From Cyberpunk to D&D: The Act of Creating Yourself
Roleplaying games have a long history of letting you design a new life to inhabit, whether it is a tabletop game or one on your TV. But does the character creation of Cyberpunk 2077 let you create the character you want?
The promise of a roleplaying game is to inhabit another life and do things you could never do in the real world. I am a writer and not a magic-user, but for decades I’ve been able to step into such empowered lives, one saturday game at a time.
Picking up the controller and starting up an RPG on a game console or PC is a similar undertaking. You step into another world, whether fantasy or scifi or contemporary, and use this new persona to have fun shaping the world with your actions. With Cyberpunk 2077, you are entering a high-tech future with elements of corporate dystopia. But to understand the issues with beginning your time in that world, we should take a look at the worlds that have come before.
Since it was first published in 1974, Dungeons and Dragons grabbed the imagination of gamers. And every new game starts with the act of character creation. You would roll some stats with dice: strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, constitution, and charisma. You then choose your race like human or elf or dwarf, then pick a suitable class, like a skilled fighter or crafty rogue or pious cleric. You would choose, or roll, for things like height and weight, eye and hair color, religion and homeland. You even pick an alignment, where you fall on a morality scale of Good and Evil. Players really into the acting side of things might write a backstory and build a personality that differs from their own.
With tabletop roleplaying games like D&D, whether it was in 1974 or this year, the only limits, beyond the rules of the game, have been your imagination. You can be a suave diplomat, a down-on-their-luck blacksmith, or a bookworm of a minstrel. You can try out fantasy selves for a little while, and likely learn something about your real self in the process. I know I have in the thirty years of been playing roleplaying games, tabletop and otherwise.
And if fantasy is not your thing, other games provide you the ability to make characters of other genres and settings: the horror of Call of Cthulhu, the noir of Gumshoe, or the heroics of Heroes Unlimited. Cyberpunk 2077 itself is based on a tabletop roleplaying game from 1988 that was inspired by the science fiction work of authors like William Gibson.
This freedom of imagination and storytelling in the tabletop hobby was sought after by those developing for the first personal computers. And when game developers began creating computer RPGs, it was an effort to recreate that act of character creation within the constraints they realistically had to adopt for their small games.
Early computer games were largely text based, so there was more freedom to provide more options to the player, since it only required words. But as computer games began using 8-color graphics, real limits were imposed. Over the decades, as graphics improved and game engines became more complex, more and more variety has returned to video game RPGs. As game development has swelled to 3+ years of development by hundreds of people and tens of millions of dollars, there are no longer any logical limits.
So how does Cyberpunk 2077 stack up to past character creators? The best comparison may be to the games made by one of their competitors: BioWare, with their Dragon Age series and their Mass Effect series.
The quickest comparison is the story options at character creation. In Dragon Age: Origins, based upon your race, you would have a totally different start to the game. Your whole first hour would play differently and it would flavor the rest of the game. Cyberpunk 2077 has a similar, modular beginning based on your character’s background of either being a nomad, a street kid, or a corporate worker. So there is a favorable comparison for Cyberpunk here.
The real nitty gritty comes down to the physical process of shaping an avatar. It has become a point of pride to some developers to have the most detailed character creation process. I’ve carefully calibrated sliders to get just the right look in games as diverse as 2015’s Fallout 4 (making a post-apocalyptic Brienne of Tarth) to 2003’s Tony Hawk’s Underground (a replica of myself that would painfully writhe on the floor after an injury).
For Cyberpunk 2077, in creating your version of the protagonist V, CD Projekt Red provided the usual list of things you can customize: skin color, hair color and style, eyes, nose, ears, mouth, tattoos, jewelry, etc. What is so limiting is how they do it. You can choose from a number of examples of each, like many other games do it. But the number of choices are so uneven: there are 39 hairstyles, but only 9 eyebrow variations; there are only three different bust sizes, but 21 options for either nose or mouth shape; and there is no way to change your height or weight.
Even more disappointing, there are no sliders to adjust the size or position of things. In the past, in games like Mass Effect, I’ve been able to change the length of my nose, pixel by pixel, or adjust how high my ears rest on my head, or enlarge my philtrum (look it up). They did provide some options to customize genitalia, surprisingly, but more on that later.
Not providing such options feels like a real oversight in a game with such detailed graphics, at least on the PC. Players can no longer make accurate recreations of themselves or faithfully reproduce a favorite character of theirs — a pastime that is clearly popular, judging by the hundreds of pics online of video game characters from other series or from film and television shows remade in RPGs.
In a deeper sense, not giving someone full control of their physical appearance like so many RPGs have, is hurtful to them. They want to escape into these other worlds. Not giving them the means to create the exact avatar they wish to do it with, is to limit this imaginative experience from the very beginning. It prevents them from getting the proper escape they are looking for, whether it is seeing themselves living somewhere else, or, for whatever reason, being someone else.
Which leads me to the second half of creating your character, building an identity. I touched on some of the story parts earlier, choosing a background to shape how your character starts the game. For that isn’t as important to many players as their identity. And by identity, I mean a combination of their Gender Identity, Gender Expression, and Sexual Orientation. Considering how CD Projekt Red has approached Trans issues, a thoughtful examination of their approach here is necessary.
Over the last decade, RPGs have gotten better and better at being inclusive. Whether it is Bethesda, Oblivion, InExile, or BioWare, efforts have been made to let players shape their identities.
The least complicated of these efforts, is letting you wear whatever clothes you want. In the Fallout series, you can put on some truly chaotic combinations of clothes — so gender expression has become an easy aspect of identity to tackle. Let people where whatever they want, and players can be masculine, femine, or androgynous in their appearance, regardless of their character’s gender.
What about sexual orientation? To go back to BioWare, Dragon Age: Origins had some non-player characters that could only be in heterosexual relationships, and some that could be in either or hetero- or homosexual relationships, depending on the gender of your character. These seemingly bisexual characters didn’t really have identities, they were just hero-sexual — programmed to be romanced by you, regardless of your gender.
By the time the series got to the third installment of Dragon Age: Inquisition, characters had actual sexual orientations. Some were heterosexual and only romance those of the opposite gender. Some were homosexual and only romance those of the same gender. And some were bisexual, and would romance either men or women. There were both men and women of each type, providing the full gamut of choices for players. This inclusion felt meaningful, as people saw their identities represented in the game they were going to put their meaningful time into.
Cyberpunk 2077 has a similar distribution of characters. There are all the options for sexual identities, for both one-night stands and for longer romantic relationships. So CDPR has been inclusive in this department as well. And obviously, players who wish to have an asexual protagonist, in any roleplaying game, can avoid relationships all together.
Where things get more complicated is with Gender Identity and the depiction of Transgender characters. There have been trans characters that your player meets in other RPGs, but Cyberpunk 2077 seemed to be the first RPG to embrace creating a trans protagonist. But this hasn’t happened in the way the LGBTQ+ community and its allies hoped.
There is a complicated history for Trans inclusivity in Cyberpunk 2077, but what I am focusing on is what this all means for players creating their characters. The developers separated body type from gender. The result is that someone can build a masculine body with a penis or a vagina or a feminine body with a penis or vagina. So you can explicitly create a transgender character. CDPR went further with inclusivity than other RPG devs in the past.
The problem comes in with how the game treats gender beyond this. A player does not choose a gender. The player chooses a masculine or feminine voice, and that dictates what gender the player is and how others react to them. When choosing a Femine voice, a disclaimer above states, “Other characters will refer to V with female pronouns (i.e. she/her).” This attachment of gender to voice is problematic because voice is one of the things transgender people struggle with, even hiring experts to help them change it.
So you can create a transgender woman, who appears feminine in every way, and has the genitalia she was born with, a penis, but you can’t change her voice lest you change your pronouns. CDPR didn’t even give options to alter the pitch of the voice, like other RPGs have, which would allow players to make the male voice higher or the female voice lower, to better match what different transgender people sound like.
Nor did they make a gender toggle that was separate from voice. And because there is no option to discretely choose your gender, they have also ignored a whole branch of the trans experience, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people. You can try to create a more androgynous body, but the lack of detailed sliders limits that greatly. And you obviously can’t use They pronouns in the game.
So why aren’t these things in there? It wouldn’t be hard to program a gender option into the character creation menu, so my guess is that they didn’t want to take the time to program or record dialogue where NPCs ask your identity or you clarify your identity and pronouns, or program in NPCs reactions for when your appearance didn’t match your identity. Logically, it was all a cost saving measure, making gender part of your voice. I also wonder how much the reported Anti-LBTQ+ bigotry of Poland, where CDPR is based, has a hand in this.
So the reality is that Cyberpunk 2077 seems to have made an attempt at being Trans inclusive, but then did not take all the steps to actually make it completely Trans-friendly. And likely, CDPR did not hire an expert on Trans inclusivity — or they did and ignored what they said — else we wouldn’t have had issues with Transphobic advertising, Transphobic social media, and half-implemented Trans options in the game. So what should have been a win for CDPR and a further evolution of the RPG genre, becomes a stain on the game and an eyesore of a pothole on the road to trans inclusivity in games as a medium.
It is a barrier for some players to create the character they want to be in Cyberpunk 2077. It might be someone wanting to emulate a favorite character from a film or television, or a trans adult wanting to reproduce themselves in this dark future, or a young teen just beginning to figure out their identity and wanting to experience living as a trans person.
So whether it is the limited options to customize your body or the flawed way Trans identities were supported, the promised realism of Cyberpunk 2077, from graphics to gameplay, did not reach the character creation system for the game. People can’t create a new person they wish to be. And it is doubtful that the many patches to come for the game will fix that. The limitless promise of tabletop character creation remains unattainable in a video game. Here’s hoping that the next video game developer that tries to include the transgender experience in their roleplaying game will do a better job of it.
[Code provided by CD Project Red. Images courtesy of CD Project Red. Character Creation screenshots captured on PlayStation 5.]
Kevin Ohannessian is a freelance journalist who has been playing games since the Atari days and covering them for 15+ years. You can find links to past work at KevinOhannessian.com. Contact him with khohannessian AT gmail DOT com.