WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for Cyberpunk 2077 and The Last Of Us Part II.
It goes without saying that the year 2020 represented a turning point for many industries at production, service and consumer levels – video games were no exception. Beyond the obvious difficulties of a global pandemic, the impending arrival of new consoles from Sony and Microsoft loomed large, as gaming’s economic dominance grew even stronger with the vast majority of people being forced to spend more time at home than ever. However, they were not the biggest talking points in a year highlighted by the oft-delayed releases of the two most anticipated new single player titles of the last decade, outside of Rockstar Games’ behemoths.
The first of these titles, The Last Of Us Part II, was an incredibly bold and risky endeavour, following up gaming’s most critically celebrated effort of all time with a sequel some deemed unnecessary, yet others (like myself) considered absolutely essential. A punishing, unrelentingly bleak, and often genuinely uncomfortable odyssey of suffering, loss and vengeance, it is perhaps the bravest game I have ever played. After all the hype, it delivered a masterclass of gameplay tension, character complexity and genuine raw emotion, with deft and restrained character performances juxtaposed by brutal catharsis, in the often (intentionally) excessive violence of the two main playable characters.
Taking the monumental risk of killing off one of entertainment’s most beloved and respected characters in the original’s protagonist, Joel, it sends central character Ellie on a sweeping revenge quest that forms the spine of the narrative. It then takes the even greater risk of rewinding from a false climax at what appears to be the story’s end, but is really the halfway point, and having players assume control of his killer, Abby. Remarkably, through exploring her own motivations and relationships leading up to her showdown with Ellie and her cohorts, it achieved, for me, the remarkable trick of having me sympathize with a character I had wanted to kill more than any other in over three decades of gaming.
In the game’s final conflict, as players assume control of Ellie in a grim and grisly hand to hand battle with Abby, I found myself wishing the brutality would stop, and she would let Abby escape her seemingly inevitable death. For the first time I can remember I was rendered deeply uncomfortable by such a visceral level of violence, enhanced by a level of tactile controller feedback that left my hands as exhausted as my psyche. In the end, Ellie lets Abby go, a move which for many renders the whole game pointless. Clearly, they missed the point.
There were critics who chided the game’s excess of brutality and bloodlust, framing it as dumb excess in what was explicitly promoted as a grim tale of vengeance, one which they complained wasn’t “fun” enough for a game in a market already flooded with cute, colourful games aimed at a younger market – one borderline overserved in just about all forms of media and culture.
Some railed against an allegedly inadequate portrayal of strong and nuanced female characters in a story dominated by them, simply because the story’s jumping off point was the death of a male, and they bemoaned publisher Naughty Dog’s willingness to protect this key plot point by faking a scene in the trailers from a part of the game where Joel was already dead in the final version. I, for one, commend this level of commitment in the light of disgusting spoiler culture, and only wish other developers would protect their stories so carefully.
It seems like most people were shocked and aggrieved by the loss of Joel, much as I was (I felt numb for hours after witnessing his murder). Which was, you know, the point. The difference was a lot of them handled it like children, even to the extent of death threats against actress Laura Bailey, whose excellent performance as Abby was sadly overshadowed by the reactions of people frankly too immature to be playing such an adult title (or openly communicating with people online, for that matter).
Not only that, a certain section of the player base went to absurd lengths to critique the physique of Abby, a much larger and more powerful female avatar than we are typically used to seeing in gaming. This difference in physical characteristics between Abby and Ellie was brilliantly expressed from a controller perspective, producing a tangible difference in gameplay tactility between the two leads, one which sports and fighting games would do well to learn from. The matter of fact presentation of two female protagonists, one openly lesbian, the other an ‘atypical’ woman both in body and personality type, was both refreshing and encouraging.
The game did what it said it was going to do: You were supposed to feel angry about the murder of Joel, and uncomfortable with the amount and degree of brutality that it resulted both during it, and from it. However, in a critical culture so supposedly enlightened, these points went over the heads of far more tenured and educated writers than me. There were questioning the value of such a violent game in such an already violent world, and they would perhaps be better suited sticking to the likes of Animal Crossing and other, less nuanced forms of entertainment. In the vein of album reviewers in NME or Rolling Stone dabbling in metal while criticizing it for being too ‘heavy’ or ‘angry’, they missed both context and purpose. Great art often provokes, challenges and makes you feel uncomfortable, and that which stands the test of time rarely does so by fitting in, despite what modern media would have you believe.
These nonsensical complaints also surrounded 2020’s other major single player release, Doom Eternal, a game from a franchise built on excessive gore and violence. At that point, one may as well blast footballers for kicking the ball too much, or better yet, grow a thicker skin and start reviewing things for what they are, and not just what one wants them to be. Frankly, I’m glad AAA gaming hasn’t yet been sanitized and childproofed to the patronizing, embarrassing levels that cinema and music have. It’s also nice to see mature single player IPs thriving in a market obsessed with multiplayer, and the childishly immature and toxic culture it often engenders.
Despite the ‘single player is dying’ narrative, there have been more great games in that medium in the last decade than in any previous one, achieving a depth and diversity of content in a medium once bogged down by mostly dry military shooters and generic fantasy RPGs – leaving many of us craving stories beyond jarhead tropism or swords and sorcery bored and jaded.
Speaking of RPGs, there has perhaps never been one as hyped and anticipated as Cyperpunk 2077, by one time industry darlings turned despised villains, CD Projekt Red. Announced in 2013, and demoed in 2018 to levels of acclaim and amazement rarely seen beyond Rockstar’s efforts, it promised a dazzling dystopia of the dark future – sunwashed neon tones and vivid fashions belying a gritty urban hell rife with crime, exploitation, and the suffering therein.
Sitting at roughly the midway point between Deus Ex and Grand Theft Auto (ironically my two favorite gaming IPs), in a world adapted from the famous Mike Pondsmith tabletop games, this vision of a fully open world city of the future was a source of great excitement for many. I for one had wanted an open world dystopian future game since the mid-2000’s, so in many ways I had been longing for the game far before it even existed. It was, potentially, the dream realized – a game aimed at people like me, transhumanist, rebellious and darkly cynical. Not to mention a rare instance of a city not based on either a satire or recreation of an existing metropolis.
I first played it, or attempted to, on a base PS4 about 12 hours after release. Needless to say the results were not pretty, looking more early PS3 or even late PS2 era at times, as one game mechanic failed after another in the second mission of the prologue, rendering the title simply unplayable, despite looking like loads of fun. Despite my disappointment, more comical in nature than anything, I retained hope that there was at least a decent game somewhere amongst the disappearing guns, t-posing NPCs, and constant crashes. Instead of being dismayed, it only increased my sense of urgency in acquiring the elusive PS5.
Acquiring a PS5 and beginning the game, now heavily patched, exactly a month after release, I confirmed this hope. Despite frequent crashes, the occasional (unintentional) flying car, and a host of other, mostly hilarious glitches, it ended up rapidly becoming my favourite game of all time. In a six week playthrough (the longest I have ever done), I finished all available missions and activities, save for a couple of time sensitive side quests early on. Character deaths impacted me with shock and genuine sadness. Dialogue choices resulted in suicides (and genuine guilt) over people I’d just met. The world itself, while less mechanically grounded and stable than other open world efforts, left a mark on me that few game or real world cities have, with a detail and architectural density simply unmatched in any game of similar urban scale.
Relationships mattered, and I agonized over choices and behavioural consistency where other games would simply have me picking any option, simply for the purpose of continuation. I lived as a true mercenary and enjoying all manner of gameplay approaches in an RPG that, unlike far too many, didn’t hem me into antiquated class systems, allowing me to adapt on the fly.
That’s not to gloss over it’s MANY flaws – the driving feels square and antiquated in many vehicles, and the NPC AI is at times laughably shallow. Police spawning is ridiculous, and the crass portrayals of sexuality and transgender identity in the game’s tasteless fictional advertising cannot be ignored. Customization options outside of functional augmentations are frankly non-existent, save for the awesome array of clothing. Water physics are a straight up joke, then again only one mission I can remember takes place in or under said water.
Story pacing, and the implied urgency of main character V’s condition after the prologue forced many to rush through the story and complete a game where one leaves the game world, and any unfinished content, after the ending – regardless of which one you choose. I, on the other hand, delayed story missions in favour of merc work, thus dragging out a malady that would’ve killed V in days over the course of in-game and real life weeks, creating tonal inconsistency.
I took the opportunity of creating a black trans avatar for the first time in a game, one about transhumanism, yet was only offered male and female pronouns and distinctly Caucasian sounding voices, which was dismaying (I’m a white CIS male, so I can only imagine the sheer disappointment of other demographics). The game is simply too easy after the extended prologue, save for the hand-to-hand underground fights, which are exactly as annoying as they sound (platforming and hand-to-hand combat in first person can disappear forever, frankly).
Criticisms of Asian stereotyping and fetishism (both positive and negative), abounded, and perhaps they should also be addressed at the source material also. Focus on them was perhaps excessive, because they were far from the only stereotyped group in the game, and featured more in the early stages of a game that few played as much as I did. Certainly one could look at the Voodoo Boys, Valentinos and 6th Street gangs and consider their potential negative stereotyping of Haitians, Latins and Americans respectively. Then again, in a game coming from mostly white, deeply conservative Poland does not surprise me. That’s not an excuse, just an analysis. One should also consider that gangs themselves, in real life, do actually lean pretty hard into negative stereotypes, and assume some responsibility for perpetuating them.
The thing about the gameplay’s AI, driving and police flaws is they rarely came up for me, mainly because I wasn’t thundering around the map full speed in stolen cars, massacring civilians like a Grand Theft Auto rampage. I barely even do that in GTA anymore, as it’s played out, and that series is far more fun when one actually immerses oneself in the world, instead of just attacking it. If you play Cyberpunk like a ROLE PLAYING GAME, as designed, it holds up a lot better. Leave the mindless anarchy to Saints Row or Just Cause, games built for the purpose.
For all these flaws, there was plenty of whimsy and wonder to be found. The satisfaction of climbing all manner of architecture, to achieve a degree of vertical advantage never allowed in modern first person games. The underwater majesty of The Pyramid Song mission, one of the most memorable quests in all of gaming. The sheer, visceral thrill of hacking enemies in the middle of a tense firefight, before sliding under their bullets with minimal health and low ammo and rising to decapitate them with a swift katana slice, or a nanowire swipe. Sunsets in the badlands, and sunrises on the ridge over Rancho Coronado, as you escape the crushing density of the metropolis. The heartbreaking ‘sell your soul’ ending, one of six (I played five of them).
What Cyberpunk does is embrace the notion of gaming as a power fantasy, allowing a variety of player expression and approach to combat (or diplomacy) that feels truly satisfying, forsaking the cries of RPG traditionalists for fluid progression systems and skill trees. Impressively, it also features world class FPS mechanics on par with leaders in the genre. Dialogue has improved from the cringeworthy cliches of early trailers and gameplay demos, and is often insightful, amusing, and occasionally very affecting. Conversations and facial capturing feel authentic and immersive, instead of just two awkwardly stiff characters and a list of dialogue choices, and there’s no cutscenes until the endings – this is critical in embedding the player in the moment.
While the game is balanced far too easy for veteran players like myself, it is at least fun to play both in terms of planning and execution. I certainly appreciate that as a person who works hard for his free time, and doesn’t wish to spend his leisure hours replaying basic scenarios due to clunky controls, awful shooting and constricting mechanics (Fallout 4, I’m looking at you). Or keep dying because a AAA developer didn’t manage to implement proper camera perspectives in combat, like last year’s overrated critical darling, Ghost Of Tsushima.
There were the inevitable “Dad rock” critiques as well, forgetting the established lore of a world where the original internet was destroyed, and rebel counterculture rose again through vinyl and punk bands. Snide reviewers found it laughable that rock and rebellion still existed in such a future, one derived from an alternate history – perhaps they’d prefer the game world’s history (and future) to be changed to suit their vision. Or, worse yet, one based on the bland, ethics-for-optics, corporate monoculture of today’s underwhelming, infantilized dystopia.
The overall point here is that we as a gaming culture, and a society at large, tend to focus on the negative more than the positive, and sometimes, as a result, we get what we deserve. I’m not excusing CDPR (or Naughty Dog, Rockstar, or anyone else) for their crunch culture, false advertising, or representational politics. Nor am I saying the likes of Cyberpunk or TLOU II are perfect and above criticism. But we as a culture seem to often forget that great art is often flawed, largely because we expect a level of fake perfection perpetuated by everything from reality TV to social media. In doing so, many forget that real, eternally memorable creation and performance takes a commitment, and mastery of craft, most could only imagine. That commitment often comes with more criticism than praise, and more sacrifice than reward.
Great art also usually takes time, a lot of it, especially in this most intensive and expensive of mediums. This is a society that complains about delays (to the extent where CDPR received death threats this year), then throws arms up about glitches, bugs and cut features in a product that offers potentially weeks of entertainment, all for a mere $60 – $80. Many think nothing about spending that amount on a mediocre night out at a bar or club that might only last 2 – 5 hours, or $15 to $20 on a film that hopefully doesn’t suck, and keeps us busy for an afternoon or evening. If either event sucks, no refund policy will protect us, unlike in gaming, an industry which despite dominating entertainment economics doesn’t pay the average worker THAT well.
The same shareholders who interfered in the production of Cyberpunk in order to avoid further delays, thus dropping annual earnings and share prices, are now reaping what they sow as sales plummet, and stock values nosedive from poor reviews and store refunds. Perhaps next time, they will learn to stay out of their own way, and out of the way of those doing actual work – much like being a landlord, being a shareholder is not a real job. The stock market already has excessive influence on the world as it is, but that’s a topic I needn’t explore further here.
Sony has yet to approve Cyberpunk for a return to the PS store, as hackers delay patches and the media seems to place all of the blame on CDPR. Somehow, little to none of it lands on a toxic fanbase, a ridiculous hype culture – one perpetuated by the media – and the insane levels of vitriolic negativity towards people who’ve worked harder than they, the hackers or us critics ever will. I understand few would want to purchase a new console just to play one game, but those who didn’t generally got refunds. Compared to the glitches I experienced in some of the WWE games, or the abysmal, infuriating mess of Fallout 4, Cyberpunk’s issues seem minor.
We rake game devs over the coals for a couple of removed features or a few bugs, in games that are usually refundable, yet many of us accept a level of performance from ‘musicians’ or politicians making millions for a level of execution that would get us fired from our jobs, or would get actors and writer mocked to the point of retirement. We expect perfection in both ethics and output from devs (and athletes for that matter), but are happy to let low effort sociopaths become captains of industry in music, television, politics and social media, and thus we get the ‘leaders’ we deserve, many of us false virtue signalling ‘woke’ all the while. The ‘woke’ as branding variety – not true ride-or-die, universally consistent sociopolitical ethics.
The level of positive hype towards both of the games explored in this piece, juxtaposed by the insane vitriolic negativity following their releases, are both examples of a polarizing culture of excess where everybody’s a critic and an expert. They expect perfection yesterday when they should be grateful for flawed brilliance today (let alone under pandemic conditions), and glitches or narrative decisions that would have elicited a groan or a chuckle a decade ago now result in murder threats, smear campaigns, and talented people leaving their chosen fields to escape such negativity. Many have done so recently, like partners losing a piece of themselves to abusive relationships, for people who never deserved them in the first place.
The customer, like the critic, is entitled to their opinion, but it is NOT always right, and that opinion is NOT sacred, despite the fact that now everyone everywhere can review anything (and often abuse that privilege). Perhaps if we enjoy things for what they are, and not just what we wish them to be, the overall quality of life for creators and consumers would be better. If we are so concerned with improvements to standards in an industry riddled with crunch, we should do our part, and manage expectations and criticism in a way that doesn’t add to the stress of creators in an already high pressure environment. Cyberpunk’s disastrous release shouldn’t just be a lesson to developers, but one to critics, fans, and shareholders. If things don’t change, and we don’t slow down the hype trains, they will inevitably go off the rails.