Soul & the New Machine
“Steal from the best, but admit you did it.”
As a veteran designer for both tabletop and digital games, this is the advice that Cyberpunk creator Mike Pondsmith offered new game designers during a recent interview with IGN. He expounded, saying that “You’re not going to invent it all yourself – you’re going to learn from other people.” While this is certainly excellent advice for newcomers to the world of game development (or just running their own tabletop RPG session), the idea also bolsters my faith in CD Projekt Red’s upcoming Cyberpunk 2077, and reminds me of how important it is that Cyberpunk 2020 (along with several other versions of the tabletop RPG) came before it.
Before any of you out there start foaming at the mouth, this doesn’t mean I’m calling either CDPR or Pondsmith and the R. Talsorian Games team plagiarists or imitators – they’ve all proven themselves time and again to be incredibly creative, original designers and have wonderfully unique games you can go play right now to prove it. What I mean, rather, is that CD Projekt’s ability to craft fascinating new stories in worlds with well-established lore (like that of The Witcher) is the perfect compliment to the Cyberpunk universe, which pulled many threads of its own world from a plethora of dystopian sci-fi. “The big trick I think Cyberpunk 2020 has done over the years,” Pondsmith says, “Is to have synthesized many different cyberpunk writers’ styles, many different articulations of cyberculture, into one place.”
It’s easy to see the influences of authors like William Gibson or Phillip K. Dick (though Pondsmith tells us he hadn’t read Gibson at the time he created the first version of Cyberpunk), or even directors like Ridley Scott and Paul Verhoeven, in the pages of the Cyberpunk 2020 rulebook (as well as the original Cyberpunk 2013 and subsequent Cyberpunk 203X). From the horrific socioeconomic breakdown of Night City to the dangers of cyberpsychosis, much of the narrative legwork has already been done for CDPR. Now, they just have to decide what story they want to tell – the workings of the universe, how everything fits together, has already been established for them.
“What I love about the [pen and paper game] is the reality of it,” said Pondsmith. “We didn’t just pull the ideas, concepts and technologies out of nowhere… For example, when we did cyberware, we sat down with a guy who was a neurosurgeon and said ‘How do we make this stuff work, how do we implant it? What’s the surgical procedure, what can we get away with?” The tabletop combat system, for example, is designed to mimic the frenetic pace and danger of a real-life gunfight – something that seems to have shifted mechanically in 2077 (I doubt players would want their characters going into shock after one hit), but that ultimately serves to inform the development team on how the combat in 2077 should feel.
It’s Cyberpunk, not Cyberpain
Having this sort of resource available in the TTRPG and Pondsmith himself, who spent several years developing video games for studios like Monolith and Microsoft, offers not just options to the 2077 team, but insight into what will and won’t work. “I could look at the issues that they were going to have to deal with making a video game as opposed to a paper game… things that were easy to describe in pen and paper that would be amazingly difficult to do in [a video game].”
The biggest hurdle, according to Pondsmith, will be capturing the spirit and the feel – not just the workings – of the world itself. Developers can create a world that’s incredibly complex when it comes to infrastructure or how technology works, but without the right spirit there’s nothing keeping it from becoming just another grim sci-fi dystopia. What makes Cyberpunk unique is right there in the title – the punk. “It isn’t all grim, dangerous and painful,” he says about the dark future he created for 2020. “There’s this sense of rebellion, and fighting back, of hell-raising that should come with that. That’s why it’s Cyberpunk not just Cyberpain.”
From what we’ve seen of Cyberpunk 2077, the spirit of the tabletop game is alive and well. It may not have packs of cannibalistic cosplayers roaming the streets, but it seems to be the most faithful adaptation of the source material possible. As Pondsmith himself said, “It’s pretty damn close to what I would have made myself, alone in a broom closet.”
JR is an editor at IGN who really loves tabletop RPGs. When he’s not rolling dice with his party, you can usually find him critically failing on Twitter.
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