A Disaster CD Projekt Red Should Have Seen Coming

Like many moments before anticipated greatness, Cyberpunk 2077 begins with sweat and vomit.

Of the three potential background stories for my character, V, I selected “Corpo,” and thus when I looked away from the bile-filled sink up towards the mirror above it, I was greeted by a red-suited corporate hot shot, eyes glazed over with anxiety. These were the first steps of my riches-to-rags story–of my fall from grace and onto the streets of Night City–I just didn’t know it yet. In just a few moments, I would leave this bathroom and be given an assignment by my boss to assassinate a woman within the company who was getting in the way of his success. And, mere moments after that, I would be confronted by aforementioned woman’s underlings, who would destroy my body, seize my assets, strip me of my job title, and steal the dossier I was given. I would be left with nothing–nothing but the reminder given to me when I chose my corporate title back in character creation: There’s no such thing as a fair game, only winners and losers.

I’ve thought about this statement a lot lately, both in terms of its presence within Cyberpunk 2077, but perhaps more interestingly, in the context just outside of it– the context that has come to overwhelm and define the latest title from game developer CD Projekt Red. You see, my character isn’t the only one going through a serious fall from grace. Five years ago, CD Projekt Red was on top. Five years ago, they released The Witcher 3.

Image via Atari

The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt was a phenomenon on many levels. It was the first title in the Witcher series to be released on all consoles, and did so at the height of Game of Thrones’ popularity, which ultimately meant the game reached a much larger and more interested audience. This, of course, resulted in absolutely staggering sales for the relatively small Polish game studio and a surge in popularity. In addition, and despite its buggy beginning, the game received nearly universal praise from critics and was showered in awards. To this day, it’s still heralded as an example of how to create an open-world RPG that is both massive and meaningful, with complex characters and compelling narratives spread throughout the land. However, perhaps most importantly, The Witcher 3 established CD Projekt Red as a studio consumers could trust.

With every step the studio took post-launch, they proved they didn’t want your money, they wanted to earn it. The developer’s took note of players’ issues and annoyances and delivered on their promises of quality above all else, with numerous patches and 16 pieces of free DLC. They created paid expansions that rivaled the size of full games and breathed so much life into the Witcher series–provided so much care–that the tale of Geralt of Rivia reached a level of prominence deserving of its own Netflix original series. In 2015, CD Projekt Red became synonymous with “quality games,” and their mission statement of “making the best games on the planet” seemed pretty damn attainable. For all of these reasons, fans were even more excited for the game that had been quietly bubbling on the backburner all throughout the later half of The Witcher 3’s development and release: Cyberpunk 2077.

Cyberpunk 2077 game art
Image via CD Projekt Red

But hype in the games industry is a tricky thing. It’s a currency that is equal parts valuable and volatile, and should be carefully spent and saved. It can create great expectations that breed great disappointment, and attract more eyes that notice a company’s emboldened missteps. This is precisely what happened in 2018, when CD Projekt Red was called out for a transphobic tweet from their main account, as well as both a transphobic tweet and one downplaying the severity of GamerGate on the account of their sister company GOG.com. The instances, quite rightfully, soured some people’s opinion on the company, as well as raised concern for how Cyberpunk 2077 would approach themes such as sexuality, sexualization, and transhumanism within the game. However, while CD Projekt Red apologized for these various offenses and fired the community manager of GOG.com following the insensitive remarks, the coming years would prove these instances were more of a pattern–a pattern that was also revealing itself to be deeply embedded in their upcoming game.

In 2019, CD Projekt Red revealed promotional posters for the game featuring a trans woman with a bulging penis and the slogan “Mix It Up” written next to her. While the artist defended her work, stating “I would say it was never the intention to offend anyone… We did want to show how oversexualization of people is bad,” many found the image exploitative rather than meaningful or inclusive. Furthermore, in a cosplay contest held the following year, CD Projekt Red named the cosplay artist Yugoro as a finalist for her portrayal of the “Mix It Up” girl, despite Yugoro being a cis woman posing with an artificial penis. When met with disapproval and accusations of the cosplay being potentially dehumanizing to marginalized groups, Yugoro dismissed the claim and changed the subject.

With each step CD Projekt Red took on the digital press tour leading up to the game’s release, they seemingly found new ways to unsettle and disappoint interested consumers and former fans. When they revealed more about the gangs of Cyberpunk’s Night City, people were concerned by their perpetuation of racist stereotypes. When they engaged in playful banter with Tesla’s Elon Musk–the face of American capitalism–it was with seemingly no regard for the politics and strong beliefs upheld in their game. Turn after turn, it was something new. But throughout it all, there was a common consensus that at least they have one thing going for them that several studios did not. At least they treated their employees ethically and did not promote workplace crunch.

And then they did.

Keanu Reeves in Cyberpunk 2077
Image via CD Projekt Red

Despite CD Projekt Red promising back in 2019 they would never engage in crunch–intense, mandated overtime in order to ensure a game is released on time–in September 2020, after the game’s second of three delays, CD Projekt Red studio head Adam Badowski stated the entire studio would be working a mandatory six days a week prior to the game’s release. He then admitted, “[T]his is in direct opposition to what we’ve said about crunch. It’s also in direct opposition to what I personally grew to believe a while back—that crunch should never be the answer. But we’ve extended all other possible means of navigating the situation.”

Now suppose, for a moment, we can toss all these ethical quandaries to the side. Let’s pretend we can overlook all of what I’ve listed above, and instead focus on the one thing we know CD Projekt Red can do: make quality games. And Cyberpunk 2077? Cyberpunk would be quality. After the better part of a decade in development, $317 million dollars spent, a helping hand from one Keanu Reeves, and a marketing campaign fueled by controversy and hype, it was universally understood this game would be revolutionary. And hey, in a sense, I suppose it is–but not for the reasons it set out to be.

Cyberpunk 2077 is an absolute goddamn mess. A disaster of epic proportions. A fiasco, if you will. You see, prior to the game’s release, reviewers were locked into signing NDAs prohibiting them from sharing any footage they personally obtained during their time with the game, with severe penalties set in place for those who did. Even more prohibitively, those reviewing the title on console were simply not given codes. Turns out, there was a reason for this move, and that’s because the once-consumer-friendly corporation was well aware they were releasing a broken game–but after several delays and pressure from investors, they needed your money. Badly.

A screenshot of Cyberpunk 2077
Image via CD Projekt Red

On next-gen consoles and high-powered PCs, Cyberpunk 2077… works. Most of the time. Usually. But the game still crashes, glitches render missions incapable of completion, assets clip constantly, and several objects and textures straight up do not load–but tiny trees do. On last-gen consoles, all of these issues are amplified and the game is all but unplayable. Due to all of these technical issues, the game was pulled from the PlayStation Store last week and CD Projekt Red, in an attempt to save face, has offered refunds to everyone who has purchased the game. Furthermore, the release was such a disaster, CD Projekt Red is now facing a potential class-action lawsuit led by its investors, who are accusing the studio of fraud after a disappointing launch and subsequent $1 billion dollar loss.

In the process of making a game revolving around themes such as exploitation, corporate greed, class disparity, and the contradictory nature of greater technology leading to a lower quality of life, CD Projekt Red became the very force their game’s narrative sought to stick it to. And even if it had worked–even if Cyberpunk 2077 had been technically flawless–after my time spent with the game, I was stunned by how obscenely hollow it felt. The game is performative, rooted in aesthetics over thematics. Edgy to be edgy, and dehumanizing in its process to express to us what being human means. Simply put, it’s all flash, no feeling. And in the midst of all of this madness, I kept thinking about the game’s very first message to me, a shallow attempt to justify our worst behavior: There’s no such thing as a fair game, only winners and losers.

Game development is not a fair game. Not when we are still awarding companies Game of the Year awards despite the studio’s poor leadership and unethical labor practices being noted, but not penalized. So of course we can blame CD Projekt Red for playing a dirty game in the process of making one even dirtier, but the problem is a bit more complex than that. As the game industry grows bigger, what are we doing to ensure these corporations aren’t exploitative? What are we doing, in real life, to fight back against corporate greed and stand up for marginalized folks, abused workers, and consumers? Sure, we can play punk when it’s sexy, neon-lit, and meaningless, but what are we actually doing in the harsh light of day–when sticking to your guns doesn’t mean violent rampages because “fuck corporations”?

CD Projekt Red played the game and they lost. Games journalists, who have been threatened and attacked relentlessly for their critiques and following of professional protocols, lost. Consumers, who were persuaded to purchase a product they were frankly grossly misinformed about, lost. No aspect in life is fair. No game is squeaky clean. But until people are held accountable–until some rules are enforced–the game will only grow more violent. And there will only be more losers.

Image via CD Projekt Red

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