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‘Cyberpunk 2077’ Wears a Dystopian Costume Well, but Doesn’t Do Much Else

The game’s highly anticipated launch was marred by its technical glitches, but a bigger disappointment is the vagueness and obscurity of its political message

CD Projekt Red/Ringer illustration

Three weeks ago, CD Projekt Red, a video game developer based in Poland, launched Cyberpunk 2077, an open-world, first-person shooter based on the 1988 tabletop role-playing series. The game is set in the gritty, violent metropolis of Night City and was announced eight years ago, which means its development spanned an entire console generation. Despite having so much time to prepare, Cyberpunk 2077’s launch was met with embarrassing and cumbersome glitches—the game’s target consoles like PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One both struggled to run it without distorting the textures, movements, and mechanics or else crashing altogether. Sony and Microsoft offered to refund customers for their purchases, while CD Projekt Red apologized “for not showing the game on base last-gen consoles before it premiered and, in consequence, not allowing you to make a more informed decision about your purchase.” I beat the game on a decent PC, though, and while I’ve adjusted the technical settings to improve the graphics and streamline the performance, I’ve also encountered the common glitches: deformed models, teleporting objects, senseless AI, damage overflows, etc. For players who stick with the game, CD Projekt Red has released software patches to address the critical defects.

The game’s jankiness struck me, before any of its other qualities, in the first 10 minutes, when a minor character with block hands poured invisible whiskey into, or rather next to, a misaligned glass in his swanky office. I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe: People transforming into coffee cups; the protagonist spawning into the wrong body, and faces scorched to reveal, in excruciating detail, the uncanny textures beneath the skin. There’s so much technical marvel hardcoded into the game’s marketing and premise, but that’s rendered a bit ridiculous by the countless software pratfalls that now define the game. Worldwide, CD Projekt Red has sold more than 13 million copies of Cyberpunk 2077, refunds notwithstanding. It’s no flop. It’s no Daikatana. But it is, for better or worse, a meme.

In Cyberpunk 2077, the player customizes a protagonist named V, a rebel working against the Arasaka Corporation, a devious Japanese conglomerate that excels in banking, manufacturing, and weapons development. Night City, situated in “the Free State of Northern California,” hosts a grim variety of Arasaka’s partners and rivals in the military-industrial complex: Militech, Petrochem, Biotechnica, and others, though Arasaka is the largest and deadliest. The company’s U.S. headquarters, Arasaka Tower, dominates the Night City skyline and the game’s main plot. The player, as V, conspires against Arasaka in partnership with Johnny Silverhand, a rockstar turned terrorist turned daemon played by Keanu Reeves. V needs the Arasaka Corporation to repair a mysterious failure in his cyberware, which renders Johnny Silverhand as his secondary consciousness and threatens to overwrite his own personality. V also needs to clear his name in connection to the assassination of the company’s patriarch, Saburo Arasaka; during a high-rise heist, V and his early partner Jackie Welles witness Saburo’s death at the hands of his own son, Yorinobo, who becomes the company’s new chairman.

For eight years, CD Projekt Red spun a hype cycle so long and overdetermined that I’d lost track of who, exactly, set the expectations for what Cyberpunk 2077 was supposed to be: a technical marvel, a political provocation, a sensory overload. In its overall excess, Cyberpunk 2077 seemed determined to dictate the future of big-budget video games. But Night City seems so much smaller than its reputation would suggest. The critic Andy Kelly, writing for PC Gamer, describes his disenchantment with Night City. “It dawned on me that, while this dystopian metropolis looks incredible from a distance—especially at night when it’s awash with neon—peer a little closer and the seams begin to show,” Kelly writes. “And now I can’t shake the feeling that it’s not a convincing place, but a shallow theme park.”

Kelly and other critics have struggled to embrace the dystopia. I have struggled to even locate it. The people in Night City—the street gangs, the rebels, and the corporate executives—wear cybernetic enhancements in abundance. There’s no great scarcity or disparity in the market for cybernetics or guns, and they’re both rather empowering. The Arasaka Corporation is menacing, I suppose, but its menace is primarily internal; Arasaka employees are more likely to intimidate or kill other Arasaka employees than anyone else. It is unclear what the average citizen, as an outsider, might resent about the Arasaka Corporation. Do they charge ridiculous overdraft fees on checking accounts or something? Why are the political shortcomings in this “dystopia” so vague and obscured? In Final Fantasy VII, the Shinra Electric Power Company earns the player’s antipathy by crowding a capital city’s working class into slums, dropping an elevated plate onto one impoverished sector out of catastrophic cruelty, and blanketing the rest of the world in resource extraction rigs that strangle the planet. In Cyberpunk 2077, the Arasaka Corporation plays a far more ambiguous role in perpetuating the dystopia, such as any dystopia could be said to vaguely exist in this game.

There’s dystopia as a political or literary conceit, and then there’s “dystopia” as the costume theme for a Halloween party in Bushwick. The latter marks the extent of the political dynamic in Night City observed by the player. The player leads as V, but Keanu stars as Silverhand, a legendary terrorist whose political commitments stem incoherently from his love life. Despite his tough talk and guilt-tripping, I struggle to understand what Johnny Silverhand believes about the Arasaka Corporation, about corporations in general, or about anything. He’s no Barret Wallace.

For a postwar dystopia, Cyberpunk 2077 feels surprisingly frivolous and empowering at the same time. The player can augment V’s arms with “mantis blades,” which slice through bulky mechs and armored supersoldiers. I prefer to wear the forearm sleeve that launches missiles, like Boba Fett or Iron Man, in infinite supply. This isn’t a police state. This is Grand Theft Auto. What’s so dystopian about a city where the big, bad megacorp, indifferent to the general population, reserves its harshest contingencies for its corporate rivals and its own foolish careerists? How does Arasaka compare to Shinra? How does Night City compare to San Francisco? I know “dystopia” gets thrown around a lot these days, but even the most overblown tech-industry critiques seem more credibly dire and dystopian than the palace intrigue at Arasaka HQ. Imagine a tech-driven dystopia that would give us rocket arms with infinite missiles rather than social media with infinite scroll. Bugs aside, I know which distraction I’d prefer.