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Promising start, April 22, 2021
The NPC-eye view of a AAA video game is a genre I’m often a little hesitant about – it can easily devolve into a delivery vehicle for a million arrow-to-the-knee jokes – but this demo for Eyewear Cleaner 2077 makes clear that it’s about something beyond just making fun of how dumb games are, leaving me interested to see the final shape of the story.
As the title makes clear, in this Twine game you play a retail peon in the world of Cyberpunk 2077 – in a clever bait-and-switch, the piece opens by telling you you’re a cis white dude with all the best guns and gear, before admitting that nah, you’re a nonbinary wage-slave. This isn’t a one-note joke, though: the circumstances of the main character’s life are established not to throw a satiric light on the exploits of the (presumably, since I haven’t played it) terrifying murder-hobo who’s the protagonist of the big-budget RPG, but to create sympathy and resonance with real issues: capitalism, state violence, exploitation, the rights and dignity of trans and genderqueer folks… The world is also nicely fleshed-out – I’m not sure how much of this is drawn directly from the AAA game, but there are social media feeds to drown in, a choice of video games offering cheap distraction, and more.
Part of what makes this work is that Eyewear Cleaner stays relatively grounded, at least so far. The main character’s job and lifestyle definitely suck, but not in a parodic, over-the-top way. Sure, there’s an AI in their head that docks their paycheck if they have a stray thought during work hours, but once the day is done they can visit a friendly bartender, or display some common humanity to a homeless person in a way that isn’t immediately punished. I’ve often seen these kinds of stories come in with too heavy a hand, but an overdone miseryguts presentation can distance the player by making clear that this awful milieu is being conjured up in the service of polemic, or again, bad parody – Eyewear Cleaner steers clear of this.
As you navigate this proletarian life, the player is given a large number of choices. Some of these have more or less immediate consequences – you opt into or out of the pay-docking distractions mentioned above – but the ones given the most weight by the game turn on conformity versus revolt, with your status along the continuum tracked by a handy Rebellion Level meter in the sidebar. The choices are primarily small, like sympathizing with a complaint fellow-bystander’s complaint about brutal cops, though there’s one that seems to intersect with larger-scale concerns: (Spoiler - click to show)whether or not you alert the cops about the anti-corporate vigilante.
I’ve seen this mechanic handled poorly in the past, where rebellion is positioned as the only possible choice and immediately rewarded in a didactic orgy of wish-fulfillment that neither convinces nor satisfies. Eyewear Cleaner again does this well, at least so far. The more rebellious choices are more likely to lead to negative consequences, sensibly enough, but nor are they punished overly-harshly as of yet. I found this pushed me to engage with the story rather than just blindly pick one side or the other in every circumstance – keeping my head down sometimes seemed only reasonable given the risks, but it’s possible to get small victories helping others or asserting your dignity, which again kept me invested in the character and the story.
The demo gives you two days of a planned five, and while there are some missing images testifying to its incomplete state, I found what’s on offer well polished, without typos or bugs, which bodes well for the finished product. It’s hard to fully evaluate a story without knowing where the narrative and character arcs are ultimately going, of course, and I find dystopic sci-fi often doesn’t stick the landing, but I enjoyed this excerpt and suspect the remainder will live up to the good example it sets.