You can watch this essay in video form here:
Is Cyberpunk 2077 Just Another Open World Game?
While I’m not one who puts much stock in reviews, I found Gamespot’s assessment of Cyberpunk 2077 pretty interesting. While reading their article, I got the feeling that the side quests in the game were really good and enjoyable, but the main quest was a drag and there were some technical issues. Yet, when I got down to the bottom of the review where the author listed the games pros and cons, the list of “bad” items surprised me. Reading through these negative qualities I suddenly didn’t feel like I was reading a Cyberpunk review, I felt like I was reading an “open world game” review. Each item on the list seemed, to me, to be less of an indictment of Cyberpunk, and more general complaints that could be applied to any open world game. For instance, the first item on the list: “There’s so much to do that isn’t meaningful, so a lot of it ends up feeling superfluous,” is something I have felt about every open world game I’ve ever played. Some elements of these games, which often try to do too much, fall flat, are less inspired, less interesting, than I’d want them to be.
Another complaint the author makes is that “the main story doesn’t cohere with the rest of the game,” and again, I cannot recall an open world game where the main story didn’t feel like the bizarre cousin to the sandbox, a funnel into a certain path that feels incongruous with most of my other time spent with the game. I know Cyberpunk is notoriously buggy, crunch is a big industry issue, and there are a lot of other things we could talk about regarding it, but after reading reviews like this and playing a sizable chunk of the game, I’m interested in asking the question: “Is Cyberpunk 2077 just another open world game?” I’ll spoil my conclusion a bit: I think the answer lies somewhere between yes and no. It replicates the flaws we generally find in the genre, but has unique qualities that make it feel different from other open world games.
To answer this video’s question we first have to define what open world games are and why they are difficult to categorize beyond their vague “openness.” Most people use the moniker “open world game” to describe games where the player is free to explore the environment around them, discovering and playing with its systems. But the extent to which the player can explore and discover this open world varies wildly between different games under this umbrella term.
Like many others, my first true foray into open world games was with Grand Theft Auto III. GTA set the standard for the open world games of the 2000s with its massive open city, diverse missions, and well-paced story. It isn’t a big surprise that many gaming companies spent the next two decades trying to copy that formula. As for me, what I remember most about GTA is sitting around with my other juvenile cousins, one person in control and causing as much mayhem as possible, before dying and passing the controller off to the next player. This kind of play is representative of the possibilities afforded by a sandbox style open world game, where players are free to choose where to go and what to do. To be completely honest, I didn’t even realize the GTA games had intriguing plots until much later in my life: because my family and I mostly used it as a crime-spree simulator. The influence of GTA, though, cannot be understated. Yet, where games have gone since then is quite divergent. While the easiest comparison to Cyberpunk might be Witcher 3in terms of tone, I’d like to highlight three other open world games, Fallout 4, Metal Gear Solid V, and Breath of the Wild which all came out in the mid 2010s. I’d like to show how they are different, and in many ways, the same.
Fallout 4, and Bethesda’s other open world games, are a kind of genre unto themselves. What sticks out to me about Fallout is how jam packed it is with features, though they are often mediocrely implemented. You can build bases, kill mutants, get involved with different factions, buff your character, follow the main story, and much more. Fallout 4 really aims for the player to “have it all,” like the GTA games. By this, I mean that the game really encourages the player to treat the world of the game as their oyster and leave their imprint upon it. So for my money, Fallout 4 is a jack of all trades, master of none, you can find better base building games, better action games, better rpg games, and better story-driven games, but the one game does do all of these things, which must account for something? Still, it has the some of the same flaws we find in Cyberpunk: there is a ton to do that doesn’t feel meaningful or interesting, and the main story feels detached from the broader world of the game. Toward that second point, the further I got into the main story of trying to find the main character’s child, the less I felt like I was playing a Fallout game, and the more I felt like I was just jumping from one mediocre plot point to the next.
Metal Gear Solid V, on the other hand, really dials up the mechanical aspects of open world sandbox games. What I love most about it is how there seem to a hundred ways to solve every problem. The game really invites the player to use and abuse the game’s systems and mechanics to overcome obstacles. Unlike Fallout 4 or GTA, which try to offer the player a buffet of different narrative and gameplay flavors, MGSV commits to giving the player a buffet of different mechanics and approaches to problem solving. Still, I can’t help but feel like much of these open world actions lack substance at times outside of the pure joy of solving puzzles in unique ways. Am I really accomplishing much when I abduct these soldiers and send them back to my mother base? And just like Cyberpunk and Fallout 4, the main story, with its long cut scenes and loads of exposition, feels at odds with the notions of freedom and choice one finds in the game’s action and stealth mechanics.
Finally, in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, we can see an open world that is truly meant to be explored. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Nintendo just thrusts the player into a huge world and tells them to figure out what is fun. The basic gameplay rhythm of Breath of the Wild, at least in my experience, is to climb something tall, find a place you want to go to like a shrine, and then go there and have a little adventure, and then do it all over again. This is a very satisfying loop, but I know people who couldn’t get into that kind of self-directed play, and almost everyone I know felt like the dungeons, and greater plot of the game, were sorely lacking, in general and compared to previous Zelda titles. If Fallout 4 is a jack of all trades and MGSV is all about engaging with action and stealth mechanics, Breath of the Wild’s primary mode of play is exploration: finding new things in the world, and then going out to find more.
It’s odd to me: these games have similar faults, but I wouldn’t even say they are all that comparable, except that they do all fall under the same broad genre. This is what makes it difficult to talk about open world games: they often drive in differing directions, which makes comparing them tricky. The template of the genre, just like the large maps they are set on, is particularly open to interpretation: many different kinds of games can be set in an “open world.” But if it’s what you do with an open world that matters, why do these games all suffer similar setbacks? I think the reason goes back to the promise that open world games give their players: a big living world to explore, where the player has agency and can choose where they go and what they do. The problem with this promise is that it’s vague. What does it mean for the world to be big or living? What can and can’t the player do in this virtual place? There has to be some limit somewhere, and it seems like it’s at those limits that we find these games hollow and our decisions meaningless. And if the designers insert a grand overarching story into the game, as they are often want to do, that narrative, which is usually linear, disrupts the promise of an open ended experience.
So how does Cyberpunk set itself apart from these other open world games? In my eyes, it doesn’t really fulfill the basic promise an open world game. When I roam around looking for things to do with no real direction, the game is a little dull and boring. But, the game’s side quests really shine and make it feel like a television show set in a large futuristic city. I like to boot up the game, play for an hour or two and resolve one, a small story told from beginning to end. These stories have a pretty big dramatic range, and often remind me of shows like Law and Order. In any given side quest you may be a detective, a therapist, a friend, a thief, an assassin, or whatever other role the game slots you into. Regardless, you tend to leave the people you help in much better condition than you found them.
In one particularly dark side quest, I helped one of my character’s friends find his missing nephew, who had been kidnapped by a serial killer. In a race against time, I hacked into the killers dreams to find details about where the nephew was being held. I met the friend’s sister and got to know their kids. The further I went down this rabbit hole, the darker it got, and the end of this story was gruesome. Still, the different scenes the game set up for me to role play through were satisfying. These side quests can up to like 90% cut scenes and dialogue. You don’t feel like you have much of a choice, instead you felt like you’re playing the main character in a short television episode, and next time you turn on the game you’ll be tuning into another. Some of these stories even bleed into one another or feature reoccurring characters. Ultimately, this episodic feel to Cyberpunk is not bad, I actually quite like it, but I don’t really feel like the game delivers on the promise of a big living world to explore, instead I feel like I’m selecting a preordained story and playing through it. There aren’t many choices for the player other than what side quest to do next, but because the side quests are well-written and interesting, and the problems the player needs to solve are fun, the game manages to stay interesting.
Perhaps the promise of open world games is problematic because they try to be so close to the world that we inhabit. It’s too easy for the player to imagine how a game might be “better” because we have a close corollary with which to compare the action of the game: the real world. But games are not the real world, they are representations of the world. The things that make the real world engaging and interesting: among other things, its vast size in relation to our smallness, the creative ways we can manipulate things, or social dynamics with other people, are difficult to represent in a game. Perhaps this is why it’s easier for Cyberpunk to remediate a television show rather than trying to represent the entire world around us. Open world games are constantly running into the limitations of their form: they are only games, coded architectures, representations, but they are often trying to do much more than their code will allow.
David Myers makes this argument about games in general in his book Play Redux, writing: “computer games appear capable of extending human knowledge only to the extent that human experience can be represented. During computer game play, representations of human experience—histories, narratives, societies, and simulations—are equally hollowed by the habitual and repetitive nature of play and are equally transformed by a more fundamental, proto-representation: an anti-form” (70). What this means is that games represent aspects of human experience, they are a proxy, not the real thing. The “anti-form” Myers describes is how play references the things it is not. Myers uses the example of a stick horse, which is “something like a horse, but not a horse: it is an anti-horse, which requires but does not fulfill its reference to a horse.” In this way Cyberpunk 2077, and all open worlds, are actually anti-worlds, they are something “like” a world, but they are not a world themselves. This means that eventually, through play, we will find them to be hollow, lacking the meaning of world they simulate. Whether this is in linear narratives players feel forced into, or at the margins, the limits, where the game no longer does a good enough job replicating the world to be convincing.
So is Cyberpunk 2077 just another open world game? Yes. It fails in the same ways that all open world games do because it cannot replicate the world around us to a truly gratifying way. And no. It is at least somewhat unique in the television-y episodic feel I described earlier. Perhaps this is not a satisfactory answer, but maybe returning to Grand Theft Auto will illuminate an important tension. In the wake of GTA’s amazing wide open world, game designers became much more serious about generating their own open worlds for players to explore. But, in the same way that GTA’s world is an anti-form of the real world, many open world games have become anti-forms of GTA. They become compared to each other, a facsimile of one another, which only exasperates their collective failings. Perhaps in 2021, if we’re lucky, a new game will come out and break the mold like GTA did and expand what we think is possible. But for now, I can only tell you that Cyberpunk 2077 ain’t that game.