So I have been playing a bit of Cyberpunk 2077 lately and it made me think about some things.
My issues with it are simple:
- I feel lost in it and not in a good way;
- It feels claustrophobic and unfriendly;
- I can’t shake the feeling of being trapped in it;
- And most importantly I couldn’t understand why.
So I too closer look at what makes Night City do these things to me.
Some of the reasons are pretty straightforward :
- There are clear thematic differentiations between the districts, since it is obvious when you are changing districts, however when you are in them it is very hard to tell where you are in relation to everything else.
- Roads tends to be pretty much the same width, except when you are dealing with highways. You don’t get a lot of different types of paths inside the districts.
- There are tones and tones of large-monolithic-brutalist-structures that act like barriers and obscure any chance of orientation. (You don’t know where you are and where you are going).
- In the Watson district all buildings fall in the same thematic. You can find some landmark but they are hidden from the public, so they do not seem to have been used for player orientation.
TV Tropes defines this kind of world setting as a mutable Crap-sack world. The idea of a crappy world that can be changed by a determined protagonist, not very different from what you would get out of a Fallout or a Mad Max setting.
It seems the general theme of the city is competition. Buildings compete in height and flamboyance, leaving little room for orientation.
When everything is flashy you get lost.
It reminded me of that scene in Altered Carbon where the main protagonist is overwhelmed by the metric tons of adverts that are being fed into his brain through his implants, and he needs an inhibitor to get around.
It feels like every building wants to be the star of the show, however no building actually is.
There are a few Landmarks in the game, but they are in general either too large or too hidden from site to be useful for orientation. Tons and tons of what would normally be filler buildings are blocking the view and access to those landmarks.
Night city wants to make you feel small and meaningless.
It’s in a sense, the counter to what Urban planners would tell you when asked how you should design a city.
The more you wander, the more you realize that this is not a place where you want to live in, or even visit. Sure, you exist in it as a character but it is pretty obvious that this is more due to lack of options, rather then anything else.
I don’t know much about the Cyberpunk world but I hear it is ever worse in other places.
So from a story perspective, if you are ambitious, and you want to make it big, you will come to Night City. Win and you will be get up there with the stars. Lose and you will end up in the gutters. High Tech — Low Life.
There are no outposts in Night City, most of the city criminal elements gather in the streets, back alleys or hidden labs scattered across the map. These places don’t stand out and you would miss them out if they weren’t pointed out to you via the UI.
There are some places that might act like outposts that I think could have benefited from a 360 approach treatment.
It feels like the city acts like a giant corporate entity (probably to mirror the corporate theme of the game) flashing at you with huge promises through giant commercial panels, flashy neon sings and extreme brutalist architecture, only to offer nothing else in return.
Attempt to interact with these promises and you get either “nothing” (because most of them are closed to the public) or you get to face the criminal elements of the city, bands of cyberpunks brutalizing civilians, cutting deals and starting fights.
Night City gives me strong Tokyo/Hong Kong/Shanghai/New York or even Toronto vibes. It maintains the flavor of such places but exaggerates their proportions.
If you look at classic Cyberpunk media(and more precisely Japanese Cyberpunk) you will note that the central visual driver is scale. (Akira is a good example)
Buildings need to be large and they need to stack on top of each other like Lego blocks. This inevitably leads to a huge footprint that acts as impenetrable barriers that the player needs to go around.
There are cases when these large brutalist buildings have passages in between but that doesn’t happen very often and is more of a cosmetic thing rather then a practical functional aspect of the game.
The streets seem to be way too narrow compared to the height of the buildings next to them. There is a strong tendency towards building upwards. The higher the building the more dominant it is. What happens behind the building is of little importance.
That is why you get slum like areas even in the more central locations.
Although there are obviously some things that could have been done about it, it seems that Night City was not built as a Theme Park. The image of the city, or how the inhabitants see it seems of little importance.
Since the theme here is competition, high tech/low life, urban planning and making the city more walkable thematically does not seem to be a concern in 2077.
Night City is a living, breathing metaphor. It is what you get when ambition, violence and overpopulation are the core foundation of the world you are building. Everybody wants a piece of the pie even if there is not enough for everybody.
And that is ok… I guess… If, as a developer, you can commit that the narrative of the game can support your HUD as your primary way of orientation, you can actually go forth and build a city like this.
It will not be fun to navigate without a HUD, it will not be easy to find your way back if you get lost , but that is what Night City is! Right? You can hear that at every corner! Everybody hates Night City! It gives you hopes, but leaves you penniless and open to being chopped up by a cyber-psycho in a dark alley.
It feels like Cyberpunk is the anti-open world open world. Committed to challenging conventions.
And if those parameters do not fit the norms, they will get justified narratively trough the tone of the game.
It is an example of excellent World Building. A world designed around a concept, committed to give you a feeling, even if that feeling is not “safety”.