Cyberpunk’s creator on helping CD Projekt Red stay true to the genre’s real meaning

During my conversation with Mike Pondsmith, two people ask him to sign artwork from the Cyberpunk pen and paper game that he created. He tells me “it never stops being weird”, the fact that people want his autograph, but he gets it. Cyberpunk is cool, it’s rebellion, it’s sticking an augmented finger to the system. And it’s not just an aesthetic.

“At core, unless you have the meaning behind the black leather and the neon, you lose what cyberpunk is. That’s the problem with getting Cyberpunk made as a videogame; people don’t get it. They think it’s about action heroes quipping as they take down corporations.” Over the years, Pondsmith has made deals with companies to bring Cyberpunk to PC but says he’s glad that those deals “crashed” because now the real deal has arrived. CD Projekt Red, the studio behind The Witcher and upcoming Cyberpunk 2077, “get it”. “They’re actual fans and they know stuff about Cyberpunk that I’ve forgotten.”

The future’s looking bright then, even through the obligatory shades.

If I could have one person running an RPG campaign for me and my friends, it’d be Mike Pondsmith. He’s been living and breathing this stuff for years, and he’s a born storyteller. At one point, I mentioned that I’d been told he owned a lot of guns and he explained that he liked to fire guns because it’s important to know how they feel when figuring out combat mechanics. The guns, like the many books that he owns, are part of a library of information to be translated into world-building and systemic game design.

But they’re also weapons, and they’re not the only ones in the Pondsmith home.

“I wanted a house that was hard to find. On the web and in life, I don’t like to be traceable, so I wanted a place that people couldn’t look up very easily. It’s in the woods, you won’t find it on Google Streetview, and nobody has any reason to come by unless they know I’m there.

“One day I looked out of the window early in the morning and there was this guy out front. I kept an eye on him and he wasn’t moving. I didn’t know him so I figure he has no good reason to be here, so I got hold of a katana…”

We’d been talking for long enough at this point that the casual katana barely registered. Of course Mike Pondsmith would have a katana close at hand in case of intruders, I thought. The day I met him he had a Millennium Falcon stud through his ear. The day before there had been another favoured pop culture reference hanging from the lobe. Like Cyberpunk itself, Pondsmith is nerdy as heck but shot through with a slightly unhinged sense of cool that he carries well, even though his particular cool is either very forward-looking or a couple of decades out of date. In conversation, he’s part professor, part excitable enthusiast. He laughs a lot, often at his own lines, but is serious and sincere behind that.

He’d be a great person to have around an RPG table so, yeah, if I could have one person running an RPG campaign for me and my friends, it’d be Mike Pondsmith. But if I had to fight one RPG designer with a katana, it would be just about anybody else.

“I didn’t have to use it but I was prepared to,” he says when I ask how the encounter ended. “He had just got back from a tour in Afghanistan and had somehow managed to look me up online and wanted to tell me how he and some of the other guys had played Cyberpunk out there, and how much it meant to him.”

One of the stories I shared with Pondsmith was far more mundane but it helped me to get to the heart of what Cyberpunk means to him. We met at Gamelab in Barcelona and a couple of weeks earlier, right before E3, my phone had died. I had to buy a replacement in the airport before the flight out to Los Angeles and anyone who has been on the verge of a long trip and finds themselves suddenly without their most-treasured gadget can no doubt sympathise. Without it, I didn’t have access to maps, hotel details, contact numbers and emails for appointments, or even the boarding pass for my flight. It’s only when I’m suddenly without a phone that I realise how much I need it.

I mentioned this to Pondsmith as we were talking about anxieties around reliance on technology and I used my former phone as a convenient example.

“But what did you do?” He asked.

“I bought a new phone. I had to.”

“That’s cyberpunk. It’s not just about the tech, it’s about the ubiquity of the tech. If augmentations are rare, if they make the people who have them special, that’s not cyberpunk. It has to be street level. It has to be everywhere and available to almost everyone.”

The phone anecdote might have triggered this central idea about cyberpunk, but before we dug into body horror, the ubiquity of tech, and real world social and political parallels, we spent some time discussing exactly what CD Projekt Red are doing with Pondsmith’s fictional future, and how he’s contributing to the game.

“What happened was, around four years ago they called us up and I’d never heard of them. I was imagining a tiny studio out in Poland that had done very little, and then I looked at The Witcher 2 and thought, “Wow. This is good. This is really good.” So I flew out to see them and realised they were genuine fans of Cyberpunk. What they didn’t realise is that I’ve worked in design on the videogame side as well as tabletop

“At the beginning of the project, I talked to them a lot, every week. For a long time they didn’t realise I’d worked in digital, but I’ve been doing pen and paper for 20 years and digital for fifteen. When I was explaining Cyberpunk to them, I was explaining the mechanics in a way that they understood and that helped them to realise I could contribute more to the actual design.

“Now I do a lot more meta-talk to the whole team, to make sure that they get the gag and they know what the touchstones are. From there I got involved more in actual gameplay mechanics; what can we get away with. We had a discussion at one point, for example, about flying cars. I have them in cyberpunk because they are a fast and efficient way of getting characters from one end of a ruined city to another. And trauma teams are there because we don’t have clerics.

“But what happens to these things in a digital, three- dimensional environment. Flying cars are cool but they’re not there for flying car gun fights. It’s not their place in the world. They’re a convenience in the design and like so many things in Cyberpunk they have a mechanical function rather than just being there because they’re cool.

“So a lot of the conversations we’ve had on the team are not “can we do this?” We can do just about anything. Instead, it’s me explaining why I did it in pen and paper, and then we figure out if we need it again, and whether it serves a different purpose in a videogame. I know why flying cars are there in the original but that’s not necessarily the same functionality we need in 2077. Everything is taken apart in terms of what it does to the game, how it differs from tabletop, and getting the right feel.”

It was news to me that Pondsmith was having this kind of input on Cyberpunk 2077, alongside his work on a new iteration of the tabletop game. The new pen and paper version, coincidentally codenamed Cyberpunk Red before any contact with CD Projekt Red had occurred, will be set in 2020, decades earlier in the timeframe. Because the two games are in the same continuity, there’s a back and forth about narrative aspects that need to match in a credible way. Pondsmith has had to tell the 2077 devs that certain characters they might want to use will be dead and forgotten by the time their story begins, although he smiles, saying “I do have ways to bring some of them back”.

But the tone and meaning of Cyberpunk 2077 is harder to capture than the specifics of individual characters.

“One of the things I love about cyberpunk as a genre is that there is a romanticism to it. There’s a sincerity. Even now, cities are romantic. Me and my wife were staring out over the chasm of the city one night and seeing the neon and hearing the sirens, and when you’re there, you’re aware of this whole manic aspect living underneath you. The addition of these new technologies just gives it a bigger impact.

“It’s about more than big guns and leather jackets. Walter Jon Williams wrote the book that really got me into this, Hardwired. It’s total whack-out fable of doomed romance against desperate stupid odds. You know it’s not going to work but you really hope that it does, and that’s what cyberpunk is all about.

“It’s constantly evolving though, as a genre and I don’t feel any ownership of it. Take Ghost in the Shell. The new movie is not Standalone Complex, which is not the original Ghost in the Shell. Then there’s something like Appleseed, which is what we will get if we manage to survive what’s going on in Ghost. They’re different kinds of cyberpunk – a lot of the Japanese works have made me feel more about what defines it. Believable technology and a callous universe of people more powerful than you who are so powerful they’re faceless. It’s about fighting for your piece of ground so you can have a life. Cyberpunk heroes aren’t trying to save the world, they’re trying to save themselves.”

I’m interested in the idea of faceless villains, though I’m not entirely sure ‘villains’ is the right word. Pondsmith uses Blade Runner as an example.

“We never see the face of power in Blade Runner. Instead, we see an errand boy, Gaff, but we never see the top level. And Deckard doesn’t think about what he’s doing, he doesn’t really question it. Some power that is tells him to kill replicants, who might well essentially be people, but the whole point when he leaves with Rachel is that he doesn’t save the replicants. He saves Rachel and goes away. That’s not a hero’s tale. That’s somebody saving his skin and the skin of someone he cares about, but it’s very cyberpunk. That idea of feeling that the chance that we have with each other, and the chance of a better life, is worth incurring the wrath of these unseen and mighty powers.”

But Blade Runner’s cyberpunk isn’t Pondsmith’s Cyberpunk. He likes Blade Runner though, which is more than can be said for a lot of the sci-fi movies we end up discussing. He likes internal consistency, particularly when it comes to tech and the ideas behind that tech, and it’s something he thinks writers often sacrifice for a thematic punch, or to move a plot. When it comes to games, he’s critical of Deus Ex, though not so much because of any specific aspect, but rather, I think, because it’s worryingly close to the game Cyberpunk might have become in the wrong hands.

“I like a lot of the things that are going on there but the main characters are special because of the technology so it’s very far from street-level cyberpunk. The tech shouldn’t make you a hero, it should just be a part of ordinary life.”

This bring us back to my dead phone and the ubiquity of technologies that were so recently unimaginably powerful.

“If you lose your phone, or it dies, then you just replace it.” Pondsmith says, waving around his own smartphone, which is currently pinging him real-time information about seismic activity somewhere in South America. “I’m plugged into the planet with this thing. That’s how amazing it is, but the tech is everywhere. It took me about an hour at most to re-establish everything that had been on my old phone on this one when I bought it. Information and preferences are easily transferable.”

I think there’s a deeper issue though: even if I can replace the phone, I don’t control the networks and the satellites that allow the phone to operate. So much of the power isn’t in the phone, it’s in the access that the phone has, and that is not replaceable. Not by me at any rate. If my provider cuts me off from data and telecommunications networks, I own a very expensive brick that can play match-3 games.

“Think of it in the context of net neutrality, which is really about corporations not wanting people to have access to other people. Within six to eight years of net neutrality crashing and burning, if that happens, we’ll end up with an alternate net. You might not be able to build it yourself, but somebody will create it and provide ways for you to access it. The upshot of the ubiquity isn’t just that you can buy a thing or access it through official channels, it’s that when those official channels are taken away, or censored or throttled or controlled, somebody will always replace them. People will make alternate forms. It even happens with currency. Look at Bitcoin; it’s money that the government doesn’t necessarily control.“

To build his vision of the future, Pondsmith has absorbed knowledge about technology, futurism, politics, social trends, fashion, geology, and just about any other topic you might care to mention. A designer’s library, he says, should be deep and broad.

“We’re just having two new bookcases into the bedroom, which will mean every wall contains books, and that’s on top of an entire room devoted to books downstairs, and the ones stored in the office. It’s paleontology, a hobby of mine, to human history and everything in between. Part of the reading is building knowledge, but it’s about trying to get a sense of the zeitgeist: what is going on, what is visible, what will give us certain outcomes.”

I asked if finding the zeitgeist had become easier now that there’s so much data to dig through, or if all the noise made finding a clear signal harder than it had been in the eighties, before information clogged the air that we breathe.

“What you have to do is go outside your bubbles. The more dataflow you can stand in, the more you can learn. I hit reddit and twitter, and do a lot of lurking. There are only three places where I let people know who I am, mainly so that I can get a reaction from fans and people who are interested in our work. I can learn a lot by going to a store, looking at the magazines people are reading. I can learn a million things by visiting a toy store. These are the ideas the next generation will grow up with.

“The internet is important too, of course. I spend a lot of time trawling for information, checking things and going down rabbit holes. But you expose yourself to a lot of terrible things as well as wonderful things out there. I had a really nice young woman who was my social media person and she almost had a breakdown dealing with it. The biggest advantage you can have out there is to be unflappable. That helps. The most horrible voices are usually the loudest because they have no other place to yell.”

All of that noise, the yelling and the disenfranchisement included, often seems symptomatic of a peculiarly modern mania. Does Cyberpunk have to reflect the times we live in, and the geopolitical changes from one edition to the next?

“Cyberpunk Red has an entire bunch of sections that say ‘2020 is closer than you think’. I talk about ramifications of what we are doing now. This is my son’s reality and future, and unless we start straightening our shit out, it’s not going to be pretty. There is a strong political undercurrent in Cyberpunk, but the biggest message is simple: if you want a future you have to take it into your own hands and realise that nobody else will build it for you. That may involve political action, hacking, or picking up a gun. But the future doesn’t come out how you want it unless you make that change.”

Another central tenet of Cyberpunk, Pondsmith tells me, is that “even if a cause is doomed, you need to fight for it”. Indeed, the Cyberpunk world is full of people striking against what they see as misuse and abuse of power, whether in the form of ecoterrorism or anti-corp hacks and assaults. The line between freedom fighter, survivor and terrorist is blurred.

“There are some eerie parallels in things I’ve written about terrorist attacks and situations in the real world, but if you follow the trends as you write about the future you’re probably going to end up a place that is sometimes painfully familiar. But Cyberpunk is a parallel future rather than a prediction of our future. Terrorism comes about when you have people who want to fight someone but don’t have the means to fight them except through these acts. These situations aren’t new – they could reflect 19th century India, mid-20th century Europe or 21st century America.”

But whether these futures are parallel or predictive, Pondsmith doesn’t think we’re far from our very own cyberpunk lifestyle.

“The thing of it for me is that it all boils down to people and how they use tech. It boils down to tool-use and that is the extension that makes us kind of meta-creatures. You remember things on a much larger level because you have memory devices. At any minute you can get a story and translate it into five languages, then throw graphics behind it. You have access to these insane tools.

“Part of what’s happening now is that these tools are becoming accessible to more and more people; across history, powerful creative tools have been the promise of the very few, like the printing press and even paper and ink. Benjamin Franklin said “the power of the press belongs to those who own one”. Well, a whole lot of us own things more powerful than the printing press now.”

But how far away is a device transmitting information and providing access to tools from actual body augmentation?

“Body horror creates an interesting cultural sliding point. Once we get over the body horror aspect though, we’ll be happy to have it all built-in as long as, once again, it’s easy to repair or replace. One of the things about the cyberpunk culture is that we’re not going to get man-machines because we want to turn ourselves into robots; not in terms of jumping fifty feet in the air or punching through a wall. It’ll happen because we want more choices, more knowledge and more access.”

So no bionic arms then?

“I didn’t say that, but I certainly wouldn’t be first in line. My kids might though. The idea that I’m going to cut my arm off all the way to the elbow and replace it with metal is…” he shudders. “But the tipping point is already gone. Old people have artificial hips, my mother had surgery to remove cataracts and now her vision is better than it was before the cataracts.

“Eventually the transgressive nature will be reduced. An entire new thing right now is 3d printing to build prostheses for kids that lack limbs. Well, somebody who has a silver-chrome cyberlimb like [Cyberpunk character] Johnny Silverhand might tempt some kid who isn’t missing a limb to have their hand removed just so they can have a better one. Like Johnny’s. At some point, when that process is easy to do, it won’t seem like such a big deal.”

Pondsmith introduces me to Aimee Mullins, through the medium of a TED talk rather than in person. I’ll leave you with that excellent talk, but first a word about a familiar character.

“I think Geralt is a little bit cyberpunk and I hope we can sneak something in 2077 that relates to him without the fans immediately catching on. He does what he needs to do, he doesn’t necessarily get any joy out of it – he just makes sure that what needs to go down does go down. It’s a combination of fatalism and romanticism. That’s cyberpunk.”

54 Comments

  1. BlackeyeVuk says:

    I had to double check the article, had serious deja vu from pictures.

  2. bigmagnet says:

    Great chat, excited to see what him and Projekt Red can make together.

  3. Jokerme says:

    Great interview. Thanks for this.

  4. Wulfram says:

    Ah, Cyberpunk the RPG’s creator. For a moment I thought you meant William Gibson.

    • Daymare says:

      Me, too!

      Oh Neuromancer. I read it so many times.

    • Cederic says:

      He’s a genuinely interesting person in his own right though. I love that someone like this exists. I’m somehow appalled that he’s putting his time into writing games when the world could benefit from his input into so many areas and also delighted that he’s found a creative outlet that keeps himself engaged, employed and (from the sounds of it) happy.

      I’m currently 119 hours into The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and find the maturity of the game and its writing way beyond almost everything that’s preceded it, so taking that talent, merging it with this chap and putting it into a cyberpunk future? That’s my suicide deferred for another year..

  5. LexW1 says:

    This is an amazing interview, and Mike Pondsmith is a truly great guy, and yes, certainly in the top two “people I would want running an RPG I played in” (along with Robin D. Laws – both of them wrote stellar books on GMing, too).

    BUT…

    I am not sure he is the best guy to define what “cyberpunk” THE GENRE is, because Cyberpunk 2020, and I say this with love, and having run and played it from about 1991 to 2004, is not all that “cyberpunk”, in the sense of the genre.

    The key deviation is one Mike mentions in the interview – romanticism. CP2020 is absolutely romantic, all of Mike’s best RPGs are. Cyberpunk, the genre, is not, generally-speaking, terribly romantic. I remember in his book on GMing CP2020 (or in another work, but I think it was that), he listed influences and particularly films that represented CP2020 to him, and the number one influence seemed to be Streets of Fire, a film probably no-one here has ever seen, being a flop from 1984.

    I sought it out, and it is amazing on a certain level – it was billed as a “rock and roll fable”, and it absolutely is. And it’s as romantic as they come, and it’s absolutely in-tune with CP2020. It also has a lot of famous actors early in their careers.

    But is it cyberpunk, in the genre sense? Nope. It doesn’t even have science-fiction elements beyond that it’s set in a vague 1950s/1980s comic-book-ish mash-up. It’s “urban romance” (in the way that “planetary romance” is a genre) or something like that – and that’s kind of the problem with CP2020, and the reason, I think, that people often claimed Shadowrun was “more cyberpunk” than CP2020, despite being full of elves, dragons and magic. Because fundamentally, CP2020 was a highly romantic game with a sort of overlay of cyberpunk elements, but which wasn’t really committed to the darker, harsher side of the genre. It had evil corporations and body horror, sure, but they were just there to inconvenience the romantic, striving heroes. Perhaps Cyber Opera, in the sense of Space Opera? That’s more like what the genre of CP2020 was. We loved it. Let’s be clear on that! It was more FUN than “actual” cyberpunk, genre-wise.

    This is even more clearly shown in the first sequel to CP2020, Cybergeneration, but I could be here all day.

    Anyway Mike Pondsmith – amazing GM, amazing game writer, great human being, likely will vastly improve CP2020 and make sure they really do make an amazing game – but not the first guy I’d ask to define the genre “cyberpunk”.

    • LaundroMat says:

      This.

      It’s strange that Neuromancer isn’t mentioned in the interview as that book has defined cyberpunk in a cultural and literary sense.

      Romance is part of the deal, but not a central tenet of the genre. Cyberpunk is postmodern science-fiction:
      – sci-fi because it introduces a novum (a plausible novelty) that acts as a shaping force of world, story, etc. Here, it’s the Darwinian exponential advancement of technology and it’s effect on the world (society, economics, culture, …);
      – Neuromancer mixes and parodies styles (noir, pulp, high literature, …), does not guide the reader at all and plays with layers of truth and reality (Wintermute, the meshing of the matrix with the physical world, …)

      I’ve always had a boon for Shadowrun; although I didn’t like the fantasy elements, in spirit it had a lot more in common with cyberpunk as it was canonised by Neuromancer than other genre-RPGs.

      The latter (and I count CP among them) are like the space opera’s of classic sci-fi: if done right, they can be great adventures to read/play, but they will never be game-changing works of art.

      So: very interested in what it’ll turn out to be, but I will not be expecting a game true to what cyberpunk stands for.

    • hamburger_cheesedoodle says:

      I don’t have a lot of substance to add here, I just found this comment to be exceptional insightful and interesting to the point where I thought you deserved to know.

    • LearningToSmile says:

      Cyberpunk sure has a huge army of wannabe gatekeepers, and yet somehow every single one of them has a different idea of the core element that makes something TRUE REAL CYBERPUNK.

      Comes with a name, I guess, because punk music has a similar problem.

      • batraz says:

        Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox once said something like “my idea of punk doesn’t include what others think it is”. I’m not sure it works for cyberpunk though, since the “cyber” element already clashes against the “punk” element. A geek can’t really be a punk, right ?

      • LexW1 says:

        I think you’ve profoundly missed the point in your desperate rush towards snark (eyerolling so hard at “wannabe gatekeepers”), because the point is that there IS no “core element” that makes stuff “REAL TRUE CYBERPUNK” as you somewhat-ridiculously put it.

        So telling me that I’m doing that is serious misreading of what I’m saying. I love CP2020 partly for how it differs from the colder, less humane, greater body of cyberpunk works. I think it’s totally fair to say that it deviates so significantly from the body of cyberpunk – all literary cyberpunk, certainly – that it’s more it’s own genre than reflective of the genre as a whole. This is hardly some sort of “renegade” or “extreme” opinion. It was both a selling point and a mark against CP2020 back in the 1990s, depending on who you talked to.

        This has nothing to do with a specific “core element” or “TRUE REAL CYBERPUNK” – it’s just if you deviate enough, repeatedly, in a sustained way, from a fairly well-established genre, even one as relatively broad as cyberpunk, you end up in a potentially unusual place, and you certainly would get an unusual definition of the genre “cyberpunk”, if you assumed CP2020 was very representative of it – in fact I think you’d find most well-established “cyberpunk” works have very little in common with CP2020 beyond the aesthetic.

      • Sound says:

        The gatekeeper critique is nonsense. This entire article is precisely about exploring and honing the (potential)themes of Cyberpunk. To discuss any kind of thematics in a critical sense *requires* drawing lines and making binary pronouncements.

        What we are NOT doing is saying, “Past this line, it should not be made, nor enjoyed, nor included in the club.” From the standpoint of making an awesome Cyberpunk-themed product, it does not matter whether it’s center is perfectly accurately aligned. But regardless we’re discussing what that alignment might be. Because we love it, we love talking about it, and we love sussing out what makes us love it.

        These critical discussions aren’t an act of censorship, they’re an act of love.

        Sheesh.

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      Phasma Felis says:

      I dunno, it kinda depends. I’m not sure I’d say romanticism is a vital ingredient of cyberpunk, but tarnished and drowning idealism kind of is, and it’s a pretty short step from there. In the article, he mentions Walter John Williams’ Hardwired, which IMO is a much a seminal cyberpunk work as Neuromancer, and Hardwired is largely about a guy who runs contraband across the balkanized US in his panzer hovertank not for just for the money or the thrill, but because he yearns to recapture the spirit of American freedom that he mostly knows from movies, and to share it if he can. That kind of doom-laden romance is very cyberpunk to me.

      • LexW1 says:

        Oh I don’t disagree re: tarnished or distorted idealism, but I think the issue is that with CP2020, the cynicism and realism that tarnishes and tempers that idealism in much of literary cyberpunk, is sort of transmogrified into straight-up wailing guitars, motorbike-through-the-church-window with your girlfriend on the back, both wearing sunglasses at night, steering with one hand, somehow firing a pump-action shotgun repeatedly with the other-type romantic action, replete with speeding off into the sunset after dispatching the mustache-twirling corporate badguys (because the corps, somewhat inexplicably, don’t seem to control the world outside the cities much, if at all).

        I feel like the spirit of CP2020 has more in common with, say, The Prisoner of Zenda, than, to use an easy reference, Neuromancer.

        This is not really a bad thing, either, for an RPG particularly, because it makes the potentially-depressing setting and so on rather less depressing in practice, and gives CP2020 a sort of winking roguish charm not shared by most other cyberpunk works.

        I mean, I’m not saying it’s “not cyberpunk”, either, just that it’s quite unusual cyberpunk, that it’s swung waaaaaaay out on the edge of the genre, in a region often inhabited by games/settings merely said to have “cyberpunk elements”.

  6. baseless_drivel says:

    Fantastic interview, but if you didn’t ask him what he thought about steampunk, frostpunk, and cablepunk, then I feel like it’s a bit of a missed opportunity.

    At some point, I fully expect gamers to mash up “roguelike” and “cyberpunk” into “roguepunk” to possibly create a new word that retains even less meaning than its original components.

    • Cederic says:

      Oh wow! Ok, I’ll sign up to playing some roguepunk.

      Make up another one! What’s another new hybrid genre that will be dominating in 24 months time?

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        steves says:

        Anime dating sim + survival horror. With zombies of course. Anime zombies.

        Just thought of the two things I had the least interest in, and…no, it won’t work. Someone prove me wrong.

        • LearningToSmile says:

          I’m about 99% sure it already exists.

          Survival horror + dating sim definitely(well, as understood in the west meaning visual novels), just not sure there’s stuff with zombies included. Probably is, though.

          • elevown says:

            It does- Dead But Alive! Southern England- by winterwolves :)
            It’s a survival sim (zombies)/ dating sim – though not quite ‘anime’ since it’s not a Japanese dev the art is western style.

            link to winterwolves.com

        • Cederic says:

          No, it only works if you create a portmanteau of the genres.

          Anibies and Zombiesim aren’t really working.

          Mind, Zombie Dating would sell.

        • jomurph86 says:

          Already done: Aching Dreams 3. Though its anime dating, zombie survival… in Spaaaaaaace.

          And nudity.

    • thekelvingreen says:

      I’m looking forward to some Soulspunk.

      Er…

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      teije says:

      Cablepunk is a new one to me. Also, some great comments on this article from folks – appreciated.

  7. Dawngreeter says:

    CP2020 was probably the most important RPG in my formative years and I love it dearly. I still know lyrics to some of the Johnny Silverhand songs by heart.

    But I’d also like to point out that Maximum Mike hasn’t really proven to be all that capable of living up to the hype in decades after it came out. Cybergeneration wasn’t very good and CP203X was just simply bad with no redeeming qualities at all (it also had a virus, yes a virus and not a bacteria, that eats paper so now that all paper is gone collective humanity doesn’t know what year it is…).

    I hope what he’s building with CD Projekt Red is going to be mainly CP2020 inspired and play the 80’s futurism angle.

    • LexW1 says:

      I would agree with your criticisms of Cybergeneration and CPV3.0, but I would personally say I felt like the problems with those were specifically because he was trying to go post-cyberpunk, trying to move on from a vaguely cyberpunk milieu to something different. Cybergeneration was fascinating on a certain level, but more as a reflection of American culture and sub-culture than an actual, playable game that made any damn sense. The whole separation of kids into these elaborate tribes was largely unexplained and very unconvincing. CPV3 was just a mess, but it was an attempt at a real post-cyberpunk setting. The trouble is, most literary post-cyberpunk is barely game-able, if at all, because it strongly tends towards the bizarre and hallucinatory (c.f. The Diamond Age or anything by Jeff Noon).

      But I feel like Altered Carbon (2002 but only really becoming widely known more recently – Netflix is apparently working on a series, but it seems to be in development hell) signalled a return from the high-weirdness of post-cyberpunk stuff to a sort of “new cyberpunk”, or post-post-cyberpunk, and in gaming we’ve seen a lot of stuff that’s reflected that, whether it’s the newer Deus Ex games, or a lot of indies, and I suspect CP2077 will be riding that wave and the infinite, unending wave of 1980s aesthetic-nostalgia (shared even by kids who were long-unborn), and Maximum Mike is probably just the man to surf that wave.

      Certainly he knows how stories and characters work, and how to tell stories in ways the involve the players, make them care, make them angry, make them sad, and that, potentially, is very valuable.

      It’s also perhaps worth noting that whilst they are lesser-known, his non-Cyberpunk games, particularly Castle Falkenstien, are pretty great if you like that kind of thing. Personally I found Falkenstien so aggressively romantic that I couldn’t handle it, but I could see it was a pretty great game and setting.

      • Micky Nozawa says:

        Altered Carbon has actually finished filming, it’s releasing February 2018.

      • MikoSquiz says:

        The idea of “post-cyberpunk” is why I’m wary of Cyberpunk 2077. That’s 64 years after the original version of the Cyberpunk RPG. If there’s nanomachine wizardry indistinguishable from magic, or the risk of a gray goo event, I’m .. not that interested any more. That doesn’t press the buttons for me that I like cyberpunk to.

        I’d be much happier with a variant of the original Cyberpunk (2013) setting or the classic Cyberpunk 2020. Hell, I’d happily pay extra for a game that was taking it way back and dropping a dystopian scifi hellscape on 1987, people jacking in with quarter inch stereo plugs, and shooting each other with sawn-off shotguns over a megabyte of RAM.

        I guess a big component of what I see in cyberpunk as a genre is the promise of a heavily used, worn-down future. Revolutionary ultra-modern technology that’s scuffed and pitted with use and makes a grinding noise when you turn it all the way up. This tends to go very badly with far-future settings.

        • FriendlyFire says:

          It’s possible that the 2077 moniker is just there to readjust expectations for a broader market. 2020 no longer makes sense as a cyberpunk target date, it’s much too close and we’re much too far away from its expected technological level.

          • MrDeVil_909 says:

            Indeed. The game is probably only going to be out in 2019 or 2020 so a 2020 setting makes little sense.

  8. vorador says:

    Great stuff. Really hopeful for Cyberpunk 2077.

  9. Thirdrail says:

    Everything LexW1 says is correct and accurate. I have been a fan of Pondsmith since the mid-eighties, but Cyberpunk 2020 is definitely cyberpunk-lite. The original boxed set was closer to the actual cyberpunk genre than 2020 ever was; 2020 is pretty much Mekton (another good Pondsmith game from way back) with a different equipment list and fewer interesting flow charts. You always needed a stack of sourcebooks from various creators and a strong background in reading Gibson and Sterling books to run a cyberpunk game, even if you did use 2020’s framework for stats and combat.

    My great hope for this CD Projeckt game is that the main character will be female, or that it will allow you to design your own avatar. I have been as impressed with the Witcher games as everyone else, but after three of them I’m burned out on CD Projekt’s whole “fantasy by way of FHM/Stuff” vibe. Hopefully they’ve found a way to bring a different perspective to 2077. Not less adult, just less saturated in 18 to 35 year old male demographic based testosterone.

    • LexW1 says:

      CDPR have said they’re planning on full character creation for CP2077 – specifically gender, appearance, some kind of class decision. So that’s good!

      I know what you mean by the Witcher series being a bit “fantasy by way of FHM”, I mean, it’s not too bad, but it is a little tooth-grinding at times. Maybe TW3 is a bit more “fantasy by way of GQ” but it’s still rather mens-mag-ish, and yeah, they’re going to have to do better than that with CP2077.

      Re: Cyberpunk-lite, I have to be honest – in actual practice as a GM and player I tended to prefer that to more serious cyberpunk, if only because setting up a convincing, non-depressing, non-backstab-fest adventure in an actual proper cyberpunk setting was TOUGH, and it wasn’t as much fun to play that either. I was actually running Shadowrun (5E) quite recently and it was a bit of a chore and not as charming as it could be setting-wise. I certainly found myself thinking fondly of CP2020 (and not just because of the mechanics!).

  10. Zenicetus says:

    In reference to why he doesn’t like the Deus Ex series, he says “The tech shouldn’t make you a hero, it should just be a part of ordinary life.”

    Not sure I agree with that perspective, especially since my personal touchstone/introduction to cyberpunk was Neuromancer. The principal characters of Case, Molly, and that other guy (don’t remember his name) are all tech-enhanced specialists. Not random street punks.

    The player character in the upcoming CDPR game might start as a street lowlife, but if there is the typical RPG skill and gear progression, it will be a power fantasy where the tech makes you a specialized hero. That’s what sells games. Hell, it sold the Witcher series. It’s just that there was very good writing wrapped around the power fantasy in that game, especially Witcher 3.

    • Black Isis says:

      Case wasn’t particularly technologically enhanced, just skilled (as a hacker), and Molly’s mods were not especially crazy (by Cyberpunk or Shadowrun street sam standards, anyway). But, more importantly, they were hardly unique, which I think is what Pondsmith’s point is. In Deus Ex, cyborgs or nano-enhanced people were not on every street corner, whereas in cyberpunk, it is ubiquitous. Gibson’s quote about the street finding its own uses for things is relevant here.

      Molly isn’t a super special cybersoldier (like say, Hideo), she’s a basically just a bodyguard. Case is a skilled hacker, but he’s certainly not unique (and the tech doesn’t make him that way — he’s not cybernetically enhanced, as far as I can remember). When the book starts, Case is trying to fence some RAM just to make it through the next week. I think that’s the point Pondsmith is trying to make — cyberpunk protagonists are not superheroes, they’re much closer to noir protagonists, like Sam Spade (or Rick Deckard).

      • Zenicetus says:

        I had to refresh my memory on that, because it’s been so long since I read it. Wiki’s plot synopsis says Case was a talented hacker, a “console cowboy” who got caught stealing and then dosed with a mycotoxin that removed his ability to enter the Matrix. A shadowy guy named Armitage gives him his abilities back as condition for joining the team, because they needs an ace hacker for a major operation.

        Case is down on his luck when the story starts, but he’s basically a latent hero who needs another chance (yeah, some Sam Spade references there). Tech-as-superpower is definitely involved with the high-end hardware the team gets their hands on, Peter Riviera’s cybernetic implants and the rest.

      • Sound says:

        My take on Pondsmith’s problem with Deus Ex, and his quote about whether the tech makes you special, is that he was speaking off the cuff, and not as precisely as he could’ve. But I think I understand what he might be getting at: In Deus Ex, and many other IPs, the tech(and whatever else) serves as a means of boosting a POWER FANTASY media experience. And having that kind of rare power runs in tension with the themes of cyberpunk.

        On one hand, some element of power fantasy is required: How will you win the narrative if you can’t rationalize the outcome, due to lacking power? This is a particularly difficult puzzle in the gaming medium.

        On the other hand, after some extent, or with a particular flavor, the power fantasy is indistinguishable from the ‘villainous’ forces that are supposed to be defined AGAINST the traditionally noir-ish, gritty, struggling cyberpunk anti-hero. The hero becomes the villain in part via rare power.

        This is where Deus Ex muddies the water(and reduces the impact) of the genre. There’s so much unique power in the protaganist that he’s a plausible avatar of the traditional Cyberpunk villain(The Man), in the form of a lieutenant or right-hand-man. A mini-boss.

        I could go on… But basically I agree with Pondsmith. Not a critique of the value of the media, just an exploration of theme here.

  11. wombat191 says:

    I am so glad hes involved so deeply with the game.. that ive been waiting since 1990 to play

  12. dr.denton says:

    Thank you.
    One thing though: I find it a little bit odd to see Deus Ex as an example for doing Cyberpunk wrong.
    I’s not Cyberpunk and never was intended to be.

    • brucethemoose says:

      From Wikipedia:

      “While each game has a distinct story, they are all set within the same world: an Earth of the future which has evolved a dystopian, cyberpunk society.”

      Whether or not it’s supposed to be cyberpunk, most people see it as cyberpunk.

      • Sound says:

        Yep. There’s no other adjacent, popularly known genre that the average person would recognize. Cyberpunk is nearby, the only identifiable genre of any similarity. It’s reasonable to lump Deus Ex in, because having that level of categorical granularity(to say nothing of cultural ubiquity) is asking way too much.
        By that standard, Deus Ex is in-arguably cyberpunk, no matter how off it is from the thematic pillars.

        • SaunteringLion says:

          To accurately peg it, it would require some weird neologism of conspiracy-theory-fiction-thriller-near-future-sci-fi, when cyberpunk gets across the point much more easily (however thematically detached its concerns may be, though they’re often close).

          Human Revolution is just straight cyberpunk though.

  13. PiiSmith says:

    So this game already has me interested since the announced it. Up to now there is nothing concrete I have seen though. I want more information on the game itself!

  14. TotallyUseless says:

    I don’t give a damn about some artist’s artistic vision. All I care about is that a game should be stable, compelling and a joy to play. Artists are just mere artists, the real guys who bring their works to life are the developers.

  15. thinkforaminute says:

    Great article and interview. Thanks Adam and RPS!

  16. Dogshevik says:

    Sadly this article hasn´t any substance about the actual game we are all looking forward to. Most of it is basically swooning at some guy making alot of assumptions.
    Is this how fanboys and haters are made? Do we have to choose sides now?

    • Sound says:

      What? No.

      It’s worth observing that many people are especially interested in this game mainly because of the fiction genre. I know I am.

      Cyberpunk has made such a splash in the world of video games that it makes perfect sense to explore the genre beyond the strict boundaries of just games. I would feel cheated if this were primarily about the game in development. We can pivot to a game-centered focus once some deliverable are on our plate to see or play. In the meantime, this is great.

  17. Chalky says:

    If anyone asks me why I read RPS, I’ll send them a link to this article. Absolutely brilliant, thank you for writing this.

    I didn’t think I could be looking forward to Cyberpunk 2077 any more than I already am, but apparently I was wrong :)

  18. TheAngriestHobo says:

    “Within six to eight years of net neutrality crashing and burning, if that happens, we’ll end up with an alternate net.”

    That sounds a little redundant. I think he means to say that we’ll end up with an AlterNet.

  19. rivetgeek says:

    I actually have played with Mike on two separate occasions, Mekton games at conventions…and yeah, he’s an amazing GM.

  20. Eater Of Cheese says:

    Loved reading this. Love to know what he thinks of John Shirley’s work.

  21. emotionengine says:

    One of the best interview features I’ve read on this site, truly a fascinating read. I was wondering what happened to Pondsmith after appearing in the first promo vids that CD Projekt released around the time they first announced the game four years ago. It’s good to hear that he’s still actively involved: link to youtube.com

  22. SaunteringLion says:

    “I think Geralt is a little bit cyberpunk and I hope we can sneak something in 2077 that relates to him without the fans immediately catching on. He does what he needs to do, he doesn’t necessarily get any joy out of it – he just makes sure that what needs to go down does go down. It’s a combination of fatalism and romanticism. That’s cyberpunk.”

    It’s because CD Projekt Red’s adaptation of the Witcher has a key thematic component in common with cyberpunk: film-noir or hard-boiled detective fiction (as Ástor Alexander’s excellent imaginings show).

    Geralt is very much a guy scraping by, caught up in events much larger than he is, with a hard-bitten personality belying a great deal of humanity and compassion. He takes jobs because he has to, he’s competent and dour but completely wry at the same time.

    He’d be right at home in film-noir or hard-boiled detective fiction, which is probably the single most relevant cinematic/literary antecedent to cyberpunk besides straight sci-fi.

    Anyway, we already know Ciri visited 2077, so the connection seems fairly easy to work.

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