(spoilers within for Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty; TW: discussion of suicide)
Two fugitives are riding a monorail. They’ve escaped capture. They’re home free. Both of them are tired, bloody, bruised, but hopeful. The monorail is about to take them to freedom, to a place where none of their immeasurable crimes matter, where life can have value again, where they can both start anew.
Except, no, they can’t. One of them is a liar. The lie means only one of them gets to be free. They both deserve it, have experienced immense amounts of pain to get it. But only one. The liar has fallen unconscious. The other has a choice to make.
And at that moment, for the first time, I actually pause Cyberpunk 2077 during a dialogue option, mere moments from Phantom Liberty’s ending, to seriously consider the ramifications of what happens next. Some minutes later, I make a phone call. And as the final few hours of the game play out, a monologue comes to mind.
“The hardest thing for me was leaving the life. I still love the life. We were treated like movie stars with muscle. We had it all just for the asking….Anything I wanted was a phone call away. Free cars. The keys to a dozen hideout flats all over the city. I’d bet 20, 30 grand over a weekend, and then I’d either blow the winnings in a week or go to the sharks to pay back the bookies. Didn’t matter. It didn’t mean anything. When I was broke, I’d go out and rob some more. We ran everything. We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges. Everybody had their hands out. Everything was for the taking. And now, it’s all over. And that’s the hardest part. Today, everything is different. There’s no action. I have to wait around like everyone else. Can’t even get decent food. Right after I got here, I ordered spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”
That monologue, for those unaware, is how Martin Scorsese’s crime drama masterpiece Goodfellas ends. Henry Hill, a high-ranking gangster, turns rat on his friends, goes into witness protection, and his ultimate punishment is….living a pretty decent–if boring–life in the suburbs. It’s actually a fairly common motif in Scorsese’s work, for normie life to feel like consignment to limbo. Similar fates await Ace Rothstein in Casino, Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street, Frank Sheeran in The Irishman, hell, even Sebastião Rodrigues in Silence. Purgatory is where the vast majority of us live our day to day lives, never to reach absurd, ecstatic highs or terrifying, bloody, brutal lows. It’s not framed as a happy ending or a downer ending, typically. It’s just an ending, as ignominious as most of us will ever experience, notable only because of the contrast in where these characters have been.
That’s not an ending you often see in a video game, for pretty obvious reasons, really. Especially in the AAA space, this is a medium that tends to put a premium on player power and freedom, and very few developers trying to max out their audience wants to ruin the fun by making the player feel like a schnook. Even in FromSoftware titles, while they’re certainly gonna make you earn it more than most games, by the time you’re taking on Gwyn or Radagon and the like, all of the player’s progress counts for something when it comes to feeling like you’ve brought some measure of the world to heel. No matter what might be happening in cutscenes when the player has no control, the ultimate point of games so foundationally focused on the amassing of incredible power and street cred is to unleash it on a hostile-but-vulnerable world.
When it came to the final notes of Cyberpunk 2077, however, CD Projekt RED thought different.
To recap: outside of Phantom Liberty, none of Cyberpunk’s endings are particularly happy, which is, to be fair, very much in the spirit of the genre. The Relic stuck in V’s head has resurrected Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Silverhand as a sort of digital ghost in theory, but in practice, he’s more of a digital tumor. His existence means our protagonist, V, will die. The “happiest” ending in the vanilla game involves leaving Night City altogether with the rough-and-tumble nomad, Panam, who maybe might know somebody who can help with V’s Johnny Silverhand problem some day. It’s hopeful, but in kind of a shallow way, unless you’ve romanced Panam. The most narratively satisfying ending is the one where V gets to go on a bloody rampage through Arasaka Tower. It ends with V still at death’s door, but about to go do a wild heist out in space for fortune and glory. At least you’ll leave a beautiful corpse.
But now, there’s Phantom Liberty’s new ending, the one that actually rolls credits for good when it’s over. In Phantom Liberty, to keep a long and winding story short as possible, V is given another way out of their predicament by a government agent named Songbird: Help save the president of the New United States after her plane goes down in the uber-Libertarian stronghold of Dogtown, recruit Idris Elba’s retired superspy Solomon Reed to help, and take out its despotic leader, Hansen. Do this, and the NUSA’s top scientists will not only wipe V’s criminal slate clean, but also get V’s Relic taken care of.
Fast forward after a lot of people die, some jaw-dropping betrayals happen, and Hansen is dead. V and Songbird have pretty common purpose in needing to save themselves from a lifetime of servitude and impending doom. As such, the player can choose to double-deal behind Reed’s back, and make a run for it with Songbird to get a cure for both their afflictions, and a fresh start in the final frontier. With all V’s abilities, and Songbird’s big cyberware ace up her sleeve, it looks pretty likely the two of them might make it.
That’s when the game throws the curveball. After V and Songbird have had one hell of a shootout at a spaceport, and hop a monorail towards a one-way ticket off of Earth, Songbird confesses in her half-dead delirium that yes, there’s a cure waiting on the Moon all right. But only one. Songbird’s been using V to get her to the home stretch. After she passes out, V’s given the choice: They can let Songbird go, find their own way to freedom in one of the vanilla endings, or they can call Solomon Reed, and turn Songbird in.
There aren’t too many moments of Telltale-style moral choice in Cyberpunk 2077, but this one is particularly ugly. Neither one feels great in the aftermath, but ultimately, I chose to call Reed. There wasn’t even spite in that decision, though spite would be understandable. There are so very few legitimately good, trustworthy people in the world of Cyberpunk 2077, and for Songbird to have risked V’s life several times over just to deny them salvation at the moment of truth felt like a final straw. I wasn’t even angry at Songbird for looking out for herself. I was tired. A very specific flavor of tired, one I hadn’t felt for a game’s protagonist since the final days of one Commander Shepard. The exhaustion of watching a cycle of violence and avarice play out, over and over, and realizing it needs to be broken.
Cyberpunk Director Breaks Down Phantom Liberty Endings
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But that’s what video games are, right? That’s what life is, by proxy. Repetition. Consistency. Acceptance. And finally, mastery. And when the circumstances change, repetition until the new becomes consistent. But there’s a conflict when that mastery has to lead to a moment of revelation about the world outside of the player and protagonist. Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard can kill all the Banshees and Geth that they want, but mastery of the game’s Vanguard or Engineer classes doesn’t mean a damned thing when it comes to making a choice for the good of the universe. That conflict is a big part of why many gamers rebelled against that ending in the moment. Whether consciously or not, gamers wanted their mastery over the game’s combat to matter when it came time to save the galaxy. Meanwhile, Bioware wanted the player’s emotional investment in said galaxy to determine how best to save it. Ne’er the twain shall meet.
Naughty Dog, on the other hand, wielded that single-minded obsession with killing one’s way out of a problem against the player in the Last of Us games. If you wanna kill so bad, you and Joel/Ellie are going to live with the weight of it. By the time TLOU 2has Ellie literally stranded on an empty purgatorial beach with no one left to murder, it is long past the time when the player should be done with trying to become a better killer to become a better person. That point would hit harder if the player had more control over where Ellie goes from there–or even a few hours earlier, when she actually had the legitimate option of living happily ever after. Still, the intention is clear, and the inability to stop Ellie making the worst choices still leaves a lasting impression.
And so, V sat across from Songbird with a choice to make. I called Reed. Reed, who still holds a deep affection and sympathy for Songbird, and who promises, if V turns her over, to keep her alive, and to keep Songbird’s promise of a cure. That scene is the last time we see Songbird, though Reed later assures V she’s alive. More importantly, Reed keeping his word means Songbird’s the last person V will ever need to kill for. Ever. Credits roll, with an end credits sequence that could’ve been ripped out of a Daniel Craig Bond flick. It’s a strong ending. But it’s not the ending.
After taking some time to settle affairs–save Delamain’s AI, play one last gig with Kerry Eurodyne, spend the night with V’s romance option (Judy, in my V’s case)–Reed comes calling again to settle up. The cure’s ready. But before you get picked up, the two of you have an awkward conversation at a gas station as he prepares to put Night City in the rearview. Reed’s One Last Mission is over. He’s tired too. And as he rides off, non-committal on what the next steps look like, Johnny predicts his future: “He’ll hang himself.”
Johnny’s monologue–and Keanu’s performance of it–is incredible, but haunting. Reed’s a man without purpose now, his closest relationships now non-starters. If he had emotional intelligence, he’d take his bartender friend with him. But no. He’ll be alone. He’ll be empty. And on that day he realizes it, with no one else to kill, Johnny says, he’ll kill himself.
I thought about this in the wake of Last of Us 2’sending as well. Just what exactly does Ellie’s life look like when she leaves her house at the end of that game? That question is why it’s one of the most affecting and hollow endings in all of games. Ellie’s not suicidal at least. She’s upright, she’s walking, and she goes into the unknown ready for anything. But I don’t envy Naughty Dog’s job, if they decide to tackle it, trying to find Ellie purpose now that revenge isn’t an option, and dealing more death is exhausting. More than a few folks have suggested this is where The Last of Us needs to end, and there’s not much more that can be said there. They’re not wrong, though, many also said this at the end of the original game, as well. What does a protagonist in a AAA video game do when power is no longer the be-all, end-all of existing?
And that is what players get to find out when Phantom Liberty ends.
V eventually gets picked up by the NUSA to get the Relic removed. Johnny is pissed about going back to being nothing, but at the very least, he understands. And so, V is anesthetized, and goes under the knife.
The operation is successful, but with a pretty stunning side effect. Removing the Relic apparently did permanent and substantial damage to V’s cyberware, to the point that if V wanted to install so much as a widget that showed them the time and weather, it might shut their entire nervous system down. So away it all went, and V wakes up in a sterile NUSA hospital, not just completely powerless, but two years later. All of the major NPCs, including V’s love interest, have moved on. Judy, in particular, is already a married professional, living way the hell away from Night City.
When V can finally walk well enough to return to Night City, their first stop is to see about getting their cyberware reactivated by Vic the ripperdoc. It’s a no-go, and Vic’s shop has been bought by what seems to be Night City’s version of Best Buy’s Geek Squad. When V steps outside after, they’re stopped by two scumbags that, once upon a time, V could’ve turned into pulled pork just by looking at them. Instead, it ends with V catching a fist to the face, and getting thrown down a flight of stairs.
The entirety of Cyberpunk 2077 has been in relentless, furious search of this exact moment, where V is no longer in danger of the Relic killing them dead at the drop of a dime. Mission accomplished. Now, the world at large can kill them dead at the drop of a dime. CDPR could’ve left the game right there, with V lost in the gutter in bitter irony. Instead, we get a grace note, one of the strongest in recent memory. V is saved by someone you don’t even really consider in the grand scheme of Cyberpunk’s story: Misty, the late, great Jackie Welles’ ex. The last time you see her, she’s still kind of a new-agey head-in-the-clouds kind of girl working the front office at Vic’s place. Now, two years later, she’s a little harder, a little gothier, but she’s also something we don’t see at all throughout the entire game: merciful.
When V hits rock bottom, Misty sits next to them on the stairs, dusts them off, and they talk. About a lot of things. About the dead folks along the way. About how messed up Night City can be. About living. Misty, who lost her job, her friends, and her lover, should’ve been a mess in the street two years later. Night City should’ve destroyed her. Instead, she’s on her way out, determined to keep moving, keep walking, keep surviving. There are no side missions in Misty’s future. There are no space heists. There’s no climactic throwdown with Adam Smasher. There’s just life. Misty gets to live the rest of her life as one of Henry Hill’s average nobodies. Unlike Henry Hill, when Misty says it–the way Erica Lindbeck plays it–it’s not a lament. It’s an opportunity.
It’s been suggested by many that Phantom Liberty’s new ending is CDPR in direct conversation with itself, much in the way that GTA V and Red Dead Redemption 2 are conversations with Rockstar. All three are ultimately having the same conversation, about the things we have to kill in ourselves in pursuit of the abhorrent power needed to succeed in these games. Even while living beyond the law, every protagonist in these games is shackled to different, more nebulous masters, a whip that either works its servants to death, or bores them to tears. Earning enough power and money and respect in this type of game is never the goal, especially in a game that never stops.
All of them are aware of just how much fun that process can be for players, but there is something incredibly numbing about it that can leave players blind to all the other things that games and life can be, the stories that can be told. It’s incredible power that stops feeling like power after a while because there is nothing in contrast. If all your problems can be solved with the nuclear option, what sympathy or empathy is there with those who have to make a living in the blast radius? That doesn’t just make for a play experience where impossible firepower stops meaning anything, but one that sets the bar for excitement so high that basic humanity can’t reach.
There’s a comfort in that, especially to those for whom video games are purely for escape, not storytelling. Power fantasy, by nature, requires nuance to die screaming. And that makes a conclusion like Phantom Liberty feel all the more special, something that feels a lot closer in tone to a Nier Automata than any other open world crime saga. Nier Automata, for those who don’t know, truly ends on a series of sacrifices: first of the lives of its android protagonists in-narrative, then of the player’s own hard-earned save data, to help future players whose names you will never know, but whose sacrifices and encouragement empower you to face the impossible task of the game’s end credits sequence as a community. It posits the pursuit of pure firepower as an act of willful psychological neglect, and that there’s a whole other echelon of power and capability over one’s self and the world at large that this kind of game ignores.
Part of the brilliance of Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, in fact, comes from the tacit knowledge that David and his crew must increasingly jettison humanity to become Night City legends. Phantom Liberty’s beauty is in V needing to go the other direction to survive, to go in search of something new and hold onto it as long as possible without lying, cheating, betraying, or killing to get it. That’s power that video games don’t normally value. In the very end, Phantom Liberty prizes it like no other perk in the game.
The most interesting parts of Cyberpunk 2077 have V trying to kindle something resembling community among their friends and colleagues. The circumstances of being an Edgerunner constantly strip that away. Eventually, after their conversation at the end of Phantom Liberty, V says goodbye to Misty, she drives off, and after an uncertain pause, V walks off into the din of humanity, as another face in the crowd, a member of a community that needs to and absolutely will find a way to survive in purgatory. And that’s the easiest part. Now, everything is different. There’s no action. V has to wait around like everyone else. V is an average nobody. They get the privilege of living the rest of their life like a schnook.