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Player choice matters more than it seems in Cyberpunk 2077

The RPG isn’t just an on-rails experience

Image: A Maelstrom gang member shows off a dog-shaped drone Image: CD Projekt Red
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

Cyberpunk 2077 can feel more like an action ride on rails than a role-playing game; if you don’t look carefully, you may not be able to tell it’s an RPG at all. Players online have been criticizing the game for its limited role-play options, especially when it comes to talking to people in the world. This effect is worse if you’re not talking to other players about your run. Even when the game offers you dialogue choices early on, like whether to side with a new fixer or an intriguing femme fatale, the choices don’t seem to pan out into anything meaningful.

That’s because Cyberpunk 2077 handles choice differently. It’s a lot more opaque than other RPGs. Take one of the game’s earliest missions, where V needs to acquire a valuable piece of cargo for a heist.

Early on, I realized that I don’t get to determine who V is. Instead, she’s a force that is being inflicted on the world, and I can only keep a leash on her as she tears her way through every scenario. V will always be reckless, determined, sarcastic, and violent.

[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the first 10 hours of Cyberpunk 2077.]

But when I started talking to friends about how our runs were progressing, I realized that things went very differently. During one mission, I did the exact same mission prep as my friend by allying with an outside corporate influence who provided me with a hacked payment card. When I went into a deal with a murderous criminal gang, intent on paying with the chip to help my new corpo friend, I focused on appeasing them at all costs. My ally panicked, and her corporation, decked out like a military, stormed the base and I had to fight my way out alongside the gang. Since the operation had gone so sour, my ally was fired, and the guy she had been carrying around in her trunk thanked me for the save.

My friend had the tense negotiation go a different way — he was able to make the same deal, but when he got in to talk to the Maelstrom, he turned on them violently. He realized that the boss of this gang, assumed dead, was actually just a captive. He restored the boss’s leadership, killed the upstarts, and later hooked up with the corporate agent in a motel room.

It’s a cluster of consequences that feels impactful. Our Night City experiences are now tangibly different. It feels like finishing a big quest hub in a BioWare game, except there I would pick my allies and actions through a very clear set of dialogue trees. Here, it’s about the approaches we took. The blue dialogue options can affect things, and skipping them — or choosing one over the other — can come back to bite you later.

Cyberpunk 2077 - V smokes a cigarette outside his car, looking over Night City Image: CD Projekt Red

One quest asks you to check in on your neighbor, Barry, a former cop. My buddy picked the right conversation options, and Barry opened up to him. I tried to be delicate, and avoided asking a question in favor of a more polite, distant approach. The next time I went to check on Barry, it was clear he had taken a terrible way out in response to his grief.

Later on, I confronted a father and son duo who had a terrible braindance video in their possession. I could go through the conversation as scripted, but if I break the script by shooting the father or the son, I have unique dialogue that starts with the survivor. While people in the open world are very two-dimensional, characters in missions can react with a little more nuance.

It’s not surprising that players are confused about what choices are available in the game. Cyberpunk 2077 has had a rough launch, and it’s clear that large parts of the game like the crime and punishment system simply aren’t working as they should. The game also throws you some red herrings. Early on, femme fatale Evelyn Parker asks if you want to take her side in a heist over your new fixer, Dexter DeShawn. You do have a few choices, but the biggest difference between them is you might get an extra cut of the heist percentage. If you’re only going off your own playthrough, especially since the game is in rough shape, it can seem stifling and limited. It’s only by talking to friends that I realized Cyberpunk 2077 had intriguing branches.

Dialogue trees can also be valuable, even if they don’t have any long-term effects, as they let players determine things about their character. Even V, who’s relatively static, can come across as cruel and mercenary or relatively professional and compassionate towards those who need help, depending on how you navigate conversations. It’s a clear way for a player to role-play with immediate impact.

However, long-term story differences tend to come from your actions, not your words. It’s a system that’s organic, and when you can tell it’s working and understand the game’s feedback, it feels great.