What *is* a Wheaties shell?
A little more than a year after the last proper showing for Cyberpunk 2077, CD Projekt Red released several new trailers and announcements in a video digest called “Night City Wire.” The main draw of this presentation was a significant look at Cyberpunk’s gameplay, which outside of behind-closed-door coverage, has been hard to come by. As a big fan of both CDPR’s work as a developer so far and the cyberpunk genre as a whole, I have to say I’m pretty disappointed in what I saw.
If we’re looking at what was shown from a purely gameplay perspective, things look middling at best. The floaty first person gunplay that most E3 previews mentioned doesn’t seem to have changed, with most combat looking incredibly clunky and staggered. Environments look vibrant and techy in a real grungy way, exactly like you’d want from something called Cyberpunk, and the UI is suitably neon and futuristic to match. The newly shown “Braindance” mechanic, which lets you look at people’s memories from various camera angles to piece together what happened in them looks like a really great improvement upon similar systems we’ve seen before in games like Remember Me. However, it’s impossible to look at anything in such an agnostic and apolitical way, so let’s get to what I really thought.
To me, the success of The Witcher series was how it blended its dark fantasy pastiche with sympathetic and reflective moments. There was a crassness to it for sure, but at its core what made everything work was the quiet charm of every character and how they interacted with one another. Cyberpunk 2077 is anything but quiet or reflective, and almost everything in the ten or so minutes of gameplay we got to see showcases an open-world experience more reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto than anything else. Characters are regularly dropping slang like Life is Strange characters, Asian iconography and linguistics are pasted haphazardly around as an aesthetic, and everyone is constantly talking about how much sex they’re going to have.
While it’s not too surprising that CDPR would have a heavy focus on sex—The Witcher was full of brothels, sex scenes and collectable pin-ups— the way all of their marketing has been focused around it has been incredibly offputting. Every developer interview has touched on some aspect of sexuality in increasingly uncomfortable ways, and this trend has continued with a bizarrely heavy emphasis throughout this presentation and preview coverage. New mechanics are introduced by talking about how they intersect with the adult video market, gangs are referenced by their ties to sex workers, and even character creation features are bragged about via how big you can make your character’s dick.
I would be more than welcoming to a big budget game actually exploring and humanizing sex work, something that most other games have only ever treated as jokes or something to look down upon, but I don’t believe one made by predominantly straight white men can contain the experience & insights necessary to examine these topics in genuinely compelling ways. This is something that The Witcher 3 came under fire for a few years ago, that the development team at CDPR is so homogenized that it often cannot account for their own blindspots when it comes to the lived experiences they want to cover in their works.
This same issue comes into play when exploring the way Cyberpunk 2077 explores gender as well, which many may remember was a bit of a hot button issue last year. Journalists found posters in the game showcasing extremely fetishized trans models with marketing points poking fun at the fact that said model was transgender, which developers claimed was making a statement about hypersexualization in advertising. While that’s almost an acceptable answer, at the same time the Cyberpunk 2077 official Twitter account responded to a comment from a fan with an incredibly exhausting “Did you just assume my gender?” joke.
When discussing Cyberpunk’s character creator, one of the biggest talking points is how you can mix and match your character’s genitalia to different “body types,” something CDPR added after talking to journalists last year about transgender representation. While this feature has been added, voice options are still tied to a gender binary, which feels like kind of a weird thing to keep given that you can go learn about what “Non-binary” is for free on Wikipedia in several languages! This sort of well-meaning-but-still-completely-missing-the-point talk piece could have easily been solved if the people in charge of the development for the game actually sought out trans people to properly implement things like that, because when your development team is a sea of incredibly similar people, you’re far less likely to have anyone speak up and think that what you’re doing is wrong or boring.
Even ignoring all of these missteps, whenever I look at Cyberpunk 2077 all I can think about is the tiring conditions that the developers of the game have been working under for quite some time. In a Q&A with Kotaku last year, CDPR co-founder Maricin Iwiński said that the company planned to be more humane than they were during the development of The Witcher 3, where developer “crunch” lasted more than a year after numerous delays and ended up bleeding out much of the talent behind the game from near-hundred hour work weeks. This didn’t mean they weren’t going to crunch at all, however, as Maricin claimed that crunch was a “necessary part of making games,” and that they would merely be making the crunch opt-in and non-mandatory.
The problem with “non-mandatory” crunch in a creative field is the amount of pressure an individual faces, from both inside and out. There’s the external pressure, being made to feel like you’re letting down colleagues and co-workers, looking lazy in the eyes of management. but there’s also the internal aspect; Game design is an artistic field, and when you’re creating a piece of work, it’s all too easy to keep pushing yourself over and over again because you truly do want it to become the best it can be. It’s these pressures that make the notion of an optional crunch grossly irresponsible and purposeless, because without systems put in place to enforce periods of rest for workers, you may as well have never said anything at all.
When Cyberpunk 2077 finally launches in November of this year, the developers behind it will have been working under periods of crunch for over a year, just as many of them had with The Witcher 3. There is no reason for any sort of work, much less one with such financial backing and guaranteed profit as this one, to be forced upon someone in our modern society. Maybe when the game comes out, I’ll be impressed by what the developers managed to accomplish despite my misgivings, but even so, any sort of praise will be held back by the knowledge that this game was built upon suffering, and it simply didn’t have to be.