Cyberpunk 2077’s E3 Demo Left Me A Little Cold

Cyberpunk 2077’s E3 Demo Left Me A Little Cold
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Sometimes you go into a game demo, and it’s just absolutely not what you were expecting.

After a trailer for CD Projekt Red’s next game, Cyberpunk 2077, appeared at the end of Xbox’s E3 press conference, I agreed with the author William Gibson, who said that it looked like GTA in an ’80s retro-future.

Where he seemed pretty down on that whole concept, I thought it sounded brilliant. After that colourful trailer showing the life of a science-fiction city bathed in sunlight rather than enveloped in fog or drenched in rain in the middle of a perpetual night, I was expecting a kind of cyberpunk San Andreas: Violent and grimy, sure, but perhaps brighter and even more humorous than your typical grimdark cyberpunk setting.

Cyberpunk 2077 is not that. The E3 demo that its developers showed behind closed doors last week leans enthusiastically into the grimmest things about its aesthetic: Drugs, guns, violence, sexual exploitation and so on. It’s also a first-person game whose combat revolves around shooting, which immediately killed off the Witcher-but-science-fiction fantasy that I’ve been quietly nurturing since the The Witcher 3 came out in 2015.

Cyberpunk as a concept is the antithesis to utopian science fiction, so I was never expecting a city with gleaming white buildings and a happy, well-adjusted populace, but I was hoping for something that explores the issues of an unequal future society in a way that felt fresh.

There was nothing whatsoever in the demo’s future that I hadn’t seen before.

Gangs that kidnap and kill people to harvest and sell their augments. Mercenaries who’ll kill whomever for the credits. Crime syndicates with a stranglehold on the city. A black-market gang whose embrace of cybernetic augments takes them further and further away from “human”. The hard-boiled female protagonist who joins in, seemingly uncritically, with a cycle of violence and machismo. Naked, almost-dead women. Brothels, black markets, dodgy backdoor cybernetics doctors.

It reminded me, unfortunately, of Altered Carbon, a Netflix series that looks cool and has a great premise, but is shallow as a puddle, uninterested in delving below the surface of the cyberpunk aesthetic to actually say much beyond “rich people are bad”. (It’s also very fond of showing mutilated young women). Just once I would love to see a cyberpunk vision in which violence wasn’t the answer to everything.

Cyberpunk is popularly described as the marriage of high-tech and low-life. There are so many aspects of this that remain unexplored. In a cybernetic future, how would people embrace body modification as self-expression and self-empowerment? How could body augmentation erase or flip the gender, race, ability, wealth and other inequalities in our current society? How would people live within and fight against a corrupt corporate system, rather than embracing it?

There’s so much more to say about how technology can humanise us in the face of corporations that exert their power through dehumanisation – a common theme in this genre. I’m hopeful that some of this will be explored in the actual game, but there was no sign of it in this first showing.

The Witcher 3 – one of my top three games of all time – is expert at employing and subverting fantasy-genre tropes to say interesting things about its world and characters. Its world, too, is rife with corruption and hypocrisy, but it feels so unpredictable and full of possibility.

E3 demos usually emphasise action over everything else, and are forced to cram a lot of material into a short period of time, but an hour of Cyberpunk 2077 didn’t show me anything about Night City that surprised me.

I remember the first time I saw The Witcher 3, in a similar hour-long demo at E3 2014; within 15 minutes we were done with riding through a medieval-style town and heading to the wilderness to restore the voice of an unnervingly weird, mute, child-like swamp creature, and talk to some witches in a tapestry in a village full of suspiciously unaccompanied children. That was unexpected.

From those first moments, it was made clear that this fantasy game wouldn’t fall back on orcs and mages. I remember being impressed, when I first played it six months later, that it treated me like an adult rather than pretending at maturity by toning up the boobs and gore.

I want the same from Cyberpunk; I want to meet characters who aren’t criminal leaders, emotionless mercenaries or corporate stooges, and experience storylines that don’t revolve around shooting people up or intimidating them with violence. Consequently the demo left me a little cold.

CD Projekt is a developer that has shown great range, intelligence and talent. Cringeworthy collectible sex cards from the first Witcher game notwithstanding, it has been on an upward trajectory for its whole existence when it comes to making games with maturity, thematic depth and moral ambiguity.

I am certain that there will be more to Cyberpunk 2077 than shooting, swearing and upgrading generic augments. I’m clearly not going to get that retro-futuristic, third-person open-world RPG that I was briefly imagining, but I still want to see how Cyberpunk 2077 innovates within its setting.


  • It seems to lean pretty hard into the Vampire the Masquerade Bloodlines; which is a welcome design decision.

  • Seems to prove the adage that if the critics hate something you know it’s going to be good.

    I was pretty disinterested in this game. But now I like the sound of it.

  • When you’ve got 15 minutes to make an impact, you don’t get to show the quiet, more thoughtful moments. You go in loud, guns blazing and try to get people pumped up.

    Some of the witcher 3’s best moments were at the end of long quest lines, stories slowly teased out across the game. Nothing that you could capture with any real depth within a tiny demo.

    They’ve said they expect the game to be at least at big as the Witcher 3. Given the quality of their writing and quest design in the past, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

    • Some of the writers for The Witcher 3 aren’t writing for this game. There was news like a week ago that the people that wrote the Bloody Baron questline are writing for Dying Light 2.

      Not saying the writing’s going to be bad or anything, I just think that it’s worth noting for now.

      Can’t wait to see the game in action and we can all start judging it properly for ourselves.

  • You really expected a lot out of a demo hey.

    Also Altered Carbon explored themes about what is humanity or a soul if you’re immortal and briefly touched on power dynamics in families that live for 100s of years and bluntly approached some themes about ancestral identity in a culture that can swap bodies, but maybe I was watching a different show?

    • Or just watching a show differently, I suppose.

      I’m with you, so much more to Altered Carbon than I was expecting, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    • Agreed. Altered Carbon appeared shallow, but the more I watched, the deeper it got. Loved it

  • This game doesn’t seem evoke that “rat in a cage” vibe I get from my favorite cyberpunk fiction. Stories that make you feel like all the walls are closing in on you, and the knowledge that it was your own actions that put you there. Stories where you feel like a cockroach crawling inside a superpower and your only shot at winning is to short out the system using your own body. Stories that feel like even if you succeed, your chances of making a difference are slim to none. Stories that feel hot and wet and smell like rotten boiled cabbage. Stories that are messy and clumsy, where any choice you make is regrettable.

    This doesn’t feel like that game. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t look absolutely stunning, though.

  • not everyone prefers third person.

    Being in first person is a major factor for me being interested

  • Kotaku trying its hardest to be contrary again I guess.
    Also altered carbon actually explored a lot of themes and philosophy throughout especially past the half way mark.
    Expecting a lot from a demo where I’m sure the full game will explore and push a lot of themes thoughts and ideas along the way.

  • Wow this is a bad take, the game doesn’t need to be fresh it needs to represent the Cyberpunk role-playing game from the 80s-90s, yes it is not original in its sci-fi tropes, but honestly what is original anymore, and how would that be represented in game form?
    It’s CD Projekt Red it will definitely not be shallow, have you played The Witcher? The amount of small and lovingly handcrafted details, lore and aesthetic is anything but shallow, and CPR know for a fact gamers are waiting for their beautifully polished final product with all of that, and hopefully more.

  • Yeah, definitely a “different strokes for different folks” flavour to this article. CP2077 and TLOU2 owned E3 for me 🙂

  • After that colourful trailer showing the life of a science-fiction city bathed in sunlight rather than enveloped in fog or drenched in rain in the middle of a perpetual night, I was expecting a kind of cyberpunk San Andreas: Violent and grimy, sure, but perhaps brighter and even more humorous than your typical grimdark cyberpunk setting. Cyberpunk 2077 is not that.

    Well thank fuck for that. That is the opposite of what I’ve been craving. Unlike the author, ‘GTA 2077’ made me actually bloody doubt CDPR for possibly the first time ever. I didn’t come here for bloody San Andreas! I hate that schtick! This is why Watch Dogs 2 left me colder than its predecessor.

    Just once I would love to see a cyberpunk vision in which violence wasn’t the answer to everything.

    Psst… Va-11 Hall-A. (Coming soon to console and switch!) You’ll thank me later.

  • Dont file this under cyberpunk, file it under ‘I have an opinion and it must be valid’.

    Dont judge a book by its cover, cdprojekt red are famous for depth, something you cant experience in 15 minutes. i cant say anything that other people arent already thinking about this article, SO EDGY, WOW

    • I’m really struggling to see how people are getting upset over this article and entirely misunderstanding a few of its key goals. If an article has me or I in the title no shit it’s an opinion piece, what did you expect?

      Additionally it wasn’t a 15 minute demo, it was an hour long. There’s a lot you can do in an hour, and a lot of different reactions that might arise from that hour. Personally I’m pretty excited by what I’ve seen / heard from CP2077, but that doesn’t invalidate an article like this, a view was expressed and it was evidenced – regardless of my personal take on the game from what I’ve seen and heard, to get upset that someone else has a different opinion or different hopes for the game is just dumb.

      Finally leaping to defend a demo for an unreleased game is silly at best, but it wasn’t even one we’ve seen – it was shown behind closed doors, probably running on unfinished code representing an idea of what the game will be like (but probably isn’t a finished part of that game itself). All we have to go on are articles like this one, describing what was in the demo, so on what grounds can we even say ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’? To extend your metaphor, this article is about the cover, not the book and as much is stated in the final lines. There’s nothing about this article that tries to be edgy, it’s just an opinion that differs from the mainstream, and surely that’s what we want to read, not just journalists jumping aboard the hype train, but articles questioning exactly where that train is headed.

      • My impression from other sources was that they were showing off the game mechanics more than anything else in the demo, but everyone has their own thing they want to see for sure.

      • It seems to go that way when Kotalu releases an opinion piece that goes against the general opinion. Either you agree with us, or you’re intentionally being contrarian/a bad writer with bad opinions.

        It’s better to write articles on why preordering is bad/eb games is the worst, then you’re a good writer.

        • We’ve been pretty positive on CP2077 so far; Keza here is just keen to see what CDR actually does with the cyberpunk world, given how masterfully they fleshed out The Witcher 3. I’m not reading this as edgy or against the game, but more looking to see what kinds of stories CDR want to tell in this world.

          Also not sure where people are getting the whole “15 minute demo” thing from; all press got 1 hour behind closed door sessions, which Keza mentioned. (And was the same thing they did for The Witcher 3, too.)

          • I enjoy these articles. As impressed as I was with the reveal trailer, it’s interesting to read a different perspective. Sadly, most gamers see the hype around a hot new game in black and white. You are either as excited as they are, or you must be ridiculed for not sharing their enthusiasm.

        • Yes because bluntly calling a show shallow is good writing. Btw altered carbon is far from shallow

  • i remember readin and hearing this kind of negativity when the witcher 3 was revealed to be an Open World RPG on a massive map with no loading screens when you enter a city….. and even then the demo was very bright and pretty, but we all know how dark it ended up being.

  • I doubt any of the comments here are going to sway anyone of their opinion, but oh well. I think the author would have made a more compelling argument if she made it clear that she had an interest in cyberpunk. It also seems to be a bizarrely high standard for demo of a game without a clear release date where they were primarily interested in promoting the setting.

    I mean, yes, I do hope that they’re able to tell stories of the calibre of the witcher, which despite the setting were surprisingly human. But if the first act 2077 were just familiarising players with cyberpunk tropes I wouldn’t be at all surprised or alarmed. Most cyberpunk doesn’t really get interesting before you look behind the veil in the 2nd or 3rd act.

  • It reminded me, unfortunately, of Altered Carbon
    …was expecting a kind of cyberpunk San Andreas… Cyberpunk 2077 is not that.

    And now I’m sold. I mean, not that I wasn’t already before, but that’s bonus points for me right there. The gritty yet humorous void will be (hopefully) filled by Beyond Good and Evil 2.

  • I’m guessing the author is not a child of 80s?

    I’m clearly not going to get that retro-futuristic …

    Mike Pondsmith’s Cyberpunk which of course Cyberpunk 2077 is based on, is a continuation of the pen and paper RPG story line and is all about the retro-futuristic world of the 80’s.
    But we will have wait and see how far they deviate from the source material.

  • I usually like articles by Keza but she seriously pooped the bed on this one. It’s like she has never scratched the surface of a CDPR game or had the sense to avoid judging books on covers. Has her extensive experience evaporated from her brain after some bump to the head? Does Keza REALLY believe the trailer is the entire contents of CP2077? And then gripes it’s learning on standard cyberpunk tropes then bitches the trailer is set in broad daylight (and has cars! Must be a GTA clone!), has colour (gasp!) and isn’t a noir-esque, rainy, detective with cyberware standing over a murder victim schtick? Well, umm… that’s kinda what you want from a remake of a classic rpg called, unbelievably… cyberpunk? Yeah? It has all the tropes, cliches and hallmarks of the genre, then put in a fresh setting that still stays true to the source material. That is what we want, yes? I’m not mad, Keza, but I am ROYALLY disappointed.

  • I stopped reading as soon as you said “unfortunately reminded you of Altered Carbon”, and then realised that this was going to be everything I’d hoped for. F*** yes.

  • I’m actually documenting how kotaku censor people in their comments for no good reason and you just gave me substantially move evidence then expected. He is one comment you censored for no good reason. “other people who have seen the demo actually described it almost exactly like you just did” not that kotaku is that credible any way, just helps prove it. Good job

  • Okay, here’s the thing.
    Sure, having characters that aren’t all just hardened mercenaries and killers and organ harvesters would be an interesting spin on things, but it wouldn’t be cyberpunk.
    Cyberpunk isn’t just “a blend of high tech and low life”, it’s about a civilization where advanced technology is as easy to procure as groceries, where you can buy cybernetic prosthesis on the side of the street, but also where the world is well and truly fucked , Cyberpunk employs the use of tropes such as police states, megacorps ruling everything and the concept that these enhancement hasn’t lessened our capacity for depravity, if anything it’s made them worse.
    And for your criticism against V, Cyberpunk 2020 (the tabletop game) had your characters be hackers, mercenaries and other criminals, so it’s staying true to the source material.
    So yes, your character, an essential hacker/gangster blend, will be encountering a lot of criminals, corrupt businessmen, brutal and corrupt cops and prostitutes in Night City, a place that is EXPLICITLY described as “The worst place to live in America, reasons; sky high rate of violence and more people living under the poverty line than anywhere else in america.” so yeah, you’ll either encounter rich people who made their wealth by exploiting the masses, crime lords, petty gangsters or desperate people who threw their lot in with criminals because they had no other option. Let’s be real, if you’re playing a game like Mafia and complain that you meet so many criminals in the game that’s not the games fault, it’s yours for misunderstanding the type of game it is.
    Now as for subverting expectation in the cyberpunk genre, well, we’ve seen one big but understated one already, dynamic weather and having dynamic time of day means you can play your cyberpunk adventure during a clear sunny day, where most cyberpunk media takes place during the dead of night where it’s raining out.
    And here’s the thing maybe you will find honest people in the game, but you just played a demo. Let’s assume the Demo is a portion of the final game, and you play in the equivalent of White Orchard in TW3, all the most interesting characters and quests, Bloody Baron, Wild at Heart, etc. Aren’t actually in White Orchard, I’m assuming the Demo has the same function as White Orchard, set the tone of the game to newcomers to the series in a more black and white way than the rest of the game.
    And as for criticizing the game for being unoriginal, no. Originality isn’t prevalent in society anymore, I attribute this to punctuated equilibrium, us not having any major breakthroughs and new experiences and therefore being limited by all the things we know being of this Earth and of this time but anyways, even the Witcher 3 wasn’t “original”, it was good.
    Many games often subvert expectations like the Witcher 3 does, the difference is in execution and frequency. With most other RPG’s erring more towards happy endings and the like, the Witcher 3 comes more from the Mass Effect way of storytelling where happy endings have to be earned, and it’s good not because it’s original but because it’s against the current market trend.

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