The Rhetorical Minefield of Cyberpunk 2077

Clashing interests between media and the general public continue to fuel tension.

With Cyberpunk 2077 set to release in a few days, the busy cogs of discourse have already begun turning at full speed–between reports of crunch, the game’s controversial marketing, and the massive build-up of hype since its debut trailer seven years ago, the game’s launch is already shaping up to be a moment of no satisfaction to any. Delays have been so numerous under the pretense of further refinement, that expectation could only be fallen short of–if the game misses its lofty commercial targets, CD Projekt investors will make sure there is hell to pay; and whether journalists or players bear the brunt of the game’s potential woes, that is up for future months (and potentially years) of its lifecycle to decide.

The seedings for all-out warfare to break out over the critical reception of this game have been planted for a long time–Gamergate made it so that any journalist going against the grain is bound to have the “ethics in games journalism” card leveraged against them until something gives, and Cyberpunk 2077 is no exception here. The Last of Us Part II earlier this year elicited a similar reaction where fans felt at odds with Neil Druckmann’s treatment of beloved characters in the story (especially in light of leaks prior to release), that praise could only be conceived as an act of collusion with Naughty Dog–CDPR’s latest RPG is likely to swing things in the other way, imparting upon its any criticism a malevolence that could only be described as purely conspiratorial.

But to claim otherwise wouldn’t be entirely incorrect–a long-standing issue with games media is its tendency to flatten nuanced narratives and make themselves the heroes of whatever story they’ve fallen on the bad side of, poising to make the game’s critical reception even harder to assess. If fans attack journalists for unwarranted bad-faith criticism — which there may very well be — they’ll immediately be deemed too emotionally-invested, their concerns hardly considered–conversely, players who hold a less charitable view of CDPR will be quick to dub praise of the game a sign of corporate patronage, an accusation further made complicated by the studio’s relationship with crunch culture. The situation is ripe for exploitation by malicious parties on all sides, and it’s not-so-clear what the solution would be in the face of such great volatility.

Gaming outlet Polygon has already staked its flag in the ground and is bracing for what might be its worst nightmare to date–contributor Stacey Henley expressed concerns about the game’s marketing and how it could be potentially used as leverage against criticism if Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t quite deliver. The flipside of that conversation however is that games media isn’t without fault either–they’ve given print space to controversies that could’ve been entirely ignored if their purpose was to undermine some not-so-stellar messaging in the game’s marketing, but that decision was not made and so CDPR got to play the “our game is hated by journalists but it will succeed regardless” card to great effect.

In an era where tensions between players and professional games journalists seem to be at an eternal simmer, it may be helpful to treat these inflection points as an opportunity to re-establish trust rather than rekindle age-old conflicts–it’s understandable that both feel like the other party is solely responsible for turning discourse into highly-flammable rhetorical poison, but there hasn’t been a moment more opportune to mutually agree that honesty is of the utmost essence, especially when either party is so frequently eager to accuse the other of dishonesty. It may sound ridiculous to propose a moment of diplomacy when it looks like conflict is inevitable, but a disaster of Gamergate’s amplitude isn’t in urgent need of reproduction–there ought to be a better outcome than making Cyberpunk 2077 yet another item of the never-ending culture war.

The media is a for-profit business, so it makes sense that games journalism would indulge a bit of controversy even if it’s losing legitimacy in the process–to question the very nature of newsworthiness is an alien concept to media, but perhaps it isn’t too soon for games media to ponder why it is so often seemingly the mechanism for generating controversy, while at the same time complaining that it exists at all. The trade’s high-and-mighty nature necessitates that writers would never claim such a thing, but to deny that media itself hasn’t been complicit in perpetuating which that it cautions against is wishful thinking at best–there has to be accountability, and the cycle of highly-anticipated releases causing all sorts of unfathomable mayhem has to eventually be broken.

As I’m writing this piece, the review embargo has just been lifted, and the consensus seems to so far be that the game has done a competent-enough job of achieving what it set out to do, but not without a myriad of technical issues to spare–that’s hardly the slam dunk CDPR was looking for, but it’ll suffice for most as a healthy diversion from our current hellish plague-ridden reality. The game’s release would have been trivial under any other circumstance, but as demand for home entertainment is at an all-time high, Cyberpunk 2077 will undoubtedly deliver for that experience–it may be less so for journalists who’ve gotten used to an abundance of games available at their fingertips, but for your average player, the game is an adequate addition to their library.

Only time will tell if the game can manage to stay relevant after its release as it did prior, but given that it’s largely uncontested in its category, it’s likely to remain the talk of town throughout next year. With a slate of post-launch content yet-to-be-revealed as well as an online mode on the horizon, the tale of Cyberpunk 2077 has yet to be recited in its entirety–the question is whether the game can successfully maintain a cult following like the Witcher 3 before it did, or will it slide into oblivion like every other blockbuster release eventually does. The latter might mean that the game’s cultural presence would’ve been uneventful enough that it quickly died down, but considering past entries in the ‘fierce discourse’ saga, that might not be such a bad thing after all.