Cyberpunk 2077’s sequel should probably focus on doing complex subjects more justice than the original

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A screenshot from Cyberpunk 2077.

Playing around with Cyberpunk 2077’s photo mode can be pretty fun. In CD Projekt Red’s polarising RPG, which is enjoying a bit of a resurgence right now off the back of its tie-in anime and has just had a sequel announced, you can take pictures pretty much anywhere and in any scenario. Fancy holding up a peace sign next to some dildos and harnesses in one of the game’s many sex shops? Go ahead. Want to pose alongside a tastefully posed pile of enemies you’ve just brutally murdered? Feel free.

However, there is one place in Cyberpunk 2077 where you can’t grab a quick selfie. It’s the room in which a man is brutally crucified in the style of Jesus Christ, while a group of production staff record the act for posterity. This event is the endpoint of what, to me, is Cyberpunk’s worst and most memorable side quest, Sinnerman. It begins as a mundane job from fixer Wakako Okada. You meet Bill Jablonsky, an angry man with a big truck and a badly thought-out plan to kill the bloke who murdered his wife, Joshua Stephenson. Following a short chase sequence with the murderer’s police escort, things come to a halt and Jablonsky gets out to go and put a cap in Stephenson’s bottom. Then, in 99% of playthroughs, Jablonsky just dies.

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Technically, you can make an effort to save him, but trying to do so is almost impossible and will only result in the quest ending rather abruptly, arguably having wasted your time. So, you might as well just let an interesting character meet an anticlimactic end and proceed as the game intends, by talking to Stephenson and those escorting him. At this point, the murderer will beg you to tag along with him for the rest of the day. You can say no, which is the logical option to take in this situation, but all this means is that the quest will end as suddenly as it does if you try to save Jablonsky.

A screenshot from Cyberpunk 2077.

Table of Contents

A Matrix-themed version of Simon says begins

You might as well heed the words of Johnny Silverhand, your literal brainworm, who suddenly blinks into existence to say the line: “Got no fuckin’ idea what this is about, but if you don’t go with them I’m never talking to you again.” There are many sentences in and about video games that I’ve heard over the years and wished were true. That one might be top of the list. Sadly, it’s a lie. Your little ride with Stephenson takes you to a couple of places. One is the home of another person he murdered to end up, as you find out, on death row. The second is a fast food place, where one of Stephenson’s entourage tries to pay you to leave. Accepting said offer will also result in the quest ending with a wet fart noise, but Johnny tells you not to do it, so you won’t.

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The big story being told here is that Stephenson has managed to avoid a traditional execution by agreeing to die via biblically-styled crucifixion instead and to have this experience recorded and made into a Braindance by a production company. It’s their representative that’s trying to pay you to go away. Naturally, this conjures a litany of dystopian moral quandaries. Johnny Silverhand summarises them all by saying that it doesn’t matter what you think about the situation, then declaring Stephenson to be “the real rebel” in society and eventually musing that you can only save the world by “getting fucked in the head.” These asinine, childish viewpoints on the situation would be fine if they came from someone who was just a character in Cyberpunk 2077. The problem lies in the fact that Johnny Silverhand isn’t just that.

The final act of the Sinnerman quest takes place in that room I told you about earlier, the one where you can’t take photos. You can choose whether to pray with Joshua or take part in his crucifixion, but either way, it goes ahead. When it’s over, you can tell the Braindance’s producer that you think it should never be released. She’ll reply that it’s not up to you. And then the quest just ends. This ending is supposed to be poignant, with the idea that you can do nothing to stop Stephenson from being exploited by the faceless corporation.

A screenshot from Cyberpunk 2077.

Jesus Christ, that’s it?

The problem is that the game fails to treat it as such. I'll put aside the lack of player agency in a quest designed to provoke polarised opinions, with options to prevent Stephenson from being exploited or even to serve as a reconciliatory go-between in his conflict with Jablonsky never being presented as viable. The game simply doesn’t seem interested in converting these controversial events into a meaningful discussion. Silverhand’s reductive commentary at the restaurant ends up being the final word on the matter, trivialising the themes at play and making the whole thing feel more like you’re watching Joe Rogan review To Kill a Mockingbird than being drawn in by Rick Deckard, Eldon Tyrell and Rachael’s debate about the morality of retiring a human by mistake.

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The same fate befalls Cyberpunk’s main quest, with its villains, the leaders of the Arasaka Corporation, not being allowed to be anything more than two-dimensional figures whose cartoonishly evil tendencies make Silverhand’s lobotomised Che Guevara act seem less unhinged and lacking in substance. That said, there are a couple of occasions, such as the events surrounding Evelyn Parker’s suicide, when Silverhand’s presence isn’t entirely to blame for the game’s inability to deal with the complex ideas it wants to explore in the manner that they ideally require, but even then, he certainly doesn’t help matters. The result of all of this is a game that can’t deal with nuance well at all, an idea that’s best demonstrated by comparing the Sinnerman questline to one of The Witcher 3’s best side quests, Paperchase.

A screenshot from The Witcher 3.

The pen is mightier than the sword

Based on a trip made by Geralt to Beauclair’s bank in order to retrieve the payment for a job he completed on a previous visit to the setting of the Blood and Wine DLC, this quest sees the white wolf battle the toughest beast of all, bureaucracy. Rushing from counter to counter and department to department trying to acquire the correct bits of paper to gain access to his account, the fearsome witcher, with his twin swords and ornate armour, is reduced to a powerless, agitated fool raging against the machine of modernity. His efforts prove completely futile too, until a helpful stranger suggests that he try being nicer to the bank’s employees.

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This leads to the discovery that poor Geralt’s coin has been spent, leaving you with the choice of asking for some now or waiting a week on the promise that you’ll get the full amount. The choice is yours, but, as the rest of the quest teaches, the right answer to get the best reward is the latter, the one which hinges on patience and accepting that there’s nothing most individuals can do on a daily basis to change the way that the world works. The quest’s greatest strength is that its intended moral and themes are dealt with subtly, rather than being screamed in the face of the player, who has the choice to ignore the lesson being taught entirely if they wish.

If such a quest were in Cyberpunk, I have no doubt it would be ruined by Johnny Silverhand, sitting in the lobby of the bank and launching into some airheaded tirade about ‘the man’ that sounds kind of like a Rage Against the Machine song would if you asked a complete moron to try and paraphrase every word. Plus, you probably wouldn’t get a choice over whether to wait for your money. Silverhand would tell you to take the first option and storm out, while those who were patient would end up with nothing, proving Mr Reeves right for the thousandth time.

A screenshot from Disco Elysium.

“Sorry Keanu, can I put you on hold? There’s a serious subject on the other line”

The same would apply to the likes of Disco Elysium’s quest surrounding Harry and Kim’s innocent discovery of a dead body on a boardwalk, which leads to a sequence that sees the game put its wonderfully hilarious side on hold and adopt a tonal shift while the pair gut their way through a death knock at the deceased's home. This isn’t necessarily unique to the RPG genre either. The Red Dead Redemption 2 mission that sees Arthur Morgan contract the disease that’ll kill him from a dying man he’s shaking down for pennies wouldn’t seem quite as poetic if it featured sardonic commentary from a beloved Hollywood actor in place of the sombre ride back to camp.

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You see, while it may prohibit you from taking photos at its climax, in my opinion, the Sinnerman quest line provides the perfect snapshot of the main issue that couldn’t be patched out of Cyberpunk 2077 in the time between its release and its resurgence. Its ultimate lesson is that, while Disco Elysium proves that casting someone who’s a bit of an idiot as your game’s central character doesn’t preclude it from tackling serious or nuanced topics, it’s important that they don’t become the sole arbiter of truth in scenarios designed to make the player think.