I used to play tabletop role-playing games, teen nerd-punk that I was. This was the 1980s, when RPGs enjoyed a huge explosion in popularity, and in the available variety of games and publishers. My playing years were quite few, but I continued to collect games obsessively afterwards—if I’m honest, they were my preferred literary form. I read them for the worlds they described, and for me they were more fun than fantasy- or science-fiction stories, because they bypassed all that tedious narrative stuff and cut straight to the chase. They gave their readers something that couldn’t be found elsewhere: a fictional world as a systematised collection of information and procedures around which we could imagine our own experiences. I know I wasn’t alone in enjoying RPGs for this reason, and I think the current proliferation of ‘non-fiction’ books about various intellectual properties, such as Star Wars, Middle Earth, or the Marvel Cinematic Universe testify to the enduring popularity of that approach to world-building fiction.
Late in my gaming years I bought a game called Cyberpunk 2013, set in its titular year, and inspired by the eponymous science-fiction genre pioneered by writers like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson. A couple of years later it was succeeded by Cyberpunk 2020, and a wide range of supplements were published, going into greater detail about various aspects of the game’s world. One of these was a bulky sourcebook detailing the game-world’s archetypal setting, the fictional northern Californian metropolis of Night City. That book in particular (which I still have) really captured my imagination.
Such locations were ordinarily described in quite general terms, with the referee left to flesh out the details, but in the Night City sourcebook a huge chunk of urban territory was mapped out in detail with a nice, fold-out isometric map, which instantly gave it a patina of reality for me, as I happened to own a gorgeous isometric map of New York, over which I’d pored for hours. ‘Poring for hours’ came to define my relationship with Night City: I got to know that place, and I yearned to visit it. I began to fantasise that one day I’d be able to go there in some more concrete way than simply reading the sourcebook or playing the game (which is something I only ever did on a couple of occasions, despite collecting its whole suite of supplements). I began to imagine a computer game which enabled me to explore a full 3D model of the city, to drive a car around it, to interact with its many and various colourful inhabitants. Bearing in mind that this was many years before such things actually existed, I fantasised about playing an immersive 3D open-world video RPG set in Night City.
Anyone who takes even the most cursory interest in videogames, and who hasn’t had their head under a rock for the past two years, will be well aware that CD Projekt Red’s latest release is just such a game, set in Night City. Cyberpunk 2077 was probably the most hyped game in history, which was rather strange for me, given that I was extremely hyped about it for reasons entirely personal to myself, as described above. The whole reason that I bought myself a Playstation 4 in late 2018, having been happy enough in the Apple Mac gaming ghetto for the preceding three-and-a-half decades was that I became aware that Cyberpunk 2077 was in development. I also knew that CDPR could make a good game, having played their The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, which had been ported to Mac.
Clearly, any pen-and-paper RPG that isn’t Dungeons & Dragons is a pretty obscure piece of cultural material, so I was more than slightly surprised when I heard that Cyberpunk would be adapted as a videogame, but it just happens that Cyberpunk 2020 was one of fairly few English language RPGs to be marketed in a Polish translation, which meant that it was hugely popular in Poland by default, and CDPR is a Polish company. And while RPGers make up a vanishingly small part of the cultural landscape, they happen to be very well represented among the sort of people that develop and publish videogames. Videogames having become one of the most enormous cultural industries, and CDPR having become one of the big players in that industry (thanks largely to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt), my nerdy niche interest ended up spawning a commercial product with a budget in the hundreds of millions, a starring role for Keanu Reeves, and a promotional campaign that splurged the name of my own favourite little obscurity across billboards and buses around the world.
So that’s more or less all I have to say about Cyberpunk 2077, if I’m honest. I mean, I am going to write some things down about playing it, but the headline is that my response to it, my experience of it, is completely dominated by the extreme anticipation that I felt for its release. While many of the world’s gamers have been hyped about this release for getting on for a decade (it was announced in May 2012), I had been waiting for it—specifically for this game, having invented the category of game to which it belongs, by way of a personal fantasy—for nearly thirty years. It’s not often that a fantasy conceived in ones early twenties is realised, and for the most part such aspirations are no longer of any interest to me, but here it is, dropped into my lap by a team of developers many of whom were children or unborn when I started thinking about it.
The circumstances of Cyberpunk 2077’s release are also among the most publicised events in the history of videogames. It was repeatedly delayed, as CDPR’s ambitions for the game proved hubristically extreme, and when it was eventually released, it was frankly unfinished. Not only were there clearly chunks of stuff missing from it (the NCART mass transit system, a usable crime and punishment system), other parts were barely functional (driving without crashing is hilariously difficult, the much vaunted crowd AI likes to spawn hordes of identical characters in one place), and it was absolutely riddled with bugs, to the extent that many missions couldn’t be completed. I played it on PS4, and although I know it looks utterly amazing on a PS5, or a top-end gaming PC with ray-tracing enabled, the graphics often switch into a low-res mode if you’re driving, or just moving too fast. The game was withdrawn from sale on some download platforms (including the Playstation store), and refunds were given on demand. The entire farrago of mistakes and failures has become the archetype of a toxic, crunch-based, games industry development process, and will doubtless remain proverbial for decades to come. Meanwhile, CDPR sold a ton of copies, and probably made enough money to fund the badly needed updates many times over, although the heavily plugged downloadable content updates will be delayed while they work on fixing it.
However, despite playing it on a platform where it was withdrawn from sale, I’ve enjoyed it. The voice acting and general standard of writing is hardly of the first rank among contemporary games, although it would have been a few years ago, and CDPR’s attempts to embrace diversity (gender, sexual, or ethnic) serve to continually reinforce how tone-deaf they are. They really want to show what an open-minded and politically correct developer they are, but (as with the Witcher franchise) they just don’t know how it looks to anyone outside their bubble of cultural particularities, to whom it is continually apparent that they mainly just want to have a lot of hot girls on screen showing plenty of skin, and that any non-European cultural elements are understood solely as sources of exotica. Despite all this, I’ve enjoyed it.
Night City is an extraordinary achievement, a three-dimensional, gritty, grimy and messy urban environment, whose immersive qualities are rivalled only (in my limited experience) by Grand Theft Auto V’s Los Santos. It’s a great deal smaller than any real megalopolis, but in a game its multi-kilometre radius feels absolutely huge—it’s certainly big enough to drive fast for ten minutes, which feels like driving all day does in real life. Many of the quests and narrative elements are very well constructed (CDPR’s reputation for quality in these areas, earned from their work on The Witcher 3, is well-deserved). Virtual objects, such as vehicles, clothing, weapons and so on, are scintillating in their variety and quality. It’s a classic video RPG, so unlike the tabletop game it adapts, it has a rapid, linear escalation of powers and abilities, which I always find quite distracting and daft from a narrative perspective, but as an example of its type it’s extremely good, with a skill/attribute system that is designed to keep the player interested.
It is also huge. I took time off to play it when it was released—I literally took a holiday in Night City—but even so, it’s taken me (as someone who has things other than gaming in their life) four months to clear the map. The number of side quests and encounters is pretty jaw dropping, and although most of them can be dealt with by marching in guns blazing and looting the corpses, they all have a narrative justification, if you bother to read the text files you pick up along the way. Stealth is a bit weird, and by no means in the same league as the Deus Ex series (which is in many ways a touchstone for this game), but it’s still a very usable system. Another touchstone is the 1994 classic System Shock, and by another happy coincidence the Deus Ex games and System Shock were all ported to Mac, so I’m familiar with the tradition in which CP2077 is situated. And clearly, as the latest example of that typology, and as the most expensive videogame ever made, it’s the most extraordinarily huge, detailed, and habitable such game-world so far. It’s far too error-ridden to look like the apotheosis of its genre, but maybe by the time they’ve released enough updates to beat it into shape, I’ll change my mind about that. Regardless, and until then, I’ll be having a very nice time just wandering around Night City and admiring the scenery.