Not a Cyberpunk 2077 Review
~~Cross-posted to the Serious Play Blog, (12/16/20)~~
Last week, an obscure little videogame called Cyberpunk 2077 was released quietly to absolutely zero over-hyped expectations. For the people who happened across it, it proved to be pretty good. Just kidding, of course. The release of CP2077 was anything but quiet and as rumors of lawsuits begin to circulate, it’s likely to stay that way. But I’m not here to rehash the release drama (for more on that, start here and here). This isn’t a review; just a few half-thoughts based on my experience with the game.
I’m playing the game on the PS4 which, contrary to what you might have heard, is where the game really shines. In the game, consciousness is capable of being ‘downloaded’ onto a “stack” and then uploaded into other humans with compatible hardware, a common motif in cyberpunk stories such as Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon series that leads to the questioning of reality – is this real or just all in my ‘head’. Playing this game on the PS4, with its litany of bugs, extends this feeling to the player. Wait, is that guy just sitting on air, floating? Weren’t there like 15 NPCs here just before I turned around? Uh… Jackie, your chopsticks are freaking out, man! Why are all these NPCs doing the Jesus Christ pose? DID THAT PERSON JUST TURN INTO A TABLE? I have no fucking clue what is ‘real’ and what is the result of a damaged and deteriorating (in-game) brain or (real-life) videogame. It’s all so weird and yet fits into the diegetic logic of the world just barely enough to provide an interesting link between player and player character. Even the crashes lend the game an enhanced sense of danger: when things get choppy in the middle of a fight, you have to balance not moving too fast so as to overload the chugging system and dodging attacks.
This game is, in my mind, the first PC game ever released on consoles. I mean that somewhat literally: it remediates the experience of PC gaming for the console, or rather, the experience of trying to play games on a PC. From at least the time of the Nintendo Seal of Quality, console gaming has had one benefit over PC gaming: ease-of-use. Because the consoles are closed systems, they’re easy to design games for – not as many hardware contingencies to plan for or around. You buy a game for the N64, it’s going to play on any functioning N64, right? Windows-based PCs are a bit harder to account for – what runs perfectly on one might be a hot mess on another – and so installing and optimizing the game (and the near-inevitable troubleshooting that entails) became part of the gaming ritual on the PC. As a result, one gets used to tinkering with settings, updating drivers, and holding your breath at the occasional graphical glitch in hopes the whole program doesn’t crash. Console gamers missed out on this….until now!
Occasionally lengthy install times have been a part of console gaming since the PS3 (anyone remember heads exploding when Metal Gear Solid 4 was released?). By now, I’m sure you’ve heard about Cyberpunk 2077’s install taking roughly an hour, but really, that’s just the beginning. To get the game running on my Standard PS4 Slim, I’ve had to adjust graphical settings, turning off all the “extra” effects to improve framerate and adjusting the default gamma settings to so I can see what the hell is happening in the game’s dark spaces. Furthermore, I don’t play a lot of FPS on console so I’m very novice at aiming and looking with the thumbsticks. Luckily, CP2077 is generous with its advanced controller settings, allowing me to tinker with options like “vertical turning bonus,” “turning ramp-up time,” “turning delay,” and more, so I can adjust the way the game responds to the movement of my thumbs. All of this requires a period of trial and error as one makes small adjustments to the settings and then returns to the game to test them out.
These options are a welcome (and undoubtedly necessary in this case) addition to console games on the software side of things, but they really expose just how closed off the hardware is from us. With a PC, researching error codes is an experience fraught with anxiety but tinged with hope – there’s a fix, but it might require me to update some esoteric driver (which requires a whole new round of research and troubleshooting), or at worst, replace some component or another on my rig. Regardless of the fix, there is a feeling of agency inherent in being able to change the conditions of the machine to get the program to run (more or less) correctly. On the PS4, there is no feeling of agency once you get past the game’s internal settings. My game has crashed several times and I’ve stopped even looking up the error code. One such code (CE-34878-0) can reportedly be caused by corrupt game save files or a broken hard drive. OR it could just be a random software bug. Take your pick. All options have one thing in common: there’s not much the average PS4 owner can do about it (save shelling out for a new system in the case of the broken hard drive). My agency in those instances boil down to the choice of reporting the crash and uploading data about it, or not. Either way, I just have to hope it doesn’t happen again (or at least doesn’t happen in the middle of a mission).
This whole thing has me thinking about one of the core aspects of the cyberpunk genre: hacking. The basic tenet of any cyberpunk setting is that rules were meant to be broken: biology, social norms, any and every cyber law are all subject to the whims of the “user.” To be honest, I rolled my eyes a bit when I encountered the crafting mechanic of the game – I’m just sooo tired of its ubiquity in games right now – but I have to admit that it (the idea of crafting anyway) fits into the cyberpunk ethos. There needs to be a good deal of tinkering with the detritus of this technologic society, a “making-do” that requires an adaptive, strategic implementation of what is at hand. It is debatable whether CP2077’s crafting system captures this in any meaningful or novel way, but the hoops one has to jump through to simply play it, to my mind, leads one to a similar “hacker” disposition.
There’s no denying that Cyberpunk 2077 is a hot mess that seems to miss more than it hits. I feel for all the devs that have dreamed about its release through the last near-decade they’ve worked on it and will possibly (likely?) continue to face crunch conditions as they work to fix all the problems that clearly plague this game. The release of Cyberpunk 2077 highlights so effectively some of the major problems with the games industry on both the parts of production and demand. The leadership at CDPR has clearly, inarguably botched this project, but consumers’ demand and impatience help to reinforce the conditions that led us to this point. And the hundreds of people who’ve worked hard on this game are caught in the middle. I have faith that the game will be improved eventually, but let’s not rush it. I would rather enjoy the work of devs who are paid well and have plenty of downtime/time off months down the road than to have another hastily garbled game made by miserable people rushed out to meet the needs of the fickle “gamer” audience. In the meantime, let’s enjoy this version of Cyberpunk 2077 while it lasts.