Cyberpunk 2077: Worldbuilding, game design

Some miscellaneous thoughts about Cyberpunk 2077. (For the review see here.)

I’d give the worldbuilding, oh, a solid B. It’s what everyone expects from cyberpunk: enhanced humans, hacking, powerful AIs, sinister corporations, sleazy cities, a strangely powerful Japan. I don’t rate it higher because it rarely surprises. It never transcends or questions the genre.

The genre goes down easily because we more or less live in a cyberpunk dystopia, minus the metallic skeletons. We don’t have complete governmental collapse, but the libertarians and Trumpists have been working on that. We have ever-growing inequality where the 90% slowly slide backwards. We have over-powerful tech corps, though Mark Zuckerberg does not manage to attain the gravitas of Saburo Arasaka.

A seeming problem is that very little seems to have changed between the time of Johnny Silverhands and that of V, fifty years later. This seems to be intentional: the corps are most comfortable when there is no change. But this strikes me as ahistorical. Not wanting change is not the same as not getting any. And surely the corps would be motivated to one-up each other by doing new research.

Two deeper questions. One, doesn’t the system work well anywhere? Night City is supposed to be a hive of scum and villainy, but Goro’s backstory suggests that Japan is no better. Why, if the Japanese corps are so phenomenal? Did anywhere in the world manage to keep a different social system?

We see some of the extremes: River’s sister lives in a trailer park, while the mayoral candidate lives in a penthouse. But honestly, after 50+ years of dystopia, I’d expect the differences to be far more extreme. Even today, Zuckerberg doesn’t live in a penthouse, but in a mansion. In 2077 I’d expect the CEOs to live in space stations, or estates the size of Kenya.

Which leads to a further question: is there still a 10%? How much of a privileged class do you need to run a dystopia? You need executives, doctors, bureaucrats, AI wranglers, architects, robotics engineers, database czars, bodyguards, personal trainers, entertainers, cooks. And you’d prefer that none of these people stink, or hate your guts enough to assassinate you. Presumably these are the people who live in the nicer parts of Night City. Still, do they really not care that it’s a violent hellhole? Someone says in-game that 1/5 of the population died in 2076. About 1/100 died in the US in 2020, and the half a million due to Covid was a major political issue. An elite can last indefinitely while oppressing most of the population, but they’d damn well better take care of the 10%.

Two: Why isn’t there a revolution? The game itself shows high-caliber weaponry available to gangs and even individuals– the key event in Johnny’s career is detonating a mini-nuke against Arasaka (though he had corpo help), and the plot of the game shows that acquiring a tank as well as a military assault on a corp are not that difficult. There are enough wars that plenty of people have military experience. When people are desperate, they don’t even care too much about replacing the current system; they’re content to destroy it.

I don’t have much confidence that fascist and/or plutocratic elements won’t take over and ruin major countries. It’s happened before, and our major bulwark against it here in the US– Rooseveltian liberalism– has been systematically undermined. At the same time, in history, fascist regimes usually crack up relatively quickly, while plutocratic ones generate anarchist or socialist opposition. Or just destroy themselves in a depression, allowing new systems to take over.

Also, I know it kind of militates against the cyberpunk atmosphere if you have to say “Over in Denmark and Taiwan, liberal democracy continued to thrive.” But, well, cyberpunk mostly works by narrowing its focus to the US plus a highly distorted picture of 1970s Japan. As ever, sf is how America criticizes itself. But the US isn’t the only country in the world. I don’t think every country is likely to follow our exact path downward. And yes, you could invent an informed, plausible descent for every other country, but that’s not really something we see in history either. Someone usually does better than everyone else.

One thing that strike me as weird about C77’s Night City: it seems to have no sense of race. This may be due to the fact that it’s written by Polish people, who can imagine an American city but not American racial politics. No one seems to notice anyone’s race; we don’t know if Blacks are still disadvantaged, or how Asian-Americans feel about Arasaka. Despite his name, Jackie Welles is Hispanic; the ofrenda quest is about the only recognition of ethnicity in the game.

I mentioned this in the review, but I do think the writers too easily use sexual sleaziness as a shorthand for social corruption. It’s lazy and regressive. I would expect a futuristic utopia to strike us as full of weird sex. People like sex, and if the weirdness can be indulged without exploiting or harming people, why not?

(Related: metal bodies? Eh. As soon as it’s feasible, people will want to be furries.)

Cyberpunk’s linguistics is worth a glance. I like the fact that V’s neurimplants allow her to immediately understand Spanish and Japanese. (Why they trip up over common Spanish phrases like mija, I don’t know. Did she check the “Local Color” checkbox?) It seems realistic that these come standard, but she has to download something for Haitian Creole.

The game makes an attempt at Near-Future English, mostly by adding new words (eddies, chooms, deltas, chrome, output), but also by syntax: apparently Truncation has become far more common, and the cool kids leave out subject pronouns most of the time. They don’t posit any phonological change, but that would be hard to get the voice actors to do. It’s a little surprising that there aren’t many borrowings, even from Japanese. (Though maybe if everyone has in-head translators, there’s no need for borrowings?)

The games’s intention seems to be to make V a blank slate character. You can choose her sex, orientation, appearance, background, and morality. All that is cool, except where the writers impose their own notion of the character. It bugged me, for instance, that even after romancing Judy, when she talks to River she talks only about old boyfriends. It seems careless to give her a full lesbian romance, and not realize that her past would be lesbian (or bisexual) too.

Similarly, though it’s a minor point, her interactions with Jackie’s family and with Goro and Panam suggest that she doesn’t know either Hispanic or Asian culture. But what if V is Hispanic or Asian? I understand that providing alternate dialog for such options would be work. But they did that amount of work anyway! The dialogs go way beyond the needs of the story, so I don’t think it’s asking too much that an AAA game allow us not only to look non-white, but to act it. If it takes more time, lop off two or three of the available cars.

If you’re designing a game with a generic character, I’m afraid it’s harder than ever these days. It’s no longer enough to just remember in the dialog that the player might be female. Sexuality is way more complicated these days; race and ethnicity is more than just providing a couple more skin tones. Maybe it’s too much to ask to provide more than two voice actors– but Saints Row managed that long ago.

One thing I appreciate about the game is that it often remembers your romance partner. They have a hefty series of quests. Afterward, you can visit them and have a nice chat; you call them before the final mission; you get a cutscene and/or credits message later on. I felt a real affection for Judy once I was done, unlike (say) my Skyrim wife, who I could take on quests. It’s also way better than (say) Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, where you can recruit your first girlfriend Odessa for your ship, and see her there subsequently, but with no further story or dialog.

If anything I’d love to have more of that. One of the cool things about Mass Effect 1, or Fallout New Vegas, is that your current companion would comment in various locations. It’d be neat if you could get Judy’s opinion on River, or on other situations. Or if you could take her out now and then.

Finally, one more gameplay complaint: the damn Relic Malfunctions. I get it, V is sick, and they want to remind you, in case the Johnny hallucinations weren’t a strong enough hint. But they invariably do this in the easy-ass way of taking control from you and shoving you into a cutscene.

How else could you do it? One way would be to add some intermittent or persistent debuffs. E.g. less health or stamina, or a slowed walking speed. Maybe you could get these back up with drugs, or counter them with new implants. I don’t necessarily like sanity metrics and other ways of impeding the player (I hated the malaria in Far Cry 2), but if it’s manageable it would add an interesting mechanic.