Corruption, Corporatism, and Failed Critiques: An Analysis of Cyberpunk 2077


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.

Further Reading

Cyberpunk 2077’s Politics Should Be as Powerful as Its Aesthetics | Paste

Cyberpunk 2077 is dad rock, not new wave | Polygon

City of Locked Doors and Lost Opportunity: A Cyberpunk 2077 Review

Cyberpunk 2077 is out and it’s certainly something. Following a years-long saga of marketing that courted controversy just as often as it promised groundbreaking innovations, the result is a thoroughly mediocre game from CD Projekt Red, the studio behind the Witcher series. The game itself is bursting with potential, from its three pronged tutorial system to the rich history of its chosen setting and genre to the casting of Keanu Reeves as Johnny Silverhand, legendary anti-establishment rockerboy.

For all its promises, Cyberpunk 2077 also had a bevy of red flags that should have tipped us off about the final product. A developer that rescinded its word on obligatory crunch, transphobic marketing that missed the mark on what cyberpunk is all about, and early reports of a bug-filled game all point to a final product that is painfully unremarkable. Let’s break it down.

Gameplay: 3/5

The gameplay in Cyberpunk 2077 is pretty alright, all things considered. Disregarding the occasional glitch that messes with your carefully planned strategy, it generally feels like a fun and satisfying shooter. The guns have solid weight and a good punch to their shots, katanas are exhilarating to swing about, and the leveling system is a fresh take on typical RPG perks and skills.

Where the game starts to fall apart is in content. While the core systems of Cyberpunk are entertaining, there ultimately isn’t that much to do in the game. There are the main missions, of course, which see the most variety of combat, stealth, and driving. The side missions also introduce interesting plots and expand the world, but don’t add too much to the gameplay. Then there are the gigs and the reported crimes, which flood your map screen. These are small encounters that offer extremely repetitive chunks of gameplay, most of which boil down to going to a location and then either stealing some MacGuffin or killing some target. The gameplay is still satisfying, but after a hundred same-y encounters, it starts to get a tad boring.

There’s also the problem of persistence. While a few minor choices in missions do allow you to affect their outcomes, these often aren’t very meaningful in the long run. In contrast to CD Projekt Red’s other games, your decisions are often quite limited, with very little impact on the game’s world. Combine that with a setting that feels static and unchanging, even as you complete quests that would surely tip the balance of power in Night City, and you get a series of storylines and missions that lack weight.

Originality: 2/5

This game is not derivative, which is to say that it isn’t a wholesale copy from any other game. That’s good, but it isn’t really innovating in any areas, either. Its central gameplay mechanics are the combat and the RPG elements, both of which are largely uninspired. Nowhere do we see anything fresh or new.

While the Skyrim style skill leveling mechanic is interesting and a handful of perks and cyberware do stand out from the rest, all in all it really just feels as though these systems amount to little more than a numbers game. All your upgrades just increase or decrease certain percentages – damage, critical chance, reload speed, stamina regeneration, etc. – often in miniscule ways that lack a sense of impact. The game simply doesn’t do anything new or fresh, adding next to nothing to the gaming experience you could get from a number of other titles.

Accessibility: 1/5

Yes, that’s a score of one. Cyberpunk 2077 earns it through a series of missteps that are all the more bizarre in what was a banner year for accessibility in games. The most obvious (and most publicized) oversight is, of course, the braindance sequence, which includes a series of flashing lights that caused photosensitive players to have seizures. While this has since been addressed, it points to a game that isn’t very interested in making accommodations for its players.

The easiest accessibility setting, subtitles, are of course present, though they often display huge blocks of text on the screen with little time to read them. The game has colorblind modes (though other titles have done colorblind modes better) and control remapping is present but limited. Particularly irritating is the inability to fully remap actions which require the player to double tap a button, such as the dodge action.

All of these accessibility issues exist on top of a game that takes little time to properly explain its core systems. The difference between leveling and street cred, the way perks, skills, and attributes work, and the confusing world of crafting all contribute to a game that doesn’t communicate its general gameplay very effectively. This alone isn’t a huge issue (The Witcher 3 had largely the same problem, after all), but when taken together with the game’s other accessibility problems, it creates a game that needlessly locks out a large chunk of its potential audience.

Look: 3/5

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: yes, Cyberpunk 2077 is graphically impressive (so long as you’re not playing on a console from the previous generation). This is practically a given. CD Projekt Red made a show of the scale and scope of Night City, the large crowds that wandered its streets, and the detailed ray tracing that would allow for incredible sights and vistas. Look is about more than just graphics though, and if we’re being honest Cyberpunk 2077 really isn’t that visually distinctive.

There are moments where Cyberpunk’s unique aesthetic breaks through, such as during a parade through Japantown or during a handful of braindance sequences. While certain areas have their own distinct visual style such as the deserts of the Badlands or the polished sheen of Corpo Plaza, it’s all just different brands of dystopia that we’ve seen before in other media. The look of Cyberpunk is nothing special, nothing unique, and ultimately no amount of style can compensate for a lack of substance.

Story: 2/5

To get the most pressing matter out of the way first: Cyberpunk 2077 is not a cyberpunk story. It has everything that technically places it in that genre, like body modification, a combination of high technology with low life, and rebellion against corporate authority, but none of the spirit. The game is closer to an action noir title with its bombastic fight scenes and tale of one simple job gone terribly wrong. It’s got the cyberpunk aesthetic to be sure, but the story is never about cyberpunk’s driving themes – what it means to be human, how body modification changes us, and how to express independence in a world full of control.

The story is less about the struggle between human and a machine than it is about the struggle between a person and another, separate person – V and Johnny Silverhand. They’re linked by technology, but roughly the same tale could easily be told without any of the futuristic bells and whistles included in the game. The main questline is admittedly engaging and Keanu Reeves brings a rough charm to Silverhand. That doesn’t change the fact that the game is merely paying lip service to the cyberpunk genre while going its own thematic route.

Then there’s the world in which the game takes place – Night City. Here we see a setting that operates almost entirely on modern trends, despite existing in the year 2077. Social norms and systems are largely the same, just heightened. Advertising is overtly sexual with an even greater focus on women’s bodies than we see today, sex work and gambling are pushed to the fringes of society, and while language may have changed a bit it still features roughly the same slang and terminology with a few minor additions. Night City isn’t the future – it’s just an exaggerated version of today.

Now this wouldn’t usually be a problem – stories about the future are almost always meant to talk to us about the present. The problem is that Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t seem to be saying anything about these topics. The explicit advertising, the omnipresent sex, the homeless vet sitting next to neon signs – all of it seems to exist to shock the player, to make us marvel at how depraved and excessive this dystopic world has become. It engages in no critical reflection on the issues it raises and it has little if anything to say about them.

In Conclusion

Cyberpunk 2077 is ultimately a game that failed in a number of ways. It failed to meet the incredible expectations set by its marketing buzz and hyped community. It failed its setting by telling a story largely uncritical and uncaring of the many, many themes prevalent in cyberpunk media. It failed in accessibility as it has done very little to address severe issues such as the seizure inducing sequences of the game and at times seems to actively work to exclude marginalized identities at times. While not a complete trainwreck of a game, it’s not exactly good either.

There exists a strong temptation to excuse all of Cyberpunk 2077’s flaws. Those who remember The Witcher games fondly and appreciate CD Projekt Red’s generally ethical stance on consumer relations may be inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt and stick with the game as patches, free DLCs, and major content releases come later in in the game’s life cycle. As it stands, however, it’s hard to see the latest title from the Polish company as anything other than a disappointment.

Final Tally: 11/25