Fans of pen-and-paper role-playing games can be difficult to satisfy when it comes to the digital adaptations of those games; perhaps not unreasonably, given the gap between the improvised theatrics of the former and rigid, predetermined programming of the latter.
CD Projekt Red, developers of The Witcher series — which itself had a tabletop RPG interpretation before becoming a video game — is taking the seriousness of this group's concern with its next title, Cyberpunk 2077.
"The whole team are fans of the original system and have warm feelings for it," Cyberpunk 2077 lead writer Sebastian Stępień told Polygon in a recent interview. "We are aware of the large fanbase out there, too, so we have to keep them in mind. That's why we actually read the comments on our blog and forum. We have our vision of Cyberpunk, and it's good to hear what other players have to say, what they consider iconic and important."
"We don't want the city to feel artificial, like a vision of an omnipotent architect."
That respect for the source material shows in the thematic foundations of the upcoming game, many of which were demonstrated in a cinematic trailer released yesterday. The pen-and-paper game's setting, Night City, has been recreated in all of its neon-lit bleakness. Themes like surgical augmentation, substance abuse, gross technological and financial inequality were adapted wholesale from the video game's analog precursor. All that's changed is the date, and the advancements that go along with it.
"We will be creating over 50 years of history, from 2020 to 2077," Stępień said. "We want to adapt the original handbooks in terms of setting, so Night City will be the old familiar place, but it has expanded over that time. This is intended to be organic growth; we don't want the city to feel artificial, like a vision of an omnipotent architect.
"In short you can say that the world of 2077 is a result of evolution of the original source material, which itself was a result of the same process from the real world."
The story that unfolds in that world, however, will be entirely of CD Projekt Red's creation — a rise-to-power story about "someone who rises from a filthy gutter to stand against a hostile world." The game will be a story-driven experience set in an open world environment, which will be driven throughout by player choice.
"It will be a multi-threaded tale with many twists and turns, mostly guided by the player's choices," Stępień said. "Non-linearity is a must — that's what we're famous for. We're giving a lot of attention to the open-world nature of the game, which will allow us to keep things as interesting as possible."
Even the mechanics have been inspired by the game system of the Cyberpunk 2020 pen-and- paper game, though Stępień explained that this process isn't quite as fluid as adapting the game's narrative cues.
"The rules of the pen and paper game are great base material for the game, but straight adaptation isn't as simple as it might seem," Stępień said. "Some skills just cannot work in a video game setting the same way they did in the original game, so we build prototypes, experiment a little and see what will work.
"All the same, you want to try to stay as close to the original game as possible, since it is the inspiration. We even want to have an option of printing your character sheet from the game. Balancing the game and all of its stats while remaining true to the original handbook is one of the main problems our designers try to solve. And I must say, to this point they have been quite successful."
Despite the studio's deference to the hardcore fanbase of the pen-and-paper game, CD Projekt Red is aiming to make Cyberpunk 2077 accessible to newcomers as well. It's not as difficult as task as you might suppose; Stępień is confident that the game's futuristic subject matter is relatable to the game's potential audience, as most of it relates to modern issues like class warfare and the increasingly dependent relationship humans take on with technology.
"We don't have to define terms like 'corporation' or 'punk rock,'" Stępień said. "Even implants are comprehensible — look at Oscar Pistorius, the South African runner whose leg prosthetics may give him an advantage over many pure 'biological' runners.
"You must remember that our story will mainly focus on contemporary issues, and the world we will present is a kind of filter for those things," Stępień added. "Look at The Witcher series for example. The fantasy setting was used to present problems you can find outside your window: power, greed, enslavement, racism or personal betrayal.The same can be said about the futuristic setting of Cyberpunk 2077. The story has to be designed in a way that allows the player to enter the game world, introduce him to the rules, and than show him that the things he knows are still there, hidden under a sci-fi veil."
Technological escapism — a peculiarly meta subject for a video game to focus on — is a huge plot device in Cyberpunk 2077. Everyone, poor and rich alike, are drawn to easy ways to rise above the suffocating grimness of Night City; drug abuse is a common means of doing so, but technology proves equally addicting and devastating. One example of this is braindancing; a digital apparatus for reliving the senses and stimuli of someone else's recorded memories.
"This is what the street loves; everyone is into braindances," Stępień said. "New Holywood lets you be a space pilot, but there's also an underground for illegal recordings, for example, putting you in the mind of a serial killer. The problem is that this new medium is completely addictive. So people are thrown out of their houses and onto the street, because they don't pay their rent. They lie in the gutter and still experience some cool braindance, but don't know what is going on around them.
"This is just one of the new social issues the player will encounter. Another are psychos — people who went too far with cyber implants and just lost it; they are more machine than human and they can't handle it. The woman in the teaser trailer is one."
"It's a great place to live a life of adventure if you are someone who lives on the edge to begin with."
That's pretty dark subject matter, which Stępień freely admitted. But just because Cyberpunk 2077's vision of the future is "not a bright one," that doesn't mean it won't be inviting to players. In fact, Stępień argues that there's something about the challenge of surviving and thriving in a dark, oppressive world that is compelling, even when the thought of inhabiting such a world is repulsive.
"I think this is a very inviting environment to immerse yourself in," Stępień said. "It's a great place to live a life of adventure if you are someone who lives on the edge to begin with. I'm not saying that I would live in such world, but to play a game like that? That's great. Who wouldn't like to take this path? To use the future tech to acquire great power and stand against the problems of this world? Everyone. You can't and don't dare to do this in the real world, so we give you this opportunity.
"Living on the edge is one of the rules of the cyberpunk movement," Stępień added. "And our game will allow you to do that."