The Strange, Unfinished Saga of Cyberpunk 2077 – The New Yorker

Mike Pondsmith started playing Dungeons & Dragons in the late seventies, as an undergraduate at the University of California, Davis. The game, published just a few years before, popularized a newish form of entertainment: tabletop role-playing, in which players, typically using dice and a set of rule books, create characters who pursue open-ended quests within an established world. “The most stimulating part of the game is the fact that anything can happen,” an early D&D review noted. Soon, other such games hit the market, including Traveller, a sci-fi game published in 1977, the year that “Star Wars” came out. Pondsmith, a tall Black man who grew up in multiple countries because his dad was in the Air Force, loved sci-fi, and fancied himself a bit like Lando Calrissian, the smooth-talking “Star Wars” rogue played by Billy Dee Williams. “If I could’ve had a cape, I would have had a cape,” he told me, over video chat from his home in western Washington. He bought a copy of Traveller at a Bay Area hardware store shortly after it was released. “You had this vast, sweeping empire with aliens in it and all this stuff,” he recalled, “and people had these spaceships, and they went all over the place and traded and fought.”

There were aspects of the game that irked him. No lightsabres, for instance. Plus, once the game began, the rules made it nearly impossible for the player’s character to die. He tinkered with the rules and ended up writing his own game, Imperial Star, which he finished around 1980. By 1982, he had a degree in graphic design, and he was soon working as a typesetter in a print shop at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He produced a good-looking rule book—although the game, in his view, was a hobbyist’s effort, developed as a pastime for his friends, some of whom have been playing a campaign in the Imperial Star universe for more than three decades. He created another game, Mekton, which was inspired by his discovery of anime and involved giant fighting robots. His wife, Lisa, encouraged him to demo it at DunDraCon, a role-playing convention near San Francisco. By the second day, a few dozen people had gathered around his table, eager to have a go. A friend suggested he start a business. R. Talsorian Games—named for the father of one Pondsmith’s friends, who’d invested in the company as a tax writeoff—incorporated in 1985.

One rainy night around this time, Pondsmith was driving across the San Francisco Bay Bridge when he looked out his window and saw what looked like a “mythical city,” he told me. The sight evoked the neon Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” a movie he’d seen not long before. Night City, Pondsmith thought this place should be called. That is also, as it happens, the name of the demimonde in William Gibson’s novel “Neuromancer,” which had been published in 1984, though Pondsmith had not yet read it. “Neuromancer” is the story of a data thief who uses a body-machine interface to break through a corporation’s A.I. defense system. It’s considered the quintessential cyberpunk novel, a genre that was just then entering its heyday. In 1986, the writer Bruce Sterling published “Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology”; in the preface, Sterling contends that, for the then-new generation of sci-fi writers, technology is “visceral,” “utterly intimate.” That same year, Walter Jon Williams published the novel “Hardwired,” set in a Balkanized post-United States, where the middle class has been decimated and megacorporations have unchecked power. Pondsmith and Williams became friends, and Pondsmith began formulating a game set in Night City that drew, in part, on Williams’s ideas. He envisioned a fractured U.S. in the thrall of technology and beset by rampant inequality. Williams tested out the game as Pondsmith worked on it.

The result, Cyberpunk, came out in 1988. It consisted of three books of rules and story lines and a pair of dice, and was set in the far-off year of 2013. The game, Pondsmith told me, was mostly about having cool gear and strutting around in it. But the format allowed for all kinds of inventiveness. Williams recalled a campaign in which he enlisted the writer Pati Nagle to play as a double agent; another player seemed to fall for Nagle’s character and was, Williams told me, “utterly heartbroken that she’d betrayed him. It was touching and hilarious at the same time.” Pondsmith kept thinking about the game’s world, and reading the novels that were beginning to form the Cyberpunk canon. He started writing a sequel, set a few years later, that focussed less on peacocking in snazzy getups than on the interlocking segments that make up a society. The world he had imagined “was a much larger ecosystem” than he had initially realized, he told me. It involved “how corporations work, how they kept people down, how they interacted with the city, how they interacted with the citizens at what levels.” He called the sequel Cyberpunk 2020. The real question, he had decided, was: Why did this world “keep producing people who get metalled up and go to the street?”

When Cyberpunk 2020 came out, in 1990, Marcin Iwiński and Michał Kiciński were kids in a newly democratic Poland. The country was in the midst of so-called shock therapy as its economy transitioned from state control to capitalism. (When I recently mentioned to Bruce Sterling that a Polish company was bringing out a cyberpunk video game, he said, “It’s great that people in Warsaw can actually get some kind of hook into the industry,” adding that he had spent a lot of time in that part of Europe, and was “glad to see them get a leg up on the old cultural production ladder.”) Iwiński and Kiciński met in a high-school math class. Both loved computer games, but the only versions of those games readily available in Poland were pirated copies traded by fans at weekend markets in Warsaw. After a couple of years hawking games in the Warsaw markets, the duo started getting CDs imported legally from international distributors and selling them to small retail stores. They incorporated in 1994, calling their company CD Projekt.

Their first big investment involved a Dungeons & Dragons video game that came on five CDs and involved recruiting Polish actors to voice characters in the game. They sold eighteen thousand copies on the first day—a huge success. They then created a studio, CD Projekt Red, and developed their own game, based on a Polish fantasy series called “The Witcher,” which Andrzej Sapkowski had begun writing in the mid-eighties. The series takes place on an unnamed continent that was originally inhabited by mythical creatures and has since been colonized by humans. The titular witcher, Geralt of Rivia, is a monster-hunting mercenary. Developing the game took four years and ate up all of their funds. “For half a year, we were working twelve-hour days every day, all weekends, all the time,” the game’s lead character artist has said. The Witcher came out in 2007 and has since sold more than two million copies. Its sequel was so successful that Poland’s Prime Minister gave a copy to Barack Obama when Obama made a visit to the country, in 2011. Obama later called the game a “great example of Poland’s place in the new global economy.”

In 2012, CD Projekt Red announced that one of its next big games would be an adaptation of Mike Pondsmith’s Cyberpunk. A teaser for the game, called Cyberpunk 2077, was released in January, 2013. It showed what appeared to be an attractive young cyborg in a tight-fitting top repelling bullets fired by heavily armored police with her skin. The video ended with a promise: “COMING: WHEN IT’S READY.” In the meantime, the company released the Witcher 3, in 2015. There were some early technical hiccups, but it was eventually hailed as one of the best video games ever made, and sold more than thirty million copies.

Three years later, CD Projekt Red premièred a nearly hour-long demo of Cyberpunk 2077 for a handful of attendees at the video-game industry’s biggest trade show, E3. Cyberpunk 2077 is an “open world” game, in which you can roam more or less freely and do things that aren’t related to the game’s principal mission. The game largely employs a first-person perspective—one of the studio’s more ambitious decisions was to mostly do away with scenes in which a player simply watches action unfold without any control over it. The idea is that, at all times, the player can wander around and see a world operating as it should.

The protagonist is a mercenary named V, who has been hired to steal a biochip. The heist goes bad, and V has to stash it in her head. (V can be whatever gender a player chooses.) The chip contains the digital incarnation of a rock star named Johnny Silverhand, who, half a century before, participated in the central tragedy in Night City history, the bombing of the Arasaka Tower, the regional headquarters of a major corporation. (Pondsmith told me that he was already writing that bit of game lore twenty years ago when he looked up at a TV and saw the second plane hit the south tower of the World Trade Center. He put the story aside for a while.) V has to remove the chip from her head before Silverhand’s identity overwrites her own. Meanwhile, she learns about the insidious activities of the Arasaka corporation, including the development of an A.I. program called Soulkiller. V must decide whether or not to sabotage Arasaka, as Silverhand once tried to do.

At an event ahead of the next E3, CD Projekt premièred a trailer for Cyberpunk 2077 that culminated with Silverhand’s arrival onscreen in the form of Keanu Reeves. It was a canny choice: Reeves is basically the Hollywood face of cyberpunk, thanks to his roles in “Johnny Mnemonic” and the “Matrix” movies. (“I’ve always wanted to participate in different genres and, now, technologies and versions of storytelling,” Reeves told me, when I asked him about Cyberpunk 2077. He also noted that Marlon Brando had a digital version of himself created in the eighties.) When the trailer ended, Reeves appeared onstage amid a puff of smoke and revealed that the game would be ready in April, 2020. “Let me tell you,” he said to the crowd, “the feeling of being there, of walking the streets of the future, is really going to be breathtaking.”

By then, former employees of CD Projekt Red had already told the journalist Jason Schreier, then working at Kotaku, that the development of the game had been “rocky.” In order to meet production deadlines, the ex-employees said many developers at the company had to rely on “crunch”—i.e., mandatory, or effectively mandatory, overtime, a widespread industry practice that is notorious for causing burnout. Iwiński assured Schreier that his company was going to forbid mandatory overtime. Then, in January, 2020, the release of Cyberpunk 2077 was pushed back to September. In June, it was pushed to November. In early fall, Schreier, now writing for Bloomberg, reported that CD Projekt Red had ordered six-day workweeks for its developers. “Starting today, the entire (development) studio is in overdrive,” Adam Badowski, the studio’s director, wrote in an e-mail obtained by Schreier. “I know this is in direct opposition to what we’ve said about crunch,” he added. “It’s also in direct opposition to what I personally grew to believe a while back—that crunch should never be the answer. But we’ve extended all other possible means of navigating the situation.” (In response to Schreier’s article, Badowski posted a message on Twitter: “This is one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make, but everyone is well compensated for every extra hour they put in.”) A few weeks after that, the release was postponed again, to December.

In the months leading up to the new December launch date, I spoke and corresponded with a number of people at CD Projekt Red. In an e-mail, Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz, the quest director for Cyberpunk 2077, wrote, “I believe we’re trying to show with our worldbuilding and narrative that in reality the issues that plague the Cyberpunk society, and by extension our own society, are much more complex and fundamental—as Johnny Silverhand learns the hard way, it’s not enough to topple one corporation to really make a difference, as others will take its place right away.” One of the clichés that his team had tried to avoid, he went on, was a binary depiction of corporations as bad and cyberpunks as good. “The corporations and their dysfunctions in this approach are a symptom of a systemic issue, not the cause,” he explained. Iwiński told me that, for him, “the worst kind of entertainment is obvious entertainment,” and insisted that, in the Witcher games and in this one, there is “no clear distinction between good and evil.” Patrick Mills, at the time the game’s senior quest designer, said that one of his “high-level goals” for the game’s lore was that there would be “no consensus reality.” He had coördinated with Pondsmith to insure continuity between the video game and its pen-and-paper siblings. Still, he said, “We know with this many people working on this, telling this many number of stories, that we’re going to have inconsistencies. So why not work with that?”

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