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Three things Cyberpunk 2077 gets right about the original tabletop RPG

Cyberpunk 2020 is unique vision of the future, and CD Projekt Red understands it perfectly

Cyberpunk 2077 - man standing by sports car CD Projekt Red
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Warsaw, Poland-based CD Projekt Red was on hand at this year’s E3 with a nearly hourlong demonstration of its next game, Cyberpunk 2077. The maker of the Witcher series is well outside of its comfort zone on this one, having traded in horses, magic and swords for fast cars, cybernetic implants and futuristic small arms.

Polygon’s viewing of the demo this morning was among the last very last at the expo, so you may have heard that Cyberpunk 2077 is a first-person, role-playing, cover-based shooter and not a third-person brawler. But what many writers have overlooked is how much respect CD Projekt is giving to the game’s original lore, a tabletop RPG first published in 1988.

Cyberpunk 2020 is the brainchild of Mike Pondsmith, an award-winning game designer with roots in board gaming and pen-and-paper RPGs. He may not have coined the word “Cyberpunk,” but his game system crystallized everything that had come before to create a coherent and unique vision of what a world gone cyberpunk could actually be like. From the demo that I was shown, it’s clear that CD Projekt has mined the source material with all the passion and respect of a true fan.

Here’s what Cyberpunk 2077 got right about Pondsmith’s legendary tabletop RPG.

Interior art for Cyberpunk 2020: Second Edition.
R. Talsorian Games Inc.

The look

The source book for Cyberpunk 2020 kicks off with a few pages on the overall tone of that universe. Bullet point number one is “style over substance.”

“It doesn’t matter how well you do something, as long as you look good doing it,” Pondsmith writes. “Normally, clothes and looks don’t matter in an adventure — in this world, having a leather armor jacket and mirrorshades is a serious consideration.”

That note on the theme from the original tabletop game seems prescient of modern day gaming, where cosmetic enhancements are monetized to an almost absurd degree. But, in CD Projekt’s Cyberpunk 2077, looking good will actually affect the player’s performance. In this year’s E3 demo, even the NPCs are dressed to the nines. I’ve never seen exterior body armor matched with a three-piece suit before, but they made it look amazing.

Your sidekick, Jackie, is an excellent example of that kind of mashup. He’s a heavily armed thug with arms shaped like HoneyBaked Hams, but every morning he gets up, touches up the edges of his crew cut and puts on his favorite chains and bracelets. Even his ride looks the part; it’s a futuristic gold-plated muscle car that looks like a Chevrolet Camaro with bodywork designed by Bugatti. But CD Projekt said it’s going a step further, adding stat boosts to the clothing that you find in the world. Fancy jackets will improve your stats and defenses to be sure, but they’ll also boost the player’s street cred, the global reputation system that gains influence among the warring factions in Cyberpunk 2077’s world and unlocks certain missions.

Finally, CD Projekt made the bold decision to set its reveal demo level during the day. It’s delivered an amazing contrast between exterior and interior environments. Moving around in the open world in the early morning, the skybox was bright and everything looked crisp and clean. Later, inside an abandoned meat-packing facility, everything was dark and brown and dusty. Without the bright light pouring onto the big city, that dungeon wouldn’t have felt as oppressive and deadly as it did.

Cyberpunk 2077, E3 2018 - A sharply-dressed woman in a bulletproof vest and a short black skirt. She’s smoking a cigarette next to an armed male guard. The SUV behind them reads “Militech” on the fender.
A corporate agent in the world of Cyberpunk 2077. Note that she’s wearing high-tech body armor over her suit and flanked by heavily armed guards. This isn’t a special occasion. That’s just how she rolls, every day of the week.
CD Projekt Red

The swagger

In the original Cyberpunk 2020, Pondsmith makes it clear that “attitude is everything.”

“Remember, everyone in in the 2000’s is carrying lots of lethal hardware and high-tech enhancements,” he writes. “They won’t be impressed by your new H&K smartgun unless you swagger into the club looking like you know how to use it — and are just itching for an excuse.”

In that same meat-packing plant, the player and her sidekick, Jackie, cut a deal to buy a certain high-tech weapons platform, a spider-like robot that climbs walls and connects directly to the user’s brain. But there was a moment in the demo where the arms dealers demand that Jackie sit down. He refuses, stepping up to go toe-to-toe with the heavily armed thug. That’s when Jackie’s shit-talking kicks off.

At that moment you have a decision to make, seemingly in real time. A radial dialogue menu opened up. Do you stop Jackie from starting a fight over nothing, or do you intervene and tell him to stand down? In our demo, the player had him stand down. Everyone relaxes, even Jackie. That opened up a kind of tea ceremony with the thugs, giving you the opportunity to share some mind-altering drugs before you close the deal.

CD Projekt made it clear that interaction could have gone in a number of different directions. It was a small moment, but it was impressive to see. Expect many different ways to find your place in the world of Cyberpunk 2077. While the story is sure to have a beginning, middle and an end, I got the feeling that players will be given the opportunity to guide the timbre and the tempo at every turn.

Cyberpunk 2077, E3 20918 demo. A member of the Maelstrom faction syncs up with a spider-like, autonomous weapon system. His ocular implant turns to blue to indicate the connection has been made.
The arms merchants that sold the player the spiderbot were heavily augmented humans, more machine than man. The area above their mouth is a hollow mesh of metal, wires and articulated, glowing optical receivers.
Image: CD Projekt Red

The tech

Focal to the original tabletop game is the idea of cybernetic augmentations. Surgically embedded electronics and mechanical limb replacements are a way of life. In the demo we were shown, both the main character and her sidekick appeared to be relatively human at the start. But, about mid-way through the demo, we visited the local “Ripperdoc.”

From Cyberpunk 2020:

Cybertechnology can be purchased almost anywhere. Some of the medical procedures are simple, walk-in types of surgery, with minor installations taking place in shopping mall clinics (Bodyshoppe, Fashion/Fusion, and Parts N’ Programms are three popular chain stores) or drop in medical centers (Docs R Us TM). These installations are much like getting your ears pierced, circa 1980. You can even have upgrades and improvements plugged into the old hardware for the cost of the new parts, allowing you to start small (called stripped or economy) and add as you go.

What can’t be bought openly are the types of cyberware known as Blackmarket Cybertech. These items can only be purchased through criminal contacts on the Street, and installed by high priced, underground medtechs known as Ripperdocs. Blackmarket cybertech is often dangerous, badly installed, and always expensive. But hey, we’re all big kids here, and besides, you know what to do to a Ripperdoc who messes around with you, right?

In this year’s reveal demo, CD Projekt spent time showing the press what it’s actually like to visit the local Ripperdoc and get yourself modded out. It was a surprisingly intimate experience.

The sequence began by walking into the storefront lobby, just off the street near the main character’s apartment. It was calm space with plenty of comfy chairs, a few Maneki-neko cats bobbing on the counter and incense wafting through the air. Shortly after they arrived, the player was invited back through a courtyard and into the Ripperdoc’s shop.

Inside, it looked like a mashup of a machine shop and a dentist’s office. The doctor greeted the player like an old friend, and was invited to sit down in the chair to have a new optical implant and weapon grip installed. That’s where things got weird.

In most games you’d open up a menu system, scroll through the options, select the upgrade, confirm the number of credits you’d like to spend and boom — smash-cut to your avatar walking out of the office and on to the street.

Not so here.

Cyberpunk 2077 - muscular guy with glasses and a cyborg arm looking at a screen
Your friendly neighborhood Ripperdoc.
CD Projekt Red

First the Ripperdoc soothed us, asking if we were comfortable and assuring us that this wouldn’t hurt a bit. Then he winked at the player, extended a metallic, claw-like, grasping appendage directly toward the screen and plucked out our eye.

That’s when the screen went dark.

When the image came back on the screen we were looking through our new eye, sitting on the shelf just a few feet away. We were looking over the Ripperdoc’s shoulder at ourselves sitting there in the chair. Then the ‘doc reached out, pulled the new eye off the shelf and plugged it into our face. Eventually, when the 3D printer had finished attaching the new weapon grip to our right hand, we stood up and thanked him for his trouble.

That’s when the doctor handed us a prescription, told us to take two puffs over the next two hours, and sent us on our way.

In Cyberpunk 2077, expect the decisions that you make about your augmentations — what they are, and who you receive them from — to be integral in forming your own view of who your character is and what their motivations are.

More than anything, this demo was a statement. Not simply of the complexity of the systems and the tone that we can expect in the finished product, whenever it gets released. No, this demo was about CD Projekt flexing its muscles, showing the assembled press and VIPs that their next game could be their best effort yet. And that statement extends not just to the graphical fidelity on the screen, but the world-building and the opportunity for role-playing.

I hope Mike Pondsmith had a chance to see it before the rest of us. If he did, I’m sure that it absolutely blew his mind.

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