Back at E3, in the wake of T__he Last Night, the Waypoint staff got into a long conversation about the history, politics, and purpose of the cyberpunk genre. It was a good conversation, but I really wish that Adam Smith's excellent interview with cyberpunk trailblazer Mike Pondsmith had already been published so that we could have pointed people in its direction.
If Pondsmith's name sounds vaguely familiar it's because he's, creator of Cyberpunk 2020 (and it's predecessor and sequel), which is the direct inspiration for CD Projekt Red's upcoming Cyberpunk 2077. Previously, Pondsmith had been confirmed as serving a consulting role on the project, but this interviews gives us a much better idea of what that role entailed. At first, he offered high level guidance, but eventually things got a little more specific.
In my favorite exchange, Pondsmith explains how he and the team rethought one of cyberpunk's most familiar tropes: Flying cars.
"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."
On the surface, Pondsmith is talking about game mechanics here, but give it a second read: "It's not their place in the world," he says of the flying cars. That little detail about how they serve a mechanical function rather than just being cool is the heart of cyberpunk. And it's as important to Pondsmith that these ideas both mesh with the fictional world and drive the mechanics behind the gameplay. The blend—the machinery of the gameplay systems and the cultural weight of the setting—is cyberpunk.
And hey, listen, that doesn't mean that flying cars aren't cool. They are! They're cars that fly! But great cyberpunk stories (and games) take a cool-on-its-face piece of technology and push it to that second level: "Okay, the cars fly, but what does that mean for the world and the people in it? What do they really do?" The best examples of cyberpunk answer that question. The worst don't bother even asking it.
The interview is filled with gems like these. Also, Mike Pondsmith talks about the time he confronted a guy in his front yard with his katana. Go read it. It's great. Oh, and when you'e done with it, make sure to watch this little video that Pondsmith and CD Projekt Red did about a few years ago. Goals, y'all. Goals.