Cyberpunk 2077 interview – we paint a picture and we let the player interpret it

CD Projekt talk about a possible multiplayer mode for Cyberpunk 2077, as they also discuss transhumanism and the influence of Blade Runner.

This week may have been the last time we’ll see Cyberpunk 2077 before it’s released. Perhaps there’ll be a hands-on event later but having seen the game at the last two E3 and Gamescom events it’s clear that it’s getting very close to being complete. Previously we’ve interviewed level designers, quest directors, and lead quest designers and this time we spoke to senior concept artist Marthe Jonkers, who’s in charge of the team responsible for the real star of Cyberpunk 2077 – not Keanu Reeves but Night City itself.

The live demo at Gamescom was largely the same as the one at E3 and showed the player character performing a mercenary job for a not-too-evil gang called the Voodoo Boys, in exchange for an audience with their leader Bridgette. This is in order to find Alt Cunningham, the girlfriend of Keanu Reeves’ character Johnny Silverhand, who is a virtual ghost living inside your head.

As usual, the hands-off demo was only shown behind closed doors but CD Projekt has promised to release a 15-minute supercut of the footage on Friday, 30 August at 7pm BST. That will definitely be something worth looking out for, as it clearly demonstrates the incredible level of detail in both the graphics and the gameplay options. Jonkers has more to do with the former but she was still able to talk in detail about the game’s storytelling aspirations, the possibility of a multiplayer mode, and why it doesn’t look like Blade Runner…

Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Stadia, and PC
Publisher: CD Projekt
Developer: CD Projekt Red
Release Date: 16th April 2020

GC: Well, that looked great. As you well know.

MJ: [laughs]

GC: I guess your team would’ve been one of the first ones to start doing serious work on the game? Back when the project first began.

MJ: Yeah, well we have to design the whole world. [laughs] Me and my team, we are in Kraków. We have several studios, actually, and we are really focused on creating the city and we really approached that in a holistic way, because you have to think about the composition of the city. We work with urban planners. We have an urban planner in our team and she is always thinking, ‘What’s the layout of the city and the map, and where would all the streets go?’

Because if you drive around the city we want you to have good views and we want you to always know where you are so you don’t get lost; so the layout of the city is very important. Once you have that sort of skeleton then you can start building up the city, and so we made six districts and all those areas are really different.

My team is really responsible for making these areas distinctive and we make sure that we use a different colour palette for each. It’s very subtle but you will see it in different areas and we make sure that there’s a difference in some areas where they’re really crowded and some are sort of abandoned…

That area you saw in the demo was called Pacifica and that is a district to the south of Night City and it’s very abandoned and there are not that many people living there, actually. But if you go to Watson, which is another area in Night City… I don’t know if you saw the demo last year?

GC: I did. I remember what an impression it made coming down in the lift at the beginning and seeing the whole city in front of you. I guess that was all your team’s work?

MJ: A collaboration, of course, we purely do visual designs of the buildings and interiors.

GC: Seeing the verticality of the environment was very impressive but I’m still not clear how many of those buildings or floors you can actually go into?

MJ: That’s a good question, because we have a lot of verticality in this game. But we also value quality over quantity. So we made sure that… not every building will have a hundred floors for you to explore because that would be really boring, really repetitive. So we make sure that we have the right balance in how much you can explore and it will be a lot, but it won’t be so much that it’s not fun anymore.

GC: So how will it work? Will it be like GTA where some buildings just don’t have doors that open?

MJ: Some parts will be, maybe, closed off. So you can explore part of an apartment building, but won’t be able to go everywhere because there’s just not anything interesting there. There’s no point opening every door of an apartment because it wouldn’t add anything to the whole experience.

GC: The thing that’s impressed me the most in all the demos is the level of detail in the backgrounds. Just the sheer volume of objects and places, which I guess is your team as well?

MJ: Yeah.

GC: I always wonder in an open world game, when you see a vending machine or some small shop detail, who made that? How long did it take? Somehow had to sit down and make all that.

MJ: [laughs] Yeah, yeah everything! But what I think’s even more impressive on this game is because we were designing a city that isn’t based on reality… it’s completely made up. Of course we have Michael Pondsmith’s Cyberpunk 2020, that’s really the basis that we get all the lore and backstory from, but we did make a city that’s not based on a city that exists.

So we designed every single item in the game, everything is designed and has a cyberpunk flavour to it. And my team does the design work, but we also have a very talented environment art team that actually models it and then there’s the level design team… we all work together to get this city going.

GC: I never played it, but did Cyberpunk 2020 have visual references? Sourcebooks always tend to, I think?

MJ: Yeah, it did have a very strong visual reference. But Cyberpunk 2020 takes place in… 2020, obviously. [laughs] But Cyberpunk 2077 is 57 years later, so that time period gives us a freedom to add different styles and visuals.

GC: Since cyberpunk is an established concept there are some obvious sources you must have looked at for inspiration but thinking about it I’ve never seen anything that seems particularly Blade Runner-ery.

MJ: [clearly delighted] No, that’s good! I’m happy you said that! [laughs]

GC: So there’s not some other district that’s more inspired by the film?

MJ: No!

GC: The one thing I did think of with Pacifica though was Judge Dredd’s Mega-City One. The comics more than the films, which couldn’t really afford to do it properly. Is that just coincidence because you’re dealing with similar subjects or were you actively looking at other cyberpunk style media?

MJ: Of course, we’ve seen, like, every cyberpunk movie that’s out there.

GC: But there’s not really that many are there?

MJ: There are actually many that have some elements… cyberpunk is about technology and humanity and corporations and there are a lot of stories around that. So we’ve seen lots and we know what’s out there but it was our role to create something unique, because we want you to look at a screenshot and instantly say, ‘Oh, that’s Cyberpunk 2077!’ If you say, ‘Is that Blade Runner?’ then we didn’t do our job. Because we wanted to create something new.

So what we did, is we actually took the timeline between 2020 and 2077 and we really defined what happens in-between and that actually inspired the visual styles of a lot of areas in Night City, in Cyberpunk. And I don’t know if you’ve seen the posters that hang outside? They actually represent the four visual styles that we have in the game. And they are connected to the timeline.

And I’ll give you an example. The first style, we call entropism. This style is the oldest style, it originated in a time when people were really poor and things weren’t going really well. So the design aesthetic from that period is very practical. So the things are very cheaply made. They’re practical, not much decoration and colouring is very subdued. And it really defines that period.

After that things happened and people got more happy. You get the kitsch style and it’s much more colourful and you have rounded corners everywhere. And we use these styles connected to the period they are, and then the events of Cyberpunk that they’re connected to, to build up the city. And for us it’s really important that Night City and the world of Cyberpunk feels like a very realistic place and cities are layered, you know? There’s not just one style.

So we really try to make this history of the visual style, not just for the story, not just for the lore, but also for the architecture and the vehicle design. So when you walk around Night City and you see a car driving around and it’s made of really cheap materials you know it’s a really old car. It’s probably from people who are poor. It’s from that era of time. But if you see a building that’s really pink with rounded corners you know that’s kitsch, so that was built at that period of time.

GC: So it’s like in real life when you see a old car or an electric car…

MJ: Yeah, exactly. So we created this ourselves based on the Cyberpunk lore, based on Mike Pondsmith’s RPG, and created something unique.

GC: I mentioned it in one of the interviews before but the thing about cyberpunk is that it never seems to be that successful with the mainstream. Blade Runner and the like are very well known amongst certain people but neither movie was successful. Do you worry that there’s something about the concept that just doesn’t connect with the majority?

MJ: I think at CD Project Red story is really important to us. It’s basically the core of our games, the story, and from that you have the gameplay and the visuals, and everything is connected to the lore and the story. And it doesn’t really matter in what setting we tell that story if the story’s really good. And you know, with The Witcher we had a very deep story. We have it now again, it’s a very compelling story and also a very personal story.

It’s actually interesting because we kind of learned from The Witcher, I guess, that if you tell a very big, epic story, it’s fine but if you tell a very personal story, it resonates better with people. And that’s our approach again this time.

GC: It’s the difference between plot and story. A lot of games are obsessed with plot and lore but a story is about something – the plot is just how you get from A to B.

MJ: Exactly! So it’s not about saving the world in Cyberpunk, it’s really about this sort of personal story of your character going through a lot of stuff that I won’t spoil [laughs] but it’s more about saving yourself. And I think that’s something that resonates with people.

GC: I also wonder whether there’s been a kind of cyberpunk renaissance lately because it’s all coming true.

MJ: [laughs]

GC: These books and films were made as a warning or satire, but it almost feels like they’re being used as a manual by governments and corporations.

MJ: It’s true! [laughs] Some elements definitely.

GC: Do you think it will become a more dominant form of science fiction in the future?

MJ: It could be, yeah, but you know Cyberpunk 2077 is not based on our world. It’s a continuation of Mike Pondsmith’s world, which already was a very harsh world. It’s a world you don’t really want to live in. So it is a different timeline, but still you can see some things that you can sort of connect with. So it’s sort of an interesting view of how things are gonna develop.

GC: RoboCop, for example, almost seems more relevant now than it did in the 80s!

MJ: I know, I know! [laughs] It might have become more interesting nowadays because the cyberpunk pillars are, of course, the technology and AI getting more and more advanced and how much humanity is left. You know, that’s an issue. Another theme of cyberpunk, as a genre, is the corporations taking control. And another thing that you often see in cyberpunk is a huge gap between rich and poor people. And these, of course, are all issues that are nowadays getting more and more important. So, yeah, I guess it is getting more connected to our world!

GC: It’s scary isn’t it?

MJ: I hope it doesn’t come true because Night City is not a nice place to be!

GC: Traditional science fiction tends to be strangely sexless and yet we see in the real world that that’s the first thing people think of when new technology emerges. But CD Project keep get themselves in trouble with the portrayal of gender and trans issues. Have you changed your approach to how you deal with those sorts of things in the last year or so?

MJ: You know, we really want to make a video game that’s really inclusive.

GC: I’ve spoken to a number of your devs now and it’s obvious to me they’re trying to do the right thing, but it’s such a difficult subject.

MJ: Of course, if you tackle certain subjects then you will expect people to have an opinion about it and we respect that. And it’s good that people give us feedback. And our character creation menu, for instance, compared to the last demo we now give you so many more options. For instance, you don’t choose your gender anymore. You don’t choose, ‘I want to be a female or male character’ you now choose a body type. Because we want you to feel free to create any character you want.

So you choose your body type and we have two voices, one that’s male sounding, one is female sounding. You can mix and match. You can just connect them any way you want. And then we have a lot of extra skin tones and tattoos and hairstyles. So we really want to give people the freedom to make their own character and play the way they want to play.

GC: Have you specifically sought out a wider range of people to consult on the game, since all these controversies started flaring up?

MJ: Our team is very international and very diverse but we have asked for a lot of feedback. We always ask for feedback and even when we show these demos, we still ask people to tell us what they think. [Going at least as far back as The Witcher 3, CD Projekt always has little comment slips to fill in when you attend a preview, which we’ve never seen from any other company – GC]

We just wanna know what we can improve on because we want to make a really good game and we really wanna make a game that everybody is comfortable playing. But at the same time we’ll tackle difficult issues. It is a cyberpunk world after all.

GC: Are the sexual and self-identity issues something you tackle directly through missions and story or are they more just implied by the character creation tools?

MJ: We do tackle a lot of… complicated subjects, I’d say. Because we wanted to create a very believable cyberpunk world. Cyberpunk 2020 was also a world that had a very dark side and we are also showing this in Cyberpunk 2077, but we paint a picture and we let the player interpret it. We leave it up to the player to see what they think of the situations and how they would handle it.

So we’re trying to create a sort of realistic world, we’re trying not to shy away from cyberpunk themes. But at the same time we’re giving the freedom to the player to approach the situations how they want to.

GC: I asked this question previously but I couldn’t work out whether he was being vague on purpose or not.

MJ: [laughs]

GC: But everyone keeps saying how one of the key themes in the game is the loss of humanity. But I’m not really sure how you’re getting that across in the game, since obviously playing a video game is a very artificial experience in itself.

MJ: I know, but that’s the magic of role-playing! Because we are really trying to make you feel like you’re that character and we’re really putting effort into the character creation. And we also have this fluid class system. Usually you pick one class and you play as that type of person, but in our game you can combine everything.

GC: Do you maybe lose dialogue options or something as you become more cybernetic? So you gain abilities but lose something else on a more emotional level?

MJ: We have actually a very complex dialogue system, where there’s a lot of different choices depending on a lot of factors. For instance, like how you grew up, your street credibility… there’s so many branches for dialogue but it’s also about how you see the world around you and how you deal with it. Because you have… for instance, in the first demo you saw this gang, they were called the Maelstrom, I don’t know if you remember them?

GC: The guys with robot faces that you got the spider drone from?

MJ: Yes!

GC: But they seemed to act like normal humans, which is why I don’t really understand yet how losing your humanity is being portrayed.

MJ: Yeah… well… [clearly trying not to spoil a plot point] you will encounter them many more times. [laughs] It’s a big question of how human are they still?

GC: But what happens, for example, if I try and create a character like them, that’s as artificial as possible, what difference does that actually make to the gameplay and story?

MJ: I think a better example is Johnny Silverhand because you’ve seen him in this demo and… he died in 2020 and now he’s back as a digital ghost and now it’s a part of the core story how… [laughs] I cannot spoil it!

GC: Okay, okay. [laughs] I don’t want you to get yourself in trouble!

MJ: I think around his character a lot of these themes are important. Is he real or is he not? How human is he? How human is he if he’s a digital ghost and what does that mean? You know, where does it come from?

GC: So these are issues that plays out more through the non-player characters than your own?

MJ: It kind of depends on your own play style but these things are… it’s just a difficult question because it’s all mixed up in the story and how it influences the different characters. But it is an important theme and you’ll just have to play it! [laughs]

GC: Well you’ve twisted my arm.

MJ: [laughs]

GC: So I guess this isn’t really your area but do you know if plans still exist for multiplayer in the game? It’s been mentioned a few times but I don’t think they’ve ever actually promised it.

MJ: We’re making a single-player game and it will be a single-player game at launch. All I can say is that we’re looking into it.

GC: So you haven’t abandoned the idea for after launch?

MJ: No, no. But now we’re focused on the single-player experience, so we want people to expect single-player and not multiplayer.

GC: That’s fair enough. Thanks a lot for your time.

MJ: Thank you!

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