Cyberpunk 2077 Keanu Reeves

Cyberpunk 2077 was released not long ago, after almost a decade’s worth of development since its original announcement. The oddly generic title is due to the fact that it was an adaptation of a tabletop roleplaying game of a similar name, which fans hoped would mean the game had a vast amount of lore to draw upon and develop. You might expect that, as a writer in this particular genre, I was eagerly awaiting the release of such a major title… but something about it felt off. I was sure it was vaporware at this point, something destined never to be released. And should it ever make it to (digital) shelves, I was afraid it would be the next Duke Nukem Forever. While the game’s not quite that bad off, it sure hasn’t lived up to years’ worth of hype. But we’ll set that aside for the moment to look at just why this highly anticipated release managed to fall to a place where it was removed from the Playstation’s digital shop.

First announced in 2012, fans of both the genre and the publisher, CD Projekt Red, rejoiced upon hearing the news of Cyberpunk 2077. Cyberpunk is a genre that’s disappointingly ill-represented in the gaming world, although some hit titles like Watch Dogs definitely drew inspiration from it. CD Projekt Red is a Polish developer that’s best known for creating The Witcher series, another adaptation that’s both critically acclaimed and extremely popular. Fantasy has long had it’s day in the video game sun–would it finally be time for cyberpunk to do the same? Beautiful, flashy concept art began floating around the net almost immediately, and would continue to trickle out over the years as news of the actual game development was kept fairly quiet.

The first trailer was shown at E3 2013, over seven years before its eventual release. Each year afterwards, however, the game continually failed to materialize, until a major push towards release began in 2018. The announcement of Keanu Reeves’ involvement that summer brought a new wave of attention on to Cyberpunk 2077, causing gamers like myself who had assumed it might never come out to give it a second look. From a marketing perspective, it was an extremely effective stunt. While certain big name celebrities had been involved with games in the past, including some strange ones like Kingdom Hearts, this was somewhat unique in that Keanu’s likeness was being used in game as well, making it a more direct parallel to acting than many outside the gaming world had come to expect. After all, what difference is there between Andy Serkis’ motion capture in a film, versus motion capture acting for a game? There was a sudden change in the air, almost; could this finally be the moment where gaming could gain respect as an art form?

Concept Art for Cyberpunk 2077
Cyberpunk 2077 concept art, from the official website.

Marketing reached a fever pitch over the summer this year, with things like tie-in products, artbooks, etc. being released well in advance of the game. For a little known IP, this kind of prerelease popularity was radical. 2020 was not only a year that had long-standing importance in cyberpunk dystopian literature, but the actual events of 2020 made that dystopia feel a lot closer to home. While some gamers opted for escapism in the flowery cartoon world of Animal Crossing, it seemed others were eager for a different kind of escape, one to a world where they actually held the power to change things.

Of course, what they got was not the ultimate experience many had been expecting. Cyberpunk 2077 had been in development for years… and yet news broke in the last few months of 2020 that game developers and programmers were being forced into extraordinary amounts of overtime to get the game out by the end of the year. It had been delayed so long already, so what made it so essential to release now? The company, long held up as an example of a studio that knew how to produce truly excellent games, had quickly become the villain of the story, seemingly a typical case of disconnect between executives making the calls and the developers putting in the work.

There’s a certain dramatic irony that must be acknowledged here. Cyberpunk, as a genre, deals with themes of corporate overreach, greed, and how these things can destroy not only the world and society around them, but also the very goals they set out to achieve. Cyberpunk 2077 is no different in this regard. The story of the production of the game itself seems an almost perfect fit:

A company, setting up an ambitious project, expands beyond its means, opening new studios.

A marketing blitz, with the goal of ensuring the game is a financial success, builds far too much excitement and anticipation over too long of a period.

As it becomes clear internally that promises made may not be able to be kept, the fatal decision is made–proceed anyway. No more delays in the name of quality; the marketing hype can’t be wasted. Developers are rushed and put into crunch time, despite previous promises to avoid this. It makes for an odd point of contrast with the aforementioned Animal Crossing, which was delayed for months specifically to avoid crunch, and was rewarded greatly for it by becoming a bestseller of the year.

Deceptive practices take place in the name of this goal, locking reviewers behind strict NDAs and keeping the state of the console releases a secret by only providing reviewers PC copies.

And the company finally gets what it wanted: a release on the promised date. A release of glitch-filled, incomplete game, one that’s incapable of running properly on the systems it was supposed to be built for. What many once saw as possibly gaming’s moment to shine became just another example of why video games and the game industry fail over and over again. Even with a budget on par with a Hollywood blockbuster, games are far less trusted with their funding. As we sift through this story for lessons, the one that sticks out to me is that it’s difficult for a genre built on analyzing the failures of large corporations to become the vehicle for AAA storytelling. How can the art be taken seriously when it criticizes the very behaviors its creators are guilty of? While I had hoped a huge title like Cyberpunk 2077 might be the gateway the genre needed to hit mainstream audiences, perhaps that’s an impossibility. Even when big budget cyberpunk succeeds artistically, as with Bladerunner 2049, it often fails commercially.

It almost seems like resistance to the corporate is built directly into the cyberpunk genre’s DNA.

If you’re looking for some cyberpunk works to scratch that itch, might I suggest my own Dystopian Detective Series? The first two books are currently part of Smashwords’ end-of-the-year sale. I’ll keep popping in with articles when I can, but I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone it’s been another rough year. Let’s all just get through the end of this together, eh?