The Question of Humanity and Cyberpunk 2077

I beat Cyberpunk 2077 last weekend. Managed to accident my way into the secret version of the final questline as well, which was interesting considering it was the result of decision paralysis and the need to do my laundry that made me take the correct steps to unlock it. I wound up going back to play through a few different options for the final quest just to see what else was out there since the choices I made left me feeling a little sad given the way the game ends. Still, I don’t think I really expected it to end any other way. It’s a cyberpunk story. They rarely end neatly or happily.

I’m not going to go over the details of the endings because I’d like to avoid spoilers in general and, specifically, because they’re all about what you’d expect. At least, you know, from what I’ve experienced so far. There are at least two additional endings I learned about during my post-game internet scrolling (including dying during the secret ending, which was something I managed to avoid doing by spamming healing items and relying heavily on the OP quickhacking skills I’d developed as my primary means of combat), so I still need to go back to play through those before I can say for sure, but I don’t expect things to be substantively different. What’s more interesting to me, by far, is the same thing that caught my attention about Cyberpunk: Edgerunner. The end of Cyberpunk: Edgerunner was a foregone conclusion, and one that was clearly not going to be “positive” in the traditional sense of most stories. Instead, the focus was on the choices the characters made about themselves and the people around them, the impact they had on the world, and the people they left behind, which is where I feel the story of Cyberpunk 2077 is strongest as well.

One of the first optional quests you can get at the start of Act 2, as the story’s general shape and likely outcome is revealed to you, is a quest to find a bunch of mysterious graffiti that looks like Tarot cards. The character, Misty, who walks you through what tarot cards mean and which tarot card is represented by the image you found, is also the one who often plays the part of your spiritual advisor when it comes to big choices in the main line of quests. You meet Misty early on, as you cut through her shop to get to the doc who gives you your first implants at the start of Act 1. She stays involved in the story until almost the end, but not as an agent. Instead, she interprets, forecasts, and provides the first suggestion that change is not always to be feared. She also eventually does two tarot readings for your character when you find all but two of the cards (which are located in different forms of the finale) and provides insight into how the game might end based on the choices available to you.

The whole purpose of the quest line, beyond pushing you to explore the city and getting to see some pretty kick-ass art, is to get you (and ostensibly your character) thinking about what your choices mean. After all, no cyberpunk story ends with everything working out for the protagonist, at least not in the traditional “happily ever after” sense, anyway. This story gets you thinking about the impact you’re going to have on the world as your story comes to an end. Either because of the choices your character makes about how to complete the final mission and then deal with the results of those decisions or because, as a player, the game comes to an end after these choices and a final epilogue. When you’re gone, what will remain of you? What will people see of your legacy? What will the world see you decide to do when push came to shove? How will your actions be reflected in the eyes of those you were close to? Those whose life you directly impacted?

My favorite quest line involved finding a monk who led you in a series of meditations on the elements and the world at large. Every segment of the quest involves finding this man wherever he’s sitting, talking to him, choosing whether or not to let him lead you in meditation, choosing how much to pay for his service, and then sitting through the meditation itself. The entire time, he implies that he knows what is happening in your character’s life and gently but firmly deflects any questions about how he knows things or what else is happening beyond the rather limited scope of your conversation about the meditations. When each meditation begins, you see a view themed after the element in question for the given meditation and hear his voice. You can’t look around, you can’t move, and your character has no voice lines. In fact, the only things you can do as a player are pause, skip conversation lines, or skip the entire conversation. It was a very serene and peaceful experience, considering almost every other quest involves some kind of violence or trying (desperately) to talk people out of violence.

During the last meditation, as your character makes it clear that they’ve accepted the way he always disappears without a trace by the time the meditation is over, you can have a slightly longer conversation, but he says he will only answer one question. Given that I was deep in my roleplay for this character (who had moved beyond hedonism in response to the chaos of their life to acceptance and thoughtful consideration of the future beyond the limited scope of their day-to-day actions), I had my character ask him what he was trying to teach them. He said he was preparing them for the decision they would eventually be forced to make and, while I understood the general shape of what that would mean eventually (probably a bit more than my character did, but not much more), it wasn’t until that final choice lay before me that I really grasped what he meant. He hadn’t given my character any special insight or wisdom into the way of the world, but had been teaching them to accept the choices that lay before them. To think of the impact and realize that while my character’s life was small, it was also a part of something much larger. No matter how small they felt, their choices and the consequences thereof would shape the world around them, even if they are not the options my character would have like.

As I played through the three different endings I had the mental stamina and time to play through, I reflected on my experience with the game. Some sixty to eighty hours split between mostly weekends, usually playing four or more hours at a time and frequently staying up far too late (except for this past weekend, but that’s because I beat the game on Saturday afternoon and then did two more endings Sunday morning). I also reflected on the quests I’d done, mundane, murderous, and mystical, as I navigated the course of the game. Even the most simplistic or humorous quests about things like talking guns, saving a rich asshole, dealing with an ex-coworker, and becoming the top fist-fighter in the region are about something more than just the sometimes hilarious, sometimes frustrating story playing out. Almost every single one of them asks you to consider how you see other people and how other people see you. Some of them go deeper, asking you to make choices about the people involved and providing examples of the choices other people have made to put them in front of you in whatever situation. They’re all about the impacts of our lives on those around us and the impact of those around us on our lives. No person is an island and this is an entire game about it, which is pretty funny considering you job title is “solo” and no one wants to work with you because of the chaos and destruction that seems to follow in your wake.

Beyond the quests I mentioned earlier and the ones I briefly skated over in the previous paragraph, there’s so much more that pushes you to consider the people of the world beyond the ones giving you quests or who are essential to the plot. I fought a guy trying to make money for himself and his partner who was about to give birth to their child and was happy to learn the game let me give him the money from the fight even though I won. I attended a funeral and gave a speech about the person who passed away, picking from a list of options instead of just sitting back to listen to the voice actor monologue. I spoke with a man who found religion in prison and had agreed to record his execution by crucifixion in an attempt to give people without faith something that would hopefully shock them out of their indifference, and I was with him through almost every step of that process. The only things I wanted in terms of human connection in this game that I didn’t get were gender-neutral pronouns and the ability to offer people hugs.

I hope I play more games like this, that are invested in the people created to fill out this world beyond just providing a canvas on which your protagonists paints their story. I want characters with lives and ambitions and misfortunes and existences that so clearly extend beyond the bounds of the game that I find myself growing as attached to them as I get to the people I know only online. After all, that’s sort of the point of a lot of cyberpunk stories. The hero will eventually die, usually in some huge burst of action and glory, but the real story being told is about the people and what it means to be human. And while I don’t think there’s an answer to that question, not in a discrete way that can be provided for all people, I do think the game has given me a lot to consider as I continue trying to answer that question for myself.

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