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“It’s an RPG before it’s a shooter”: CD Projekt Red’s Patrick Mills on Cyberpunk 2077’s FPS perspective, political storytelling, and tabletop inspirations

When CD Projekt Red announced back in 2012 that it was working on a Cyberpunk game based on Mike Pondsmith’s popular pen and paper role-playing game, and that it was working in collaboration with the man himself, imaginations ran wild just thinking about how this game would look when brought to life. After all, for years the world of Cyberpunk had only lived inside our heads. That was until early the following year when we got our first glimpse with a short pre-rendered teaser trailer. And what a tease it was. There were a few nods to the Cyberpunk universe, with Dynalar Technologies, the Kiroshi corporation, Militech and Max Tac agents, but that was it. It ended with the agonising words “Coming: when it’s ready” letting us know that it’d be quite some time before we’d see more. 

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Fast forward five years to Microsoft’s 2018 E3 conference and we get another pre-rendered trailer. This time going into much more depth than before, with a sweeping shot of Night City, its people going about their lives, one of the vehicles you’ll be able to drive and even a version of the main character. Now that fans and onlookers have been given a better look at Cyberpunk 2077, OXM chatted to CD Project Red’s Quest Designer Patrick Mills (who also worked on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt) about some of the finer details of the studio’s grandstanding, hugely ambitious RPG, and what to expect once we finally get our hands on it...

What’s been the reaction to the trailer you showed at Microsoft’s E3 press conference? And how have you been able to gauge that?

We’ve been watching things like Twitter and read some of the stuff people have written, and people really seem to be into it. It’s very exciting to see. There might have been some initial surprise that the city was more vibrant and alive than some were expecting from our first teaser trailer. But what I’ll say about that is that we started with that aesthetic,then branched out from there. That’s still in the game though, we’ve got a day/night cycle and a weather system, so you’ll still get to see those dark and rainy streets. 

There has been concern from some quarters about the idea of being able to create a fully customisable character, but then having them stuck behind a first-person perspective. How would you put those concerns at ease? 

There’s a lot of things we get from first- person, and part of it is being closer to the character and to feel like you’re inhabiting that character. But at the same time I would also say this: go play a third-person game, go play The Witcher, and look up. Just try to look straight up. You’ll find that the [immersion] never really works. It never feels like you are looking up. It feels like you’re moving a camera around. In [Cyberpunk 2077] we really want you to be able to walk around Night City and look up and see those skyscrapers made of concrete, glass and steel. To feel like you’re in this canyon, this jungle and that it’s eating you alive. That’s only possible in first person. 

But in terms of being able to make your own character, most first-person shooters don’t feel the need to do that. Why introduce such a robust system if you’re not actually going to see much of that character? 

Well, it’s an RPG. It’s an RPG before it’s a shooter. And it’s really about making a character and inhabiting that character and living in this world and making choices from not just the point of view of that character but also of yourself. With The Witcher, you had Geralt, and Geralt had history. He had decades of books, games, comics and even a television series, with a new one on the way, and it was about guiding him through his story. But with this, we want it to be your story. So really, putting you in first person is the only way to do that. 

You’ve mentioned before that this will be a mature game. What can we expect beyond simply nudity and violence? For example, will there be political themes or social commentary

Cyberpunk 2077 is a game about people with power at the top and people at the bottom with none. That power can come from money, hierarchies, technology and violence. The original Cyberpunk 2020 setting, like the setting of The Witcher stories, was a complex critique of the author’s world, and we don’t shy away from that in our games. On the contrary I think it’s one of the things that sets us apart. Of course, to us, mature doesn’t mean just sex and violence. We will try to engage you on multiple levels, not just the visceral, but also the intellectual. Cyberpunk is an inherently political genre and it’s an inherently political franchise. It’s a place that is very critical of the world in which we live, in interesting and complex ways and we hope we can get that across. 

What has it been like working with Cyberpunk creator Mike Pondsmith, and has it been a daunting experience to work with such a beloved universe? 

Just the other day we were talking to Mike about how even tabletop role-playing games were always a collaborative process. It’s the DM, or in Cyberpunk terms the referee, who sets the stage and then the players participate in the story. Building this with Mike Pondsmith has been similar. He sets the stage with his original Cyberpunk 2020 stuff, and we are not afraid to change that or to modify it and to update that story in some ways and to make it our story as well. 

Of course Cyberpunk 2077 is an adaptation of Mike Pondsmith’s universe, but were there any other influences? When you think of cyberpunk you can’t help but think of, among others, the stories and novels of William Gibson and Philip K Dick, or films like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and its recent sequel. 

Oh yes, of course. We draw in inspiration as much as we can. We don’t even limit ourselves just to the cyberpunk genre. Something as simple as an album title has been enough to inspire us to create whole quest lines. When simply looking at a great turn of phrase, we often ask ourselves “How can we examine that idea and turn it into a quest?”

In some games when you’re offered to make a choice during a mission the narrative can sometimes bottleneck towards the end of it and your actions actually end up meaning very little. In the demo we took a particular path during the mission with the Maelstrom gang and were told that this could have gone differently. How do your decisions impact the game? 

What we like to do, and you see this even in Witcher 3’s quest design, particularly in the expansions, is we developed the philosophy that if it’s logical for you to be able to do something in a different way, or in a different order, then not only should you be able to do that but the quest should respond to it as well. Some of those changes are minor. In the demo you saw that you could go visit the Ripperdock before visiting [Fixer] Dex, or vice versa. That doesn’t have a lasting difference, however it does change your dialogue when talking to Jackie. But other things could change. If you go in guns blazing in the gang’s hideout things can turn out very differently. If you don’t visit the Militech agent first, you have very different options when you approach their hideout. There will be big changes and little changes. 

How far do you think we are as a society from the kind of future we see in your game? 

"Something as simple as an album title has been enough to inspire us to create whole quest lines."

Patrick Mills

Cyberpunk 2077 is about a world where a vanishingly small number of ultra-rich individuals at the top of intractable corporate power structures reign over a disintegrating world where the vast majority of the population lives in an endless cycle of poverty and violence. How different that is from our world depends a lot on your own perspective, I suppose. 

Will we see the return of any familiar characters and can you talk about any of the other com panions that you’ll have within the game?

We’ll reveal more details about the characters in our game at a later time, but there’s already some hints and clues floating out there for careful observers of our trailer!

This feature originally appeared in Official Xbox Magazine. Pick up a copy now or subscribe so you never miss an issue.