What Cyberpunk 2077 Needs To Do To Be A True Genre Classic
Those of you keeping tabs on my writing, both my recent book release (click here to find out more about London 2039: Auxiliary) and my blog and Twitter ramblings, will know that two of the things I like are video games and cyberpunk. You may not know that I also like Keanu Reeves (but then, who doesn’t!?) This means that a huge, mega-budget video game release entitled Cyberpunk 2077 and starring the great man himself is BIG NEWS!!! (Check out the E3 2019 announcement and trailer here, including Keanu on charming form!)
For today’s blog post, I thought I’d talk about what I think the game needs to do if it is to qualify as a true great, remembered alongside the likes of Blade Runner, Ghost In The Shell and Neuromancer in the cyberpunk (laser) canon.
Capture the right mood
The cyberpunk aesthetic began with the 1982 movie Blade Runner, and the formula hasn’t changed a great deal since then – but it’s definitely a lot more than just cybernetic implants and hovering cars. I’m not keen on ‘gatekeeping’, but the game is called cyberpunk, and therefore it needs to ensure it captures the noir, grimy feel of all the best genre entries. Some of the trailers and screenshots I’ve seen look far too clean and bright for my tastes, so hopefully the finished product will be suitably grubby and rust-coated. The fact that the setting is called Night City is a promising sign!
But the best entries in the genre aren’t just gritty; they’re soaked in the sort of booze-fuelled, existential despondency that only a protagonist who no longer knows how human they are can truly muster. The characters and the script will hopefully deliver this, and avoid the sort of generic all-American macho cheese that ruins so many video games (presumably in an attempt to pander to a perceived core market of testosterone-fuelled teenagers). Fingers crossed we get something much more mature and cerebral.
The soundtrack will also be a vital component of the game’s ‘feel’; the developers, CD Projekt Red, have a great opportunity to deliver a truly memorable score. The original Blade Runner’s soundtrack, composed by Vangelis, was a melancholy masterpiece, and Hans Zimmer’s score to Blade Runner 2049 frankly blew me away, managing to recapture the original’s sense of grandeur and sadness while also injecting something new and nasty into the mix. I’ve been enjoying a lot of synthwave music recently, and there are some great video game soundtracks that riff on this theme (Hotline Miami and its sequel spring to mind), but it would be too easy to just chuck a few synth-laden tunes together; let’s hope Marcin Przybyłowic (who did a fantastic job on The Witcher 3) can produce the goods.
Have a compelling (and original) story
The game will undoubtedly tick all the main cyberpunk boxes – cool coats with improbably large collars, human enhancement technology, neon lighting and a greasy dollop of sleaze – but it needs to go further than this if it is to be anything more than a mere homage.
The game has been billed as ‘open world’, and such a decision can often herald the death of compelling narrative: games that allow you to go anywhere and do anything can often become soulless sandboxes devoid of urgency, character, or real consequences. All too often the developers want to ensure you can experience all of the dozens (even hundreds) of hours of content they have slaved over, and as a result your actions feel meaningless, because everything is ‘reversible’.
My experience of Skyrim was exactly like this: changed your mind about being a sword-swinging barbarian? No problem, just train as a wizard instead – in fact, we’ll allow you to become the greatest wizard in the land as well as the greatest warrior, and take over running the entire magic academy! But don’t worry; you can still join the Thieves’ Guild and sneak around to your heart’s content too. This approach not only meant that the game felt absolutely enormous, with much more to experience than I had available time to invest, but more importantly it felt like none of my choices mattered. This wasn’t a role playing game, because I wasn’t playing a role; I wasn’t crafting a character and deciding ‘what would they do in this situation’? Instead I was just an empty cipher, ticking off items on a checklist.
My hope for Cyberpunk 2077 is that the developers allow us to explore their fantasy world, but that our decisions stick, and that they factor into the overall narrative. And please (please please), give me intelligent direction and narrative reasons for doing things, not just flashing quest markers on a map. Playing games that hold your hand every step of the way, without giving you the option to learn and figure things out for yourself, is a lot like a crossword puzzle that completes itself as soon as you pick up a pen.
Get the best out of its guest stars
As I may have mentioned (ahem), I’m a big fan of Keanu Reeves. I can explain why, too: he’s been in some truly great films over the years (Speed, The Matrix, A Scanner Darkly, John Wick), yet he seems to possess a genuine humility, perhaps a result of some of his tragic personal background. He seems quirky and awkward, yet very polite, and is charismatic without being overbearing. Put simply, if he’s appearing in something, I will want to watch it!
HOWEVER... nabbing a big name actor to help sell a video game is not a new tactic, and there are many examples of this falling completely flat. Usually this happens for two reasons: one, the game’s story and script are rubbish (even the world’s greatest actor can’t do much without the tools) and/or two, the actor is not remotely familiar with the medium, and offers up a bland and flat performance as a result (examples abound, but the normally-compelling Peter Dinklage’s sterile showing in Destiny springs to mind).
Having Keanu Reeves on board has already given the project a huge boost, but such ‘stunt casting’ won’t help in the long run if he isn’t given the right direction, or is expected to work miracles with turgid dialogue.
Be deep without being impenetrable
Modern games consoles give developers unprecedented opportunities to construct massive, complex experiences that keep gamers immersed for months. However, with great power comes great responsibility. Just because something can be made complicated doesn’t mean it should be; just because something is enormous doesn’t mean it’s fun. Cyberpunk 2077 is shaping up to be a gargantuan release, in every sense of the word, but hopefully the developers will prioritise making the game more enjoyable rather than simply making more game.
The game’s origin as a table-top RPG called Cyberpunk 2020* bodes well in this regard, in that many elements of its gameplay ought to already be well-tested and balanced. I’ve never played the board game (although a quick Google search has me sorely tempted!) but I hope its mechanics translate well to the video game space without becoming a series of frustrating meters to manage. Stats can work very well in games, but only when they are tied to the narrative; the hunger meter in Pathologic 2 works brilliantly because food is scarce and the game is about survival in a hostile world, while the hunger meter in We Happy Few was an unsatisfying chore with food supplies plentiful despite the dystopian setting.
I realise I’m asking for perfection: a game that is instantly fun to play, yet challenging and rewarding; a game with deep mechanics that ‘take a second to learn but a lifetime to master’. But with a budget and resources this large, perfection should be attainable.
(*The board game’s first released was entitled, simply, Cyberpunk, before it was changed to differentiate it from its own genre – I suppose things might get a bit confusing if Dungeons & Dragons was called ‘Fantasy’!)
Well, there you have it – my two penneth on what Cyberpunk 2077 needs to do in order to be remembered as a true work of tech noir art, rather than just another soulless video game cash cow. If the release schedule isn’t impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak then it will be ours to enjoy in September 2020… and you can rest assured that I’ll be posting a review!
Until next time,