Naming your game after the genre of fiction it’s set in is a funny thing. Imagine if BioWare had spent the last decades peddling its two big RPG series, Space Opera and High Fantasy, before floundering a bit with the release of Mecha-Science-Fantasy. It’s especially bold when the genre in question is cyberpunk—a subcategory of sci-fi that has always been kind of nebulous, its edges as fuzzy as if you’d just swallowed a palmful of Dex octagons.
There’s a bulletpoint list of markers you can run through, sure. Cybernetic limbs. Mega-corporations. Hackers. Neon billboards and Japanese kanji. Ethernet cables that go straight into your skull. Neologisms that sounded cool and futuristic in 1984 but now seem a little silly and dated... and, yep, Cyberpunk 2077 has them all.
Ultimately, though, these are empty signifiers. You could cobble together a generic golem out of these things and accurately call it cyberpunk—I’m looking at you, Netflix’s Altered Carbon—but that doesn’t get at what made these stories exciting in the first place: the sense of a terrifyingly plausible future. Not in that hard sci-fi way, of future tech so detailed you could probably request a spec sheet for it, but more the way technology warps the society that creates and uses it. And CD Projekt Red seems to agree.
“It is deeply fascinating to us to explore the relationship of humanity and technology and how it shapes life in 2077,” says 2077 level designer Miles Tost. “What does this level of technology mean in a world where ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ have basically taken on entirely new meanings in terms of their dimensions?”
The open-world RPG is actually a remarkably good fit for cyberpunk. Like the noir detective stories it originally drew inspiration from, cyberpunk is fundamentally a genre of the city—places where the population clusters, and subcultures can grow quickest around new technologies. And so it feels natural that most of what we’ve seen of 2077 hasn’t really been about player character V. For now, at least, they’re something of a cipher, and Night City is the undisputed star of the game. Well, except for Keanu, maybe.
It’s the promise of Night City that gets you, isn’t it? The promise of an open world as crowded with details and vignettes as it is with cybernetically-enhanced bodies. In the gameplay demos we’ve seen so far, stepping out onto the street means being nearly overwhelmed with chunks of world-building and background dialogue picked out in surtitles that hover over the speaker’s head.
Side quests, an area in which CD Projekt has pretty thoroughly proved its chops in the past, also provide a great chance to squeeze in a few extra perspectives on how this future is shaping its people. And they’re a great way of pulling you through the world, the same way a lot of cyberpunk fiction uses the thread of a detective story.
Even the first-person perspective you’re roaming the city in feels like the right choice. Those soaring, spinner’s-eye shots of Blade Runner’s cityscape might be the one image pretty much everyone points to when talking about the genre, but for my money, cyberpunk futures are best viewed from the pavement.
Castles in the sky
(Image credit: CD Projekt RED) Those stacks of skyscrapers are a way of literalising the rich/poor divide that’s so vital to cyberpunk’s vision of the world. The 1% (or, more accurately, the 0.001%) live clear of the grime, in upper orbit or mega-suburbs or gleaming penthouses. The megacorporations aren’t just a stock genre element—they’re a way of showing how access to technology is mediated by our capitalist overlords. What does an obsolescence cycle look like for an ability-boosting implant? What if your bionic eye came as a mandatory part of your job? And what would happen when you left?
If you wanted to sum up cyberpunk in a single handy soundbite, it’d be the one that Neuromancer author William Gibson has wheeled out in countless interviews: “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
So if you’re not one of the people craning their necks from down on the street, then you most likely deserve the guillotine, or whatever the cyberpunk equivalent is. Probably just a guillotine with a few cables and neon lights stuck on the side, to be honest. Whether all this matching of genre features and game tropes is happy coincidence or careful design, it’s hard to tell. But CD Projekt certainly seems to understand what has traditionally made cyberpunk interesting.
“To us, cyberpunk explores a dystopian world of low life and high tech in which we focus on street-level stories. Our protagonist is not the kind that is out to save the world,” Tost says. It’s an absolutely textbook definition of the genre, one that takes in the wisdom of cyberpunk scholars like Bruce Sterling, Lawrence Person and especially Mike Pondsmith, creator of the Cyberpunk pen-and-paper RPG, now consulting on 2077.
(Image credit: CD Projekt RED)
Everything that’s been shown so far promises a faithful adaptation, a game worthy of the label it has stuck on itself. But I said at the outset that cyberpunk’s main thrill is catching an ugly little glimpse of our own future, and that future surely looks very different now to the way it did two or three decades ago. So, given that CD Projekt clearly knows its cyber-onions, how is the developer intending to spin its own vision out of all those influences?
“It’s funny because we’re trying to re-envision how people from the ’80s and ’90s envisioned the future, and then lace that future with modern nuance,” Tost says. It’s an issue that’s particularly noticeable with the outdated technology that comes packaged with the genre—there’s nothing less cyberp