Occasionally there comes a game that bothers to explain why its protagonist gets try after try to complete the objective, eyes opening at a previous save point instead of the first Game Over screen being the end of the whole experience. Whereas most games are satisfied with “it’s a game,” to others, it’s an opportunity for a different kind of storytelling. Cyberpunk 2077 takes this idea and uses Johnny Silverhand, a punk rocker from decades ago, to give it a spin we’ve never seen.
The first sequence of Cyberpunk 2077 sees you come across a priceless computer chip which is inserted into your brain. The chip has a passenger – Silverhand – and while he wastes no time making demands of you, it also becomes apparent that while Silverhand is around, he can reboot your body from otherwise certain death.
But Johnny Silverhand does a lot more than that. Johnny Silverhand turns the open-world formula on its head.
This is quite a unique proposition for a game like this, which normally would use the character hitching a ride to point things out on your minimap and be the permanent voice in your ear, providing exposition and reminders about the main quest. But Silverhand was never one to be pigeonholed into a service role. He’s more Tyler Durden than Cortana, more Patrick Bateman than Navi. A ghost with his own agenda, and probably the most unreliable game narrator since The Stanley Parable.
We’ve already seen examples of Johnny Silverhand fooling the player to get you to act in the way that he wants. As for what that is? In the words of a butler immortalised in meme form… Some men just want to watch the world burn.
Silverhand is an anarchist. He’s the “punk” in cyberpunk, that particular brand of anarchist whose power to defy authority seems correlated to the distortion setting on the nearest amp. He may have some tangential desires, such as revenge against the musclehead that took his life before he was digitised. But his dialogue in both major trailers refer to burning down the city, and that presents another major divergence from the standard open-world narrative formula.
That’s the extreme nature, and inescapability, of his demands. True to form for both CDPR and the old Cyberpunk 2020 role-playing game, you’ll come across many factions with their own agendas. But this usually takes the form of vying for resources. Silverhand is the monkey wrench that cares not for your credits, only working towards the dismantling of the system.
Imagine Heath Ledger’s Joker lighting his giant pile of money on fire. Now imagine him in your head for an entire game. What could well be the primary antagonist is trapped inside the protagonist. And from what we’ve seen, he has a degree of control over your senses, making you doubt what you see and hear. Descartes’ evil demon is real, and he listens to Rage Against the Machine.
Always one to prioritise choice, CDPR allows you to disagree with Silverhand, and disobey him. It might even become necessary, given how extreme he is. But that carries more consequences than betraying a normal faction or NPC.
Before the game is said and done, you’re bound to have discovered the cost of angering Johnny Silverhand. Presuming you have what it takes to say no to the adorable, enlightened face of Keanu Reeves, it could happen early in the game or later on. CDPR have promised an interesting way to keep playing in Night City after the main story is complete, and Silverhand is bound to be involved with that too, considering the computer chip he lives in is tied to your immortality.
As creator Mike Pondsmith has noted, there were no eyewitnesses to the death of Johnny Silverhand, so there’s room for even more chicanery in Cyberpunk 2077. We’ve seen graffiti in sections of the game, decades after his apparent death, asking Where’s Johnny?
It would have been enough to crank out another choice-heavy role-playing game with compelling characters and different combat styles in an open world with more verticality than usual. As gamers we’re on board for that without hesitating. But CDPR seems to want to play with the formula, to be a little less safe. It’s given you a character that could be just as much villain as friend, stuck in your head, with power over your senses and consequences for disobeying. It’s a monkey wrench in the stagnant, go-here-do-this quest systems of open worlds. Johnny Silverhand would approve.
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