How Cyberpunk 2077 Fumbles the Genre That Inspired It
Cyberpunk 2077 takes its genre and creates a very beautiful world to play in. If only it utilized it to tackle the issues that it hints at with a more tactful hand.
Few games in recent memory have been able to create such a fully realized world with so much visual flair and potential as CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077. A handful of its characters such as Judy Alvarez are beacons of what this story and the world can be at its best. But one of the biggest missed opportunities lies within the game’s own DNA. While it’s namesake and overall influences may be inspired by the cyberpunk genre, it often feels as though it never truly commits to the deeper implications of the world it’s creating or the weighty ideas it hints at within its narrative.
Cyberpunk is inherently political and rife with social commentary. While Cyberpunk 2077, unfortunately, opts to mainly introduce potentially big philosophical ideas, these ideas simply feel as if they become afterthoughts shortly after. With that being said, the genre itself leaves a lot of room for interpretation so not every single piece of media necessarily has to be a deep and incisive deconstruction of societal issues and the human condition
The cyberpunk genre has existed in some capacity for nearly as long as science fiction itself has existed. Although the term itself didn’t become a staple until the 1980s, many earlier examples are present throughout media that predate the terminology. The works of science fiction writers Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick, to name a few, were some of the earliest examples of what would eventually be considered cyberpunk. Their stories often existed on the fringes of science fiction and delved into topics regarding artificial intelligence, government omnipotence, corporate corruption as well as the nature of consciousness, and what it means to be human in a technological world.
Anime has also been a major player when it comes to the growing popularity in those early years. Major releases like Akira, Appleseed, and Ghost in the Shell have all become staples over the years in numerous science fiction stories within the cyberpunk genre at large.
Over the last few decades, cyberpunk has become even more widespread and has gained recognition in mainstream media. Films like Blade Runner, The Matrix Trilogy, Alita: Battle Angel and even Her to name a few have been strong examples of how the genre has become a mainstay in Hollywood culture. All of which are films that I adore. This is really just the tip of the iceberg as there are constantly new cyberpunk stories being brought to life every few months. The cyberpunk genre has become as ubiquitous as other sub-categories within science fiction such as space opera and alien invasion stories.
Video games have had just as many prolific entries as Hollywood and anime have. There are far too many to even mention offhand, but there are numerous that have become classics on par with the best that the genre has to offer. Titles like Deus Ex, System Shock, and of course Final Fantasy VII are just a fraction of the presence of cyberpunk within the gaming world. Players have frequently taken to immersing themselves in these stories and worlds.
Cyberpunk 2077 is truly no different in that regard. The number of stories that utilize the staples of a striking visual style and themes that are often presented in the genre is literally limitless. Players, as well as developers, have always taken to cyberpunk. It truly is open to so many different interpretations which makes its uses limitless.
As narratively different as all of the stories I’ve mentioned may be, they all have something in common. They all strike a balance between striking visuals and stories that have something to say. Those two points are often the hallmarks of the best cyberpunk media. They are often a happy medium of that visual style, including, but not limited to neon-drenched cityscapes, transhumanist aesthetics such as body modification, and the mixture of corporate propaganda and dark dingy city slums. Those are just some of the broadest strokes of what a lot of these worlds contain within them, but they are often very prevalent.
As far as the stories go, all of the aforementioned narratives have themes that are not foreign to this genre. Themes including corporate corruption, the revolution of the lower classes, artificial intelligence, and the meaning of consciousness are all some of the most commonly touched on topics.
So how does this circle back to Cyberpunk 2077? Cyberpunk easily falls into the genre that it gains its namesake from. That much is immediately apparent. From a visual standpoint, it ticks all of those boxes. You’ve got your neon city aesthetic and your ever-prevalent body modifications as a visual motif as well as a gameplay mechanic. All things that are admittedly cool as hell. I think everyone can appreciate that at its best, Cyberpunk 2077 nails that style. But it falters in other aspects that make cyberpunk a genre that resonates with people so well. It may have that signature visual flourish, but it often feels like it’s lacking in its story.
Don’t get me wrong, the story isn’t bad. It was honestly a fairly enjoyable experience that offered a handful of hours to get lost in. The issue I found was the way it developed and hinted at some heavier ideas and social commentaries before more or less abandoning them. That wouldn’t necessarily be an issue had the game’s narrative not played with some of these themes and set up these potential plot points. Now not every cyberpunk story is a deep deconstruction of our times, and nor does every story in the genre need to be. The issue more so arises when these ideas are brought to the forefront and then pushed aside.
We’re going to get into a few spoilers for some of the major plot points of Cyberpunk 2077 so proceed at your own risk.
Night City itself is very much controlled by mega-corporations that have largely free rein to do as they please outside of the law. In the early hours of Cyberpunk 2077, you’re immediately brought into a plot revolving around corporate corruption and a violent hostile takeover. In one of the opening missions, your avatar, V witnesses the murder of the head of the Arasaka Corporation. This event serves as the catalyst to most of what comes beyond that point in the story.
The company has its hands in nearly every industry imaginable. Weapons manufacturing, banking, as well as financing its own division of Night City’s own police department. All of these coupled together are constant obstacles and causes for concern for V, and most of the people of Night City. The implications of a mega-corporation with its hands in law enforcement alone should arise its own slew of ethical questions. But in the game’s world and story, it’s more of an afterthought.
This could have been an opportunity to pose some serious questions about corporations meddling in industries that could be a conflict of interest. Instead is just kind of a known quantity in the plot that feels as if it’s just there to cause headaches for the protagonist. I would have appreciated seeing more of this explored as opposed to it being abandoned for less intriguing plot lines.
I believe the most disappointing aspect of Cyberpunk 2077’s narrative is the story revolving around Keanu Reeves’ character of Johnny Silverhand. Silverhand and his involvement with Soulkiller —the game’s main McGuffin— are full of massive cyberpunk themes that are not fully explored. Soulkiller essentially is a device that can be used to create a backup of a person’s consciousness. The technology is considered to be extremely unethical as it not only can house a consciousness within it, but it essentially renders the host body lifeless. Thus the aptly chosen name of Soulkiller.
As the events of the story unfold, Johnny Silverhand’s consciousness becomes trapped within V’s own brain via a damaged biochip implant. Based on player choice, the ending you see could unfold in a few different ways. V could concede to Johnny and allow him to essentially remove their consciousness from the body leaving Johnny in command. Alternatively, V could also continue in control of the body but only for that body to deteriorate over time.
The ethical implications of a program that could more or less erase a person’s consciousness from their body are vast. You would think that it would be a much bigger topic of debate. Instead, Cyberpunk 2077 only tells you this is unethical without ever effectively diving deeper into it. And therein lies the problem with a lot of the game’s narrative. These ideas are frequently brought up and teased as major plot lines only for them to just be afterthoughts in favor of action set pieces.
As I said previously, this wouldn’t be as much of an issue if the narrative chose a direction to stick with. You can have your big fun bombastic cyberpunk adventure and still explore the philosophical aspects. But these philosophical themes would have been better left on the cutting room floor as opposed to being teased and not explored more closely.
A film with a very similar idea is Upgrade. The story there follows Grey after he is implanted with an AI that is ultimately vying to take control of his body. I couldn’t help but be reminded of that film while experiencing Cyberpunk 2077. Both stories touch on the nature of consciousness and implanted personas. Upgrade just happens to handle it with a more nuanced and incisive hand. It does this while still managing to be an entertaining techno-thriller, and it left me feeling the way I had hoped Cyberpunk would leave me feeling.
When it’s all said and done, Cyberpunk 2077 proved to be a fun sci-fi romp. But it could have been more. At times it even tried to be. Unfortunately, it just could not stick the landing when it came to those themes. Instead, it opted to be a kind of mindless action thriller which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The story is marred by what could have been and the potential that it sadly squanders. It’s in no way a bad story but it is not as imaginative or as deep as it could have been.
And the issue there is that sometimes it thinks it’s being deeper and edgier than it actually is. With more story well on the way in future patches, we could see a turnaround. And that’s something I am honestly looking forward to seeing. I’m still excited to see more of this world and how the future could change the fate of Night City.