Gamescom provided my second chance to see CD Projekt's startlingly impressive Cyberpunk 2077 demo, and even a second time through I found myself again taken aback by the depth, detail and design of its neon-lit Night City.
A second viewing brought up some questions, however. A very different dialogue choice towards the end of the quest disappointingly brought about the same end result, and the fact we were seeing this vertical slice of the game again prompted its own queries.
And, since its initial announcement at E3, excitement around the game has been tempered somewhat as fans of the genre have begun wondering how accurately CD Projekt will reflect the diverse classes and character options of both the original Cyberpunk 2020 pen and paper game, or how it will deal with topics such as transhumanism that are at the heart of the cyberpunk genre in general. A recent, now-deleted tweet from the developer which referenced a transphobic meme did absolutely nothing to help matters.
And so it was I sat down with Philipp Weber, Cyberpunk 2077's senior quest designer, minutes after watching the game's demo again.
It was great to see that demo again, although I was a little disappointed with one of the choices at the end. Without spoiling anything, I'll just say we had the option to fight a certain gang but declined - whereas when I saw the scene at E3 we just went straight into the fight. But instead of walking away, they insulted us and we... ended up fighting them anyway. Are these really the only options, or is this just for the demo?
Weber: The demo is a mission which will appear in the game but we'll probably make changes to that, and will probably give you more choices. In the final game you'll be able to walk away. As a quest designer though, when you fight you get so much content, you get that boss fight, if you decide to walk away... what's the interesting thing I can give you? Players who fight get the boss fight. Narratively if he's still alive and he's an important guy, I guess he can come back at some point, whereas if you kill him here he's gone.
The one change the demo did have is you could now play as male V as well. I was interested to see that regardless of the gender you always seem to wake up in the morning with a male companion.
Weber: In this demo at least you will always wake up to another man, so we can show different kinds of relationships will be part of the game, and players will be able to choose what kind of character they want to play.
Right, including the character creator which we got a glimpse of at the demo's start. How far along is that? Is the version we saw close to what we'll see in the final game or do you have a lot of options yet to add in?
Weber: I think it reflects our intention for what we want to do but definitely it's still in development. I expect there will be changes, some more interesting things, but I would say it reflects our general intention for what we want to give you in the final game.
I ask because the option in it is to play as a male or female character type. If someone wanted to choose a character who was gender fluid, how would you portray that?
Weber: You know, as an example in the character creation you can do that by not calling the type of body you choose 'man' or 'woman', but just title it 'body type'. And then from a male or female body type you can on this basis choose how to make your character.
I didn't write it down when watching the demo, but are they labelled 'male' and 'female' in there currently?
Weber: I think the way it is right now, we're not saying either. We're basically showing it to you and you choose which of the bodies you have as the basis to then go on and make the character.
Beyond the aesthetics, could you choose to have a different pronoun? Is that an option in the game?
Weber: I honestly don't know yet. What I can say was that it was a part of Cyberpunk 2020 but how exactly we'll do it in Cyberpunk 2077 I don't know yet. But it is definitely a thing we are aware of.
I know plenty of fans who would appreciate that, and after all, you have a main character with a name that doesn't specify any gender.
Weber: Well exactly. That's why we chose that name, because V works for male, works for female and we thought it would be a good option...
...for gender fluid as well?
Another big part of your character in the pen and paper game is the danger of developing cyberpsychosis, which is referenced in the demo. Is it a gameplay mechanic in 2077?
Weber: So I can definitely say it will be part of the world, part of the story... but as for how it will affect the player, I can't really say. In Cyberpunk 2020 it was a gameplay system and if you used too much cyberwear you could get cyberpsychosis which would essentially be Game Over for you. It can't really work like that in our game because it would be too frustrating if it was just 'Game Over'... I can't say how we're handling it yet but cyberpsychosis is definitely part of the game.
Do you have an answer but you're keeping it under wraps, or is it that you're still deciding how to implement it?
Weber: We have an answer for it but I think we're still in the phase where we're thinking how are the interesting ways to actually use it. We have an idea but, what are the avenues where the idea is convenient?
There are lots of futuristic video games which deal with dystopian futures and big corporations being the bad guy. Fewer deal with transhumanism. Where does Cyberpunk 2077's focus lie?
Weber: I think our game deals with both equally. Our Cyberpunk game has all of Night City, which is the place where Cyberpunk 2020 already took place so we want all of those things in there. All of those aspects are part of Cyberpunk so we can't ignore them. Cyberpunk as a genre has always been political, in terms of there being a few big people at the top and many many people on the bottom. And you are one of those people on the bottom. So for us it is important to have the corporations in the game, to talk about how they shape society and the future.
But the individual part is important to us too - how human you still are when you change your body. Look at the gang in the demo - whose entire goal is to lose their humanity and become machines. We're trying in every quest to have these themes and since you can always choose in the game how to deal with them, you can choose whether you want to fight the people on top or become more like them.
Another big part of the cyberpunk fantasy is netrunning - how far will you let players take that in the game?
Weber: We have the fluid class system for you to choose which skills you want, so you don't have to pick netrunner at the beginning but you can choose those skills from the skill tree. If you want tech skills as well you can have those. If you want to say 'well, I just want to play Cyberpunk as a netrunner' and you want to spend all your skills there, we want to design quests in a way that you feel like you're playing it as a netrunner. It won't be that instead of kicking open a door you hack it open instead, no. We're trying to make it interesting so the netrunner really has a different path.
The fantasy of the netrunner is they can almost use the net like magic. Of course, first you have to get into the network of wherever you are, but once you are in there you are in control. If there's a security facility - you don't need to be afraid of turrets, you can turn them on your enemies while you are back there sitting safe. So this way you can have that fantasy - but the important part is we don't want to get to a situation where we are saying 'the netrunner is the guy who cannot fight'. We want to give you as a netrunner interesting skills, so if there is combat you can use those skills in an interesting way.
How far do you want to allow people to take their skills in general?
Weber: Well in the pen and paper RPG there were people who would change their appearance so much they look like dragons. That would be something very difficult for us to do... but we try and go as far as possible. Like with the gang in the demo - you see people with whole limbs and body parts replaced, people who don't really look like humans at all.
You mentioned all of Night City being in the game - how do you add the kind of variety seen in The Witcher's fantasy world to a single city area?
Weber: The demo isn't the first quest in the game but it is near the start of the game which all takes place in the same part of the city, Watson. We want to lead you round the city and Watson is a multicultural district and the first quests start happening there before we lead you anywhere else. The city is open, so you could go wherever you want, but we want to give you this narrative line to follow so when you do branch out you know what some of the names and concepts are. It's a balance - for new players to enjoy it as well as fans of Cyberpunk 2020.
It is a cyberpunk city so the different districts are very different to each other. There are the multicultural parts, which feel like a completely different part to the corporate district with the grey sky-high buildings, or District Pacifica which is in ruins and run by gangs in the skeletons of buildings. The city is a realistic, big place but you also have an area around Night City... I can't talk in detail about what we want to do there and what it might look like but there are definitely areas of Cyberpunk where there's not buildings everywhere, there's not crowds, where maybe we can show somewhere different.
So when you get to the city's walls, or boundary, you can go beyond that?
Weber: You can still go a little... well, not a little, you can go some way further. Of course there are natural limits to it at some point but it's not just the city.