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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Imaginary Keanu or no, Cyberpunk 2077 is a failure of character

Illustration for article titled Imaginary Keanu or no, Cyberpunk 2077 is a failure of character
Screenshot: CD Projekt Red

Note: This article contains spoilers for the end of Act 1 (and a bit of Act 2) of Cyberpunk 2077.


It takes Cyberpunk 2077 eight or so hours to introduce you to its main character. That might seem deceptive. After all, the very first thing you do in CD Projekt Red’s ambitious, misguided, massive, controversial, and ultimately unfathomable new action-RPG is design the person you’ll be playing as, the rookie mercenary V. But while you can customize V’s appearance, their skillset, and even, in rough strokes, their background, what you can’t do with Cyberpunk’s memetically cock-obsessed character creator is establish who they actually are. And the reason for that is very simple: They’re nobody.

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Not just “nobody” in the sense that V is, at the start of the game, an untested entity in the ecosystem of Night City’s various killers, hired guns, and overly aggressive used car salesmen. (Seriously, Mr. Hands, no one wants to buy your old Hyundai.) What I mean to say is that V is nobody; as a character, they are fundamentally indescribable. Whether you pick a Corpo, Nomad, or Street Kid background, the character itself remains a cipher, a smarmy robot built out of dialogue choices that can turn on a dime from psychopathically aggressive to saccharine, depending on a player’s whims. Viewed only from first-person (or in the game’s already infamously buggy mirrors), V exists in the game as little more than a pair of hands that allow players to shoot or hack their hordes of largely faceless foes.

And even that base level of identification is constantly disrupted by the haphazard nature of the game’s spoken dialogue, which is just as likely to make you think, “Christ, this guy is such a prick,” as root for their success. (All of these impressions come courtesy of a play-through with the male-presenting voice provided by Gavin Drea, FYI.) Want to go off the grid and explore the game’s massive map or its trove of nigh-endless sidequests? Don’t expect V to say anything interesting. In fact, don’t wait for V to say anything interesting ever. For a game that’s ostensibly about the horrors of losing one’s identity—more on that in a second—Cyberpunk goes out of its way to make its “protagonist” nearly impossible to identify with.

What’s wild about this disconnect is that it arrives in the wake of The Witcher 3, the primary wellspring for the masses of hype surrounding CDPR’s latest, and whose Geralt of Rivia stands as one of gaming’s finest examples of a protagonist who somehow works both as his own person and as a robust expression of the player’s will. No two Geralts who make their way through the company’s widely celebrated 2015 epic are likely to make the exact same choices at every juncture in its widely branching plot—but all of them will still come out of it feeling like recognizable versions of the same man. Part of that is down to voice actor Doug Cockle, who never makes Geralt sound like anything less than himself in even the most extreme of circumstances. But it’s also a testament to how well CD Projekt Red wrote the character; you can have Geralt choose entirely contradictory answers to any of the game’s various moral conundrums, and the writing will always go out of its way to justify his stance—because Geralt is a firmly defined character with his own wants, needs, and fears, and everything he does in The Witcher 3 reflects that. For a more recent example of this, look to Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla: Eivor Wolf-Kissed might be a cipher, but at least they feel like a cipher with a consistent point of view.

V doesn’t have a point of view. (Or hair, any time I try looking in the mirror while wearing a baseball cap, which glitches it out of existence—but that’s neither here nor there.) Instead, Cyberpunk 2077 pawns that duty off on a far more bankable star: digital ghost Johnny Silverhand, played with undeniable charisma by bona fide, no fooling, actual movie star Keanu Reeves. After the high-tech heist that serves as the focus of the game’s first act inevitably goes pear-shaped (this is a cyberpunk story, after all), Johnny’s mind ends up getting shoved directly into V’s head, beginning a push-and-pull between the two of them that is A) the single most interesting thing to happen in Cyberpunk 2077 in my 20 or so buggy, crash-riddled hours with it, and B) cribbed pretty aggressively from the “Joker is your imaginary friend now ” bits of 2015’s Batman: Arkham Knight. And it’s interesting not just because, hey: Free Brain Keanu. No, it works because Johnny is an actual character. He has consistent opinions, he has goals he’s trying to achieve, and the things he does always make sense as a part of the whole. Sure, he’s an asshole about most of this stuff, and he needs you to do all the legwork, but at least he’s an asshole with an ethos.

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Even once V and Johnny establish an uneasy truce with each other, trading invisible banter and buddy cop-ing things up, Cyberpunk continually posits Silverhand’s unstoppable overwrite of V’s mind as a terrible thing. But why? Seriously, what’s actually being lost: Some random wisecracks? My skill choices in the game’s (admittedly robust and fascinating) character development system? My terrible taste in armored basketball shorts? Like I said back up at the top, by the time it tries to make you care about V’s continued existence, Cyberpunk has already fundamentally bifurcated its main character duties; intentional or not, V is merely the platform that allows Johnny to progress the most interesting aspects of its story. Johnny is the one with the connection to the characters who matter. Johnny is the one whose resources you’re tapping to get things done. Johnny is the one who cares about what’s happening beyond the basest impetus of survival. Johnny is the main character. V is just meat.

If this was all intentional, it’d be tremendous, and tremendously subversive. If a game that’s all about the decay of the human spirit—which infuses Night City, from its pervasive stank of Grand Theft Auto-level cultural satire, to its omnipresent advertising, to the inescapable reminders of how many hours of real-life programmer and artist lifespans were sacrificed to make the whole thing sort of work—spent its time talking the player into giving themselves up so that a more glamorous digital avatar might live, that would be a stunning execution of the game’s core themes. But Cyberpunk feels a lot more like it thinks it’s on humanity’s side, even as the void that is its central “protagonist” threatens to drag the whole thing down into the abyss. Guns and genitals don’t help us identify with characters: Choices do. And Cyberpunk’s V consistently chooses to be inert.

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