Cyberpunk 2077 and Subplot
StoryScan: Critical Hit
StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this essay, we’re covering Cyberpunk 2077 (CDProjektRed, 2020), the futuristic action role-playing game with an infamously troubled launch. This essay will cover content up through the end of the game. Players who have not completed the game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the main storyline.
Few games exemplify the phrase ‘failure to launch’ better than CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 (2020). In an attempt to top the success of their previous title, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015), CDPR acquired the rights to the Cyberpunk table-top role-playing franchise. To do justice to the neon dystopia of Night City, CDPR expanded their studio, redesigned their proprietary engine, and brought on Keanu Reeves to play a Cyberpunk legend: the guitarist-turned-terrorist Johnny Silverhand.1 Unfortunately, the development process was plagued by numerous complications, including the COVID-19 pandemic, and the game shipped in an unpolished state despite multiple delays.2 The bug-ridden launch version of the game was so poorly received that some platforms offered refunds to players who purchased it, and others removed the title from their stores.3 Almost two years later, CDPR is still hard at work patching the game to remove bugs and add content promised at launch,4 and there’s still no date for the long-rumored expansion content. Yet, in spite of these setbacks, Cyberpunk 2077 has sold over 18 million copies5 and has been adapted for an animated series on Netflix.6
Thanks to the troubled state of the game at launch, many players had negative experiences with Cyberpunk 2077, but the title has its merits. The environments are visually stunning (when the graphics worked), the characters have their moments, and the story asks surprisingly interesting philosophical questions of its audience. In Cyberpunk 2077, players take on the role of ‘V,’ a notorious mercenary with his or her own set of professional standards (the player is able to choose V’s gender presentation). When a job ends with V sustaining some killer brain damage, she wakes up to find the digitized backup of the late, great Johnny Silverhand alive and kicking in her head. Their complex relationship raises questions about topics like redemption, human commodification, and salvation. Some of those questions are expanded on in the game’s many side-quests, where the player interacts with a staggering amount of non-playable characters in and around Night City. One such quest-line, kicked off with the appropriately-named “Sinnerman,” confronts V and the player with a series of troubling moral dilemmas that escalate to an on-camera crucifixion. It’s an uncomfortable quest-line (to say the least), but like the game as a whole, Sinnerman’s bold approach to complex themes makes the discomfort worth enduring.
The Sinnerman Quest-Line
The Sinnerman quest-line starts like so many other Cyberpunk 2077 quests. A fixer asks V to kill someone for a third-party client, and the player has the choice to accept or pass. If the player accepts, they accompany the client on a ride-along to execute the target: convicted murderer Joshua Stephenson. Some time ago, Stephenson murdered the client’s wife and was sentenced to death row, but he evaded death by making an unknown deal with corporate interests (also known as corpos). V tracks down Joshua and prepares to carry out the contract, but Joshua has another idea: he’ll pay V to follow him for the day. He’s found faith in God, he says, and he wants to use his pending execution as a chance to spread God’s message. To that end, he wants V to stay with him and assist him with his plan.
If the player rejects Joshua’s offer, the quest comes to an unceremonious end. Accepting opens up a series of quests where Joshua asks forgiveness from the people he’s wronged, then reveals his plan to V. Like Jesus Christ before him, Joshua is going to be crucified, and he’s going to use modern brain-scanning tech to record the whole experience. To share that experience with the world, he’s partnered with a group of corpos who specialize in distributing high-profile brain scans (also known as braindances), and they’re going to release the recording of his crucifixion after his death. Both V and the player are given no shortage of opportunities to back out of helping him, but if they stick it through to the end, they can witness Joshua’s crucifixion firsthand—or they can wield the hammer and pound in the nails themselves. It’s a gruesome scene, and Cyberpunk doesn’t shy away from the brutality of it one bit. Like Joshua, Cyberpunk depicts the pain of the crucifixion up-close not to entertain, but to make a statement.
Redemption and Forgiveness
Sinnerman explores several themes, but some are more obvious than others. One of the most overt themes surrounds the limits of redemption and forgiveness. When the quest-line begins, Joshua Stephenson is a confessed, convicted killer awaiting a death sentence. Although Joshua claims to have found God in prison, not everyone believes his newfound faith means he should be redeemed. The mother of one of his victims refuses to hear his apologies, while the husband of another attempts to kill him (and may or may not succeed, depending upon the player’s choices). Joshua has some support from those who share his faith, but he once hoped he would be able to earn forgiveness from everyone through apology and reflection. “If you forgive anyone their sins, they are forgiven,” he says to V, paraphrasing John 20:23. “If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” His desire to atone is part of what drives him to record his own crucifixion. He believes he was given the gift of salvation through faith, so he must share that gift with others in return. If that doesn’t earn him forgiveness, then maybe nothing will.
Joshua isn’t the only killer in search of redemption in Cyberpunk 2077. Even the most merciful player will have to kill a few people with V to progress the plot, and V’s reputation as a hired gun is big enough that even Joshua knows she kills for cash. He even names her as a potential beneficiary of his death, saying that she can come to know God’s love through the crucifixion. Experiencing that love might even drive her to renounce her crimes and seek forgiveness, as Joshua did. Unfortunately, the voice in V’s head isn’t interested in Joshua’s salvation, even though it applies to him, too. Like Joshua and V, V’s mental stowaway Johnny Silverhand has a trail of bodies behind him—almost a million from his attack on Arasaka Headquarters, if the rumors are to be believed. Johnny’s version of events isn’t quite the same as Arasaka’s, however, and he’s not interested in being forgiven for anything by anyone. He doesn’t think V should be, either, and the only thing he believes is that Joshua is ‘fucked in the head.’ When V tells him Joshua’s faith has made him a better man, Johnny shrugs with indifference. “We could talk in circles, but who cares what we think. What would it change?” V may be open to the idea of forgiveness, but as long as Johnny’s in her head, it will only ever be an idea.
Life After Death
Joshua dreams of forgiveness, but he envisions that forgiveness as part of a greater blessing: eternal salvation through God’s love. In crucifying himself and ‘committing his spirit into God’s hands,’ as Jesus proclaimed with his last breath, Joshua invokes another one of Cyberpunk 2077’s running themes: the idea of life after death. Joshua’s version of an afterlife is a decidedly Christian one, as he found faith in Christ while imprisoned, but Cyberpunk depicts worshippers from various religions. Although some of the faiths represented bear some resemblance to the religions of today, fifty years of technological improvements have introduced countless complexities for believers to reconcile. In 2077, it’s possible to digitize an entire human mind, but that digitization doesn’t take the idea of a soul into account. This raises the question: when a person dies, and they’re resurrected through a digital copy, is their soul already gone, or does it come along for the ride? It’s a pressing question for two Night City residents whose minds have recently been digitized: V and Johnny Silverhand.
The mental union of V and Silverhand wasn’t something either of them chose. Silverhand was digitized against his wishes almost fifty years ago, and V just so happened to have a copy of his mind plugged into her system when she took a gunshot to the head. The shot should have been lethal, but instead, V survived to find Silverhand’s psyche tangled up with her own. It’s a terrifying revelation that promises to be fatal, as one body can’t sustain two minds for long without one winning out and destroying the other. This potentially-impending death gives V all the more reason to pay attention to Joshua’s speeches about death and resurrection. In a very real sense, she too died and was resurrected, and the experience has her wondering what it means.
After a meeting with Joshua, V goes so far as to ask Johnny if he thinks God exists, but Johnny is less than receptive to the question. “So you flatlined and got your beat back,” he says derisively. “Don’t tell me that’s left you wondering if a construct can even be saved.” When she points out that she recently came back from the dead, he counters: “So what was that? A miracle? What’s it make you—a messiah, a phoenix, or a factory-restored, early model [car]?” She doesn’t know, but she pushes back: “Gonna tell me you don’t think about being a digital psyche?… I mean, are you already dead? Or alive until the last living digighost of you is shredded?” Once again, Johnny doesn’t care. “I don’t give it an ounce of thought,” he says. “Surprise.” To him, he’s just Johnny, and whether he’s the original or the digital copy doesn’t matter. That answer doesn’t leave V satisfied, but the questions Sinnerman raises aren’t ones with easy answers. If life after death does exist in the Cyberpunk universe, it’s not something the characters will know for sure.
Cyberpunk 2077 will almost certainly be remembered for its bloated budget, repeated delays, and troubled launch, but the game has several compelling qualities beneath the bugs. The story tackles tricky themes like redemption, forgiveness, and salvation with a surprising degree of grace, and side-quests like Sinnerman are when Cyberpunk’s philosophical foundations can really shine. Writers who wish to touch on complex themes in their own work should look to Cyberpunk as an example of how to use sub-plots and side-quests to reinforce ideas from the main storyline.
Subplots and Side Stories
Subplots and side stories add depth to narratives by expanding the world while emphasizing themes and playing with tone.
Tying stories to meaningful questions through repeated ideas and imagery.
StoryScan: Disco Elysium and Theme
Disco Elysium uses broken things as symbols to emphasize the theme of redemption.
1 KostaAndreadis. “Cyberpunk 2077 – CD Projekt Red on Pushing Graphics Tech Forward and Building Night City.” AusGamers, 2019.
2, 3 MacDonald, Keza. “Cyberpunk 2077: Sony pulls game from PlayStation store after complaints.” The Guardian, 2020.
4 “Cyberpunk 2077: Patch Notes.” Steam, 2022.
5 LeBlanc, Wesley. “The Witcher 3 Has Sold More Than 40 Million Copies, Cyberpunk 2077 Surpasses 18 Million.” Game Informer, 2022.
6 Dinsdale, Ryan. “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners Netflix Series Arrives in September.” IGN, 2022.