At a climactic moment in Cyberpunk 2077, I got mad.
My husband and I have been playing this preposterously frustrating game every evening because … well, we don’t have too much else to do right now. Every time some bug or wonky sequence made one of us throw the controller down and shout, “Never again!” the other would pick it up again the next night.
But I can pinpoint the moment where the game’s problems crystallized for me. At a climactic moment, a clearly heart-wrenching situation was written into the script. I waited for some feelings, any feelings, to rise up. They didn’t. Instead of feeling sad, I started to feel … bored. And disgusted. And a little manipulated.
Then, at the worst possible moment, a bug showed up. “Wait, that’s not a chip,” my husband said. “That’s a gun. He just pulled a gun out of his ear.” I ran to my office, opened my laptop, and began writing this piece. I can’t stand this game, but not because it’s almost unplayable. It’s just poorly written. You didn’t need to abuse a bunch of developers to fix that.
Heart and Soul
For context: I don’t consider myself a gamer. (Ed. note: You totally are.) A few years ago, I bought my husband a Nintendo Switch for Christmas, but the two of us have played it together ever since. I like Mario Kart with friends. Donut County was funny. Breath of the Wild made me gasp at its beauty, but I spent most of my time just collecting different-colored horses.
That was all until I downloaded The Witcher 3 on a whim, after we watched the first episode of the Netflix show. From the opening sequence, I was transfixed. Witcher 3 is everything that people say it is. Geralt is a compelling character with a wide array of skills; the Continent is vast and richly detailed; the stakes are high. It’s Law & Order: SVU meets Lord of the Rings.
But that’s not why I loved it. Despite the fantastical monsters, it felt real, and I forgave the many bugs and glitches (Still! Years after it launched!) because the story was so good. The Witcher 3 is paced like a novel. At its heart, it’s a Daddy Game. Geralt is searching for his wife and daughter. Nothing is easier to empathize with than that.
Despite its length, it’s elegant and economical. It sets up the stakes within the first few minutes, with a dramatic opening sequence featuring the lost Yennefer, and a training tutorial showing Geralt’s love for a creepy miniature Ciri. The writing is dry, funny, and occasionally grotesque, grounded in a deep and sympathetic understanding of human nature.
For example, “Family Matters”—a side quest where Geralt tries to help a dissolute baron piece his family back together—made me laugh, cry, and feel a little sick all at once. It was everything I’ve ever wanted from a game. As my colleague Cecilia D’Anastasio put it, Witcher 3 is my One Game. The idea that I might have another game like it, and so soon, made me dizzy.
Stupid Leather Dad Pants
To me, as a nongamer, the discourse on Cyberpunk 2077’s poor performance feels like it misses the point. After all, The Witcher 3 was and is full of glitches, many of which have become established inside jokes. It’s funny that Geralt’s horse Roach keeps getting stuck in improbable places. When I first started Cyberpunk—I’m playing on a Stadia—I got my car stuck on a rock in the first five minutes.
“It’s Roach all over again!” I commented to my colleagues.
Maybe Cyberpunk’s rhythms are different due to the source material. Neuromancer, the groundbreaking novel on which the tabletop RPG is based, is by all accounts frenetic and convoluted. But a week and a half in, I’m still not invested.