If Cyberpunk 2077 is going to life up to the hype its Life Path system needs to learn a valuable lesson from a problem with Fallout 4.
Cyberpunk 2077 is coming out this November, almost a decade after the game was revealed by CD Projekt Red back in 2012. Since then, the studio has achieved critical acclaim with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and the rest of the RPG industry has undergone significant changes. Once almost-universally acclaimed studios like Bethesda and BioWare have since released critical and commercial flops like Anthem and Fallout 76, while CD Projekt Red has improved its reputation over the decade to become the most valuable game studio in Europe.
Cyberpunk 2077 aims to be a next-gen defining RPG, synthesizing the freedom and customization of games like Skyrim with the tightly constructed narratives of a game like The Witcher 3 or a BioWare title. It’s a huge task, but Cyberpunk can’t just look at the successes of the past few years to understand how to pull it off. CD Projekt Red should learn one big lesson from Fallout 4 when it comes to its customization, a lesson which, if not learned, could have a hugely detrimental effect on the game.
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Fallout 4’s Big Mistake
On paper, there are few particular reasons to explain why Fallout 4 received a far cooler reaction from some fans of the franchise than a game like Fallout 3 or Fallout: New Vegas. All of them have large open worlds, fun and creative locations, and impressive realizations of real-world locations after the atomic apocalypse has taken place. However, Fallout 4 made one fatal mistake that was far more fundamental than many fans could have even predicted.
Fallout 4 was as open-ended as any other Bethesda RPG, except in one regard. While games like Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas left the player character’s backstory up to the player excluding a single random event which kicks off the plot at the start of the game, Fallout 4 was extremely prescriptive in its backstory for the protagonist. The game begins with the player talking to their heterosexual spouse, playing with their young child, and making frequent references to their military past.
It may not seem like much, but the fundamental problem with this introduction is not in what it introduces to the game, but what it excludes. Players who wanted to play as a gay octogenarian pacifist with a strong southern twang who happened to take up a delivery job, starting the events of Fallout: New Vegas, were absolutely able to do so in a way that the latest single player installment of the main series made completely impossible without modding Fallout 4. A huge part of the appeal and replayability of games like Skyrim and earlier Fallout titles is that by prescribing almost nothing about the player character, the player can truly imagine that character as anyone they want, something which Fallout 4’s voiced player character denied players.
Cyberpunk 2077’s protagonist is also voiced, which may already limit roleplaying options. CD Projekt Red allows players to pick from 3 distinct “Lifepaths” which define the character’s backstory and the start of the game: the Corporate, the Nomad, and the Street Kid. It already seems strange that a corporate agent and a street kid would have the exact same vocal patterns, but for players who are willing to get over that, this already poses a worrying problem. Although the 3 lifepath options go some way towards helping create more roleplaying opportunities in a game with a more character-driven narrative than Skyrim or New Vegas, Fallout 4 shows why these three options just might not be enough.
Fallout 4 could have presented multiple openings. Perhaps the player could choose to be the retail version’s veteran who barely escapes nuclear Armageddon, a scientist with Fallout‘s Institute who got a spot in a vault to continue their research, or a kid who grew up in a vault and left like in Fallout 3. These would still bar the player from a huge amount of different roleplaying opportunities, especially if the player’s consistent voice was a reminder that the protagonist’s personality and line delivery remains largely the same after the prologue missions.
Fallout 3 has a more set introduction as well, but it works better for a few key reasons. Though the Fallout 3 protagonist has a few established facts about their life, they are all things that are circumstances of birth and do not speak to their personality or the choices they’ve made. They have a father who they grew up in Vault 101 with, but unlike the Fallout 4’s protagonist’s choice to join the military, marry their spouse, and start a family, this prescribes nothing about their personality.
Cyberpunk 2077 Lifepaths will need to make sure that they do not have premises which prescribe things about the personality of V, the protagonist. For example, the Street Kid introduction could get away with having the character start as part of a gang if it is implied that most kids who grow up in that area join that gang, and it isn’t indicative of anything personal about the character.
However, if the Cyberpunk Street Kid starts with a girlfriend or business partner that gets killed in the introduction, for example, this prescribes way too much about V’s actual choices in life rather than just their random circumstances of birth. It’s unlikely CD Projekt Red will go with something that prescriptive, but as with Fallout 4, it could be easy for the developer to not realize just how much it is limiting roleplay in the name of tighter character-driven storytelling.
Cyberpunk 2077 has a careful path to tread as it tries to bring together the freedom of one school of RPG design with the narrative cohesion of another. Lifepaths and the player’s introduction to Night City could be a minefield for prescriptive writing that violates the freedom of the original pen-and-paper RPG. Fans, however, will have to wait until November to see whether or not Cyberpunk 2077 can pull it off.
Cyberpunk 2077 will be available November 19th on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, with PS5, Stadia and Xbox Series X versions in development.
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