Cyberpunk 2077: CD Projekt Red on Keanu, Christianity and building one of E3 2019's most ambitious games

Cyberpunk 2077
Cyberpunk 2077 is released for Xbox One, PS4 and PC on 16 April 2020

This article has an estimated read time of 11 minutes

Fittingly for a game in which you play a hacker with a penchant for pilfering other people’s property, Cyberpunk 2077 has stolen E3 for the second year running. CD Projekt Red’s stunning open world RPG has dominated the agenda pretty much from the moment king of the nerds Keanu Reeves strode out onto the stage of Microsoft’s E3 2019 press conference to announce the game’s April 2020 release date. And another stunning behind closed doors demo introducing new gameplay features, locations and characters has become the conference’s hottest ticket. 

Immediately after witnessing the latter, The Telegraph sat down with Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz, the Polish developer’s Quest Director, to talk about how CD Projekt Red are bringing one of these generations most ambitious games to life. 

It’s difficult to know even where to start discussing a game as big as Cyberpunk 2077. How do CD Projekt Red approach something of this size?

In general Cyberpunk 2077 is an open world RPG with a sprawling, living world and a lot of content that is narrative-driven. So we’re taking principles we learned from our previous projects, especially The Witcher 3, in how to combine an open world with an interesting and exciting narrative that is non-linear and has choices with lasting consequences. 

And on top of that we set a goal for ourselves to take it a little bit further and have this layer of gameplay choices. We paid extra attention to creating our character development and the options we give to the players to play through the game in the way you would like to play. Which means there are many different ways to play through the missions, to unlock different routes. You can either shoot your way through or sneak your way though to avoid combat if you don’t enjoy it.

It must be challenging designing missions with that level of flexibility. In the demo we saw the same quest tackled with two completely different specced characters in two completely contrasting ways. One play through featured a netrunner (Cyberpunk’s term for hackers) who used stealth mechanics and controlled environmental features to infiltrate and enemy stronghold. The second starred a more combat-oriented character who used brute force literally to break down doors and batter enemies. To facilitate this versatility do you implement flexible systems or anticipate what players will want to do?

Most of it is hand-crafted - and that’s how we have always approached our games. That’s how we approached the quests in The Witcher 3 as well. We find that hand-crafting is of course a lot of effort, but it creates this personal touch to how the missions are built. It is noticeable to the players. It creates this impression that they are something unique you find in the world, something that was tailored for you, that you immerse yourself in, and this was something very important to us. 

On the other hand our process is quite complex and it involves many different departments - especially on this project since now we have so many gameplay factors affecting the quests, not just the narrative. Now we no longer just have to cooperate with the writers and the cinematics team, now it’s also the gameplay team. We work very closely with them because now their world impacts missions so much more.

CD Projekt have been working in Cyberpunk for over five years now. Has that process evolved across even the development cycle?

First of all the studio was much smaller five years ago! The Witcher 2 was around 100 people; The Witcher 3 was around double that; and Cyberpunk I would say is at least double the team of The Witcher 3. A lot of these things we figured out as we were going through the previous projects. All the lessons we learned we’re bringing all this experience to this project to make it the biggest and best one yet.

Let’s talk about the game’s dialogue options. The demo featured a lot of optional dialogue choices determined not just by the character’s class but also by skills and attribute points. Are these properly branching discussions? Is it possible for players to miss out on content due to choices?

The dialogue is written in a way that it can splinter off into different directions. And yes, sometimes you can cut off some content if you choose this path or that path. But we prefer not to cut off content but offer you a different kind of content based on which path you take. On top of that you add a lot of flavour, a lot of dialogue options that can impact how you talk and relate to these characters, but the main story you can still progress. 

That’s how we build it in general. For the side quests we allow ourselves a little bit more liberty because we can basically just fail the quest and it ends at that specific point. For example, if you piss of some character, or is you refuse to help them. So it depends if it’s the main narrative or the side narrative. In the main narrative the general rule is you need to be able to complete the game.

One of the many great things about The Witcher 3 were the relationships you could form with incidental characters and the stories that developed from purely optional (and easy to overlook) side quests. Have you carried that over into Cyberpunk?

Yes, definitely. We tried to take the things that worked in The Witcher in terms of narrative and game design and implement similar things in Cyberpunk. Your relationships with characters can be vastly different depending on how you engage with the content - like did you complete side quests or not? There are even main storyline paths locked behind specific side content based upon if you found it and if you did it.”

Does that make you concerned you’re creating a lot of content that many players might never actually get to experience?

That was a big fear for me when I was a lead quest designer for The Witcher 3. It’s scary at first but then we shifted our thinking and said that’s a good thing actually because different people experience the game differently. In conversations with their friends they will say, ‘I had this situation…’, and their friend will say, ‘Oh, where was that? I never found that. That sounds cool!’ This designer’s urge to shove everything in your face is something you actually need to fight because it’s actually better for the game if you don’t.

The demo also debuted Pacifica, a new area of Cyberpunk’s Night City, in which a shopping mall has been transformed into an enemy stronghold. How much more of a challenge is it designing a futuristic city compared to the fantasy lands of The Witcher? 

First of all, when we started building it, we had to think could this be an actual functional, modern city? It’s much more complex and requires many many more assets than you need for building a fantasy world. In a fantasy world you can choose to do different landscapes, like we did with The Witcher. For example, Skellige is a more wintery island; Novigrad is a medieval city - which was challenging, but it was another level of challenging to Cyberpunk. A lot of those locations could reuse assets between them but here you need to have a variety of. It’s a very consumerist society and they have a lot of commercials, you need a lot of TV materials. There’s a number of problems we never had to solve on The Witcher we had to solve here.

So is Night City a full functioning, fully realised social construct?

We actually have an urban planner! Their sole role is to help the environment artists build this believable city. The way the communications networks would work for example, or what facilities that are needed. These are actual assets in the game. Some of them are parts of the narrative and we’re using them in quests; some of them are just there for the sake of the believability of the whole game.

The demo also introduced the concept of religion into the game. What role does faith play in Cyberpunk’s society?

There’s a number of places where we refer to religion in the game, and we’re thinking about how religion can evolve in this alternate future, based on how the society works and what they are focusing on. For example, the Pacifica Voodoo Boys have brought their own beliefs from Haiti with them and it’s this mix of traditional beliefs with modern elements, like the holograms they were using in the church you saw. But they are more traditional than other inhabitants of Night City.

There is another quest I do not want to spoil for the players where we focus even more on religion. Of course it’s a sensitive subject for a lot of people so we’ve given this specific quest extra attention so we don’t do it incorrectly. We want to do it right and we want to feel like it’s an actual refection of philosophical thinking on religion and not just done for shock value.

Is that quest based on a real world faith?

This particular quest is about Christianity.

Most game developers avoid tackling religious themes due to the obvious - and numerous - dangers of causing offence. Are you worried at all?

Of course it’s a risk but we believe that it can be done correctly and it can be done in a way that is thought provoking rather than controversial and make people think how it could work in this setting. It’s a risk we’re willing to take, so…

The demo also offered a first glimpse at Cyberpunk’s overarching storyline when it transpired the protagonist, V, has a stolen chip which could hold the secret of immortality. Are you able to offer any more details?

We’ve shown you interact with this personality construct could Johnny Silverhand, played by Keanu Reeves. This is a big part of the narrative to the main storyline so you might expect to delve deeper into that. Also it touches upon the topic of transgression, which is a big thing for us in the story and the quests. The idea that the people of Night City continue to cross different borders in terms of what’s ethical and what should be done and where technology should tread in the world. The immortality problem and the problem of the construct will be properly treated in the game. It is a very big subject for us.

Are you taking stands on these subjects?

We prefer to paint a picture and let the players interpret it in their own ways. Like with this religious quest we want to be thought provoking but leave the interpretation to the players. Because I think that’s how good narration works. If you give players a problem and the solution to the problem it’s just not as interesting.

So Cyberpunk won’t have an explicit message about the dangers of technological advancement?

It’s like a thought experiment on what society could look like if it followed very specific principles. The world of Cyberpunk is governed by the corporations, they have all the power, they can do whatever they want with the puppet government. And of course they are using it to maximise profit and to push products. So a lot of it is ideological but the interpretation of it is left to the player.

You mentioned Keanu Reeves’ character, Johnny Silverhand. How did he come onboard?

We were thinking about Johnny Silverhand, who is one of the major characters in the game. Johnny is a rebel, Johnny is a person who stands for something - he stands against the oppressive corporations, against the system - how it’s built and what it does to people. And Keanu has a long history of movies in which his characters were also standing up for something so we felt he was a natural fit for Johnny. 

It’s been great working with him so far. He’s a very experienced actor so he provides his own advice on how his character should behave. We’re happy to have the discussion with him as we work on this because he’s such an important character and we want to get it right.

Finally, as we’ve discussed the level of detail we’ve seen so far in Cyberpunk’s world is incredible. How much of it do you think will actually make it onto current gen consoles?

We are doing whatever we can right now. The game is still in development to have the best possible quality of graphics. We are working on it and we have a very experienced team. They managed to optimise The Witcher 3 for all platforms and we are bringing this experience to this project. We’ve also introduced a number of improvements to the engine to make it even easier for us to make it look as good as possible.

Optimisation is a challenging subject in general and we have very experienced people, they know how to do their job and they have many ideas how to make it happen. And I’m curious to see what they manage to do with this but I believe they will be able to make a very, very good looking game.

  • Cyberpunk 2077 will be released on April 16 2020 for Xbox One, PS4 and PC