In June of 2019, Keanu Reeves was on fire. “John Wick 3” had just been released the month before, news of “Bill and Ted 3” was starting to trickle out and, to top everything off, his role in the upcoming game “Cyberpunk 2077” had just been announced. Reeves himself took to the stage during Xbox’s E3 conference to talk about his character in the game, Johnny Silverhand. Reeves’s appearance generated a lot of hype — and a lot of memes. Bringing him on stage was a stroke of marketing genius.
And the hype worked — at least for me. Without waiting to read the reviews, I bought the game right away when it was released. What I had seen of “Cyberpunk” was promising: beautiful Blade Runner-esque environments, a crazy amount of character customization and of course, Keanu Reeves. And while all of these things were there when I started playing, it quickly became clear that the game was overshadowed by a mess of bugs and glitches. Within the first few hours of playing, a quest completely broke with no way to prompt it to continue, and I ended up completely skipping a pretty lengthy side quest. This was on top of a myriad of visual bugs and several crashes that made me feel detached from the experience I was supposed to be having. I’m lucky that I could play the game, though — “Cyberpunk” was so unplayable on last-gen consoles that Playstation removed it from the PS4 store for six months until it was updated to a more bearable state.
Now, nearly two years later, “Cyberpunk” seems to be in a more enjoyable condition. After postponing the planned story expansion and instead focusing on releasing several patches filled with bug fixes, the game might finally be at the point it was intended to be at launch. This, along with the release of an anime series on Netflix and a trailer for the story expansion, has helped bring “Cyberpunk” back to the top of the “most played” charts. It would seem that the game has finally found its happy ending, much like other games that have mended their broken launches such as “No Man’s Sky.”
I’m glad that the work and passion that was put into this game can finally shine without a hazy cloud of bugs in the way; when I hear Pawel Sasko, one of the developers talk about how good it feels for the game to finally be appreciated, I can tell that people wanted to release this game as an actual finished product and not as the mess that it was. Instead, their work went largely unappreciated as “Cyberpunk” became the laughingstock of the internet, another in a long line of games that left the proverbial oven half-baked. It took almost two years for developers to feel happy with their work, all while enduring the scorn of what they were forced to present to the public.
So who’s really to blame for “Cyberpunk” launching the way it did? We can point fingers at investors wanting their returns, miscommunication in management or even clamoring fans. But in the end, it comes down to one thing: the need to crunch. Even after the long string of delays — and, of course, the disruption to every workspace caused by the pandemic — “Cyberpunk” had to launch eventually. So what did the developers do? They crunched. And they kept crunching for the next two months, until they squeaked out a game that failed to live up to CD-Projekt Red’s vision of their “crowning achievement for this generation.”
Crunch itself can be an effective — albeit stressful — method of productivity, and sometimes deadlines make it a necessity. But the kind of crunch that happened during the development of “Cyberpunk” is the kind that burns out the human soul. Employees were reportedly forced to work six days a week in the final two months leading up to the game’s launch and, in some cases, employees allegedly worked 16-hour days since June of 2019. CD Projekt-Red went against their claims that no crunch would be done on the development of “Cyberpunk” and instead pushed their employees to patch together what they could as fast as possible. The work of art that they had spent years on was hung on the wall before it could dry, and all we saw were the streaks of paint running down what was meant to be a masterpiece.
YouTuber Noodle makes a great point in his video “The Crunch Culture Conundrum:” crunch is “the feeling of running on five hours of sleep in the last two days, going on your third G Fuel, desperately chipping away at an assignment due that morning that you still don’t know whether you’re going to finish on time.” I’m sure every college student can relate to that feeling, but enduring such a high level of stress for months on end is unimaginable. It’s no wonder that author and game developer Walt Williams has developed a sort of Stockholm syndrome for the crunch process. It works people to the bone, sacrificing their creative abilities in favor of turning them into productivity machines.
All of the neon-tinted Keanu Reeveses in the world don’t mean a thing if the people who brought them to life have been worked to death in the process. Video games are a delicate blend of different art forms: music, visuals and storytelling. Burning out your artists makes for an inferior final product, something that probably lacks the creative touches of a work that has been given the full care and attention of its creators.
I’ve gone back to play “Cyberpunk” in the last few weeks, and my time in the game has been smooth. The random texture glitches I once encountered are gone, NPCs don’t randomly jump into place when I start talking to them and I haven’t had a single crash. Compared to what I played back in December of 2020, today’s version seems to be the game that was originally intended to be released. Crunch killed “Cyberpunk.” But stepping away from that destructive practice and giving the developers the proper time to polish the game up has given it a second life and let their work shine as it should have from the start.
Daily Arts Writer Hunter Bishop can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.