I have no gripe with open-world RPGs as a genre. But I do have a problem with what they have come to symbolize.
Every year, exploitative publishers crunch teams of hundreds if not thousands of developers to produce expansive, sumptuous games that set the expectation of what the market accepts as ‘standard’. We are told that ‘good’ video games cost $60 (soon to be $70) and require a $1000 computer. We are expected to accept whatever buggy state the game arrives in, to accept whatever microtransactions arrive with it, because this is the state of the art.
We have become so used to this narrative that we think this is what video games are supposed to look like at their peak.
We pay $60 because we trust the developers to deliver the best entertainment currently available. We pre-order games because we trust developers to deliver. But that trust can be misplaced, expensive doesn’t always equate to good, and the current state of AAA open-world RPGs invites exploitation of not only the people who make them but also the people who play them. And just because a game cost X million dollars to make, doesn’t mean it should automatically be held up as the pinnacle of gaming, an example of the way games should be. Furthermore, the high price of entry perpetuates a narrative of privilege, essentially being a form of gatekeeping. ‘Good’ experiences should not be fundamentally inaccessible to the larger, non-elite portion of the crowd.
A betrayal of trust
Cyberpunk 2077 is disappointing because the trust that consumers placed in the game wasn’t respected. CD Projekt Red chose not to hand out review codes for certain platforms, and made reviewers sign NDAs so that they could control the information that consumers would need to make reliable purchase decisions. This choice will not be forgotten after a few months. It is exactly the kind of coercion we can expect from any entity that is placed on a pedestal and protected from criticism by fans who provide excuses while turning a blind eye.
I am surprised that people who have played this game on their expensive PCs have been so quick to rush to CDPR’s defense, completely ignoring the fact that their own experience is not the one being devalued here.
Optimizing a game so that it works on different platforms and differently specced PCs should not be talked about lightly as a secondary feature that developers will get around to if they have the time. It is a make or break aspect for a huge number of people who cannot afford to join the elite with a top-of-the-range PC. And it should be a primary concern for any developer that invests a monumental amount of money into their next big project and claims to be inclusive.
But let’s just assume for a second that Cyberpunk 2077 had a decent release and that it runs reasonably well on every platform (although the fact that it doesn’t after 8 years in development and a budget of around $200 million is rather shocking). Let’s talk instead about the content of this game – what we are encouraged to accept as the pinnacle of video gaming right now.
A dismal future
One of the very first RPG features you encounter in this game is the character customization screen. Everyone has been talking about the option to customize your genitals and how it’s really cool that CDPR included it. This is what that feature looks like:
Type: Penis 1 (Circumcised), Penis 2 (Uncircumcised),
Size: Small, Default, Big
Pronouns: based on voice options (!!)
Voice: Masculine (He/him), Feminine (She/her)
Apparently this is just how bodies and identities work in 2077. The tech may have been upgraded in the future, but the body standards, subtle sexism and transphobic commentary stayed the same. I’ll quote Nathan Grayson from Kotaku here:
It also feels like a statement of, if not intent, then at least where priorities lay for CD Projekt. Where other developers sometimes at least pretend they care about non-male fanbases, for Cyberpunk, CD Projekt was just kinda like “Eh, let’s just put this absence of a thing here.” Like, it’s not even really a vagina. It’s just an absence of a dick.
It’s outrageous that Cyberpunk 2077 claims to be inclusive and then fetishizes trans identities as it suits, with subpar social commentary that falls apart under scrutiny because it is empty and superficial. I won’t even begin to start getting into the racial stereotyping that’s sprinkled throughout.
Defenders of the indefensible
Despite all of these disappointments, fans of CDPR (and open-world RPGs) have leapt to the defence of Cyberpunk 2077 at every opportunity. I’ve heard it all.
“But I’m having fun.”
“Give them more time.”
“It’s the consumers’ fault for pre-ordering this game and creating hype which pressured the devs.”
“A lot of great games start off this way.”
“But games are art, you can’t criticize them this way.”
“This is how the industry has worked for years.”
“You just don’t get the game.”
It’s both maddening and saddening. But I’m not just concerned about the content of these games. What bothers me more than anything is the hierarchy that price tag insinuates – that whatever we associate with that price tag is what is essential for a game to be ‘good’. It implies that to be at the top, you have to have a few million dollars to begin with and a flashy marketing strategy of big announcements at expensive gatherings, and a team so huge that you don’t even know that some of them are unhappy with your impositions as an employer until it comes out on the internet. It implies that we should pay $60 not because the game delivers what it promised, but because it has dumped X amount of resources into its development, and therefore has no other choice but to be priced this way. It’s a broken system.
If you look at the development of almost any AAA game, you’ll find stories of overworked employees who have complained to news outlets because their bosses are convinced that all it takes is ‘passion’ and a cheque for employees to survive. Such bosses show an absolute disregard for the mental health and morale of individuals who are being pushed beyond their limits for months. They show an indifference to people who are often harassed sexually and emotionally. There is often no acknowledgement of this within the company, and such a state of affairs is regularly coupled with major miscommunication between different company departments. This is clearly unsustainable.
I don’t look at indie development and see a smoothly sailing ship. But what I see are teams who did not compromise on the human factor for a million dollar project. I’m told that big AAA games can provide levels of immersion, world-building and gameplay that no indie title can ever come close to. I disagree completely. And AAA open-world games that position themselves as the ‘best’ that video gaming can offer clearly cannot be so, simply because of the cost to human lives that they have taken for their very existence. I’m not willing to pay that price.
Video games should be better
The conversations we have about whether a video game is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are limited in their contribution to the overarching discourse because all they address is the momentary on-screen experience (often for an upper-class demography), and not what the game means to the world outside through the lens of inclusivity. Maybe it doesn’t matter to a lot of us. But that is grossly problematic, because if we really love video games, and we want them to be more than just casual, mindless pastimes, then we ought to care about whether they meet that expectation in reality. You should be a strict, vigorous critic of your favorite developers and you should think thrice before recommending a AAA title, because coming from a point of privilege, your experience is rarely the example that should be analyzed to understand what’s wrong.
To conclude, I’m going to mention some numbers. Cyberpunk 2077 cost approximately $200 million to make, and took $480 million in pre-order sales alone. It costs $60, and will currently only run in an acceptable fashion on a $1000 computer or an expensive next-gen console. It is riddled with transphobic commentary and racial stereotyping, and the multibillion dollar studio that made it has admitted to coercing consumers on a grand scale.
Knowing all this, if all that matters to you is whether you had ‘fun’ in Night City, then the corporations really have won.