The pen-and-paper RPG Mike Pondsmith wrote and published way back in the 1980s may have needed a few tweaks and changes in the 30-plus years since he wrote it, but it might surprise you to know that the video game we’ll all be playing later this week, Cyberpunk 2077, retains much of its DNA.
Pondsmith not only created the original Cyberpunk RPG but also worked closely alongside developer CD Projekt Red (CDPR) on the upcoming title. Speaking to NME ahead of the massive release later this week, Pondsmith sits down to chat with us about the evolution of Cyberpunk, the challenges of writing about future technology, and how the game’s narrative serves as a warning to society.
Cyberpunk 2077 takes place in a dystopian future, in a place called Night City – a fictional Californian megalopolis. An economic crisis which resulted in nuclear warfare has devastated the United States, and with the rest of the country spiralling into disaster, people from all over have descended upon the booming Night City. Dominated by multinational corporations and equally ruthless gangs, however, the Blade Runner-inspired city is far from a sanctuary.
The video game’s plot stays true to its source material. Pondsmith’s 1988 game also describes a world ravaged by war, the collapse of society and of course, the original Night City. In Welcome To Night City, a booklet that introduces players to the setting of the pen-and-paper RPG, the metropolis is described as a placeholder for a dark, crime-ridden city in which players could immerse themselves.
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It’s not every day you see a pen-and-paper RPG get turned into a video game – especially not to one of Cyberpunk 2077’s scale. Pondsmith, in his warm and self-effacing manner, attributes this to the way the team looked at Cyberpunk .
“It actually is a really interesting evolution,” he explains. “The storyline progresses fairly well, because we always thought of the whole Cyberpunk world as basically being a progressive comic book. It starts off – you got little origin stories and things like that – and then you move up to big crossovers, and then you move up to a really big story.”
While Pondsmith says the video game adaptation retains the original Cyberpunk’s central tenets, it’s been almost 40 years since the Cyberpunk RPG was written. But the Cyberpunk universe has evolved to keep pace with the very real trends that stem from current-day technology.
Pondsmith describes having employed a person whose “entire job” during the production phase of Cyberpunk 2077 was to stay ahead of tech trends. “We had him sign up to everything from Jane’s Defense Weekly to microbiological research magazines, because we needed to stay ahead,” he laughs.
“The technological basis will change, but the other stuff won’t. We get ahead of the tech curve a lot by doing our homework. If we talk about a weapon, we probably used that weapon at some point. I’m not a surgeon, but a friend of mine’s father was a neurosurgeon and I’d go: ‘Can we do this?’ And he’d go, ‘Yeah, you can do that, but it’s stupid. You’d kill your patient’.”
“Keeping it real” was a crucial aspect to the development of Cyberpunk because “then people know the world is real and they can do their homework and go, yeah, that could happen”, he says.
“And so it’s not as much the technology is new, it’s that more people believe in the reality of the world, and that’s our secret.”
That said, Pondsmith also acknowledges that he’s had to make some technological tweaks to the story over the years – especially when it came to the internet.
William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the seminal 1984 novel that launched the sub-genre, described the internet as a “matrix”, a virtual plane that’s wholly encompassing. In the original RPG, characters can flit in and out of it much like Neo in the movie that owes a big debt to Gibson’s book. The internet as we know it today, though, doesn’t function in that way. So Pondsmith and his team had to rethink their approach.
“We tend to use the net as little places we go to, and so we had to design the net set we did in these worlds to fit more of that than the ‘I’m flying through cyberspace’,” he says. “Because at this point, when you see that, you’re kind of looking at it thinking Hackers or Tron. We don’t do that. I think that’s the biggest change.”
“Technology is more than what it is, it’s how people use it. For example, video phones like this,” he adds thoughtfully. We’re talking to each other on opposite sides of the world, connected via the magic of Zoom.
“For years we’ve had video phones. We’ve had video phones since 1964 or ’65, I think, but we don’t use them, because there’s never been a social reason to use them,” he tells us.
“But thank god for Zoom [now]. If we didn’t have things like Skype and Zoom, this society would grind to a halt.”
Cyberpunk is a massive game, built on hundreds, if not thousands of different stories. Pondsmith reminds us that a lot of these stories echo the state of our world today, and what it could become. Poignantly, he describes how the powerful prey on the weak in Night City – something that hits a little close to home.
“Cyberpunk is political, but it’s not political in a blue-state-red-state-conservative-liberal [way],” he says. “It is basically [that] people deserve to be able to get a decent meal, live in a decent place and do all that if they’re willing to work for it, and not get screwed over by people more powerful than they are, who may not need to even screw them over, but are doing it on principle because they think they can do it.”
Thankfully, in the game at least, that’s where the heroes come in. “Characters in Cyberpunk are heroes, and survive and do well because they are willing to fight for family or friends, for their neighbourhoods,” Pondsmith tells us.
This fight for change, for survival, is a huge takeaway for players, he says. Reflecting on the world’s current climate, Pondsmith tells us, “It’s not like we should definitely change everything to make it some perfect world. We’re not going to get there. But we have to get some balance. Right now, we don’t have a lot of balance and we need to get that, or we will not be here much longer. Nature bats last.”
“Cyberpunk is a warning, not an aspiration.”
Listening to Pondsmith speak, we can’t help but think CDPR must’ve nailed his vision of the game. He smiles as tells us, however, it took much emphasis on his part over the game’s massive eight-year cycle.
The most important thing he had to stress to CDPR when development got underway was this: the game had to be specifically cyberpunk, not the sleek, optimistic future depicted in general sci-fi.
To get people to see that, CDPR had to fly Pondsmith over to its headquarters in Krakow, Poland, to sit down and explain “this is why it’s like this, this is how it works”.
“I had a situation once, where I went in the first time, and a bunch of the prop group came up and said, ‘Hey, check out the guns we have’. And they have these silver Star Wars-looking blaster things,” he says, smiling at the memory. “I said, ‘No, you’re not getting it’.
“Cyberpunk guns are bulky, black – matte black – nasty-looking things that say: ‘Hi, I’m here to kill you’. They’re not nice and they’re not science fiction. They should be one step beyond what I could go over to Cheaper Than Dirt [a discount guns and ammo seller in the US] and buy. They have to have that feel, because otherwise people will not accept this as reality. I had to get people to see that.”
But Pondsmith grins as he confirms that otherwise – and “feel-wise” – everything else about the game, from the aesthetics to the music to the narrative, “is pretty darn close” to what he’d envisaged all those years ago.
“When I worked on Matrix Online, I remember my big thing was just basically getting out and wandering around the city. But at that time, we couldn’t support a really big city. It’s just no way. The frame rates would have been dead.”
“We have that city now,” he says beaming, “and there’s an amazing amount of stuff. I could wander through [the Night City district] Watson all day. I would go people-watch in Watson. I would go get on the trains and go places, and I want people to see that. I want them to go, in the end, ‘I may not like Night City entirely, but I wouldn’t mind visiting it’. I would love to see bumper stickers around that said: ‘I visited Night City and all I got was this bumper sticker and several gunshots’.”
Cyberpunk 2077 will be released on December 10 for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Google Stadia. The game will be also playable on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X via backwards compatibility.