E3 2018 Quick Asides: Cyberpunk 2077
Cyberpunk 2077 was announced with a gorgeous teaser trailer back in 2013 by Polish software developer CD Projekt RED that would be based off of the tabletop RPG, Cyberpunk 2020, created by Mike Pondsmith in 1988. This production set the gaming community on fire with anticipation back then, but the public has seen very little development since because the studio had the release of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, all of its supporting DLC and the standalone Gwent game to focus on. We still have no release date, but CD Projekt unveiled an extended cinematic trailer for everyone and close to an hour of gameplay footage behind closed doors for a select few at this year’s E3.
While most of the new information we’ve been given regarding Cyberpunk 2077 has met nigh universal praise and increased enthusiasm there is one vignette that many in the community have expressed reservations (if not furious concern) over. Cyberpunk 2077 will be an FPS (with third person pullbacks reserved for motorcycle and car driving sequences in the open world). CD Projekt and every other representative from the development team (including Mike Pondsmith) were quick to emphasize and reemphasize the RPG, character creation, customization and class development aspects of the game over perspective and mechanics. We’ve seen FPS/RPG hybrids before in video games with varying degrees of success, but there’s no question that the FPS format limits perspective, limits gameplay, limits movement, limits character identification and development and limits the situational awareness of the player’s avatar in relation to the rest of the game’s virtual world. These are not the kind of limitations any gamer wants to see in an open world, action RPG.
In an interview with Angry Joe at E3, Mr. Pondsmith talked about the benefits of the first person perspective in the world of Cyberpunk in terms of a more realistic immersion for the player. “Stuff happens around your perception all the time. And if you’re above and out of it and you’re just driving a puppet around you don’t get that same feeling you get of being in the place. Stuff, when you are in it, impacts you. Stuff, when you’re above it or outside of it, is tactical information.”
He’s absolutely right on general principal. The first person perspective certainly adds realism to any gaming experience if the intent is to put the player inside the game action and narrative as some imagined version of themselves. As VR hardware continues to evolve and become more cost effective for consumers, bridging the digital divide between the individual’s visceral reality with virtual reality will further erase the separation between worlds and make for a more authentic experience. This is a fundamental suspension of disbelief that even makes quality tabletop RPGs wonderfully personal experiences. You, with your limited experience, attributes and inventory are in this moment and you have to deal with it, so use your imagination.
However, Cyberpunk 2077 is not a game with so pure or lofty ambitions where the player is imprinting onto a blank slate that will interact with Night City on such a level. The player will control a character whose name is V and while we will have the ability to choose this character’s gender, back story and look, there will be a preconceived narrative playing out that can be altered in minimal ways. V will still have his/her own agenda, motivations and goals that the player will have power to direct, but not veto or replace. The player is still “driving a puppet” even though we won’t “see” the puppet through the majority of gameplay.
Why is any of this a problem? The game still looks great and if we can count on CD Projekt to properly mimic the smooth FPS mechanics from industry leaders, does criticizing the first person perspective matter? Yes. Yes it does.
First, the FPS format can negatively impact the story by perpetuating a disconnect between player and main character. V, as a character, exists outside of player choice and manipulation. Yet, how can the player appreciate the unfolding narrative as the character interprets it if we never see him/her react to other characters or the environment outside of a disembodied voice emanating from a HUD? This was a major limitation for BioShock Infinite as the player-character Booker DeWitt is the game’s least interesting character despite his actions being the driving force for the plot. It is very difficult to connect with a character when our only reference point is reaction from others. We know that dialogue choices will be the primary form of interaction between V and every other character in Night City, but we don’t know what that will look like or how it will play out. Dialogue interactions like those in Mass Effect that break the first person with a mini-cinematic to third person will resist the disconnect while something like Fallout 3 which maintains the first person lock will perpetuate the ghostly, disembodied voice of a character we’re meant to be.
Second, the FPS format makes customization mechanics of the RPG irrelevant. Attributes, items and gear matters in an RPG because they help define who the player-character is while giving you the ability to do things and go places your character would otherwise be unable to. FPS format nullifies gender, skin tone and hair style/color choices for an initial character build. If this is never seen does it ever matter to the player? FPS format gives the “cool” attribute zero aesthetic as just another invisible key that unlocks access to more missions and areas of the world. How cool can our clothes and weapons be if we never see them in their entirety?
Third, the FPS format makes dynamic movement (anything that isn’t running straight ahead) an absolute nightmare. Dynamic movement such as jumping, climbing and flying are vital to exploring and surviving an open world such as Cyberpunk 2077. First person perspective games have tried incorporating them for years and none have found a way to make the action as precise as with the third person. You can never see your footing in an FPS, drawing distance between fore, mid and background is challenging and you never have a proper sense of peripheral scale with anything else in the environment you might be bumping into, thus impeding progress.
I have faith that CD Projekt RED has contingencies to mitigate the problems that the FPS format introduces to an action RPG such as Cyberpunk 2077. Their recent track record of hits is proof enough for the gaming community to place this developer at the top of the best studios making games today. That being said, the FPS format has a warranted reputation for restrictive gameplay that functions best in dude-bro shooters such as Call of Duty and Battlefield. With Cyberpunk 2077 being marketed as “a narrative driven RPG,” any bit of game reveal prior to release that suggests “a shooting driven FPS” may shake consumer confidence by way of inconsistent messaging. We’ve had far too much of that from the gaming industry and been burned by empty promises and false bravado before.