Cyberpunk 2077: Putting the Punk Back Into Cyberpunk
If you ask Cyberpunk 2020 creator Mike Pondsmith, most cyberpunk games aren’t cyberpunk at all. They’re just third-person shooters, racers or action games with a cyberpunk veneer, a grimy sci-fi aesthetic that doesn’t actually translate into anything especially interesting in-game besides the odd augment. “Most people think cyberpunk is just a summary of specific tropes; big guns, dark streets and dangerous guys in ubiquitous leather dusters,” writes Pondsmith in the first of a series of excellent blogs on the Cyberpunk 2077 website. “But the core of cyberpunk is a lot more subtle than that. Cyberpunk is about the seductive qualities of corruption and decay… It doesn’t have to be dirty or grimy on the physical level. But on the psycho-social level, even the cleanest and most orderly Corp-zone should be rife with darkness and collapse.”
What a perfect world for The Witcher’s digital curators to step into. In CD Projekt Red’s interpretation, The Witcher’s world is rife with vice, moral corruption and ambiguity, with selfish kings and opportunistic killers. If anyone is a hero, they are a reluctant one. The Witcher games evoke all the themes and ambience of the original books’ world without relying on their characters, their plots or situations; they are calmly, self-confidently adult, and entirely their own. If I ever create a fictional universe, I’d hope CD Projekt makes a game out of it.
The Witcher’s writer Andrzej Sapkowski isn’t enormously enamoured with video games as a whole (actually he seems to kind of hate them despite expressing respect for CD Projekt’s work), but Cyberpunk 2020 creator Mike Pondsmith seems able to better appreciate the developer’s gift for realising fictional universes in interactive form. After a few failed games based on the Cyberpunk franchise in the past, he seemed justifiably nervous about letting another developer at it, says game director Mateusz Kanik – until he came to visit CDP in Poland.
“At the beginning he was really scared. You could see that on his face,” Mateusz laughs. “There have been attempts at Cyberpunk games in the past and each of them was bad, and he was scared it would be the same again. But he came to us at the beginning and met the team, and we talked about vision, ideas, how we want to approach this adaptation of his work – and when he left he was extremely happy about it. So I think it was OK from then on.”
Cyberpunk 2077 has been at the back of CDP’s mind since even before The Witcher was out. The team has spoken before about their collective love for the original pen-and-paper RPG, which many of them had played as teenagers in then-Communist Poland, where it was hardly a mainstream pastime. Whilst making the Witcher, the developer came up with plenty of ideas that just weren’t usable in a fantasy RPG, and Cyberpunk was a dream property to work with.
Character customisation, for instance, was necessarily not an option in Geralt’s world. But in Cyberpunk 2077, it’s self-defined role-playing: your style and personality will have deep and far-reaching effects on the world and how it reacts to you. “We will have several features that allow you to create your [visual] style, and your style will affect gameplay, storyline and relationships between characters,” explains creative director Sebastian Stepien. “Your appearance and your dress will change the behaviour of NPCs, and also the story also in some parts,” Mateusz adds. Style and appearance works together with the personality you create for your character and express in conversation to determine how the world reacts to you.
“It’s about telling story via what happens, not cutscenes or other features,” Mateusz says. “To do that we need to create a totally new unique dialogue system – we’re doing that right now, it should be awesome.”
Augments, of course, are a huge part of the Cyberpunk world. They are the focal point of the teaser trailer, which shows a squad of specialised police facing off against a woman who has gone too rather far with her biomechanical self-improvement regime. But Cyberpunk 2077 will not be about conflict between the augmented and the police; that Deus Ex: Human Revolution-style societal tension over the morality and ethics of augmentation is not at the centre of the story.
“The psycho squad is just one of many cool elements in this world,” Sebastian explains. “We had several ideas for this short teaser and had to focus on one of them. Augmentations and cyberware is a big subject in the world, and that’s why it’s in the teaser. But it won’t be a game about police hunting cyber-psychos. That’s a sub-plot… The story will be low-level. We are not going to save the world, or even save a city. We are focused on the main character and his problems, or her problems.”
Cyberpunk hasn’t been as easy to adapt as a video game as you might think. Pen and paper mechanics have been the foundation of many digital RPGs over the years, but they do not translate well into the kind of game that CDP is trying to make. “The game mechanics are totally different on paper, they don’t work in video games because they would be super boring,” Mateusz says.
“The main problem is that the original system is based on dice rolls. When you think about Cyberpunk you think about shooting, action, a lot of explosions. But that doesn’t fit dice rolls in a video game. We want to make it more action-like – there will be a system that lets you use active skills actually in the gameplay in a shooting sequence or something like that, rather than just passive skills like in the books.”
The fiction, too, needed to be adapted. When Cyberpunk 2020 was originally written, the year 2020 was a long way off, but things have advanced far enough in the intervening time to make some of its futuristic technology feel a little ridiculous. “The original Cyberpunk 2020 is a kind of retro game – you cannot believe in this world today because a lot of things in our world are already higher-tech,” agrees Mateusz. “So we needed to change this to make it more real for modern people.
“But also it’s important to still keep the mood and the original feel of Cyberpunk – we don’t want to just create a science-fiction game. It’s easy to do that. We still want to balance it with those main features and the mood from the Cyberpunk original. This is a huge task, I think.”
It all comes back to ensuring that Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t do what other games do: fall back on just a term and an aesthetic when cyberpunk as an idea is about so much more. Sebastian hopes that Cyberpunk 2077 will be a true realisation of that idea – not just the tropes, not just the futuristic feel, but the whole philosophy, with all its ambiguity, corruption and individualism.
“First of all it will be an RPG, so that means you create the story. In Syndicate and other shooters you can do no such thing,” says Sebastian. “The other thing is that you will have the chance to create your character’s personality. This is very, very important. The style and mood and atmosphere of this world, what you do at the bar, what do you drink, how you react with other people, what dialogue you choose –all these things let us keep the Cyberpunk atmosphere all the time.”
“There are lots of cyber games around, but there’s not a lot of punk in those games,” adds Mateusz. “We want to put more punk into ours. We do not want to make a dark and hopeless world. We are not doing Blade Runner. It will be full of rock and roll.”
“It’s more like a Tarantino approach,” Sebastian concludes.
CD Projekt is taking its time with Cyberpunk 2077. It almost certainly won’t be out before 2015 on PC - nothing’s confirmed, but it seems likely given The Witcher 3’s simultaneous release that it will appear on the next-gen consoles too. The team is still playing around and experimenting with ideas, throwing things like multiplayer and prototyping. But the vision is firmly in place, and you get the impression that it has been since before CDP even started work on this project. If I were Mike Pondsmith, I’d have confidence in them too.