Cyberpunk and the Future of ‘Cinematic’ RPGs

The lead quest designer of Cyberpunk 2077, Pawel Sasko, is concerned it may the last of a dying breed, as he recently expressed discussing a PC Gamer article. My take? If sprawling RPG epics are dead, the industry has only itself and it's pathological lack of restraint to blame.

Cyberpunk and the Future of 'Cinematic' RPGs

A recent Forbes article quoted Pawel Sasko, a lead creative on the Cyberpunk 2077 team. The subject being the future of ‘cinematic RPGs’ in the game industry, and the lack of freedom in Cyberpunk 2077 in particular.

This article annoyed me, so I’m hijacking this platform to explain why. According to Sasko, a major reason for Cyberpunk 2077’s lack of player agency was that their decision to commit to never breaking from V’s perspective made building branching paths into the game difficult. Much more difficult, apparently, than Witcher 3. He agrees with the thesis of a PC Gamer article that states the ‘cinematic BioWare-style RPG is dead.’

This moment represents the apex of player choice in Cyberpunk. It's like the first quest.

This moment represents the apex of player choice in Cyberpunk. It’s like the first quest.

Let me try to be diplomatic about this topic, because I won’t lie, I feel strongly about it. I design games myself, and I would very much like to work on a sprawling role-playing game at some point. Making a game like Dragon Age or Mass Effect has been my dream since I was a kid. So I’m gonna say this as gently as I can: If BioWare style RPGs are dead, it’s because the AAA industry killed them. Let’s really break down Sasko’s words, shall we?

Scrutinizing Sasko’s Statement

If the arbitrary commitment to staying in V’s perspective the whole game made building branching narratives into your RPG hard – a genre defined by branching narratives – why did you commit to it?

The most powerful people in the game industry love to deflect criticism, don’t they? As if any group of people has more influence on these trends than they themselves do.

The gaming industry talking heads proclaim trends are dead all the time – stop if you’ve heard any of these before:

  • “PC gaming is dead.”
  • “Single-player is dead.”
  • “Horror games are dead.”

These statements are inevitably proven wrong later when someone, usually a small studio or an indie team, make gangbusters demonstrating the opposite. And if you think about it, why would we expect any type of game to be ‘dead?’ Less popular than it once was? Sure. But dead? The audience who fell in love with Mass Effect and Dragon Age didn’t just cease to exist.

Nobody played this, right? Total flop. Absolutely.

It is frankly bizarre to hear that Witcher 3 was easier to make than Cyberpunk, considering that it eclipses it’s spiritual successor in almost every way. It doesn’t look worse, it doesn’t play worse, it isn’t noticeably smaller. All that supposed extra effort appears to have amounted to precious little visible improvement.

So why did CD Projekt Red choose to fix what wasn’t broken? What was the artistic purpose of tying the camera to V at all times? Why did the game need the presentational upscale it supposedly received?

Clearly this game has aged like milk. A serious update was needed. /s

Clearly this game has aged like milk. A serious update was needed. /s

I think the simple reason smaller studios are better at RPGs nowadays is that they do something AAA seems increasingly incapable of: they prioritize.

They choose what to spend their time and money on carefully. Indie games have the advantage of being in the control of people with actual creative visions. Their designs can’t be upended because some executive bursts into the office one day and makes absurd demands.

I’ve led an indie team myself: if I showed up to a meeting and said I wanted to do something with the design that would make everyone else’s job harder, I would never hear the end of it. It’s a much less hierarchical, much more close-knit space where nobody has the privilege of being hands-off.

We Never Asked for This

I suspect I speak for many-a-gamer when I say: we never asked for this. We never asked that Dragon Age be held to the same presentational standard as Uncharted. We never asked for graphical fidelity to become an arms race, where every release struggles to cram as many polygons into the hair follicles of the protagonist as physically possible.

Personally, I would have been perfectly happy to play a version of Cyberpunk that was just Witcher 3 with a new setting, tech instead of magic, and a more customizable protagonist. CD Projekt Red are the ones who decided that wasn’t good enough.

If staging all these story cutscene was so unfeasible, that begs a question: why not compromise on presentation for the sake of the story? Do what New Vegas and Dragon Age: Origins did a decade ago and tell more of the story with simple dialogue exchanges.

If a feature is preventing you from making an RPG, it shouldn’t be in your RPG.

This shamanic revelation appeared to me in a prophetic dream.

This shamanic revelation appeared to me in a prophetic dream.

The AAA game industry constantly mistakes its own lack of restraint and creativity as objective truth. Sasko believes the industry is set to crash into a proverbial wall. Have they ever once considered just stepping on the breaks? There’s no law dictating that huge studios need to have the most expensive graphics possible.

Style Over Substance

Years of advertising the superficial as though it were profound has conditioned the gaming audience to mistake the two. Recently, people have been complaining about how similar Tears of the Kingdom is to Breath of the Wild, despite the fact that it made significant changes to all of Link’s fundamental tools. There’s a new weapons system, new traversal options, even a brand new vehicle building mechanic.

But it uses the same engine and basic animations, so comparisons to its predecessor abound. In other words, it retains the aesthetic and basic systems of the original because they were working perfectly fine and replacing them would have been a waste of effort. Our collective critique of the medium is skin deep.

What Cyberpunk Sacrificed

The game that gets closest to achieving the kind of branching narrative Sasko referenced in an open world, for my money, is Fallout: New Vegas (surprise, surprise.) And New Vegas was built in an existing engine, wherein many assets were reused. There’s a persuasive argument that it is structurally similar to Blood and Wine. A new world-space and set of quests built into an existing open world game. It represented a master-class in resource efficiency – what happened to make Cyberpunk so different.

I say, if you can’t rise to the heights of games made by smaller teams, in less time, with a fraction of the budget, using technology over a decade old, you are the problem. Nobody held a gun to CD Projekt’s head and forced them to employ the cinematic polish of a linear game to an open world.

Their leaders decided how the game looked was more important than how it played. And that’s all there is to it.

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