In July 2010, the Nolan film Inception premiered.
It has since been said that the film was “A multilayered, self-reflexive action film that fires on all cylinders, manipulating time through meticulous editing to deliver a hard-hitting cinematic experience.”(1)
Others felt, “[T]he real cause of wonder [...] is why Nolan should have embraced technocratic complexity in the service of such a puny story.”(2), or simply that it “isn't a dud but nor is it a masterpiece.”(3)
Opinions have since normalized to a positive note, but it’s safe to say that opinions were divided at the time. Naturally, the film's biggest fans fell back on demonstrating their intellectual prowess against the simple-minded barbarians who didn't like the film: “[A] lot of people are touting Inception as an extremely complicated film to understand. It's not at all. A seventh-grade education should suffice.”(4)
That is to say, if you don’t understand it, you're obviously wrong, and you may be stupid or uneducated. A natural gut reaction when you love something and talk to people who don't. To the jubilant, the critics seem thick-headed or somehow less educated than seventh graders. Xbox versus PlayStation comes to mind.
This is how it’s been with Cyberpunk 2077 for me. I’m the jubilant, and what seems like the entire world is aligned in its near-universal dislike for the object of my celebration.
If you want to know the thousand ways people dislike the game, there’s an abundance of material for you all over the Internet. The game has seen a negative feedback loop since launch, as has the developer CD Projekt Red. Much of it is deserved. Especially criticism leveled against the company’s crunchy treatment of its developers.
But this article strives to do the opposite from that feedback loop. I want to praise the game for things it does so well that no other game even comes close.
This is my love letter to Cyberpunk 2077.
One of my earliest favorites was Ultima VII: The Black Gate way back in 1992. In that game, you become the Avatar in the fantastic but unimaginatively named fantasy world of Britannia, trying to solve a series of grisly murders.
Britannia felt endless to me. A weirdly glowing hoe turned out to be a devastating weapon. There were ships to sail. Magic carpets to fly. People to talk to. An interesting plot to explore. A backpack to organize. Spells to learn. An experience that made Britannia seem like a real place and laid the foundation for playing the two sequels—Pagan and Ascension—the moment they could be safely purchased.
Those games created a space where you could become someone else and see another world through the eyes of that person. Not quite a blank canvas the way a pen-and-paper role-playing game is, or a XP-chasing dungeon crawl like many games are expected to be today when they are stamped with the R, the P, and the G. It wasn’t even much of an open world sandbox, by today’s standards, since the world had few extraneous features.
Yet, the Ultima games were world simulations. Not because they simulated every detail of a virtual world, but because they made you feel like you were there. They provided backdrops framing your own experience and letting your own imagination fill in the rest. If you looked too closely, the illusion would break apart. But you didn’t, because you wanted to stay.
Role-playing games. Immersive sims. Metroidvania games. These are the types of games I enjoy the most. In recent years, games like Subnautica and Outer Wilds have scratched the same itch. But I’ve felt that RPGs have lost their way. My days searching for clues in Britannia are long-since gone. Often, RPGs seem to focus more on story spectacle and inventory grind. Open-world sandboxes focus more on long checklists of chores for me to complete.
A large part of this is also how storytelling is approached. Something I’ve written about before. The more a game relies on passive observation, the more I lose interest. The more I have to save the world, the more I lose interest. The world has been saved so many times that it can’t possibly need more saving. I’m also tired of games where the player is the world’s only driving force. Where, if the player does side missions for a while, the world stands completely still and waits for the player’s next move. All urgency gone, like tears in rain. Characters in the world become mission dispensers or tell you about their village.
Games are simply not the medium for telling stories, in my opinion. When I’m forced to be the passive observer, I can’t engage with the experience at the same level.
As Raph Koster puts it in his book A Theory of Fun for Game Design, “[t]he stories that wrap the systems are usually side dishes for the brain.”
When the side dish becomes the main course, it’s never as filling.
Hardwired Alter Ego
In Cyberpunk 2077, you play V. A character you customize visually and then play from a first-person perspective. V has a voice, but no defined character development. The acting responds to situations, however, so the voice isn’t completely neutral.
The main story is pretty much a heist gone wrong followed by its repercussions. But that’s not all that important for the experience, except to set the tone, and leave you scrambling for a way out.
V’s job isn’t to be a character. V is your role-playing interface. Your avatar. Someone built around the activities you’ll take part in, such as they are. A solo of fortune, gun-toting or code-toting as you please. There’s no character development, because that development plays out in your head. It’s your own development through the experience being offered. Your own shock and awe can never be expressed accurately by V, and the game respects this.
The opposite of passive observation is to invite the player’s own thoughts into the storytelling. Experiential storytelling. Cyberpunk 2077 respects this too, and lets you own the experience. What would have been cutscenes in most games is still a set of canned animations, but you remain an active participant at every step of the way. In part because of the consistent first-person perspective but also because of how the virtual world is presented.
Things like how your character aborts an ongoing phone call to wrap up a suddenly erupting firefight, and then picks it up again after the firefight is over. How characters can find you rude if you walk away from a conversation. Small and subtle details that make everything come alive.
You probably guessed it. It’s a world simulation.
Stepping into corporate white-collar V’s cynical shoes, I embraced the role. Picked the asshole dialogue options, tricked my friends so I could make money off their misery, and distanced myself from characters I felt didn’t handle me with the proper respect. And the world responded. Cyberpunk 2077 took me back to those days of playing the Avatar of Britannia. Not because it shares any real similarities, given it’s almost three decades between these two games, but because both games made me feel like I was there.
The little alternate solutions I came up with in side missions? They worked!
The tradeoff I chose hours ago? It came back and bit me!
The slower pace and the more deliberate tone made everything come alive for me. Sitting around a campfire to hear veterans tell war stories. Tagging along in a friend’s car, talking trash. Getting pulled into other people’s schemes when they have a use for you, only to be spat out after they’ve got what they wanted. Some of the stories, I never even got to know how they ended, simply because I was never the center of attention.
Where most games would force me to act out the story as the developers intended it, here I felt like I was there. Like Night City was a real place. A place that lived around me and would keep going no matter what I did. Sometimes I was useful, but most of the time I was a pawn in some much larger scheme that was always outside my grasp. At first, it wasn't even obvious where the main story ended and the side content began.
This isn’t a story about V—this is a place where I could role-play. The same kind of smoke and mirrors in storytelling and choice-making that Deus Ex once did and that I remembered, whether real or not, from playing the last few Ultimas. Just done with more finesse and nuance. A modern take on some of the things that made me want to make games in the first place.
From the seamless dialogue, to the spontaneous phone calls, to the expertly crafted main story scenes, I lived in Night City. It came alive in its gratuitously exploitative splendor. A dystopian wasteland of lost dreams and futile hopes, but also a place where people eat, shit, and sleep. A hungry urban sprawl the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
But most of all, my experience was about real people in a fictional world. The large-scale questions of transhumanism and the ghost in the machine—done to death in the cyberpunk genre—now sidelined in favor of personal stories. Stories grounded in characters and factional agendas. Mutual self-interest that is allowed to develop into something more, or something less.
Those high level ideas of human/machine identity and transhumanism are still there, but relegated to the sidelines as thematic context for some of the story’s main plot beats. Or merely in the city’s passive world building. Its atmosphere. Exactly the way I like it.
Here is a game that pays tribute to its genre classics but is confident enough not to copy them. It has its own identity and delivers on it with such candor and momentum that I was completely blown away.
You meet characters whose stories are about acceptance, about getting old, about lost love, new love, personal fears, fear of rejection, and everything in-between. About trying and failing. Human stories, with crucial human features, that all serve to show you that this is a real place and that there’s nothing you can do about its cruelty. It’s you that has to change. Not the world.
Not to mention Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Silverhand, and how open he ends up being to your influences, if you decide to let him. Or how your disdain for his brash recklessness may end up reinforcing his own disdain for everything, turning him into a rockerboy caricature. It’s not the shallow mostly cosmetic difference between choosing the dark side and the light side—it’s a difference in how you handle people and how they respond. Neither is it the restrictive pacifist playthrough that robs you of half the game’s features.
Ultimately, Cyberpunk 2077’s biggest service to digital role-playing is that you’re not a chosen one. You’re nothing—unimportant. You’re just there, in Night City, and Night City doesn’t care. You’ll be scraped off its boot as the city stays its course.
I loved every second of it.
I sunk some 140 hours into this game, unlocking all the achievements, simply because I didn’t want to leave Night City.
What I found in this game was something I haven’t experienced in video games maybe ever before. Narrative subtlety. Under the neon surface hides the most immersive experience I’ve had in a video game in a very long time simply because it doesn’t get stuck on theme or try to tell an epic. After three decades as a gamer and half that as a game developer, I’m once again the Avatar, just not in Britannia.
It’s made me fall in love with this rough diamond of a game, and climb to the top of the battlements to yell “all you need is a seventh grade education!” Just like Inception fans did in 2010. Not to say I actually believe you're stupid not to see the game’s brilliance, but because I want you to have the same experience I had. Being V. Getting lost in Night City.
The many obvious flaws and glitches never really bothered me. Maybe they should have. The narrative subtlety, the interactive conversations, the deeply crafted characters, and the many tiny decisions you can make that affect the outcome of things happening several hours later—this is stuff games never do, that Cyberpunk 2077 does incredibly well. It was all I really paid attention to.
Teleporting police, missing customization features, even most of the glitches, are parts of systems that felt like they're of incidental value at most. Features that may matter superficially, but have little impact on an immersive experience—a world simulation. Maybe if you scrutinize the details too much, they scrutinize back.
All I know for sure is that I was completely engrossed by Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City. It has inspired me immensely both as a player and as a game developer.
It’s an experience that'll never fade away.