’s not a perfect solution though, as her tone and dialogue options all reveal she’s still pretty selfish and just wants to rip Johnny out of her skull.
For now, I’m reminding myself that it’s just a game and I can play any way I like, but I wish that aligned better with the story. Exploring and falling in love with Night City could be a far richer and more tragic experience if CDPR wasn’t so eager to show me it managed to bag the Keanu Reeves for its game. It’s hard to feel for this city when I’m learning about it as I die.
But, maybe that’s the point after all. Night City is beautiful yet cruel, and it doesn’t truly let anyone in. You’re always a visitor, whether you grew up in the streets of Heywood, were born into the corpo life, or snuck past the wall on the run from your nomad clan. The right move might be multiple playthroughs where you venture off the main path for a brief romance or a few bouts in the ring, but ultimately, you only ever glimpse what the city has to offer before it mercilessly rips it all away from you. Maybe it was always supposed to be lose-lose.
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