Sunday, October 03, 2021

Thomas More Boulevard

I'm a little surprised that it took me this long to read Utopia Avenue, since I usually claim David Mitchell as one of my top three-or-so favorite active authors. I caught up to his extant published work through Slade House, then... well, he isn't on social media, and I'm not currently subscribed to any book-review-type magazines, so I only learned about his new novel after my dad clued me in. Even then it took a while for me to finally read it. Now I have! And it's good!



MINI SPOILERS

I went into this cold, knowing absolutely nothing beyond the cryptic title. Particularly for David Mitchell, it could be anything: he's famous for hopping between genres and time periods and literary styles, both between and within books. The main thing I was wondering heading in was, would this be more on the realistic side of his writing, like Black Swan Green, or one of the more surreal adventures, like The Bone Clocks? Ultimately it tilts more towards the former, while still having some good snatches of the latter.

The action in this book is set in England, mostly from 1966-1968. It's around the peak of the 60s rock scene. "Utopia Avenue" is the eventual name of a fictional band that emerges in this very real scene. It's an odd but believable band, sort of a supergroup of unknowns or a serendipitous prefab. Levon, a Canadian record agent and music enthusiast, assembles a foursome and manages their grueling path towards stardom. Three of the four members write and sing, and everyone comes from a different background (jazz, folk, blues and psychedelic rock), so the resulting sound is hard to categorize.

That said, Mitchell does a bang-up job at attempting to describe this sound. One evergreen comment about music criticism is that the written word is a very poor substitute for an aural experience; there's a quote I love that goes something like "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." So lots of critics fall back on describing what other things this new thing sounds like, inevitably frustrating bands and consumers alike. Anyways, Mitchell's passages describing their playing are really visceral and engaging. He often inhabits the mind of one of the musicians, noting their experiences as they track the performance of their bandmates and the reaction of the crowd. Occasionally he steps back and presents the band as a whole as others perceive them. An early solo performance goes down like so:

Elf grasps the hairiest nettle first and plays the intro to "Never Enough." During the middle eight she veers into "You Don't Know What Love Is." She saw Nina Simone do this at Ronnie Scott's - splice a passage of one song into the middle of another. The two songs resonate. Elf returns to "Never Enough" and ends on a clanging unresolved F-sharp. Applause swells up and buoys her. Al Stewart's over to the side, clapping with delight. Elf returns to her guitar to play "Your Polaroid Eyes," and "I Watch You Sleep." Next, she sings a capalla a folk song she learned from Anne Briggs called "Willie o'Winsbury," cupping her hand to her ear à la Ewan MacColl. She sings the king's lines imperiously, his pregnant daughter's lines defiantly, and Willie's lines coolly. She's never sung it better.

Much later, the band is performing in the States after the bassist Dean has partied too hard before the show.

He fluffs the riff a little - if his fingers were a sports car, the brakes would need seeing to - but at least he remembers the words. Swear to God, I'll never do cocaine before a show again, ever, ever. Here comes Jasper and Elf to join in the chorus:

  I'll roll away the stone, my friend.
  I'll roll away the stone --
  put my shoulder to the rock
  and roll away that stone.

Verse two: the Ferlinghetti Verse. Dean plays his Fender safely and solidly, a fraction of a beat behind Griff, like a drunk sober enough to know he's drunk and needs to let someone else lead:

   If Ferlinghetti frames yer
   And throws away the key --
   If you were there in Grosvenor Square
   Where Anarchy killed Tyranny--

Dean realizes his mistake immediately: it's "Tyranny killed Anarchy." Anarchy killed Tyrrany means the good guys won. Maybe no one will notice, he tells himself, or maybe everyone noticed.

Anyways, I really love the details of these sections, where your imagination really can sort of fill in what those concerts might have sounded like.

Another thing I really love is how much the band struggles. I think it's relatively common to have a story like "These people came together, it was magic, everyone knew they had talent, and they embarked on their ride to the top!" That isn't the Utopia Avenue story, though. They knew that they had potential, and there were people around who believed in them, but not all that many. There's a long and grueling ordeal of touring throughout England, facing hostile crowds, fighting for the support of their record label. They have some early successes, but it isn't a constant upward trajectory, and there's some soul-searching and angst at whether they've already peaked. Their eventual triumph feels very earned because we've seen all the hard work and dedication that's gone into their craft.

One of the most striking things about the book Utopia Avenue is the large number of real-world characters in it. Throughout the book we're treated to a parade of musical luminaries, a fraction of whom include Brian Jones, Syd Barrett, Mama Cass, Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, John Lennon, David Bowie, and many more. They aren't just named-dropped: they're honest-to-goodness supporting characters, with reams of dialogue and insight and plot-moving agency. I don't think Mitchell has ever used real people like this before, and it's a really interesting effect.

The main characters are the real draw here, though. The book is organized a little like The Bone Clocks in that it alternates between different point-of-view characters from chapter to chapter. The timeline advances linearly from one chapter to the next, but sometimes a character will reminisce about an earlier event in their life, often prompted by something in the present. Each chapter's title eventually becomes a song title, and the chapters are collected into A-sides and B-sides of the three LPs the band will eventually record.

MEGA SPOILERS

The opener and the closer both belong to Dean, who is basically the "bad boy" of the group. He has a lot of rough edges: he's confrontational, has a foul mouth, frequently drinks to excess or takes drugs, and cheats on each of his girlfriends. Despite all this, he's bluntly charming and you can't help but love the guy. He really does want to do the right thing and in his chapters we can see just how awful he feels when he fails to be good.

One great thing Mitchell does here is show how each person's personality in the present was shaped by their upbringing in the past. Dean has the harshest origin of the band, coming from a very rough background that includes poverty, a mother who died of cancer and an abusive, alcoholic father. So of course he isn't as stable or put-together as his more posh bandmates. Near the end of the book, his arc is probably the most moving and emotional. Dean breaks through and makes some brave decisions related to forgiveness and grace. It feels like his soul is pure at the end.

Dean's music is bluesy, raw, and energetic.

Elf is probably the most "normal" of the three main characters, although to their fans she stands out the most as the sole woman on the stage. She's the most musically versatile of the group, playing the hammond organ and acoustic guitar and tambourines and singing. Her chapters have a lot to do with her relationships: a really toxic boyfriend, a loving but tense family, and a newborn niece. Bruce's insertion into Utopia Avenue's recording sessions made me think of Yoko Ono's presence at the Beatles'.

I was surprised (and pleased!) to see Elf hook up with Luisa Rey. I don't remember any indication in Cloud Atlas that Luisa Rey was attracted to women... but of course that was a pulp novelization of Luisa, not the actual person. Elf is married at the end, but we never hear her wife's name, which makes me think it isn't Luisa. It's interesting to think what might have happened later in the 60s that led Luisa to San Francisco and Elf back to London.

Elf's music is folksy and complex, with a lot of interlocking parts and creative instrumentation.

Then we have Jasper de Zoet, whose storyline I enjoyed the most. This is the only part of the novel that really channels the more supernatural aspects of David Mitchell that I enjoy so much. Jasper is descended from Jacob de Zoet from the Thousand Autumns book. David Mitchell often writes reincarnated characters, but I think this is the first time he's written a biological ancestor or descendant of another character of his. Jasper's story has a strong tie-in to Thousand Autumns, of course, but also The Bone Clocks, and we get some brief glimpses into Horology and get to spend more time with Dr. Marinus.

Jasper is an outsider, a bastard from a very wealthy and influential Dutch family. He's a little hard to place in the social hierarchy of the band, as he doesn't have any money to his own name, but did receive an expensive education and a much more cosmopolitan upbringing. Jasper also seems to have Asperger's Syndrome; since it's the 1960s nobody calls it that, but it's very well described. It's fascinating to read Jasper's passages as he will observe someone saying something that isn't true, then wonder "Is that a joke? Should I laugh? Maybe it's irony?" At first he seems abrasive and weird, but as his bandmates get to understand him better they become protective and loving of his quirks.

Jason's musical style is psychedelic, and he's often compared to Jimi Hendrix.

The three songwriting bandmates get the most pages in this book, but it was cool to get some brief insight into the minds of Griff and Levon during the interlude. Griff is the drummer. He comes from a lower-class background like Dean but seems a bit more stable. He's no pushover, though! He's probably the most outspoken member of the band, brave enough to confront tweaked-out Mods and smarmy record executives alike. He gets injured, takes his licks and keeps on drumming.

Griff gets into an accident while driving with his brother: he's almost killed, and his brother dies, and Griff nearly quits the band. It's the one time in the novel when Griff seems down, defeated, unhappy. We really feel for him. Even though he isn't as developed as the other characters, he's incredibly likeable.

Griff's drumming style is jazzy but reliable.

Finally, there's Levon, the manager. He starts off as a very intriguing character: when he's first introduced, I thought he might also be a representative from the more supernatural strain of David Mitchell novels: he seems to know that Archie Kinnock will implode before it happens, much like some characters in the Bone Clocks can predict the future. After that initial incident, though, there isn't any other possibly-supernatural business, including in his sole POV chapter. That makes me wonder whether Levon caused the breakup to happen, arranging for the information to get out when and how it did, which is not unlike what Rod ends up doing to Dean.

We learn fairly early on that Levon is gay, which was much more fraught in the 1960s than today, and the band members occasionally worry that Levon will be harmed if people in these music clubs discover his orientation. Like nearly everyone of his generation, Levon is closeted, but there's a great long sequence in his chapter where he's swept up into the underground gay nightlife scene of London. This section is dreamlike and surreal and wonderful.

END SPOILERS

I honestly felt a little apprehensive when I started reading Utopia Avenue: would it live up to my expectations? That's the risk of declaring an author one of your top three-or-so favorites: with each new book there's a risk that you'll feel disappointed. Fortunately, Mitchell's position remains secure. I don't think I liked this one quite as much as Cloud Atlas or The Bone Clocks, but it was a great read, breaking some new milestones in Mitchell's style while remaining tied into the shared universe that he's been patiently building for decades. As for reading order, I think it would be a fine introduction into that universe on its own: there are a few ties to his other books, and it might be better to read this one after The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but I think they would work fine in the other order as well. So yeah, this was really fun, and now I'm looking forward to seeing Dean, Elf, Jasper and/or Griff make cameo appearances in some other future Mitchell novel.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Final Cyberpunk

And, it's over! As advertised, I passed the Point of No Return in Cyberpunk. The endgame is nice and meaty, with a lot more choice-and-consequence than the rest of the game. Overall the ending felt pretty satisfying; it didn't completely make up for all of the shortcomings and annoyances along the way, but it ended on probably the strongest note of the game.

 


I think I wanted Cyberpunk 2077 to be like a modern version of the original Deus Ex crossed with Blade Runner 2049. Instead it's like a mash-up of Grand Theft Auto with The Elder Scrolls: the city environment and cars of the former, mixed with the interminable quest structure and inventory management of the latter. I think I mentioned this before, but I enjoyed Cyberpunk more the more I thought of it as a shooter and not as an RPG. To me, a "roleplaying game" means "a game where you play a role": decide how your character would react to various situations, what choices they would make. For too many developers, though, "roleplaying" means "pick up ten thousand ashtrays and then sell them so you can afford to buy a slightly more powerful gun." All stats and junk items and grinding for XP or money.

MINI SPOILERS

Overall I think I mostly like Cyberpunk for its world, but its characters are also well-drawn, distinct and compelling. Backing up a bit, Jackie is the first NPC who you get to know really well, and in some ways it anticipates the more intense Johnny relationship that comes later: you see the good and the bad in him. I felt ambivalent about Jackie while running with him, as his mix of eagerness and sulking could occasionally grate. But I came to really appreciate him after his passing: quirks that seemed annoying in life became endearing in their absence.

 


I really, really liked the wake scene. It's a bit cliche to have the death of a close friend or partner be the catalyst for action in a game (or a movie or a comic or a novel or whatever); but in Cyberpurnk, that scene felt like a mourning and celebration of a life, rather than just using his death to push the plot forward. In particular, I really liked how, if you choose to speak during the wake, there are multiple beats where you can choose between saying two things, and those two things seem contradictory, but each one is true of Jackie. They're just different sides of him, or different ways of perceiving the same facts. That's kind of the definition of a well-written character, that it can support that complexity in reading.

 


And then you meet Johnny. I love Keanu Reeves in real life, but I often felt annoyed by the Johnny character that he plays. That's fine, though! The game always gives you the option to express your annoyance or dislike of him, and even when the game forces you to go a certain way you can kick and scream as you go. I was role-playing V as someone who is very upset at someone else infiltrating her head-space, so there was a lot of me telling him to F off.

 


Johnny acts like a know-it-all, but he isn't infallible, and sometimes is straight-up wrong about stuff, while insisting that anyone who disagrees with him is an idiot. That definitely set me on edge, and my gut reaction was usually to do the opposite of whatever he suggested. It gets tricky at times, though. Johnny is always an asshole, but sometimes that includes him being an asshole towards the corps, which I do generally approve of. Occasionally I had to thread the needle of "I think that you're a jerk and I hate you, but this one specific point you're making right now is accurate."

 


It's interesting that Johnny Silverhand and Samurai are dinosaurs within the world of Cyberpunk: they were huge, iconic presences back in 2020, and largely forgotten has-beens in 2077. At a meta level this whole genre feels kind of dinosaur-y: cyberpunk was cool and cutting-edge back in the 1980s when computers networks were just starting to be a thing, and it isn't all that revelatory today in 2020. The game sometimes winks at this kind of pathetic nostalgia, like the too-cool-for-you geezer record collector; but often the game wants you to celebrate it, to say "Yeah! Music really was better back then! I don't care what teens today say, I've still got it!" This gets really on-the-nose at the reunion concert, which Johnny and Kerry think is the coolest thing ever, but I'm left wondering if it really was.

 


Let's talk about romance!

 

I've done a little research to confirm that there are four "main" romance tracks, not counting a couple of one-night-stands and prostitutes. I think the game does it right: there's a gay woman, a straight woman, a gay man, and a straight man. That's less choice than the more common "everyone is bisexual" approach, but seems like a better representation. Interestingly, their preferences vary somewhat: some are mostly concerned about your physical appearance, while others care more about your voice. That won't be a big deal for cisgendered V's, but may lead to some surprises for more queer PCs. 

 


It is a little odd that the timing varies so much on when you meet them. I think I met Judy around hour 5 or so of the game, before the main part of the game even really starts, but I didn't meet Kerry until about 100 hours in.

For once I feel decently satisfied with the romance content, at least the arc I experienced with Judy. It's nice and long: there are some story missions, some getting-to-know-each-other side jobs, some hanging out, some hooking up. After said hookup you can declare your intentions for a relationship or not; if you do commit, you can continue visiting her apartment, see how she's redecorating it, have some heart-to-heart-chats, or even just ring her on the phone to chat while you're on the road.

MEGA SPOILERS

For my own sake, here's a quick recap of how I understand the story:

Back around 2020, rogue AIs were threatening the global Internet. Alt Cunningham, a genius hacker and occasional lover of the rockerboy Johnny Silverhand, was abducted by the Arasaka corporation and pressed into service, her consciousness digitized and transferred to the Net. Here she became essentially a goddess, where she built the Blackwall, a firewall that partitioned off the AIs from humanity.

 


Johnny only knew that she had been kidnapped, and was pissed off, so he hired an old flame and fixer named Rogue on a ballsy mission to rescue Alt, and then to tear down Arasaka. He destroyed their headquarters, but was captured. Before he was killed, his consciousness was also digitized.

 


Much later, the Voodoo Boys, a street gang obsessed with the Net, wanted to make contact with the AIs. That meant making contact with Alt, and they decided the best way to do that was to talk with Johnny. They hired a fixer to steal Johnny's engram from Arasaka. During the legwork phase of this mission, the fixer hired a "joytoy" (basically a prostitute/escort) named Evelyn Parker to seduce Yorinobu Arasaka, the heir to Arasaka and the leader of its Night City subsidiary. Evelyn learns where the relic hosting the engram is located, but she decides that rather than just get a small payment from the fixer, she wants the whole thing. She hires a group of mercs (Jackie, V, T-Bug) to break into Arasaka Tower and steal it themselves.

 


While in the tower, V and Jackie witness Yorinobu choking his father, the CEO Saburo Arasaka, to death: Saburo disapproves of his son's behavior, while his son is furious at his father. Yorinobu sounds the alarm, claiming that Saburo was poisoned by assassins. V and Jackie are soon spotted and face the fury of Arasaka security. In the scuffle, the container of the biochip is damaged, Without knowing the contents, Jackie slots the biochip into his own head to keep it stable. Later, Jackie is mortally wounded and transfers the biochip to V. Then V is mortally wounded and dies.

 


When V's consciousness is extinguished, the biochip reboots and reactivates V's body. From this point on, V and Johnny Silverhand's consciousnesses share the same body. V is mostly in control, but frequently sees and hears Johnny. It's a mess.

 


Saburo's bodyguard, Goro Takemura, tracks down V's body to the junkyard where it was dumped, hoping to find more information about the killing. He learns that Yorinobu was the real killer. Yorinobu sends security to try and kill Goro and V, so they both go into hiding.

 


The main open-world part of the game takes place here. There are way, way too many side-quests. In terms of the main plot, most of it is reconstructing what happened before and why.

 


V learns that Johnny's engram is gradually taking over: it is a death sentence. She tracks down the engineer who originally developed the "Save Your Soul" program and is the best hope for reversing it, extracting V from Johnny. She meets with Rogue, who worked with Johnny back in the day and has become Night City's most powerful fixer, one of the only people capable of taking on a megacorp like Arasaka. And she and Goro make contact with Hanako, the daughter of Saburo; she is loyal to her brother, but after he attempts to kill her she reluctantly concedes that he has to go.

 


The plot finally branches (I think) near the very end of the game. Your best hope at a cure lies deep within Arasaka Tower. You can (1) ally with Hanako and help her take control of Arasaka from her brother; (2) let Johnny take control and charge into Arasaka guns blazing with Rogue; or (3) call in a favor from Panam, a friendly Nomad of the Aldacaldo clan, and ask her family to join you (as yourself) in the assault. These three choices seem to mirror the three origin choices of Corpo, Street Rat and Nomad.

 


I sure as hell wasn't letting Johnny take over (though I have to admit that playing his flashback sequences are pretty fun, mostly because his attack animation is stylish as hell). I was pretty tempted by the Panam option: she's really cool (though sadly only romanceable by men), and since it seems like the one option that might be unlocked by previous choices I wondered if it might lead to the "best" ending. But I didn't like the idea of putting additional Aldecaldos in harm's way when I could just shoot everyone myself. And, while I never totally got a bead on my V's personality (other than an intense hatred of Johnny, there weren't a whole lot of choices in how to react to situations), I did think that she would be pretty comfortable playing politics with powerful people in order to advance her interests. Not for the sake of the corp, of course - that life was long behind her - but as a means to an end.

I am a bit curious how much the ending changes based on this decision. In my case, it went like this:

Anders Hellman and V rescue Hanako from house arrest. She then reveals a bombshell: Saburo had digitized his own consciousness before death, and that construct still lives and has been directing Hanako's actions. Hanako and V attend the Arasaka board meeting, where they announce Yorinobu's treachery and reveal Saburo's continued existence. Yorinobu initiates a purge, killing many members of the board. V kills Adam Smasher (who had killed Johnny decades ago) and then captures Yorinobu.

 


Hanako uploads Saburo's consciousness into Yorinobu's body: Saburo is still the same person with all the same memories as before, but now has the body of a fit young man. He resumes his role as CEO of Arasaka, and, incidentally, becomes basically a god: he is essentially immortal. This touches off a wave of controversy and protest that is still underway as the game ends, but it seems clear that the CEO of a megacorp can do whatever he wants.

 


Hellman is able to remove Johnny's construct from V's brain, but the damage is fatal: too much of Johnny was already in her. She gradually reclaims much of her mental capacity, then learns the harsh truth. Hellman offers a choice: she can enroll in the Save Your Soul program, signing away her human rights and joining the digital archive of engrams, awaiting the day when the program is perfected and she can be reincarnated in a new body. (Saburo was only able to reincarnate because Yorinobu was his offspring and shared his genes.) Or she can accept her fate, and remain a free person, with maybe six months to live before the end.

 


I mulled over this for a bit, and eventually opted for "Freedom", mostly due to peer pressure since I'm pretty sure that's what most of my pals would have preferred I do.

The last minute or so of the game is pretty cool: for the first time the game shifts into third person, and you can actually see V (thankfully in a stylish jumpsuit and not the gosh-awful assortment of terrible armor pieces). There's a particularly striking visual here which I (1) thoroughly enjoyed, and (2) thought ripped off the climax to CalFree in Chains. (It's very egotistical of me to say, but I think I did it better: there are more thematic overtones in mine, versus primarily being a cool image.)

 


The closing credits are pretty cool. My preferred endings to RPGs tend to be the slideshow-y, image-plus-text "What happened next" round-ups. Instead, Cyberpunk plays clips of recorded video calls, sent from your friends on Earth. That's a nice change, which feels a bit more personal and connected to people rather than the state of the world. That said, the lineup of messages felt a bit weird. I'm curious why, say, Saul and Mitch get to give long speeches, and meanwhile there's nothing from Claire or Delamain or Brigitte or Regina, all people who you've probably spent more time with.

 


I felt a little bummed that Judy leaves Night City; if I'd known that she wasn't going to be sticking around anyways, I might have chosen immortality. I'd agonized over that choice a bit: after seeing how devastated she was by Evelyn's death, I hated the thought of putting her through yet another death, but decided that ghosting her would be worse. Judy's choice to move on does seem to be in keeping with her character, though.

Since you have six months before dying, I'd thought that the game would drop you back into the open world. If you've already done the NCPD Scanner Hustles, then you won't spend six months with everything left in the game. Instead, it sends you back to your last saved game before the Point of No Return, along with some exceptionally crappy rewards. I'm kind of curious whether CD Projekt Red will add any post-ending DLC or just add more content to the earlier part of the game. 

 


Sooooo, summing things up:

The Good

Atmosphere. Wonderfully cyberpunky, with neon and rain and chrome.

 


 

Slang.  I absolutely love the word "Gonk," it's perfect. "Choom" is fine but "Choomba" is excellent. Delta, etc... lots of good lingo to pick up.

Diversity. Really great variation in races, beliefs, genders, body sizes, philosophies and more.

Music. There's a fun mix of diegetic music with an occasional proper soundtrack. The music is pretty catchy and there's a good variety of it.

 


Clubs. This is one of the few aspects where Cyberpunk is unequivocally superior to Shadowrun: there's a huge variety of awesome locations scattered around the city, including dives, speakeasies, cocktail lounges, dance clubs, industrial rave warehouses, trendy hipster hangs, geezer rock clubs, even some honest-to-goodness gay bars. The music is great, there's lots of dancing, each spot has its own vibe and clientele. I love it.

 


Romance. Good diversity, very well-defined characters, nice structure, good integration with the story and world, good mix of active time and peaceful hanging out.

The Fine

Shooting. I didn't shoot much, but it was pretty fun when I did. 

 


The power curve. Overall the game is pretty darn easy at normal difficulty, but the challenges scale pretty nicely.

Hacking. The hacking minigame is one of the better ones out there, which isn't saying much but is still worth noting.

 


Skills. There's a good variety of ways to build characters, different viable strategies for advancement (breadth vs. depth), nice character. My one quibble is the harsh divide between combat (Body, Reflex) and non-combat (Intelligence, Tech, Cool), but it works fine in practice.

The Mixed

Length. I clocked in at just north of 100 hours for a completionist playthrough. I think that's awful; it was maybe ~30 hours of fun gameplay surrounded by 70+ hours of tedious, rote stuff. But if you like long games, this is one!

 


 

Stealth. I like that it's an option, and a lot of work clearly went into the system, but it's almost always just frustrating and un-fun.

Boss fights. There aren't many of them. They do a good job at mixing things up and making challenges; but they also fit the classic cyberpunk mold (as seen in Deus Ex and Shadowrun and everything else) of punishing players who built their characters around something other than combat skills. No, you can't defeat the awesome supersoldier with your hacking programs.

 


Choice-and-consequences. It gets a bit better the deeper you get in the game, but I always felt very limited in how I could express my V. 

 


The economy. I've never played an open world game with a great economy, so my expectations were low. For the first part of the game buying cyberware is worthwhile, but afterwards money is useless, except for a Steam achievement and maybe getting components for crafting. Most shops are pointless; why would you ever visit a netrunner or medpoint shop?

Vehicles. They're expensive, and you only really need to buy maybe two (a good motorcycle and a good car), everything else is just vanity. Most drive terribly, with awful braking and steering. And, while you should be driving in third-person camera anyways, most of the windshields are so tiny that you don't have a real option to use first-person even if you wanted.

 


First-person perspective. They did it for a very good reason; the final segment in the lab wouldn't be nearly as powerful in third-person, and it fits thematically with all of the stuff you're interacting with like braindances. But in terms of actual gameplay it always feels inferior to third-person.

The Bad:

Filler "missions". This game would be so much better if all the NCPD stuff was just removed.

Cops. Not just the cop missions, but the fact that V spends a majority of the game helping law enforcement catch perps. You know, like all punks do. [Insert eyeroll emoji.]

AI. Not so much the combat AI, which is fine, just how NPCs behave. If you park your car in the middle of the street, twenty cars will stack up behind it, with nobody ever thinking to scootch around. Nobody ever gets mad or reacts to your traffic violations. GTA has spoiled me, but also, this is all stuff that GTA nailed twenty years ago.

Inventory management. It gets slightly more bearable later on when you use Backpacker mods to increase your carry capacity, but that also means that instead of frequently spending 5 minutes sorting through crap you less-frequently spend 10 minutes sorting through crap. No, I will not stop including this complaint on every RPG I play.

Fashion. I can't believe that it's the year 2021 and there's no "Hide Helmet" option in the UI. Granted it's a first-person game so you don't always see how ugly you look, but it's staring at you each time you open your inventory or character screen.

END SPOILERS

What a journey! Like lots of nerds I've been eagerly anticipating this game ever since the teaser trailer dropped way back in 2013. It doesn't live up to the hype, but it's still a fun time. I think my favorite analysis of the game is Gene Park's follow-up review, which notes that the core problem is that the game CD Projekt Red marketed isn't the game that CD Projekt Red made. You can patch graphical flaws and AI glitches, but you can't patch fundamental game design. At the end of the day, I think it's best to think of Cyberpunk as a stylish cyberpunk shooter (with, for some reason, a terrible inventory management system), and not as a deep cyberpunk RPG. There's still lots to enjoy: Night City is oozing with atmosphere, the story comes up with some really crazy big ideas and treats them seriously, and there are some really great people to get to know inside the game. As long as you're fine with mostly being a spectator in this world rather than a dynamic player, you'll probably enjoy the ride.

 

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Howdy Howdy, Night City! Welcome Back.

I'm pretty sure I'm heading into the endgame of Cyberpunk 2077. I was planning on just writing up one more post to sum up my response to the game, but since it's been, like, a month since my last update, I wanted to drop in with my experiences specifically through the midgame. This will cover my evolving thoughts on the mechanics and some of the major side-plots, but nothing with the main storyline, which will wait for that long-rumored final post.

 


Let's dive in and kick off with some notes on gameplay.

 



In my previous post, I described how my "end-game" (ha!) hacking loadout emphasized Cyberpsychosis, an "ultimate" hack that can turn enemies against one another. Well, since then I've realized that System Reset is way better in every way. With Cyberpsychosis, you activate it once, then have about a one-minute cooldown, and in the meantime you hide behind a corner and hope that the one or two people you turned can take out as many other people as possible. System Reset's description says that it turns targets "unconscious", and so I assumed this meant that they would be deaf and blind: but no, "unconscious" effectively means "dead": they drop to the ground and drop all their loot. Unlike Cyberpsychosis, it works instantly and doesn't raise any alarms, even if other enemies are standing nearby. With the right perks to reset cooldowns and the Ultimate-boosting deck, you can take down a big gang of, like, eight bad guys in just a few seconds without ever taking any fire or raising alarms. NCPD Scanner missions that used to take me about 5 minutes only take about 15 seconds now.

 


I'd also previously mentioned how there are multiple advancement systems in the game. For better and worse, they progress at very different rates. You can reach Street Cred 40 relatively early in the game, which unlocks most gear and vehicles. But actual character levels are much slower; I just recently reached level 45 after (cough) over 100 hours of gameplay. Character levels are tied to the level of your gear and the rarity of items you find, as well as getting the Attribute and Skill points to build your character.

 


I've now maxed my Intelligence and Tech, and am at level 18 of Cool. I kind of wish that I had split my Cool points into the Strength attribute. Intelligence 20 is game-changing, and Tech 20 is also huge, but, at least with the way I'm playing, Cool doesn't really have anything remarkable to offer at the top level, just regular minor improvements to my stealth abilities. As I noted before, locked doors can ONLY be opened with the right Tech or Strength level, depending on the door; I think I found one single door that allows you to use either one. Anyways, if I'd dipped into, say, 8 Strength then I'd be able to collect all the loot from my missions instead of leaving some behind.

 


It can be hard to tell what stuff will be useful and what won't. In general, I feel like the game does a very poor job at explaining how it works. Some stuff you can figure out with trial and error, but I often need to go hunting in wikis or Reddit threads to understand how certain mechanics work. One particular thing that still baffles me is electrical junction boxes. Every once in a while, you'll run across one of these. If you press F then your character will open it up, move around some wires, and close it again. I have no idea what this does: there isn't any in-game text or messaging or explanation for it. The best information I've been able to glean online suggests that this temporarily disables security cameras, but if so, there isn't any hint in-game that that's what it's doing.

 


Like most of the stuff in the game, though, it looks stylish even if it's useless. This extends to almost all aspects of the game. I do appreciate how immersive it is: for example, you might be driving, then hear a phone call. You press T to pick up the phone and start chatting while continuing to steer your car. In the middle of the conversation, you hear a chirrup from your phone receiving a text message. You can press Z to bring up your text, then read it and respond while talking and driving. Honestly: this feels pretty realistic to our multitasking lifestyles. I don't want to say how many other things I'm doing simultaneously while writing this paragraph. That immersiveness does sometimes get in the way of experiencing the game, though, most notably when you overhear multiple overlapping real-world conversations and can't focus on the right one.

 


There isn't much roleplaying choice in the game: no major branching paths through the story, and often not even any choices in dialogue, just a mandatory reply to continue. There does seem to be a few more minor character-defining choices later on, though that might have been because I kept story missions for last.

 


 

That isn't an unusual situation for this developer. The Witcher games usually offered a dialogue choice between "be a sarcastic asshole" or "be a mean asshole". Cyberpunk often feels similar: your "choice" is "I'll do it" or "I'll think about doing it". Which feels disappointing. The Witcher had the excuse of being based on an existing series of novels, with you playing as the novels' protagonist, and thus inhabiting a pre-defined character; knowing that wasn't fun, but did explain the lack of choice. I'd kind of just assumed that we'd magically get more character freedom and a rich array of roleplaying opportunities once CD Projekt moved to another franchise, but I now think that this is just the way they like to tell stories.

 


That said, one idea I've come to like is that CB 2077 actually does have a predefined character: V is the same person, no matter how you design him or her. Your "character creator" is more of a "character sculptor", down to your genitalia. This sort of body modification is absolutely canon in-world. Thinking of it that way helps me reduce some of my frustrations with the limited role-playing opportunities. If Cyberpunk is more like, say, Planescape: Torment, then I'm playing a character with their own personality, not one that I control. (But, that theory does make it all the more frustrating that you can't edit your character in-game! C'mon, what are ripperdocs for?!)

 


My enjoyment of the game has shot up drastically since I finished the NCPD Scanner Hustle side-quests. Those are so insanely boring and repetitive, and if it wasn't for my OCD I would have gladly skipped them all. I've also finished the "Gig" missions, which are one step above the NCPD hustles. These have at least some unique objective or flavor to them, beyond "Kill everyone and take their stuff." You might need to upload a virus onto a corp mainframe, or extract a key employee from an office, or assassinate a gang leader. Your fixer will sometimes give a bonus condition, like completing the mission without being spotted, or without inflicting any casualties... or, occasionally, for inflicting maximum casualties. There's enough variation here to be a bit enjoyable.

 


And finally there's the broader category of "Side Job", which covers a whole lot of ground, from main-plot-adjacent work to romance-related encounters to major side-stories of their own. Most of the rest of the post will focus on these.

 


Some side jobs have different story outcomes based on whether you kill or disable your target, but it doesn't really feel any different in-game: you just have to attach a mod to your gun to make damage non-lethal, or press F instead of R to snap an opponent's neck. So it feels odd to have someone effusively thank you for showing mercy, when you're like... "But I did totally shoot him in the back of the skull with my shotgun, I mean you saw that, right?" But, maybe it is for the best, it is kind of nice that your bloodthirsty-or-not persona is independent of the style of combat you want to use.  

 


Both the side jobs and the main quest will occasionally put you into the "Braindance" interface. This reminds me a lot of the "Memory Remix" mechanic of Remember Me: you drop into another person's point-of-view and play time backwards and forwards. Memory Remix was inherently more interesting since you could actually modify the memories, while in Braindances you can only scan the existing information. But it's interesting to think that, like, Judy might be doing a Memory Remix that you then experience as a Braindance. 

 

 

I can't help comparing a lot of stuff in Cyberpunk to Shadowrun. Braindances seem to kind of be analogues to BTLs (better-than-lifes), although BTLs are always shown as negative while Braindances may or may not be. Cyberpunk also has "Virtu"s, or virtual-reality entertainment, which seems roughly comparable to but not exactly the same as a Shadowrun "Trideo". I get the sense that Virtus are interactive while Trideos are not, but I may be mistaken about that.

MINI SPOILERS

I'll probably write about the proper romances in my next and almost certainly final post, but I did want to call out Claire real quick. I'd assumed that she would be a romance option, since she has a very detailed and well-designed character model, a lot of dialogue and a personal quest line. It turns out that she isn't romanceable. Her quest line is kind of interesting in that it sort of inverts the relationship you typically have with NPCs. Claire is also trans, and I thought her presentation was good. I'd known her for a while, then eventually noticed a trans pride flag on the back of her truck. She had struck me as a butch lesbian, and when she talked about her deceased husband that kind of threw me a little, but much later in her storyline I learned some personal history. Her being trans was cool; what wasn't cool was how she would offer me a ride home, I'd say "Yes" expecting to have a nice getting-to-know-you chat, and then we would both sit in DEAD SILENCE for the ENTIRE DRIVE ACROSS ALL NIGHT CITY. (Except for the final car ride, when her radio was blaring so loudly that I couldn't hear what she was saying. Immersion strikes again!)

 


There are way too many subplots to write about, and honestly most of them are pretty forgettable one-offs. One that isn't very forgettable is detective Rivers' child abduction subplot, which is really horrifying: you track a man who has groomed, abducted, and abused dozens of young boys; it also features braindances of childhood trauma and a deeply disturbing animated cartoon. I'm surprised to see something like that in a AAA game, and am morbidly curious what thought process led them to including it. It also seems a bit bizarre that this quest does have a love interest associated with it. I can't think of anything that would put me less in the mood for romance.

 


I wasn't expecting something like that in this game: it strikes me as more of a World of Darkness type of plot. There is a little bit of affinity between the two franchises. An earlier side job revolves around a Death's-Head Moth XBD, which reminded me a lot of the "horror tape" subplot in Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. While playing the mission I thought it was a direct homage, but after further research I realized that the label on the tape in VTMB is "Death Mask Production" (DMP), so it may or may not be an intentional reference. But the overall arc feels very similar in how it was originally filmed, then picked up for distribution, and you eventually peruse it for clues.

 


XBDs are a recurring element in Cyberpunk, sort of the snuff films of the 2070s. Regular braindances come from people equipped with braindance recorders: they record everything that person sees, hears, smells, feels, tastes, etc. When you play back the BD, you experience everything the original person did. If you play back, say, an erotic sex BD, you'd feel like you were having sex, down to the adrenaline rush and everything. An XBD is recorded the same way, but the subject is going through an eXtreme situation like torture. XBDs (always?) end with the death of the subject, so you the viewer actually feel the sensation of dying. It's messed up! Within this world, some people develop a fetish for this sort of experience and compulsively seek them out, spawning a whole black market around producing and distributing them.

 


Overall, Cyberpunk 2077 is much less of a horror game than VTMB was, but it does have some great ideas about horror. Early on you hear about the "Secure Your Soul" product, where a corporation will digitize your entire engram: all of your memories, personality, feelings, etc, are backed up shortly before the moment of death (somewhat like in Fall; or, Dodge in Hell). This essentially grants a form of eternal life, which sounds great; but that also opens up the possibility of eternal torture! You can subject that consciousness to unending agony, and unlike traditional torture, there will never be any relief from death, because you're already dead, and your digital bits can continue to burn in hell forever. It's a really scary idea, and one that naturally arises from the posthumanist themes of cyberpunk literature.

END SPOILERS

I just reached the Point of No Return in the game. There are a couple of achievements I want to nab first, like purchasing all the vehicles in the game, but it looks like I'm closing in on the home stretch. Gotta delta, choom.