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Cyberpunk's A 'Sandbox,' But What Does That Mean?

Digging For Facts

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Sanboxes are tricky things. I mean, the label’s shared by Grand Theft Auto, Skyrim, Just Cause 2, and Mount and Blade – among zillions of others – but it means very different things in all of those cases. I was recently informed that it can also refer to a box full of sand, which isn’t a videogame at all but instead some kind of devilishly effective trap for children. So when CD Projekt Red started throwing the phrase around in relation to the decidedly de-witched Cyberpunk 2077, I couldn’t help but wonder exactly what it meant. Fortunately, CDP detected the fluctuation in my neural implant and acted accordingly. By which I mean it answered my question – and also filled in a few blanks about the magnitude of Cyberpunk’s choices, how close it’ll come to exploring real-life issues, and whether all that snazzy art’s actually indicative of the final product.

“We meant that in terms of open-world, basically,” CD Projekt’s Agnieszka Szostak told RPS. “But we won’t just throw you in the open world and let go of the storytelling. The story and creating the main plot will still be very, very important for us. But the sandbox environment means that actually you won’t be limited to this particular story. You’ll just be able to enjoy the world all around you. Which is really, really challenging, because it’s very difficult to find the proper balance between the very immersive story we try to tell, the world we try to create, and the freedom we want to give gamers.”

“But this is actually something that’s very connected to the whole Cyberpunk universe. If we go 50-plus years from now, you’d want to be able to delve really deeply into some strange and unique places. The challenge for us is to first find a balance and then to create an environment that won’t see you lose the main plot if you decide to leave it for a couple hours.”

By its very nature, that sort of thing could also turn CDP-style choices into a tough nut to crack. After all, The Witcher 2’s defining moment involved a major shift in location. But how do you one-up something of that significance when the player can see all the sights at their leisure? It’s another difficult balancing act, but – while everything’s not nailed down enough to discuss in terms of specifics just yet – CDP doesn’t plan to let choice take a backseat to a shiny, neon-bathed new setting. Or, in short: Sorry, Geralt. The Future scoffs at your silly problems.

“In terms of how difficult they’ll be or what impact they’ll have, I can definitely tell you that we won’t go any lower than The Witcher,” said Szostak. “We want to go even deeper. We want to make it even more real. In The Witcher, we didn’t have any black and whites. Only gray areas. That’s exactly how life works. And if we’re going to do a game for adult gamers, they can’t feel like, ‘OK, the only decision to make it kill the babies or save the babies.’ It’s way more complex than that.”

Much of this, Szostak noted, stems from the fact that Cyberpunk’s nearish future setting links it pretty closely to social and technological issues we’re beginning to encounter in our day-to-day lives. That, she pointed out, is the result of a very deliberate decision on CDP’s part.

“On one hand, 50-ish years ahead seems like quite a long time,” she admitted. “But at the same time, I’m in my 30s. I might not exactly be able to make it to 2077. But still, lots and lots of large corporations are actually planning for that point. So it’s still a future that you can relate to. You can imagine what it might look like while keeping in mind that 20 years ago, there was no Internet. Ten years ago, there were no smart phones. So we can be very creative with how technology evolves. But again, the challenge is to not push it too far. It still needs to be believable.”

“The whole setting is based on a point where technology is both a blessing and a curse. Since we’re trying to create a game for adult gamers, there will definitely be lots of choices and lots of social problems we’re actually encountering right now in our everyday lives.It’s still a game, but our goal with every project we have is to make it very, very believable. And maybe we don’t have these exact problems right now in 2012, but maybe you can see the beginnings of it right now. And then, 50-or-so years from now, they might actually explode and be brought to the point where they are in Cyberpunk.”

All of which sounds quite promising, but there’s still one thing missing from this whole equation: the, er, game itself. We know a fair deal, but we’ve seen very little. So of course, I asked the most insightful interview question to ever spring forth from the minds of men: “Will it have graphics?”

“It will have its own unique look,” said Szostak. “It’s not The Witcher. It’s a different setting, so we’re taking a completely different approach in terms of the artistic concept. We’re lucky enough to have a really talented art director. That means we have a really precise vision of the game from the beginning. So it’s not just like, ‘OK, let’s post this random art [online] because it’s cool. We’ll never, ever use it in the game. It’s just a marketing asset.’ That’s totally not us. We really know exactly what we want to achieve and how the game should look.”

“This particular art will have references within the game. We’ll be revealing more assets and art, and eventually renders going further into the development process. But you’ll be able to say you saw this art several years before [the game came out], and it has its place in the game.”

So I’m going to take that as a “yes,” then.

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Nathan Grayson

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