At a climactic moment in Cyberpunk 2077, I got mad.
My husband and I have been playing this preposterously frustrating game every evening because … well, we don’t have too much else to do right now. Every time some bug or wonky sequence made one of us throw the controller down and shout, “Never again!” the other would pick it up again the next night.
But I can pinpoint the moment where the game’s problems crystallized for me. At a climactic moment, a clearly heart-wrenching situation was written into the script. I waited for some feelings, any feelings, to rise up. They didn’t. Instead of feeling sad, I started to feel … bored. And disgusted. And a little manipulated.
Then, at the worst possible moment, a bug showed up. “Wait, that’s not a chip,” my husband said. “That’s a gun. He just pulled a gun out of his ear.” I ran to my office, opened my laptop, and began writing this piece. I can’t stand this game, but not because it’s almost unplayable. It’s just poorly written. You didn’t need to abuse a bunch of developers to fix that.
Heart and Soul
For context: I don’t consider myself a gamer. (Ed. note: You totally are.) A few years ago, I bought my husband a Nintendo Switch for Christmas, but the two of us have played it together ever since. I like Mario Kart with friends. Donut County was funny. Breath of the Wild made me gasp at its beauty, but I spent most of my time just collecting different-colored horses.
That was all until I downloaded The Witcher 3 on a whim, after we watched the first episode of the Netflix show. From the opening sequence, I was transfixed. Witcher 3 is everything that people say it is. Geralt is a compelling character with a wide array of skills; the Continent is vast and richly detailed; the stakes are high. It’s Law & Order: SVU meets Lord of the Rings.
But that’s not why I loved it. Despite the fantastical monsters, it felt real, and I forgave the many bugs and glitches (Still! Years after it launched!) because the story was so good. The Witcher 3 is paced like a novel. At its heart, it’s a Daddy Game. Geralt is searching for his wife and daughter. Nothing is easier to empathize with than that.
Despite its length, it’s elegant and economical. It sets up the stakes within the first few minutes, with a dramatic opening sequence featuring the lost Yennefer, and a training tutorial showing Geralt’s love for a creepy miniature Ciri. The writing is dry, funny, and occasionally grotesque, grounded in a deep and sympathetic understanding of human nature.
For example, “Family Matters”—a side quest where Geralt tries to help a dissolute baron piece his family back together—made me laugh, cry, and feel a little sick all at once. It was everything I’ve ever wanted from a game. As my colleague Cecilia D’Anastasio put it, Witcher 3 is my One Game. The idea that I might have another game like it, and so soon, made me dizzy.
Stupid Leather Dad Pants
To me, as a nongamer, the discourse on Cyberpunk 2077’s poor performance feels like it misses the point. After all, The Witcher 3 was and is full of glitches, many of which have become established inside jokes. It’s funny that Geralt’s horse Roach keeps getting stuck in improbable places. When I first started Cyberpunk—I’m playing on a Stadia—I got my car stuck on a rock in the first five minutes.
“It’s Roach all over again!” I commented to my colleagues.
Maybe Cyberpunk’s rhythms are different due to the source material. Neuromancer, the groundbreaking novel on which the tabletop RPG is based, is by all accounts frenetic and convoluted. But a week and a half in, I’m still not invested.
I hate all of the characters, even the ones I can tell I’m supposed to like. Unlike the Witcher’s goofy songster pal Dandelion, my Cyberpunk sidekick Jackie Welles has no endearing characteristics besides dubious loyalty to V and lukewarm affection for someone named Misty.
I can’t keep track of the convoluted storyline. I have no idea what actions might help or hurt the eventual outcome. Everything feels like I’m just killing time until Keanu’s character, Johnny Silverhand, takes over my head. I also hate Johnny Silverhand. I know I’m supposed to hate him, but you’re also supposed to feel drawn to his charisma, because, duh, Keanu.
But I don’t. I feel no sympathy for this spoiled, aging kid whining for cigs, and his dumb '90s leather leggings that might’ve been cool 20 years ago but now look like something a Mormon mommy blogger might wear to get Christmas pictures taken at the strip mall.
I blindly follow the quest tracker, because I don’t know what else to do, but I don’t know why I’m supposed to be doing any of this. Unlike The Witcher side quests that quickly pulled at your heartstrings—a lost child, two sisters fighting for the love of a werewolf—in Cyberpunk, I stumbled across a Wraiths hideout. Then I shot a guy. Why did I do that? Who are the Wraiths? What is the evidence I’m supposed to collect? Who knows? Who cares?
As in Witcher 3, there’s a timer to make decisions, but none of the decisions are consequential. For example, during one sequence, I only had a few seconds to decide whether to take a hypodermic that would revive me. Out of sheer orneriness, I let it run out. Then I died seconds later. If I have to take the hypodermic to advance, why pretend I have any say? Just to create an artificial sense of investment?
Last night, I spent 20 minutes clambering through an enormous, and enormously detailed, junkyard. All it accomplished was to piss me off enough to find a road, shoot someone, and take their dumb Gremlin-looking car. As with so much of this game, it made my head and heart hurt to think of all the time, money, and effort wasted on creating this elaborate card castle that has so little inside.
That’s Not All
For the Witcher’s sake, and my own, I was prepared to accept so much. I was prepared to accept the glitches, but also the general try-hardness of it all, the '90s rock-dad outfits, the stupid slang, the cringe-inducing objective of acquiring “street cred.”
I played it despite accusations of transphobia and racism. I played it despite blanching every time a character screeched “You f*cking beeetches!” in a horrible Spanglish accent, in what is obviously a craven attempt to create a moment as meme-able as Geralt murmuring a hilariously understated “Hrmm” and “Oh f*ck.”
But without a soul—without a main character struggling to come to terms with the meaning of consciousness, or aging, or what it means to be human in an age of all-powerful corporations or overly extensive body mods—Cyberpunk 2077 is just an hours-long slog with Keanu Reeves cosplaying as the lead singer of Lit grating in your head. It may be about half-machine cyborgs, but I’m still human enough to want more humanity in a game.