As an RPG, Cyberpunk 2077 is very much about presenting players with choice, whether it’s how they build up their character skills or how their actions will affect the story. At the same time, it’s also a first-person shooter so you’ll in all likelihood be firing a few guns during your playthrough. Will you really be able to lay down arms and get through the game as a pacifist?
It’s telling that the presentation I saw, while showing a couple of variations on how you can go about the same mission, nonetheless always involves you getting bloody in some way. It should first of all be said that a press demo is a press demo: it’s perhaps easier to showcase the game’s violent delights and excellent-looking combat, not least because the gaming audience's tolerance for ultravionce is so high. So when I had the chance to sit down with Cyberpunk 2077 producer Richard Borzymowski, I wanted to know whether there were genuinely other ways things could play out without being, for the want of a better word, boring.
“There are different ways for the player to try to finish a mission non-lethally: we don’t have a 'boring' path,” Borzymowski retorts.
I knew it wasn't quite the right word. But having just seen an enemy dispatched through the hacking of their weight-lifting machine (a uniquely gory take on the ‘do you even lift, bro?’ meme) it would take an especially puritanical player to forgo such delights in favour of working everything out like adults. ‘Style over substance’ is a motto from the original Cyberpunk pen-and-paper RPG, and style goes beyond appearance here in reference to how playstyles could be customised.
“This is supposed to be a cool game, so you can do cool things with shooter mechanics,” says Borzymowski. “So for example, as you’re developing your character’s weapon skills, the animations that you’re having while reloading the gun will change. At the beginning, you’re pretty clunky because you’re a new mercenary on the street, but over time, you’ll look more professional, slicker. Your progress will effect your reloading speed, precision, recoil, and many other things.”
But what if you don’t want to be that trigger-happy cyberpunk? How can the game make it just as satisfying to stealth around situations or talk your way out of trouble?
“It’s a complex answer,” says Borzymowski. “You might be able to sneak your way around and get past certain scenarios but, if you do get noticed after some point, and still don’t want to kill anybody because you’re playing a character that just by definition doesn’t kill a lot of people, then you can leave them on the ground: so they’re still alive, but are wounded enough not to interfere with you.”
Ah, the Batman solution. So basically you might be able to get through the whole game without killing anyone, but being non-lethal is a very far way from being non-violent. This was one of the big issues players had with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which would allow players to completely spec into stealth then throw up a forced boss encounter that relied on the combat mechanics. At best, it might mean you defeat a boss by pumping them with lead but are still able to ‘spare’ them by not delivering the final shot. Trying to get through the game as a pacifist-hacker, however, sounds pretty much impossible.
Boryzmowski is candid about it. “Oh, you probably wouldn’t finish the campaign.”
I'm more curious about than bothered by this aspect of Cyberpunk 2077. Looking for non-combat outcomes in everything this world can throw up would rather rub against the subterranean menace of the setting, and in some senses is a contrivance itself.
“Cyberpunk is a violent universe — we don’t really shy away from that,” says Borzymowski. “The main quest can branch into many paths, and choices are connected. The thing we’ve done in The Witcher, which we want to do in Cyberpunk 2077, is that when we are presenting choices to the player, we want them to be meaningful choices. And a meaningful choice is a choice that has causes and effects. Sometimes this effect might even mean a player won’t see every element that the game has to offer.”
In other words, avoiding a violent confrontation results in skipping a fight, which means you're missing out on that content.On the flipside, by sparing a character, you’ve probably gone and pissed off another group who'll be hostile about it when next you meet.
I’m sure that won’t put off players determined to sneak around Night City and find a path that lets no-one come to harm: but if you’re going to have to bash in somebody’s head and pick off some murderous gang members, it’s also hardly a response that will bring a dissonant effect. “This is the world of Cyberpunk envisioned by Mike Pondsmith,” says Borzymowski. “It’s not a nice world, corporations are exploiting people using any means necessary, and that includes violence. But we are still just storytellers putting you into this living, breathing world. What you make of it, it’s in your hands.”