Okay, Who Accidentally Put a Good Quest in Cyberpunk 2077? by Henri Robbins
Making a good social critique is difficult. Making a complex and nuanced one is near-impossible. Especially in the modern, post-digital world that is constantly evolving (or devolving, depending on who you ask), it’s incredibly easy for your narrative to become lost because of innovations and ideas that have practically nothing to do with the main idea.
That’s precisely what happened to Cyberpunk 2077.
The narrative became lost in layers of cool technology, worldbuilding, and half-assed queer inclusion. What was initially meant to respond to oppressive corporate interests and celebrity worship became a regurgitation of it — a senseless, tone-deaf, and ignorant regurgitation.
Consider all of the best cyberpunk media made in the last few decades: Blade Runner, Alien, Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell (1995), Akira, The Matrix, and yes, even Neon Genesis Evangelion, and The Truman Show. (Attack me all you want. I’m right. They’re both cyberpunk). What did they all have in common?
A quick review: Akira is about nuclear weapons and their impact; Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner focus on the line between humanity and technology; The Truman Show comments on the surveillance state; and Neon Genesis Evangelion comments on human connection and escapism in the digital age, asking us where the line between ourselves and others sits.
Each one had pointed ambition; a singular, intentional message that the writer wanted to convey to their audience. Of course, this can be said about all media, but cyberpunk as a genre is that much more reliant upon this because, without it, the story is simply a reflection of our modern-day lives: Over-indulgence in the instant gratification tech market that’s constantly pumping out new crap that’s slightly better than our old crap; a glorification of Musk and Bezos’ dogmas, the corporate love of consumption and disregard for the natural world. There’s no social commentary without a message; no value without a decided meaning.
So what was Cyberpunk 2077 about? Nothing. Nothing at all. There were dozens of plotlines that skimmed the top layer of an earnest social commentary, but none of them went deep enough to foster any real critique of any institution.
Take, for example, the idea of cyber-psychosis — a disease caused by an overloading of cybernetic technology in the body. That asks wonderfully where the line is between man and machine, and what happens when that line is crossed, but it’s only ever talked about in two contexts: One side quest where you find a series of files scattered around a house describing someone’s descent into cyberpsychosis, and a series of bounties where you’re hired by the police department to kill cyberpsychos. (Of course, the quest-giver makes it incredibly clear that you’re not actually killing them, only incapacitating them. By shooting them in the head 20 times.)
Or, in another vein, the Sacrum Profanum side quest. In it, a monk asks you for help to rescue his brother, who has been kidnapped by Maelstrom — a group obsessed with cybernetic modifications. He worries that they plan to install cybernetic enhancements into his brother, which goes against their faith and is seen as sacreligious. Rescuing the monk, you discover he’s a full-blown cyborg. He’s been forced against his faith and, as a result, feels unclean and unworthy. And… That’s it. The quest ends there, pretty much. You go home, they go home, the monk presumably has an existential dilemma, and you never hear anything about it.
Sure, it’s a fun game to play, and the main story is a good way to waste a few hours, but it doesn’t have any deeper meaning. All you do is find a romantic partner and try to delete a computer virus from your brain. It’s a triple-A action story set in an amalgamation of past social critiques. The characters, locations, and plot are all perfect for genuine discourse, yet the plot is devoid of it.
There’s a single mini-quest that presents a better story than the rest of the game combined: Sinnerman, or A Light That Never Goes Out.
This quest is a lot like one of those fucked-up short stories you’d read in high school and never quite forget about. (You know, the ones that randomly pop into your head years after you graduated like The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, The Yellow Wallpaper, and I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.)
Here’s the gist of the quest: You’re a bounty hunter hired to intercept a van and kill a passenger in it. You’re accompanied by the man who hired you, who explains that you’re chasing after his wife’s killer. As the two of you approach the van, you see that it’s a police transport. You stop the transport and, after a brief shootout, the guy who hired you is dead. Somehow, you end up talking to the police, and you learn exactly what’s going on: The guy you were hired to kill is already on death row. However, the way he’s being killed is… unusual, to say the least.
He’s going to be crucified. (You know, like Jesus.)
More than that, you learn that this crucifixion is going to be recorded for everyone to see, in the hopes that it causes a mass spiritual awakening in the public (and a mass opening of wallets to experience the awakening). The recording will happen via a “braindance,” a type of virtual-reality film that records all of a person’s sensations and projects their exact experience—sight, touch, smell, emotions, pleasure and pain, everything—directly into the viewer’s brain.
And the film is being made by a massive megacorporation full of employees who seem entirely detached from the situation.
The inmate, Joshua Stephenson, offers to let you follow him for his final day on earth. You talk to him about the religious awakening he had in prison, witness him make amends with some of the people he hurt, see glimpses into what he did and how he regrets it, all the while being fed snide remarks and bribes from a corporate representative who just wants you to fuck off and stop interfering.
Progressing through the quest, a wave of hopelessness washes over you: a massive corporation is taking advantage of this person, using them and their suffering to fulfill an agenda, profiting off his blind faith and hoping to bank in on the faith of millions of others, and there’s nothing you can do. He’s going on that cross either way.
Eventually, finding yourself in the studio, you talk with Joshua. You can plead all you want, tell him not to go through with it, but it’s all hopeless—the only choice you’re offered is to be the one who drives the nails through his hands and feet, potentially being the last kind face he ever sees.
The final scene, with Joshua being raised up, is theatrical yet solemn. There’s fanfare, but also a hollow silence. He’s awash under stage lights, hoisted up on a steel stage, his tattoos on stark in the harsh lights.
The game makes you question: Is this all there is to religion in this world? Is it all as hollow and mechanical as this makes it out to be?
This is something unbelievably rare for a first-person shooter: a moment of reflection, a solemn tragedy that the player could do nothing about. Their only options were to stay or to leave, and the events would happen the same either way. I won’t go into depth on the metaphor of this situation, but the message feels especially poignant in today’s world.
The real tragedy, however, is how inaccessible this piece of storytelling is. The quest only appears more than halfway through the game’s main story, and can only be found by talking to a specific (and forgettable) NPC. Most players will likely never encounter this questline, and many will likely just kill Joshua at the beginning, locking off the quest entirely and walking away with no clue of what they missed.
In many ways, that’s the problem with most massive RPG games today: The best questlines are hidden among countless generic fetch quests, bounties, and time trials. Genuine storytelling is enveloped in addictive gameplay loops that directly work to alienate players from the story, feeding them mindless mission after mission with easy-to-skip dialogue and hand-holding goals.
The only solution I can think of is for more game developers to adopt the short story method. Look at indie games like Hotline Miami, What Remains of Edith Finch, Night in the Woods, Hylics and Journey — all of these are games that take less than 5 hours to complete, many of them only taking an hour or two at most. Yet all of them tell far stronger stories than any massive RPG or triple-A title. Their storytelling is succinct, concise, and doesn’t mince any words. The gameplay is tight, cohesive, and doesn’t have anything unnecessary.
If I had been able to experience a questline like Sinnerman as its own experience, it would have been astounding. If this small side quest were the main plot, or even a plot point relevant to the main story,I would have been blown away. But that just wasn’t the case. Instead, I was left playing through 20+ hours of mind-numbingly mediocre gameplay only to accidentally stumble upon this fantastic quest.
Video games are at a tipping point. We’ve gone almost as far as we can in terms of mechanics, gameplay, graphics, and game length. For games to evolve, they need to abandon all of this. The rat race of immersion has to be thrown away and, in its place, truly good storytelling has to appear.