Just as was the case at E3, the behind-closed-doors demo of Cyberpunk 2077 was one of the highlights of this year's Gamescom, with hefty queues made up of journos and influencers (and a number of developers too, we should add) hoping to catch an extended glimpse of CD Projekt Red's super-ambitious sci-fi RPG. The exclusive jackets being handed out to attendees probably helped drive up interest too, but even without the offer of some stylish new threads, there's a huge amount of interest in CDPR next major RPG and we're not the only ones who walked out of the demo thoroughly impressed by what we had just seen.
Having said all that, we're not going to zero in on the finer details of the demo, as we pretty much did that after seeing the game at E3. Instead, we're going to look at Cyberpunk 2077 from a different angle, from a more visual perspective, and to that end we spoke to Marthe Jonkers, senior concept artist at CDPR, about the design of this expansive futuristic world, and the extraordinary attention to detail that's being poured into the project.
When it comes to visual design in Cyberpunk, it's clear that a lot of preparatory work has gone into creating a world that feels plausible, despite its futuristic setting. With city planners advising on the layout and graffiti artists adding some style to the bricks and mortar, the studio has gone to great lengths to provide players with an urban sandbox that feels authentic. Underpinning all of these efforts, however, are a series of distinctive art styles that have their tentacles spread into all facets of the game's design.
"The styles are really the backbone of the visual design of Cyberpunk 2077," Jonkers explained to us in a booth inside CDPR's stand in the business area of Gamescom. "So you might have seen the posters - there are four - and actually they all represent a different visual style connected to the timeline. Cyberpunk 2077 is, of course, based on Mike Pondsmith's Cyberpunk 2020 [pen and paper RPG system], but 57 years have passed in between, a lot of stuff happened, and connected to that different art styles or visual styles that reflect the fashion, architecture, vehicles, even the weapons, start to emerge. So we actually made this sort of visual timeline."
"Entropism was in a time when it wasn't going so well and people were poor, so that reflects what it looks like - the designs are very practical, the materials are very cheap, there's not much decoration," Jonkers explained.
"But then you had kitsch," the concept artist continued. "Things were going better, great. People were happy and you see that because there's so much colour in kitsch, it's very vibrant and the shapes are much more rounded."
"After that you had neomilitarism. That's when the corporations were in power and they really have some influence on the fashion of that time.
"And the most new style we call neokitsch because it's sort of connected to kitsch; it's also very colourful, but this was when the gap between the rich and poor became so big that you have these super, super, ultra-rich and they have their own style. It's very based on kitsch, very colourful, but they have this added element of natural elements because in Night City, in the future lots of animals got extinct - it's not going really well with nature. So if you have like an animal print or something, you must be really rich, you know? And if your house has wood on it, you must be one of the ultra-rich."
The city itself is looking like a busy, sprawling play space, but from the demo, it's hard to discern just how vast it is. Last week producer Richard Borzymowski told Gamesradar that it was a bit smaller than the map for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, but much more densely packed.
"If you look at pure surface [in terms of] square kilometres, then Cyberpunk 2077 might even be a little bit smaller than The Witcher 3, but it's the density of the content, taking the world of The Witcher and squeezing it right in, deleting the wilderness between... [Night City is] an integral part of the setting; it's essentially a protagonist if you want to call it that, so it has to be denser. It wouldn't give us the end effect we wanted to achieve if the city wouldn't be believable [...] so we packed it full of life."
We've been told that we'll be able to explore Night City freely with no loading screens as we move between districts. It's a trick we've seen before in other games, but clearly differentiating parts of a city is a design challenge not to be underestimated, and far too many digital towns and cities of the past have felt bland and uninteresting to explore because of a lack of variety when it comes to their overall composition. CDPR, by digging into the four dominant art styles listed above, hopes to make this futuristic city feel like a living, breathing entity on its own. Borzymowski's protagonist, if you will.
"So in Night City you will see a mix of all these styles," Jonker continued, "so when you drive around and you see a building that's bright pink and has all these round corners you will know that's kitsch and it must have been built in that age, and those kind of people built it. In that way, we really wanted to give Night City this level of believability and visual lore so you actually feel like you're in a real city."
It's not just a case of rounding off a few edges and throwing on a coat of neon paint, however, as it goes much deeper than that. CDPR and its design teams has clearly been building Night City from the ground up - a cliché maybe, but it's an apt description of a metropolis that has been layered with detail and brought to life in a number of ways, from the brick and glass walls that tower overhead through to the temporary scrawls left by street artists of the future.
"Designing a city is not easy and we really wanted to have the six districts of Night City to have their own feel so we connected their design a lot also to their history. But we also thought about, like, if you walk around a city, like in Cologne, you will see all these different types of architecture, you will see different types of cars driving around, people will wear different types of fashion. You know, this is such an important part if you're trying to design a city, and that's why we created these styles that really are now the backbone of the visual design of Night City.
"We added a lot more to that. For instance, we have a super-talented team who created all the graffiti in the game, and every street gang in Night City will have their own visual style that we will put on top of the city. So you will get all these layers of story purely just by visual elements, and that really makes you feel, when you walk around, like 'wow, this is a city, this city has history, these people lived here for a long time.' You can actually see that."
In the world of Cyberpunk 2077 the power and influence of the corporations can't be overstated, and their impact can be felt both narratively and visually. Capitalism is naturally a big part of this vision of the future, and it looks like you'll see the impact of branding and advertisements throughout your time in Night City. However, much like in our own modern world, the corporate overlords of 2077 have had a hand in shaping the skylines of the late 21st century. The Pacifica region is a great example as it tells a visual history that backs up the anecdotal stories you'll hear from characters as you explore. In this part of the city, the corporations pulled their finances part-way through the build, leaving the area unfinished and ripe for underworld exploitation.
"We have a lot of different types of brands in our game as well. A lot of them have their own sort of aesthetic. And we have lots of advertisements. You know, if you walk around a city here, you will see so much of these elements that you don't even think about, and we really tried to add that to this game. You will have some areas where you have a lot less advertisements, like Pacifica that we showed in this demo; it's very abandoned, it's supposed to be this resort area but then the corporations withdrew their money and they left it as is, so it's much more barebones with all these buildings that are half-built.
"But when you go to Watson, for instance, and we showed this neighbourhood in the first demo: it's completely opposite. It's so crowded there and there are so many narrow streets, and buildings built on top of each other, and [there are] advertisements everywhere. And it's like this big contrast, and we really tried to make it feel really natural when you explore Night City."
Jonkers continued, explaining how the team has had help from an urban planner to make sure that "the composition of the whole city was also figured out, so you have a reference point and you know where you are. So you will have the city centre, which is really corporate and you will have the highest building there. So you always know that there's the centre, this is where the corpos are. That's where you will see a lot of neomilitarism style, that's a corporational style, and like that we really created all these different districts."
"But we also put a lot of effort into the areas between these districts, you know, because it's still one city. The districts are still very, very different, but we still wanted to feel like this is all Night City, so we actually put a lot of effort into these areas in-between, you know and mixing it a little bit so it really flows together into this one big realistic city."
The work done by the design team does more than bring buildings to life; it reaches into the very core of the game and impacts on your moment-to-moment experience. Interestingly, fashion feeds into your street cred, and looking sharp has some interesting benefits for players to explore.
"Fashion styles are also really connected to those four styles, and we have this awesome design team who created all these different types of fashion for you to buy and to wear, and there's actually a stat connected to it: street credibility. If you wear cool clothes your street credibility will go up and that means that you will be able to access more/different shops and more rare items and such. So actually fashion plays a really big role in the gameplay as well."
Evidence of this deep and multifaceted approach to world design was there for everyone to see at Gamescom (and E3) during the behind-closed-doors gameplay demo, which took place in a small but packed theatre and whereby we got to see the same mission explored in a number of different ways, with stealth, combat, and hacking-based gameplay demonstrated to attendees.
Through gameplay variance and choice-based conversations, it looks like players will be able to shape their own story in Night City, at least to an extent. If the mission in Pacifica is anything to go by, there will be ample opportunities to exploit the world around you, attacking and/or distracting enemies with environmental features, or using cover to move around unseen. We enjoyed moments in the demo when gym equipment turned deadly or when soda cans started popping out of a vending machine and distracted a couple of nearby thugs, and we're looking forward to experimenting with the different tools that CDPR is leaving scattered about the place for us to play with.
Obviously there's a strong emphasis on futuristic technology and the ways it might well be brought to bear against the citizens of the future, and that in itself is a prospect that you don't need a tinfoil hat to find legitimately terrifying. However, just like the visual design that layers in so much detail in order to build a convincing portrait of the future, this technology is also grounded in something approaching realism, and while some of these speculative inventions will never see the light of day, it's still possible to imagine a version of the future not too far away from the one here.
Thanks to a blend of CDPR's craft and Mike Pondsmith's vision, the studio has been able to build a city for the future, one that looks and feels like a tangible space, and one where players will be invited to take their first steps come April 16, 2020 (a most fitting release year if ever we've seen one). With that adventure in mind, we asked Jonkers about Pondsmith's work and how it has inspired the studio to make Cyberpunk 2077.
"Cyberpunk 2020 is just so full of story and lore, and it's super awesome," the studio's senior concept artist told us. "And we really took that as our inspiration and our starting point, and we have some references to it (like the jackets with the light inside, it's sort of a reference to that). But we also tried to build something new based on it, so these four styles are our interpretation of his Cyberpunk 2020, just to give it the CD Projekt Red DNA. It's a really good inspiration and we tried to make something in-line with that, but still make something fresh."