In our second preview of the Cyberpunk 2077 hands-on demo, we visit Night City again to try and find the humanity, social commentary, and ugliness that defines the sci-fi subgenre.
In our first hands-on preview of Cyberpunk 2077, Tamoor Hussain lamented the relative lack of humanity he witnessed in the game's main questline as he played through the opening hours as a street kid. After all, in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the most impactful stories were often the smaller, more intimate ones. He eventually found a glimpse of that in a sidequest involving two monk brothers and their vow of non-violence, which complicated a rescue mission with grey decisions.
With the benefit of this knowledge and my own Cyberpunk 2077 demo to play, I went in with the express purpose of trying to find more of those glimpses. Above and beyond CD Projekt Red's proven ability to create complex, humane storytelling, the cyberpunk genre itself is attractive because of its portrayal of its people and communities in an extreme future. As David Rayfield wrote back in 2018 (around the time when CD Projekt began to tease Cyberpunk's resurfacing after a long silence), cyberpunk media draws us in with its cool-as-hell aesthetic, but the best cyberpunk stories "reveal to us modern society's worst tendencies and offenders."
And so I went into the opening hours of Cyberpunk 2077 with these questions in my head: How does 2077 use and play with cyberpunk conventions? What stories does 2077 want to tell outside its grandiose main questline? Does 2077 actually feel like a cyberpunk world beyond its flashy tech and neon-soaked Asian-inspired aesthetic? The results were... a little mixed.
In cyberpunk fiction, capitalism rules. The genre imagines a world where international corporations have grown to such a size that they are untouchable by governments. The class divides are extreme, and quality of life is greatly determined by how much money you have--a scenario that feels even more real now than it did in the genre's infancy back in the '80s.
At the beginning of my demo, I chose the Corporate Life Path as the origin for my version of the protagonist, V. This situated her in a lofty counter-intelligence position in the Japanese corporation, Arasaka. V's boss, the instantly-hateable Jenkins, orders her to organise a hit on his boss, Abernathy. V is conflicted, she's anxious. She tries to confide in her best friend Jackie, she throws up in the bathroom. It is absolutely not something that she wants to do, but what choice does she have? Her livelihood--salary, apartment, Trauma Team medical insurance--is all made available to her because of her corporate loyalty.
At the end of this prologue, while V is trying to convince Jackie to help her out with the job, Arasaka goons confront her. Abernathy has found out about the scheme and V is cut off without recompense. It's whatever the opposite of recompense is. She sees her bank balance zero out before her eyes, and all her corporate augmentations get fried. Jackie intervenes to prevent the goons from taking her out back (to kill her probably!), but her life is ruined. No money. No medical insurance. No home.
Seeing first-hand how people might suffer in a world of extreme capitalism was a pretty great start to things. But unsurprisingly, being the game's protagonist, V has a safety net in the form of a thick wad of cash she just happened to have on her. She eventually gets back on her feet within six months, building a new working life for herself with Jackie. When the game truly begins, V has a swish apartment centrally located in the bustling city.
It stands to reason that others in this world would not be so lucky. To me, one of the signature aspects of cyberpunk fiction is a look at the ugly side of things. The rainy street level of Blade Runner's Los Angeles. The claustrophobic slums of Prague in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. The clinical housing, fabricated clothes, and protein goop of Technobabylon.
The area you start 2077 in is probably one of the more glamorous interpretations of cyberpunk I've seen. It's densely populated and filled with the prerequisite amount of highrises and neon signage; when it's raining at night it hits all the familiar notes. But the people and places that it is home to are definitely cut from a different kind of cloth. There's a degree of wealth that is prevalent, people flashing their shiny augmentations, spending their nights at exclusive nightclubs and bars, exercising their fleshy parts at gyms and dojos, and spending time kicking back on rooftops wearing brightly-coloured activewear and chunky, impossibly clean sneakers. It's cyberpunk chic, which I was a little taken aback by. That grim futuristic world was suddenly kind of aspirational more than anything.
There is a unique degree of ugliness to be found, though. I played most of my demo when the in-game sun was out, and it was still a good-looking city in a technical sense--I had the benefit of playing a locally-run code on PC, seeing it run in 4K with ray-tracing and DLSS effects pointed out to me. But seeing a cyberpunk city under the bright light of day was another interesting twist to what I've come to expect from the genre.
The first thing that shocked me was how clear the horizon was. I could see some rolling Californian mountain ranges in the horizon, and I wondered whether pollution and the environmental angle is something that will come into examination later. The depletion of Earth's natural resources is another common cyberpunk theme--did the governments of 2077 work all those green deals out?
Without the darkness and neon to hide and distract, there's definitely a more down-to-earth grimness that comes from residing in a concrete jungle of a city. Freeways criss-cross the district and as a result, there are areas of Night City where there isn't much to see at all. But that dullness makes it feel pretty true-to-life, which I quite liked. Those underpasses, dead ends, and long stretches of deserted footpaths through industrial areas also helped make the bustling centres feel that much busier and exciting. And it's here where I found hints of the less alluring side of this city.
Makeshift tents here and there suggest some kind of homeless or displaced population, and one curious encounter I had with a Cyberpsycho (Cyberpunk's take on boss-like enemies that inhabit the world) came accompanied with some flavour text: He was a former mercenary, fired by his corporate employer but left on the street with the memories of the jobs he had done, and now suffering from PTSD. Given the size of the map, I'm hoping to see a lot more of these kinds of stories--the Pacifica region is supposedly the dedicated slum region--although in retrospect, given Night City was initially described as "the worst place to live in America" with a "sky-high rate of violence and more people living below the poverty line than anywhere else," I was expecting something a lot worse from the get-go.
Tamoor's amazing-sounding experience with the Buddhist monks encouraged me to actively seek out more side-quest characters in my demo in order to gauge the temperature of the kinds of people that CD Projekt wanted to flesh out in this world. I spent a lot of my demo chasing question-mark icons on the map, but most of the time they would turn out to be Gigs, Cyberpunk's more straightforward quests where you're simply asked to kill someone or find something for a reward--there certainly are a lot of things you can distract yourself with in this open world, as was the case in The Witcher 3 or even something in the style of GTA V or Red Dead Redemption 2.
Two side-quest characters managed to get my attention. The first was a pair of twins, who had such a close relationship that they used technology to fuse their personalities into a single entity. "One person, two bodies" is the way they put it. They were part of a multi-part quest that asked you to rise up and be the best fist-fighter in the district, and they had a vaudeville-style routine going on with their back and forth banter, describing how they (he?) dealt with girlfriends. The second character was someone whose augmented penis was malfunctioning and causing him a lot of pain. The hysteric man wanted V to drive him to the nearest ripperdoc--surgeons that specialise in installing and repairing cybernetic implants. He seemed to be involved in a multi-part quest, since V adds him as a phone contact afterwards (as "Flaming Crotch Man" with a banana as his profile picture).
Both of these characters are on the more lighthearted side of the character spectrum--not exactly the humane character studies I was on the lookout for, but playful imaginings of the oddities that might come up in a technological future. It works in a sense because the main questline at this point revolves around more serious considerations of where technology might move, like the incredibly cool Braindance mechanic. It's an edge that veers closer to the Yakuza series in terms of silliness than I was expecting from this game. I don't mind that at all, but I'm still hopeful that there are more of those morally grey gut-punch stories too because Cyberpunk 2077's side quests can't just be all sunshine and hijinks, right?
The ambient street scenes poked at this a little bit during my time--a street preacher condemning body modification to make sure the next generation is pure was an immediate example, but they seemed to be almost drowned out by ever-present scenes of danger. Random world incidents involving cops and criminals can be found around nearly every corner, with various gang members and the Night City Police Department acting incredibly on edge all the time. This is one part of the game that certainly worked in establishing the "worst place in America" thing, but also to remind me that Cyberpunk 2077 is definitely cut from the same cloth as The Witcher 3, and not so much Deus Ex, despite appearances. There are even "nests" of enemies, so to speak, in the form of gang hideouts, which make it seem like the city's primary goal is to give you things to do first and foremost. When it came to random Night City citizens, my handgun did most of the interacting.
I came away seeing a lot of unexpected things, but there was one facet of cyberpunk fiction that I noticed 2077 was staying true to. Unfortunately, it's a personal gripe I've always raised an eyebrow to despite being a huge sucker for the genre: It's the fact that despite cyberpunk absolutely revelling in the look and feel of modern neon-soaked Asian cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong, and being filled with citizens from all kinds of multicultural backgrounds, those cultures are rarely represented in the main cast of characters and primary perspectives these stories deal with. The only notable Asian character I came across during the first five hours was the head of the Arasaka corporation, Yorinobu Arasaka, who at this stage is just a big bad. Cyberpunk fiction was born with an orientalist problem, so my personal hope is that somewhere in Cyberpunk 2077, we get a deeper look into all the different cultures and factions of Night City (of which there are many), through characters you can meaningfully relate to. After all, given how heavily this supposedly Californian city is saturated in noodles, katanas, rice hats, and people yelling in foreign languages, there's gotta be at least some cool Asian cyberpunks of note to hang out with, right?
At this point, you might think I'm nitpicking and speculating based on playing what is a relatively tiny portion of the game--but that's only because I'm incredibly excited by it, like you, probably. Even though I came away with some wariness about 2077's take on a cyberpunk world, I'm glad there are some twists here. I hope those interesting glimpses I saw will unravel into a variety of notable themes, characters, locations, and situations hours down the line. This is going to be the biggest interactive cyberpunk-themed world to date. Let's hope its portrayal will be meaningful, too.