Not a gamer? You should still care about Cyberpunk 2077
The result of more than eight years of development, Cyberpunk 2077 is the kind of video game blockbuster that only comes around a few times in a generation. A fusion of traditional media and interactive play made with the most up-to-date and eye-popping graphical fidelity, it attracts attention far beyond even casual video game enthusiasts to reach lapsed gamers and those with otherwise no interest.
That's not to say Cyberpunk represents the cutting edge of game design or is revolutionary in its play; in fact ironically given its subject matter it's arguably a little outdated in a gameplay sense. But it is a culmination of the entire last generation of video games when it comes to marrying traditional linear entertainment forms including cinema with interactive storytelling, and its world and stories are of a scale and scope – and can be interrogated in finer detail – than would be possible in any movie.
Video games are an amalgam of art forms, with many combining aspects of traditional acting, music, film direction and visual art on top of the gameplay mechanics and interactivity specific to the medium. But what nets so-called AAA games like Cyberpunk such broad interest (aside from all the advertising) is how pronounced and familiar those traditional elements are. Yes you'll absolutely be shooting, driving, hacking, equipping armour and building a character but, if you choose, those parts of the experience can take a back seat to immersing yourself in a synthetic culture.
The massive and detailed six-district city (plus surrounds) you can explore here looks just like a movie but feels like being lost in a foreign town, while the main storyline involves the ghost of a mysterious rockstar / anti-fascist terrorist living in your head, played by Keanu Reeves. If you steal a car you'll find the interior convincingly rendered and distinct from many others, and if you turn on the radio you might hear brand new music from Refused, Run the Jewels or Grimes – who are given new fictional identities in the game. The city and its inhabitants are a clash of aesthetics from throughout the world's fictional history (which branches off from our real world history about 1990), giving the whole thing a more comprehensively realised vision of the kinds of futures seen in RoboCop or Judge Dredd.
In 2077 human bodies are treated like machines, and everything from your eyes to your hands to your circulatory system can be replaced with hardware. A technology called braindance – which allows human experience to be recorded by one mind and experienced by another – has become the dominant form of entertainment, distracting many from the realities of an overpopulated world run by cut-throat megacorporations and violent, ubiquitous gangs.
This is all a perfect fit for a AAA video game, as elements that generally exist as abstractions – character upgrades, aiming reticles, subtitles, being able to see through the lens of a security camera or the eyes of another character – can be presented as purely diegetic.
Night City may not be the most interactive setting seen in video games – most doors are locked and your journey is defined almost entirely by the narrative structures of missions rather than by your own explorations – and the pre-release version of the game I played certainly has its share of distracting bugs and glitches, but as an avenue for delivering art and stories the whole thing's impressively robust and consistent.
Speaking of stories, there are hundreds of them here from extraordinarily dark detective tales to light-hearted romantic comedies and from quick character studies to multi-tiered heists. Developer CD Projekt Red already made a name for itself with The Witcher 3 when it comes to crafting exciting and thought-provoking small-scale missions and stories within a larger game, and ultimately that's the most impressive element here as well.
The large bulk of things you can do or see are not at all mandatory, which strikes an interesting balance between player freedom and authored stories. You can choose which jobs to initiate at any point, and you're given choice and options in how they play out, but each one acts like a short film or stage play and can open up (or block off) further adventures once completed.
Of course one of the downsides of so closely emulating and integrating traditional media is that, in many aspects of the production, the game seems juvenile by comparison. The main storyline through Cyberpunk 2077 will not blow you away if you're a fan of sci-fi movies, and Keanu Reeves' performance is notably weak here compared to his Hollywood turns.
That said, the stories told in games like Cyberpunk 2077 are not directly comparable to those told in something like cinema because of the interactivity; your decisions shape the narrative and, as far as blending Hollywood presentation with interactive storytelling goes, this is essentially the new benchmark.
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Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.