The thing that interested me the most about Cyberpunk 2077 was its character creator. I’m someone who’s spent a lot of her time thinking about character creators and how they work for people who are not cis, white, able bodied, or male. I had hope that Cyberpunk’s creator would meaningfully include the wealth of human physical diversity while also being unfettered by the conventions of what a “normal human” should look like. Cyberpunk as a genre seems to be all about body modification and customization such that a game influenced by the original pen and paper RPG would naturally include diverse options in its character creator. But while the character creator does offer some unique and interesting choices, it fails the game’s overall ambition of being a game that lets you “be anyone.”
The character creator makes its first impression with how utterly atrocious its controls are. Whether you’re playing on PC or console, using a mouse and keyboard or a controller, it is bad. With a controller, the option to rotate your character is, for some inexplicable reason, bound to the left and right trigger buttons instead of the right stick like it has been for every character creator since time immemorial. There were many times when I wanted to rotate my character and instinctively moved the right stick, only to send the cursor flying down the list options instead of moving my character. With a mouse and keyboard, instead of holding down the left or right mouse button and moving the mouse to turn your character, (again, something that’s so prevalent in PC control schemes that it’s second nature to make that motion) you have to use the Q and E keys to turn. Why those keys in particular and not something more natural like A and D? Who the hell knows.
Another major flaw in the character creator: you can’t zoom. If you want to get a more detailed view of what’s going on with the body you’re trying to craft, you have to trick the character creator into showing you. One of the cyberware options is a choice that features the futuristic designs on my character’s neck. Since I can’t zoom in on my head, and all the options that allow me to get close enough to see my head have a field of vision that stops just a little bit under my chin, the only way I could zoom in on my neck to get the best look at the choice was to choose the nail option and take a quick screenshot of my character’s neck before my hands got in the way. Trying to control the character creator is so cumbersome and unintuitive that my colleague Nathan Grayson said he had to “speedrun it because it was so unpleasant.”
I spend a lot of time in a game’s character creator, meticulously crafting the best image of myself that a creator’s options will allow. Sometimes that means my skin color never gets darker than a fair shade of racially ambiguous beige or is so unnaturally brown that my character looks alien. Skin color is the most important aspect of a character creator for me, so much so that I base my decision to play a game or a race within a game on whether or not I can be Black. (This means only playing humans in World of Warcraft until extremely recently, and that all my Skyrim characters are Redguards.)
You can be Black in Cyberpunk 2077, but some of the options for darker skin fall into that weird unnatural category. I didn’t notice anything amiss at first playing on PS4; I chose the female V and the skin options looked natural to me. But then I noticed a Reddit thread complaining how you cannot be a convincing Black person in Night City, so I gave it another look. My female options look fine, but when I chose a darker skin color for a male character, cracks started to show. It looks like the designers chose the darkest brown color they could without taking into account the warm tones present in dark Black skin. The result—my guy looks purple.
I think it’s a lighting issue. While it’s not difficult to light Black skin properly, doing so is often overlooked in favor of a more homogenous approach. What looks good for fairer tones doesn’t necessarily translate well to darker ones. The harsh blue light washes out warmer tones in the skin, making it look plasticy and unnatural. Even though the lighting for both male and female Vs are ostensibly the same, my female V looks more “correct” to me, even though she has the same skin tone as my male character. I chose for her the darkest option and wasn’t immediately repulsed.
Beyond the poor lighting of the character creator screen and out into Cyberpunk’s world itself, my male character just looks weird, which also has to do with the features of the face I chose. It’s not enough that your game has Black skin tone options; it also has to have Black coded facial features like wider lips and noses, which the game does include. Even in bright daylight, my male V seems permanently shrouded in a cold light that makes him look strange compared to the other, better lit Black characters around him. T-Bug and Dexter DeShawn (both dark-skinned Black people) look perfectly fine. I will say this only seems to be a problem for the darkest skin color option, the next lightest one, looks a lot better.
Hair is another big deal for me in character creators. Video games have started to include more diverse skin color options but sometimes fail to do the same for hair. Dragon Age, one of my favorite game series of all time, still, across three games, does not have hair options that represent something even close to my kinky, curly hair texture—not even braids.
Scrolling through the hair options in Cyberpunk 2077, I was pleased to see a lot of different hair styles and, more importantly, hair textures. I know hair texture is hard to capture in video game engines, and I wouldn’t want a developer to devote hundred of hours in pursuit of rendering my own 4C hair just right, but Cyberpunk does a really good job. I was surprised looking at one of the three dreadlock options. Normally dreadlocks look like straight hair that’s been wrapped and rolled together, like it does in Baldur’s Gate 3.
But Cyberpunk’s dreadlocks look like they’re crafted out of the kinky hair texture that naturally knots together when left alone without backcombing, hair ripping, or wax.
I love the hair color options. I love how in addition to the cyberpunk-y neon colors you also have two and three tone options too. There are 39 hair options for each gender; some choices overlap, a lot don’t. I don’t know why game character creators lock hairstyles to a gender, and I really don’t understand why a game called “Cyberpunk” would do it, but here we are. My partner Travis picked the “male” body, fell in love with the bouffant hairstyle choice and resolved to go through the game roleplaying as the character Kazuma Kuwabara from Yu Yu Hakusho. I was sad to see that I, with my “female” body, could not do the same.
For my V, I originally settled on the gigantic poofy hair option (It’s not an afro. Another surprise: there’s no immaculately manicured and perfectly spherical afro which has—like dreadlocks and the fade—become character creator shorthand for ‘let’s have an ethnic option’), but I wound up changing my mind because I found a much better option that reminded me of my natural hair: the cornrows.
I, personally, have never favored cornrows in my hair. When my mother made me wear them in elementary school, I got teased and called a boy, and I never thought they were flattering on me. I’ve never liked them in video games, but I really like Cyberpunk’s cornrows.
Video game cornrows have never looked bad because of the actual braids, but because the parts between them are usually inches wide revealing swathes of bare scalp that just look awful. World of Warcraft, for instance, has a cornrow hairstyle that’s more than just straight rows of braids from crown to nape. But because the braids look like they were glued onto a bald scalp, it just looks terrible— like a poor, old Black auntie who tried to graft braids onto her ancient and thinning hairline.
Cyberpunk 2077 correctly realizes the hair for the braid has to come from somewhere and shows the hair coming out of the scalp feeding into the braid. The result is the most authentic and attractive set of video game cornrows I’ve ever seen.
One option I was eager to finally see in action was the genitals customization. I know Conan Exiles lets you customize intimate details like breasts and penis, but I’ve never played it and have only seen screenshots of how massive you can make your dong. Here’s where the character creator utterly fails me (and not in the buggy, crashy way the game’s been failing everyone else). Cyberpunk 2077, more than anything else, is supposed to be about humankind’s ability to go absolutely batshit with their bodies. You want metal permanently fused to your skull for nothing else than aesthetic reasons? Cool! Wanna completely get rid of your natural brown eyes and replace them with black skulls? Hell yeah, do that shit. Want a customized penis? Sure, would you like circumcised or uncircumcised? Want to have more than one vagina option? Nope, bridge too far.
When I was talking about Cyberpunk for last week’s episode of Splitscreen, Nathan Grayson put this disparity of choice very well: “Where other developers sometimes at least pretend they care about non-male fanbases, for Cyberpunk, CD Projekt was just kinda like ‘Eh, let’s just put this absence of a thing here.’ Like, it’s not even really a vagina. It’s just an absence of a dick.”
It’s Cyberpunk for Silverhand’s sake, I should be able to customize every inch of my labia if I want to, and yet the character creator is so inscrutably configured that I can’t zoom in enough to see if I even have a labia.
Though the one vagina option is disappointing, I did like the ability to customize your pubic hair. Having a green little heart, a thunderbolt, or landing strip feels like some kind of mea culpa on CDPR’s part for the lack of vagina options. However, I do think it’s weird that you don’t have the same breadth of color options for pubic hair as you do head hair. I cannot, therefore, make my carpet match my drapes.
I’m also none too pleased with the idea that your pronouns are tied to your voice. I’m not trans, but I have trans coworkers and colleagues who’ve written extensively about why that’s a problem. I’ll let them tell it.
There are so many little things in the character creator that are neat. For instance, it’s cool that you have the option to customize your nails. You are constantly handing and taking things from people and using your hands to push and punch people. Since the game is usually in first-person view, your nails are the only thing on your body you can routinely see. It puts an inordinate amount of weight on what your nails look like—and I’m glad you have multiple options to make them as long and as colorful as you like.
I would like to have had more than one body choice, and instead of 30 of 39 hair options being different versions of straightened hair, maybe include only 20 and let the other 19 styles be afro puffs, braids, or not be hairstyles at all but options like hearing aids or religious headwear. I remember seeing a hijab on an NPC and thought how nice it would have been to go through the game as a hijab wearing, alcohol refusing, practicing Muslim.
The neat little things—the hair colors, the nails, the cornrows, and dreadlocks, even the areola options—have come to represent my own feelings about the game at large: the little things are so well and interestingly done, but they are irreparably linked to worse shit. I spent 15 minutes going through the Arasaka intranet during the corpo lifepath opening utterly engrossed with the lore and worldbuilding, but the game is rife with stereotypical Asian accents and fridged two prominent PoC characters within the first hour. T-bug is a Marcus Aurelius quoting Black woman—two things that are uniquely My Shit—and Jackie Welles is a walking and specifically talking Latinx stereotype but is so well and emotionally acted that I came to care deeply for him. There’s a game that I want to and would have fun playing, but I can’t sift through all the transphobia, harassment campaigns, and stereotyping of Black, Asian, and Latinx cultures to get to it.
In Cyberpunk 2077’s “Seize The Day” trailer, Keanu Reeves promises that “you can become anyone,” of course I understand that sentiment isn’t literal. It’s unfeasible for a game to include the option to customize every little thing. The text at the top of the character creator screen says that “In Night City, looks are everything”—so long as those looks fall within a narrow scope of choices that doesn’t feel like it quite matches the cyberpunk promises of the game’s world.