Braindancing in Night City: inside the dark new world of 'Cyberpunk 2077'

Cyberpunk 2077

Cyberpunk is a genre; a dystopic vision of the future exemplified by films like Blade Runner and books like Neuromancer. But it's also a game. First released in 1988 and designed by Mike Pondsmith, Cyberpunk took the style and feeling of the works of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling and adapted them for the pen-and-paper RPG crowd. It spanned three editions and dozens of books, but with the help of developer CD Projekt Red it will soon see its biggest transformation yet: turning into a video game. We still don't know everything about Cyberpunk 2077, the game that catapults the series five decades into the future, but its clear CD Projekt is looking to capture the same feeling that made the RPG series so enduring. "We want to assure fans of the pen-and-paper game that this is still the same Cyberpunk you know," says lead gameplay designer Marcin Janiszewski. "Night City has changed in the intervening decades, but still there are places that you know — this still is the same city."


Video Review

Cyberpunk 2077 is set a little more than 50 years after the events of the last pen-and-paper game. It still takes place in the same location — a fictional city in between LA and San Francisco — in the gritty, rain-slicked style-world that the genre is known for. There are familiar themes, like the ascension of powerful mega corporations and enhancing our lives through cybernetic modification. The move into the future was made not only because 2020 isn't actually all that far away at this point, but also as a way to give the team a bit more creative freedom — a lot has changed over that period of time. Destroyed districts have been rebuilt, while certain technologies have advanced significantly over the years.

"This still is the same city."

Among these is a new kind of entertainment called "braindances." These digital recordings let viewers fully experience events in their mind — the sites and smells of an explorer out on an adventure, for instance, or if you're into underground recordings, you can check out what it's like to be a serial killer. In 2020 braindances were still a nascent technology, but in 2077 they've become a massive entertainment industry that has incited widespread social problems. "People live someone else’s life while sleeping in the gutter," explains Janiszewski. "It’s like a new drug."

Of course, it's not just the world of Cyberpunk that's changed, it's also the medium. And unfortunately we still haven't seen the game in action, though the developer recently released a CG teaser trailer designed to capture the feeling that it wants to evoke with the final product. "We wanted to have a clip, which will show people who know Cyberpunk that we know what we’re doing, but at the same time many newcomers would find attractive," Janiszewski says of the decision to go with a CG trailer. Cyberpunk 2077 is described simply as "an ambitious RPG for mature audience" with few other details available. However, CD Projekt has a strong pedigree when it comes to developing RPGs based on existing works of fiction. The studio's most notable work, The Witcher series, is based on a collection of fantasy novels from Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski.

But adapting a game and adapting a series of books aren't quite the same. With The Witcher, CD Projekt had to create new stories that fit into the existing mythology, but since Cyberpunk 2077 takes place decades after the original, there's a lot more freedom to simply build on Pondsmith's world. However, turning a pen-and-paper RPG into a digital experience comes with its own set of problems. Namely, the challenge of adapting existing mechanics into a new game. "We want to keep as many of the mechanics as possible," Janiszewski explains. "Of course, this is not always possible. We made a lot of prototypes and checked against what is fun in a video game — some things work well with other people but don’t translate to the screen in an interesting way." It's a balancing act between creating something that works in a video game while staying true to the source material. "We have someone else’s system that we have to be careful with."

"We have someone else’s system that we have to be careful with."

That quest for authenticity will also include letting players print off character sheets that can be used in the pen-and-paper version — which is good news considering that Pondsmith is hard at work on creating a revamped version of the tabletop game. He's also serving in somewhat of a consulting role on Cyberpunk 2077, helping the team at CD Projekt stay true to the original vision. "Nobody knows the setting better than its creator, and filling the 50 years of history of a game with the guy that made the original setting is the best thing we could have done," says Janiszewski. "Mike is the factor that allows us to easily check if our ideas are in line with his vision of the world."

There's a lot of of existing lore to draw on, but the team at CD Projekt is also looking outside of the Cyberpunk universe for inspiration. Aside from the obvious candidates like Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, the developers have written a blog post citing games like Syndicate, Fallout 2, System Shock, and Deus Ex as sources of inspiration. The latter is particularly interesting as 2011's Deus Ex: Human Revolution is part of a recent small wave of cyberpunk-themed games, which also includes titles like the text adventure Cypher and upcoming releases like Quadrilateral Cowboy, Capcom's Remember Me, and Shadowrun Returns and Shadowrun Online — another series based on a tabletop RPG. But this competition doesn't cause any concern for Janiszewski when it comes to making sure the game stands out. "Our Cyberpunk is the Cyberpunk and not another cyberpunk production," he says. "It has the most iconic setting for the genre."

"Nobody knows the setting better than its creator."

There are a lot of issues to deal with when it comes to adapting a long-running property, but the most difficult might just be striking the balance between satisfying existing fans and luring in new players. The more modern setting is part of CD Projekt's plan to satisfy both types. "The game is set 50 years after the events they know," Janiszewskisays of existing Cyberpunk fans, "so to an extent they are newcomers, too. So this is a new story in the world some might know. But even so, anyone can easily immerse themselves into the story." The flashy CG trailer certainly helped spark interest as well, but in the end it will be the gameplay the determines whether or not people will actually want to pick up the game. It may be quite a while before we get more concrete details on that aspect, though — in fact, the team won't even say when it plans to release the game or on what platforms.

"When it is a complete creation, which satisfies our standards," Janiszewski said when asked when Cyberpunk 2077 will launch. "That’s all I can say."

The Verge
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