Bez is my musical hero. For those who don't know Bez, he's a member of both Happy Mondays and Black Grape, although 'member' is perhaps putting it a little strongly. He plays either tambourine or maracas, usually not to any particular beat, and dances around on stage like he's being attacked by angry wasps. He's my musical hero because he proves you don't need any musical talent whatsoever to make it as a musician. The more I played Cyberpunk 2077 (opens in new tab), the more it reminded me of Bez.
At first, that might seem a little harsh. It has a huge, 150+ song soundtrack, featuring music from some incredible artists like Run The Jewels and Grimes, with plenty of original tracks composed specifically for the game. But what does Cyberpunk 2077 actually sound like? I don't mean "can you remember any of the songs on the radio," I mean the game itself. I can instantly call to mind the mwahhhh of Mass Effect, the daaadadaaada of Persona 5, the slow guitar of Red Dead Redemption 2. But after 100 hours in Night City, I still don't know its beat.
While the soundtrack is impressive, it also appears to be random. Despite the deep soundtrack to call upon, it never employs any of these songs to create cinematic moments while you ride to the crime scene with River, cruise the desert with Panam, or sit on the roof and kick off the moss with Johnny. There are very few times at all where the music is anything more than the background blare in a nightclub or the distracting hum on the radio. There's no "May I Stand Unshaken"—it's 150 tracks of elevator muzak.
It doesn't feel particularly 2077. Even in 2023, when Johnny Silverhand died, it's clear the universe of Night City is more technologically advanced than ours, and with that you'd think would come new developments in music. Even if we assume Night City's 2020 is musically similar to our own though, shouldn't its music of 2077 feel more alien, futuristic, and fresh? It doesn't need to be cliched electro-sci-fi, but think of the difference between the music of today from the music of the 1960s. I wish CDPR had tried for this, instead of just hiring contemporary artists and dancing them around like Bez, waving a glitchcore beat around instead of a tambourine.
It's baffling that CDPR clearly felt music was crucial to the worldbuilding, yet considered it inconsequential to the storytelling. Were they the victims of tight deadlines? I think that's pretty doubtful; not playing music at a certain story beat is not equivalent to cut side quests or truncated arcs, especially when the story beats themselves still exist. Looking at it cynically, you could say that bringing in heaps of commercially successful artists is good advertising, but I don't think that's it either. A 150-song soundtrack is not phoning it in. I think CDPR set out to create an expansive soundtrack which would form a crucial part of Night City's worldbuilding and would come to represent the essence of Cyberpunk 2077 itself. I just don't think it pulled it off.
Just like Bez, Cyberpunk 2077's love of music is clear, it's just not very good at it. This love of music comes through in bits and pieces of the narrative, too. There's Johnny Silverhand, for starters, but it's not until you get fairly deep in Kerry Eurodyne's quest that Johnny's talent actually reveals itself. Considering Kerry's story is optional and doesn't unlock until the game is almost over in Act 3, the game mostly keeps Johnny's legendary skills on the six string to itself. In the flashbacks as Johnny, he seems little more than a crazed drunk with a microphone. A showman. A Bez.
It's a real shame because Johnny's immense talent as an artist gives an extra depth to his nihilistic nature, and an added sense of complexity and heart. His development throughout the game, connecting and sympathizing with V more, feels strange when the game offers him up as a twisted terrorist, but feels more reasonable once you see more facets of his personality.
Kerry's storyline—easily the most musically infused part of the game—also feels fumbled. We instantly get that Kerry is trapped in a gilded cage from the tour of his mansion, but after that, things are harder to piece together. Is he a sell out rocker, a poser who got lucky, a die hard who fought against selling his soul, or just an asshole? He admits, in a vulnerable moment, that he always felt in Johnny's shadow, then instantly jumps at getting the band back together.
Blowing up touring equipment and sinking yachts doesn't make you a rock star. The game plasters these vague images of cliché rock star behaviour onto Kerry without ever letting him actually be one. And what's that nonsense with Us Cracks? He holds the girls at gunpoint, finds out there's been some sort of contract snafu, and suddenly he's taking selfies and getting on stage with them? Us Cracks—who sound like modern J-Pop and nothing 2077—are completely cool with everything too, and despite being the best visually designed characters in the whole game, come with flat, vacuous personalities.
That being said, it's through Us Cracks' Blue Moon that we get one of the best music-adjacent quests, where we need to lure out and protect her from her obsessed stalker. This story starts to actually look at life as a musician, with the game's typical gritty twist. Lizzy Wizzy, another visually compelling musician given too little screen time, offers another example of this, with her abusive manager trying to clone her for profit. These stories slip past the surface and do something different, but they're too short to tip the scales on all the off-key chords in the other music quests.
If you asked Cyberpunk 2077 what made Jimi Hendrix so great, it would focus on the clothes, the psychedelics, and the burning guitars before it got to the fact that he was a damn talented musician. There's a clear love of music in the game, and an attempt to weave it into the story, but it's done in all the wrong ways. It's so caught up in the image, it forgot it's supposed to be about the music, man.