Cyberpunk 2077 has arrived and, as has already been covered by a wide variety of outlets, it’s not nearly as impressive as we’d all hoped. While the game does have some redeeming qualities, it’s largely not as impressive as one would hope from the game studio known for the incredible Witcher series.
This is not a review of Cyberpunk 2077, though (you can read that here). Right now, we’re interested in what the game is saying, what its messages, meanings, and themes are focused on, and how well it conveys those ideas. When examining it from that perspective, what we get is still a somewhat disappointing result: a critique of authority without much to say and an examination of humanity that lacks real depth.
A Tale of Two Legends
First off, as covered in our review of Cyberpunk 2077, the game is closer to a sci-fi action noir story than true cyberpunk. It features all the requisite aesthetics of a cyberpunk narrative, such as extensive body modification, a dystopian future controlled by corporations, and a contrast between advanced technology and extreme poverty, but doesn’t explore any of those elements very well. The story itself is singularly focused on two characters: the protagonist V and Johnny Silverhand.
V is an up-and-coming mercenary in Night City, game’s main setting. The prologue sees them taking a job to break into a high-end hotel and steal a biochip with a person’s consciousness encoded onto it. Things go wrong, naturally, and that biochip winds up jammed into V’s head, malfunctions, and starts overwriting their personality with that of Johnny Silverhand’s. Johnny is a character from the original tabletop RPGs, Cyberpunk 2013 and Cyberpunk 2020, a rockerboy who despises corporate power and wants to see them all burned to the ground. Together with V, the pair seeks out a means of saving their respective lives.
Fight the Power
Cyberpunk 2077 has three main story missions that lead into the final quest, each of which has you exploring different areas and organizations in the world. One asks you to work with a nomad clan on the outskirts of Night City, while another has you infiltrating a corporate-run festival, and the third sees you tracking down the person who ordered the initial job to steal the biochip. Each of them shows you a different part of this world you inhabit, be it the close, communal bonds of the nomad clans, the high life and sleek polish of corporate life, or the grunge and dirt forced upon the city’s underclasses.
Each these three missions hold much the same themes – individual people and the relationships between them are good, while the faceless megacorps that toss human life away thoughtlessly are bad. Combined with Johnny’s occasional rants about the soulless corpos and the necessity of rebellion. This would be a good base from which to build a strong anti-authority message – except the game goes and sabotages itself.
Corrupted Systems, Corrupted People
Even as the game tries to make a critique of the corporate mindset, it also shows us that individual people are responsible for the majority of the problems that V and Johnny face. Specifically, Yorinobu Arasaka, who murders his father Saburo and takes control of the Arasaka Corporation. One of the three main story missions is all about contacting his sister, Hanako, to convince her to oust him from power.
Characters associated with the Arasaka Corporation put great value on family, emphasizing the personal ties over the business ones. In this way, the blame is shifted away from the corporate structures and towards the individuals who hold power within those structures. A truly anti-corporate story might show us how this myth of the problem simply being the ‘wrong people’ holding authority is a lie and how it’s the corporation itself the forces people into dehumanizing situations. Cyberpunk 2077 never really does this as it is most concerned with the personal ties of the characters, not the ways they interact with these systems.
Respect the Law
This lack of self-awareness can be seen in other, finer aspects of the game as well. For example, it’s very odd for an anti-authority game to litter your map with missions from the Night City Police Department but none from the various gangs and criminal organizations present in the city. Whether you want it or not, V is a surprisingly law-abiding mercenary who dutifully avoids any serious dealings with the gangs and almost exclusively helps the police rather than working against them, as one might expect from one actually rebelling against authority.
The society of Night City is similarly hierarchical, with prostitutes and other sex workers pushed to the bottom and other, more ‘respectable’ professions given greater credence. This could be used to talk about the commodification of bodies and bodily autonomy, but Cyberpunk 2077 largely avoids any difficult discussions of that nature. Mostly, the low lifestyle of Night City residents is used mostly to establish a gritty backdrop for the very individualistic story of V and Johnny.
The Corps Always Win
In conclusion, Cyberpunk 2077 is an anti-authority, anti-corporate story without fangs or claws. It rails against the system without actually showing how systemic injustices are perpetrated and perpetuated. Body modification and other hallmarks of the cyberpunk genre are relegated to set dressing more than anything else.
It’s not necessarily a bad story. The dynamic between V and Johnny is interesting and the idea of what it might be like to have two consciousness struggling over a single body is intriguing – it just isn’t explored as well as it could be. The marketing surrounding this release promised a ground-breaking new world to explore. What was delivered was, disappointingly, a mediocre criticism of corporate culture that doesn’t go nearly as far as it should.