Senior concept artist Marthe Jonkers tells us about the designing a unique cyberpunk world we’ve never seen before.
Note: You can find the original version of this article in Slovak at www.sector.sk
When CD Projekt RED invited us to their dark warehouse full of neons at Gamescom to show us their latest demo, we were full of expectations. Some of them were met, when we’ve deep dived with V into Cyberpunk’s 2077 gameplay, but some of our questions were left unanswered. To find out more about one of the most anticipated games of 2020, right after the presentation we’ve turned to Marthe Jonkers, senior concept artist at CD Projekt RED, who is also the coordinator of the concept team that is responsible for the visual design of Night City districts and locations in Cyberpunk 2077. During our interview she has told us about creating a video game based on tabletop game, how they’re trying step up their game after The Witcher 3 and we’ve also asked the obligatory questions about Keanu Reeves and his impact on the game.
This is the second time you're showing Cyberpunk at Gamescom. How has the game changed since last year?
We know we’ve improved a lot, we actually changed a lot of things. I think it is very clear in the character creation. It’s actually much more elaborate than the one we’ve showed you the first time. And it’s still work in progress, so it’s probably [going to be] more elaborate than what you see now. But we’ve added these life paths that you can choose now. You can choose Nomad or Corporate or Street kid and they basically give your character a sort of background, like where are they coming from. So when you are a Nomad, you actually grew up in the outskirts of the city, you don’t really have anything to do with corporations, the gangs, etc. You kind of value freedom, you didn't grow up in the city. If you’re a street kid, you actually did grow up in the middle of the city in between all the people and all the gangs, so you actually know the gangs a little bit better if you choose this background. And if you choose Corporate, you will have a sort of corporate background and that means that you know what it's like [to live] the corporate life and that means, if you meet corporate people, you can probably talk to them easier - you will see this actually in the dialogue and I think you might have seen it in the demo this time that there were sometimes these extra options that you could choose from in the dialogue depending on what kind of life path you chose.
How much content we can expect in terms of hours of gameplay for the main story and the added amount of hours when you're a completionist?
It’s going to be enormous. It’s really hard to put like a number on it, because it really also depends on how you play, it even depends on the choices you make; it depends on your play style, because we have this very fluid class system; you can basically combine all kinds of skills from different skill trees - whether you’re a Techie or a Netrunner or Solo - all these skills you can combine to your own character. And we have a very extensive storyline that branches and it has many different directions you can go into; we have the main quest; we will have side quests; we will have street story - so there's so much going on that I think you will be able to spend a long, long time in Night City.
Mike Pondsmith, who is the creator of the original tabletop game Cyberpunk 2020 is also a consultant for Cyberpunk 2077. Can you tell us a bit more about this collaboration?
He's a walking Encyclopedia of Cyberpunk, that's for sure. If you have any question about the lore or the background - he knows it, he knows everything. So that's really cool and we really took the Cyberpunk 2020 as sort of a base for 2077, but of course, 57 years have passed since 2020 and that meant that a lot of things changed. And we had a lot of freedom to insert our own ideas into this and think of ways of how Night City might have changed; and we always consulted Mike for, ‘Would this be believable?’ or, ‘Would this work?’ So he was always there to give us the support. We also had a lot of freedom to create our own CD Projekt RED game out of this; so yeah, there's a lot of links with that, but we also have a lot of our own in Cyberpunk 2077.
How were you working with the source material? We know that Cyberpunk 2077 is set in the same world as the tabletop game, but are there any other references?
A lot of time passed between [Cyberpunk] 2020 and 2077 and we kind of created a timeline in between like a rough idea of what happened and that really influenced the design of the city and how it would look like and how the people would look like; and you could see that in Pacifica - the neighborhood that we showed in this demo. There’s this whole backstory about it, like why does it look the way it looks - it’s because the corporations wanted to make this resort area, but they kind of withdrew their money when there was an economic crisis and they sort of left it abandoned. So that's why Pacifica has now these abandoned malls and this ferris wheel is broken and [there’s] this hotel that nobody lives in; and at the same time actually haitian communities are starting to live there, because Haiti at the time was really unlivable because of many natural disasters there. In Cyberpunk future there will be a lot of natural disasters, like storms and typhoons, etc. So the Haitian community moved to Pacifica because the felt, ‘Well, it’s abandoned, but it’s actually perfect.’ There are all these hotels - they may be half-built - but it's perfectly fine to make a good living there - and so they moved in; and so we have all these layers of sort of history and it originated in [Cyberpunk] 2020, but there’s also a lot of things that happened in between, so it’s sort of a continuation I would say, and I think that’s the best description of how 2020 plays a role in the origin of 2077.
Apart from the original tabletop game, what were your main audiovisual inspirations for creating this game?
Let me tell you a little bit about the music, because I think that's an interesting topic. So we created our own soundtrack and we actually have a lot of radio stations in the game and you can listen to the radio when you’re driving around Night City and you can blast up your music from your speakers - it’s really awesome. We have different styles in there, but they’re all originated from cyberpunk as this theme, so we have sort of a cyber element in the sounds we used and instruments [that] were used to make the music. And then there's punk - there's sort of this raw rebel scene in the music - even though they're different styles, you can always hear this is cyberpunk style and you might have heard some of the music in the trailers and in the demos. So when you try to give it this own identity - and this actually goes for the visual design as well - we really wanted to make a cyberpunk world that was something that people have never seen before - it’s sort of a fresh take on cyberpunk. Because we all know a lot of cyberpunk movies and books and we all know Blade Runner. But we actually wanted to do something else, so we really tried to create a visual style that was inspired by Cyberpunk 2020 but also really rooted in this timeline. Like the posters you see hanging outside - those visual styles are really the backbone of the visual design of our game. We really created these different art styles that are connected to the timeline. Like when people were really poor, when there were tough times, they would make their fashion and their cars much more in more gray colors and cheap materials and very practical. But when people were really happy and [there were] good times, when things were going great, then they would make stuff much more in bright colours and round shapes. So you kind of see that timeline reflected in the way that the city looks right now, and that way we really tried to approach it in a really original way. And that’s why people were surprised probably when they saw the trailer last year and it was really sunny. People were like, ‘Argh! This is very bright, sunny cyberpunk.’ But that’s exactly what we wanted to show you - we can make a cyberpunk world, it’s very fresh, it’s really unique, it’s super cyberpunk, but it’s in a sunny setting. You know, it doesn't always have to be night and rain - even though we have a day-night cycle, so you will have a night and you will have different types of weather and stuff, but that's kind of our approach.
And when you were designing these characters and all those gadgets that the characters have - what were the references, what were your inspirations? How did you work with both human and machine parts?
Well, we did use a lot of the lore and the ideas that Mike Pondsmith had, so we based a lot on that, but we added our own sort of flavor to it. And again, the styles that I was talking about on those posters play a really big role, because they sort of define what kind of angles a certain machine or a thing would have, what kind of materials it’s made from; we even have different brands and factories who make these certain implants, so you will have different brands of your guns for instance, that will affect the styles of all these elements - it's like a very complicated mix, but it works. We really made almost like a guideline on how we design things. You know, we take stuff maybe from the [Cyberpunk] 2020 but then we translate it into 2077 by using these different styles, different materials, different distribution, different textures, etc., to create this sort of unique design.
In the demo we were told that we’re supposed to look cool and they’ve shown us lots of customization options in the game. Did you have a fashion consultant for all the ‘swag’ that’s in the game?
[Laughs] No, actually we have a very very talented character design team and they just made super awesome stuff, and they’ve made a lot. They could really handle this and then again they had these visual guidelines that the art director set up, and with that, they were able to create a wide range of fashion styles and things for you to collect and buy and wear in the game.
One of the top moments of this year's E3 was your announcement that Keanu Reeves was cast as Johnny Silverhand, which is a character from the tabletop game. Why did you choose Keanu to play this role?
So we have this character Johnny Silverhand and he has a very strong personality. He fights for what he believes in, he really fights against the corporations and we were thinking like, ‘What actor could actually give something extra to this character?’ And you know, that was Keanu. Like, that has to be Keanu, because he plays these types of characters - he’s really good at it - he plays John Wick and Neo, Johnny Mnemonic, and these were the type of characters we thought fitted Johnny Silverhand really well. So that’s why the company contacted him to find out if he was interested and they told him the background story of Johnny and Keanu was interested. So it was really exciting and they did a test with him and it really clicked. And he thought, ‘Yeah, this is cool.’ And he actually suggested some different lines that Johnny Silverhand could say, and he was really into this world, and so he added a lot to the character of Johnny Silverhand. And the audience was so excited when they saw Keanu come on stage when he announced that he would be Johnny Silverhand. And I think it's not only because, you know, it's Keanu, but also because he fits the character. We didn't just want to have a celebrity in the game, we really wanted to have someone who could add something to his character. And Johnny Silverhand is not a minor character - he’s actually very important to the story.
So, was Johnny Silverhand visually sort of a blank page until the moment you cast Keanu? Or did you have a concept for the character before and you were expecting to fit an actor into your vision?
That’s actually a very interesting question. But Johnny Silverhand actually plays a role in Cyberpunk 2020, so he’s already a defined character, and first we had the story and this character. We really tried to work from that, but we did think like, ‘What kind of actor could actually add something to this character without completely changing it?’ Because we wanted Johnny to be like this and he's really based on Mike Pondsmith's story, so you cannot make it into a completely different character. But we did consider like, ‘Who could add something special to this?’ And that would be Keanu. So that was a perfect match.
Did casting Keanu have any impact on the development of the game or the character?
Well, we did scan him of course. And he did the animations and all these postures, he did all the voice acting, and so yeah, he has a big impact on the character of Johnny. Definitely.
You haven't shown us a playable demo yet, but players are voicing their opinions based on the videos they've seen so far. How are you working with this feedback?
We really appreciate all the feedback that we get. And even in these demos we always hand out the survey - you can always tell us what you think and we really appreciate when people just give their point of view. And of course we have an idea of what we want the game to be and we’re really happy with that, but we're always open for changes, and if there are any things that we can change or improve, we will always do that, because in the end we just want to make the best game that we can possibly make. And it's really nice that actually we get this help from the audience and all the people who are telling us like, ‘Ah, could be better, I didn’t like this’ or, ‘I really love this.’ I mean, the positive feedback is also super amazing to hear and it really helps.
CD Projekt RED is mostly known for The Witcher 3. Is there something you or the company had learned from developing the Witcher, that has transferred to Cyberpunk 2077?
Yeah, definitely. I personally did not work on The Witcher, I joined the team after [The Witcher 3], I went straight onto Cyberpunk. But of course, I work with a lot of people who did [work on The Witcher] and they have a lot of experience with making an open world game with a very deep story and a very narrative structure. I think story is one of the most important things here in CD Projekt RED - it’s something we’re really good at. And this time we took the knowledge and we wanted to add something, like a third element - so it’s the story, the open world - so this time we added this complete freedom or gameplay, that we did not have in The Witcher. You know, you played as Geralt, you always have him as your character, he has swords and that’s how you fight. There’s no other way to do it, basically. But in this game you have so much freedom in how you're going to handle things - you can use guns, if you want; you can also use a katana - which I would prefer to do. You can even hack a lot of stuff; you can sneak; you can put implants in your legs, so people don't hear you walk; you can have mantis blades in your arms; you can have the nano wires that you might’ve seen in demo - it’s just so much freedom in how you are going to tackle this game. That's really the thing we added to all the knowledge that the team already had from making the Witcher.