Defining the story through your choices is at the heart of pen-and-paper RPGs, and that makes it the center of CD Projekt RED’s Cyberpunk 2077. That’s nothing new for CD Projekt coming off the Witcher series, but what feels remarkable about what we’ve seen of Cyberpunk so far is the number of elements it mixes to make the story feel bespoke to the character you’ve created. None of the ideas CD Projekt uses to build out a flexible narrative are new–it uses dialogue trees, branching narratives, multiple paths through mission and combat encounters, and character stats. What’s impressive, though, is how many variations Cyberpunk 2077 seems to offer players, and how often the choices you make will influence your gameplay and the story the game tells you.
CD Projekt RED showed a new demo of the game behind closed doors at E3 2019. This one focused on gameplay, walking through a mission with two different versions of V, the player character. Even still, there were plenty of conversations to work through and decisions to make that influenced the story, starting with character creation. At the start of the game, you set your character’s gender (just male and female, it seems) and their proclivities. As previously detailed, Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t include set classes; instead, it sports a “fluid class system” that allows you to choose a variety of different abilities and perks as you level up.
You’ll define your character in a lot of other ways as well. There are three backstory options to choose from that fill out what your childhood was like, while also defining what kind of person you are by investing points in a variety of stats. There’s Nomad, a Mad Max-like roaming gang existence; Street Kid, an urchin upbringing in the city; and Corporate, an origin among the straight-laced life.
All those elements (and a whole bunch more) influence your path through V’s story in Night City. The demo showed a mission in which V headed to Pacifica, the southernmost of Night City’s six distinct districts and which is mostly populated by immigrants from Haiti, to try to enlist the help of a gang called the Voodoo Boyz. Pacifica is pretty vastly different from the Night City we’ve previously seen. The district was initially planned as a beach-side resort area, and corporations poured money into creating m hotels and malls. Somewhere along the way, though, plans fell through. The money dried up, the corporations moved out, and Pacifica became a mostly abandoned locale where some of Night City’s poorest live. There isn’t even really a police presence in the district, making it unsafe even by Night City standards.
As developers explained, V has “biochip” stuck in their head and needs it removed. It contains the “secret to immortality,” and something else–Johnny Silverhand. The “digital ghost” of the Cyberpunk 2020 character, played by Keanu Reeves in the game, was introduced during CD Projekt’s appearance during Microsoft’s E3 press conference. He resides in your head, and your relationship with him (and how you choose to shape it through your choices) will be a big part of the story.
Mercenary For Hire
Of course, help from the Voodoo Boyz doesn’t come easy. When you enter Pacifica, you meet with Placid, a high-level Netrunner (or hacker to non-cyberpunks) who means to put you on a job in exchange for the gang’s assistance. Your interactions with Placid includes lots of choices. You get standard dialogue options for your responses when speaking with him, while others open up based on context and the unique aspects of your character. For instance, if you choose the Street Kid backstory, your experience in gangs in your youth can give you insights into the inner turmoil of the group, which unlocks different responses. If you pumped points into Intelligence, V might recognize something technical in Placid’s interactions with an underling that adds another response.
Things going on in the room with you also add response possibilities, as do perks you unlock–being a skilled Netrunner might let you talk shop with Placid. You’ll also see all those options, whether they’re available or not, on the screen when you choose your responses, so you know exactly what you’re missing.
During their conversation about the job, there’s a moment when Placid reaches out and grabs V’s network link cable, a wire that slips out of V’s wrist that directly links to their brain. It’s how you “jack in” to networks and computers to get information, but using it carries a lot of danger–just as you can use it to access systems, systems can use it to access you. It’s a significant invasion of your space and safety for Placid to touch the cable and try to jack V in without their consent. The moment showed a different kind of interactive conversation moment: the player could choose for V to recoil from Placid’s reach, but a timer showed you only have a brief window to make that call.
Your actions and interactions also influence a stat called “Street Cred.” As you increase your cred through completing missions and doing other such things, you’ll gain access to more content, CD Projekt said. That might mean shopkeepers end up trusting you enough to offer you better, more illicit, or more illegal goods, or it might be new options in dialogue and new sidequests you wouldn’t get access to if you hadn’t built up a reputation.
Placid eventually dispatches you on a mission to figure out what another rival gang, the Animals, are doing in Pacifica. They’ve taken up residence in the Grand Imperial Mall, far from their usual territory, and he needs someone to go in and find out what they’re up to. There are plenty of choices for how you deal with the enemies there, and CD Projekt explained that you could complete the entire game without killing anyone if you so choose. Choosing between going lethal or non-lethal won’t necessarily have huge effects on the story, lead quest designer Pawel Sasko told GameSpot, but there are story moments where your choice to finish someone off or spare them will have lasting consequences.
Choosing A Side
After sneaking around and fighting (and killing) a whole bunch of gangsters, the mission ended with V discovering the secret of what’s happening in the mall: a government agency called Netwatch is using a surveillance van to break into the Voodoo Boyz’s network to hunt them all down. Your actual mission, which Placid didn’t fully explain, is to take out the Netwatch agent in the mall. When you find and confront the agent, he introduces another twist–he says the Voodoo Boyz call in outside contractors like you because you’re disposable, and if you link the Voodoo Boyz into Netwatch’s network as instructed, they’ll kill you.
V had several options for responding to Mosley, the Netwatch agent, including asking him for more evidence or distrusting him outright thanks to the Street Kid backstory experience. You can choose to side with the government (or stay off its bad side) in this moment, or complete your mission for Placid, and that decision leads to vastly different outcomes.
In the end, V chose to trust Placid and did as instructed. But Mosley was right, and seconds after making the connection, the Voodoo Boyz remotely cooked the brains of everyone on the Netwatch network–including V.
The betrayal didn’t entirely take, though. V woke up some eight hours later with the ghostly Johnny standing over them; it seems that biochip and the imaginary friend in V’s head might have helped them survive an otherwise lethal brain-hacking situation. Leaving the mall, V surprised the Voodoo Boyz lookouts waiting outside, who expected everyone inside to be dead. The player chose to let the gangsters drive V back to Placid to confront him. A handful of dialogue choices presented themselves, including one that had V just straight-up punch Placid in the face.
The last scene of the demo found Brigitte, the Voodoo Boyz’s real leader, making good on the promise to help despite the previous attempt to murder V. That would require heading into cyberspace to look for another Cyberpunk 2020 character who seems to be central to the game: Alt Cunningham. In the pen-and-paper sourcebooks, Cunningham developed a technology that could allow Netrunners to copy their brains into a fully digital form. Thanks to more murder and betrayal, Cunningham’s physical body was killed, but she survived as the first fully digitized person, escaping into the internet. To figure out the biochip and Johnny’s deal, it seems, V needs Cunningham’s help. V had the option to discuss the situation with Johnny before deciding to hop into cyberspace, a Matrix code-like realm, further emphasizing that for much of the game, Johnny seems to be a confidant and something of a partner. The demo ended just before V could determine if Cunningham, missing for some 50 years, is still alive–or still human.
None of the story elements in the Cyberpunk 2077 demo were major innovations. Franchises like Deus Ex, Mass Effect, and The Witcher have used all of these ideas to great effect in telling their stories. But Cyberpunk seems to use all the tricks and ideas in choice-based narrative games that have come before to greatly increase the ways the game’s story can feel uniquely yours, thanks to the V you create and your decisions along the way.
Of course, not every choice is monumental or triggering a significant change in the story; most probably don’t really matter. But Cyberpunk’s attention to detail in giving you so many options depending on different contexts looks like it’ll go a long way to making it feel very responsive. All these things look like they’ll go into helping players develop a V that will seem uniquely theirs. When the game finally launches on April 16, 2020, we’ll see how successfully those elements work together.
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Author: Phil Hornshaw