With Cyberpunk 2077 launching this week, we've republished this chat with Mike Pondsmith, creator of the tabletop game and owner of a bulletproof backpack.
Cyberpunk creator Mike Pondsmith describes Pacifica, a district of Night City, as the "playground by the sea that didn't work out." I'm talking to him after seeing a demo of Cyberpunk 2077 set in this part of the game's metropolis—a forgotten, lawless community built around the half-constructed ruins of abandoned luxury hotels. It's an evocative place to hack and shoot your way around, and a prime example of 2077's remarkable world-building.
"The way I looked at it, it was supposed to be like if Atlantic City had gone tragically wrong," says Pondsmith, whose tabletop setting is being turned into an open world RPG by Witcher developer CD Projekt RED. Pacifica is very different from Watson, the vibrant, bustling commercial district seen in earlier demos. After beginning to construct massive skyscraper hotels, Pacifica's investors pulled out and left it to rot—and that's when the gangs moved in.
"There are all kinds of incredibly subtle details buried in the architecture of the city," says Pondsmith, who strives to make sure that everything in the Cyberpunk setting is rooted in some kind of truth. "There's a lot of familiar cyberpunk stuff there," he says. "Neon, Japanese signs, trench coats. But there's reality too. I was walking through Seattle at night once and I thought, yeah, I get it. This is why Night City works. It has a dark side, just like any city today."
Pondsmith remembers his time in San Francisco in the late 1980s, bar crawling with a friend, which was around the time he wrote the original Cyberpunk 2020 tabletop setting. "We were hitting some very strange bars, and some of them were just amazingly cyberpunk" he says. "Industrial bars, biker bars. We were walking through the rainy streets of San Francisco, and it was dangerous. I had a big-ass afro and mirror shades, and I was packing a nine-inch knife."
Pondsmith has poured experiences like this into his writing in Cyberpunk, and is continuing to do so with Cyberpunk Red, a new edition of the tabletop game, and of course Cyberpunk 2077 itself. But he's always looking for new experiences too, whether that's handling guns (he owns several) or, as he explains to me, dramatically stress-testing a new bulletproof backpack.
"Yeah, I have a bulletproof backpack," he says. "It's a cool backpack, and I needed a backpack, but I got it because we talk about bulletproof gear in Cyberpunk. I've been thinking about its weight, how it fits into the environment, whether people notice it. Then when I get home we're gonna take it out onto the range and we're gonna put a bunch of 9mm rounds into it. Is it really that bulletproof? We've seen the numbers, but let's find out."
This might sound extreme, but it's precisely why Cyberpunk's setting is so exciting. It's dense with detail, but it's a functional detail, giving you a sense that this stuff has actually been thought about on more than just an aesthetic level. The game's Trauma Team, for instance, is a rapid medical response service that's like an ambulance crew crossed with a SWAT team—and this is another example of something seemingly fantastical with a basis in reality.
"A lot of Cyberpunk players are, or have been, in law enforcement or the military," says Pondsmith. "I have friends who were Ranger paramedics who have actually been under fire in a combat zone. They described getting somebody out of some place while being shot at. So I thought, yeah, let's replace the ATV with a helicopter, and that's where the concept of the trauma team came from. It's all based on real experiences."
Pondsmith has been working closely with CD Projekt RED throughout Cyberpunk 2077's development, bringing his own very specific brand of authenticity to the project. "What we're doing is a bit different from typical cyberpunk," he says. "It's not intellectual cyberpunk like Blade Runner, which is my favourite movie. But it's not a total shoot-'em-up either. It's basically environmental, it's personal, and I think people will be able to relate to it. And I think it'll be interesting to see if we've changed the markers of what cyberpunk is."