Early on in my playthrough of CD Projekt Red’s 7/10 NFT screensaver Cyberpunk 2077, I realized you could climb washing lines.
I’m a real sucker for verticality, so normally I’d be immediately trying to see how high I could get, but after tentatively scaling a few floors I decided to give the urgent main quest the benefit of the doubt. There would probably just be a disappointing invisible wall anyway. I climbed back down and did my best to engage with the expensive cutscenes filled with proper actors. 50 hours of mediocre Strange Days references later, I had most of the game under my belt and was ready to go searching for something more substantial – to try to find some actual cyberpunk in this retrowave moodboard. I set about pushing Cyberpunk 2077 to the vertical limit.
There’s no denying that Night City itself is the game’s biggest strength, a sprawling mess of the brand new violently crashing against the old. I wouldn’t have been able to drag myself through the campaign without the dangling possibility of wandering into another disgusting but strangely cozy cyberhovel. There’s also no denying that it’s the most startlingly artificial and sterile videogame city since LA Noire. You can practically see the tracks that the goldfish-brained NPCs are attached to. It’s just a hub to populate with Far Cry style micro-missions to pad things out for another 30 hours. If there’s anything real to be found here, it’ll be as far away from the game itself as possible.
So I fast-travel to a bridge market, suspended between skyscrapers. I vaguely remember being taken here at some point, background for another perfunctory shootout. It’s three in the morning and I’m sleep deprived but the first steps are easy, deliberately placed ladders and walkways letting me advance a dozen floors at a time. I have better legs than I did at the outset – robot legs that allow for a double-jump. Perfect for impossibly redirecting yourself. I turn V into a gravity-defying platforming mascot, bouncing off parallel walls and bypassing sections of fiddly parkour.
There comes a point in the ascent where the ambient audio abruptly cuts out, the sounds of traffic and the blaring of advertisements just suddenly silenced as if the game realized just how high above it all I am now. Nothing replaces it. No whistling wind, no birds. The details of the market beneath me are getting less defined, barely rendering. Cyberpunk 2077 clearly isn’t interested in what I get up to at this altitude. It doesn’t have any game waiting for me up here.
The ledges are becoming narrower, the gaps wider. It takes increasingly more time to find handholds to desperately scramble up. When progress comes, it’s fleeting, and I gain a couple of feet when I used to be scaling floors at a time. I can’t shake the feeling that the open-world action RPG Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t happy with me, like it’s trying to convince me to come back down to where all the content is. The war of attrition drags on for an hour, and countless abandoned instances of V litter the streets below as I mash her against every tiny jut of geography I can find, save-scumming my way up the megastructure. 4am bleeds into 5am and my relationship with Cyberpunk 2077 is now entirely antagonistic – it’s a tangible, malevolent force actively trying to keep me away from something.
I can’t shake the feeling that the open-world RPG Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t happy with me, like it’s trying to convince me to come back down to where all the content is.
I win, of course. I’m an elite pro gamer. I’ve been playing these things since before I knew how to multiply. I can sense when a corner can be clipped through, when a tiny artifact can be stunted off of. There’s a language somewhere deep in my brain that intuitively knows how these worlds work, what they feel like and how to break them. I reach some form of unknown height limit, trip the wrong 1s and 0s and reality shifts. The game gives up. The roof I’m on decides to become invisible and I can see through the rest of the building, all the way to the streets below and the unending black void that the world is precariously resting upon. Of course I should hurl V into it. Maybe there’s a way out down there.
I throw V off the ledge, freezing time as she falls to make her pose for the camera as I fiddle with the exposure. After I’ve got my photo, I let her fall. I watch through her eyes as the city rushes up to meet her, the details that have become distant suddenly becoming much clearer. As she makes contact with the pavement at terminal velocity. I load my last quicksave and she’s back on the ledge, good as new and ready for another involuntary death plunge in the pursuit of art. If she has any objections to this she doesn’t show it, gurning and goofing off in mid-air as I lock her into a rebirth loop. I lose count – at this point, V is trapped in quantum superposition at the boundaries of the simulation, flung around like a toy by a higher power she can’t perceive.
This was real cyberpunk, happening to me. This was Neo reaching out to touch a mirror and seeing it melt before his eyes. That bit in Dark City where a brick wall crumbles and reveals a sea of stars. Remember 1999 also-ran The Thirteenth Floor? When your man drives to the edge of the city and finds a wireframe of green computer lines, revealing the nature of his reality as a playground for a sociopath in a layer above his own? You don’t remember The Thirteenth Floor, but it’s like that. It’s the cyberpunk protagonist finally seeing the gaps in the world that’s been placed over their eyes, starting a journey of self-actualization as they fight for a life beyond the margins of corporate artifice.
Cyberpunk was in here all along, hiding at the periphery of the $316 million power fantasy for Elon Musk fans. Where else would it be hiding? It was certainly never going to be found within the market-researched constraints of an open-world videogame – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything of value to be carved from this bloated capitalist amusement park.