‘Cyberpunk’ aims to do what dystopian RPGs have failed before

Cyberpunk 2077 is one of those games that boldly steals the name of an entire genre. There’s no lack of cyberpunk IPs, from Shadowrun to Akira, and there are repeating sci-fi themes woven through the genre that we find compelling in our increasingly online, yet lonely, world.

A core sci-fi concept that cyberpunk has wholly embraced is body modification, and all the consequences that come along with it. How much of yourself is lost when enhancing your senses, cognitive ability, and physical strength? Every sci-fi property has tackled it, but no game has gotten it right.

But while film and literature excel at getting in the heads of characters, this is something videogames have always struggled with. Games are better at getting across ideas through gameplay — but how does one do that with the concept of losing humanity?

With the storytelling prowess at CDProjekt Red, we think this is the moment this particular white whale gets captured. It has the ability to communicate this concept through player choice without succumbing to the usual pitfalls.

The primary example of those pitfalls is a 2008 sci-fi dungeon crawler named Space Siege. This RPG allowed players to upgrade certain body parts with cybernetics, increasing combat ability and decreasing… Well, decreasing nothing, really. It was all positive.

The best you could say about the system was that it introduced an official Easy Mode/Hard Mode dichotomy, so players looking for a challenge could try to beat the game without any implants. It was bragging rights, nothing else — and to say the developers intended it this way would be both generous and false.

Space Siege wasn’t the first to attempt to capture this concept in videogame form, but it was perhaps the most high profile because of its marketing. Legendary game designer Chris Taylor (Dungeon Siege, Total Annihilation, and more) was the tip of the spear during the press tour, always popular with interviewers due to his background in improv comedy.

Even more so, the game’s marketing (and story) specifically focused on the dynamic of sacrificing parts of yourself, and your own humanity, to overcome an enemy who can’t be killed with a human body. Space Siege was planting a flag in the sand, claiming this sci-fi trope as its own, and building everything around it. As the protagonist fighting an alien takeover in the trailer says…

“I will sacrifice everything to prevent that from happening. Even my own humanity.”

But that’s all a bit broad, isn’t it? The concept of “humanity.” Any gamer who suffered through the years of pre-rendered CGI trailers knows to always ask the question “Sure, but how does that play?”

It turns out, not so well. While there were some references to how “human” you were in the dialogue, these were surface-level. Your character would sound more robotic as he embraced the iron flesh, but his sociopathy didn’t go past his tone of voice.

Most importantly, nothing in the gameplay represented this loss of “humanity,” leaving the central concept undefined. Worse — each new cybernetic came with increased attributes or abilities. There were only benefits to them, and no drawbacks.

That’s the crucial dilemma every similar game comes up against. Installing implants has to have a practical, gameplay-centric benefit (otherwise why bother?), yet the concept of sacrificing one’s humanity is inherently story-driven. Getting across a lack of empathy through mechanics and dynamics is not only uncharted territory, it’s territory many boats failed to navigate.

Enter CDProjekt Red, the perfect studio to tackle this idea. There’s no development house more synonymous with incorporating player choice into the story and the gameplay. It’s the studio that famously crafted two second acts in The Witcher 2, one for the path you chose, and the other inaccessible until you did a second playthrough. That’s how important choice is to CDPR, and people are still finding new snippets of dialogue in the Witcher games for niche situations brought about by rare combinations of choices.

It’s possible someone might figure out how to communicate a lack of humanity through raw gameplay, but if there’s anyone who can get it across through storytelling, it’s CDPR. The key here is that for it to matter, the player has to care. They have to like the protagonist enough to miss their perspective when it’s gone. They have to be so invested in the side characters that they lament the loss of the back-and-forth dialogue. They have to sense something becoming deeply wrong as their body accepts more metal substitutes, a suffocating dread that while they’re more powerful in combat, in a way, their character has already died.

That takes a certain level of craft, and usually only books and films can get inside a character’s head to that degree. But we contend that with the Witcher games, and especially The Witcher 3, CDPR set the high bar of traditional, linear storytelling in games. They had the Sapkowski books to lean on, but we have faith they can pull off that same level of craft in Cyberpunk and finally get this sci-fi trope right.

It won’t be specifically called out like it was in Space Siege’s marketing — rather, it’ll be a “show, don’t tell” raising of the bar in how to handle this trope, along with all the other ways Cyberpunk 2077 will wow us. And even though the game’s trailers won’t sing it out as a strength, the humanity vs cybernetics dynamic in Cyberpunk is probably something we’ll talk about for years afterwards.

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