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Tuesday, May 14, 2024

A Founding Father of Cyberpunk Isn't Surprised By Its Comeback

Cyberpunk—the genre, not just the video game—is back. Altered Carbon and Westworld were hits, there’s a new Matrix movie in the works, and Cyberpunk 2077 is poised to be the year’s most successful, and most hyped, video game. For Mike Pondsmith, one of the genre’s founding fathers, it all makes perfect sense. In the world of cyberpunk, technology has the ability to create miracles, people are struggling for power, the future is uncertain, and corporations have the power of gods.

Sound familiar? “We have a more cyberpunk world than ever before,” Pondsmith says. “Things have fallen apart. The upshot is that we have greater levels of uncertainty and more things are in play.”

Pondsmith doesn’t remember the first time he heard the word cyberpunk. Back in the mid-1980s, when Pondsmith was working on the tabletop RPG that would inspire Cyberpunk 2077, he was just trying to rip off Blade Runner and leave the replicants behind.

“I think the aesthetic of Blade Runner made the genre,” Pondsmith says. “A large part of the cyberpunk genre is atmospherics. It’s the feel. Blade Runner is important not just because of the technology but because it had the elements of film noir that cyberpunk is always calling back to.”


For Pondsmith, the genre feels so vital right now in part because that feeling and aesthetic map closely to our own. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and frequently drives into Torrance to visit family. It’s a city of large refineries belching fire into the sky. “It’s Blade Runner, but the cars don’t fly,” he says.

Pondsmith has been many things in his nearly 40-year career—a graphic designer on early video games like Ultima, a designer for The Matrix Online, and creator of the pen and paper roleplaying game Cyberpunk Red, the basis for Cyberpunk 2077.

Developer CD Projekt’s new video game is set in the world Pondsmith and his team at publisher Talsorian Games created in the 1980s. Cyberpunk, as Pondsmith said, is an aesthetic and thematic label that encompasses the written works of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, movies like Blade Runner, and video games like Deus Ex. In a cyberpunk world, high tech meets low life, and power belongs to those who can cobble together the code and the credits to seize it.


“Cyberpunk, when you get down to it, is what would happen if the world we’re living in now were positioned 10 or 20 years down the line,” Pondsmith says. “The story is about a society that is like ours just enough that we can seriously relate to it, but at the same time has all this technology that has gotten to a certain level of alienness. What is our relationship to all this stuff? How does it affect us? How does it change how we’re getting along?”

Cyberpunk was a huge genre in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Books like Neuromancer and Snow Crash told stories of a future that was rooted in the present. “You were dealing with a lot of economic uncertainty with Reaganomics, social change,” Pondsmith says. “The world you expected to be the future didn’t happen. We were supposed to get The Jetsons and instead we’re not sure if we’re gonna get fed. There was a lot of uncertainty and fear, but at the same time there were these marvels.”

In the mid-1980s, Pondsmith says that an engineer friend redesigned a $300 scanner to do the work of a $42,000 machine they had to rent from an office downtown. It changed the way he did business. “Technology had begun to move out of a scientist or technician class and was getting down to the level where a guy like that could say, ‘I don’t like this scanner, I think I’ll redesign it.’ It had moved to the street,” he says. “And I think those two things come together, you have uncertainty but you have marvels. Your immediate thought is, ‘Whenever we’ve had something marvelous, usually the people in power get it first. They don’t let us have it. They stand against us.’”

The villains of cyberpunk stories are usually corporations; its heroes are usually street kids, hackers, and anyone else clever enough to find a loophole in the system. “We have a very cyberpunk universe. A megacorporation in the 1980s was a big, slow, monolithic thing. Think GE. But corporations today are ubiquitous, they are fast, they are mobile, they are worldwide,” he says. “You can at least vote for a politician. You don’t get a vote when a corporation creates something new. You get to use it, but you’re not really sure that they’re not using you.”

For Pondsmith, the marvels have continued apace and so have the nightmares. “We have orange palls all over the street from firestorms. There’s global warming and a pandemic. Yet we can be sitting here in the middle of this plague, and you and I are talking across the country face to face. Gods didn’t have that kind of capability in myths and legends. We’re farseeing,” he says. “There’s a ridiculous amount of power out there, but who uses it? What do they use it for? Are you the person who is used? Are you the person who uses it? That’s why people are looking at the cyberpunk milieu.”

Pondsmith also says that the reason cyberpunk is doing well right now is because its stories feel immediate. For him, they aren’t especially cerebral. The good stuff, he says, is about immediate concerns. “We’re on the street, we have stuff to deal with,” he says. “The big questions are there, but right now I need to make sure that the street gang doesn’t bash my head in. You either get to be the hero or the victim. Everybody likes to be a hero, nobody wants to be a victim.”


A starter scenario for his Cyberpunk tabletop game tasks the players with finding a way to stay in their rent-controlled apartment when a corporation wants to tear down their building to put up a microwave tower. “You’re not fighting for truth or freedom, you’re fighting to have a place to live,” he says. “How many people, right now, are looking at being out on the street in one month? Two months? You’re going to relate to that. You’re going to relate to the idea that some power is out there that can just take away where you live, take away your livelihood. If that’s where things are, maybe I shouldn’t be a sheep.”

Cyberpunk 2077 is on track to be one of the year’s biggest video games. It has the music of Grimes and Run the Jewels, the face of a Keanu Reeves, and the promise of ultimate freedom in a dystopian world that feels like our own. The stars are a draw, but ultimately the promise Cyberpunk 2077 needs to live up to is the promise that the player can control their fate in a broken and dystopic system. With Covid-19, income inequality, and politics that feel broken, it’s an escape that has a lot of appeal.

That sense of immediate and material concerns is something Pondsmith tried to drive home in his conversations with CD Projekt about the game. “It can not be about saving the world. You’re saving yourself or your community,” he says. “The stakes have to be something that involves the player. You can’t just say, ‘The world is craptastic and you can’t do anything about it.’ No. You don’t have to save the world, but you need to be able to save your mother or the apartment you and your friends live in. You need to make sure your neighborhood isn’t rolled over by the boostergangs.”

When Pondsmith got a call decades ago from a Polish company looking to translate and license his tabletop roleplaying game, he never dreamed it would lead to Cyberpunk 2077. “Poland was still behind the Iron Curtain,” Pondsmith says. “I thought there’d be about five guys who get a chance to read it before the secret police kick the doors open … well it turned out those five guys were [CD Projekt]….they had grown up playing Cyberpunk. It was part of their college life. Possibly, for some of them, their high school life. It meant something to them.”

And what does Pondsmith, a prophet of dystopia, see when he looks at the game that lived in his head for decades? “I think they nailed it. I am astounded sometimes,” he says. “You have no idea what it’s like to get up, read your newsfeed, and see stuff you had in your head in the hands of cosplayers. The Arasaka logo is something that we’re going to see on stuff for years. And it’s something I put together in an hour when I was blowing out logos for the corporate section of the book.”


He’s excited about the game and excited about the future, in general. Despite his cyberpunk misgivings. But we’ll have to work for it. “My wife thinks I’m a pessimist. But I study history and what I see is that humans generally screw it up every 60 years, but they get it pulled together,” he says. “We can have a better future if people aren’t lazy. People tend to like to coast. People tend to like to let somebody else deal with it. This is how we get dictators. People say, ‘I don’t wanna think. Thinking is kind of hard. I’ll let this guy on a big horse tell me what to do.’ But you don’t buy that for free.”

And that nails one of the big themes of Pondsmith’s particular brand of cyberpunk—the responsibility that comes with freedom. In his game world, anyone can be a hero because everyone has access to the same basic level of technology. It’s a point of view that’s bled over into the real world. “You’re going to have to think if you want a better future. With the tools and capabilities available to us, more and more of that falls in your hands,” he says. “It’s too bloody easy for people to decide, ‘You know, I think I'll just kind of go to my job. And, you know, I'll gossip on the internet, and I'll hang out, and I'll let some political party decide what I'm going to do.’ And the next thing you know, you go, ‘Where did my health care go? Why are we fighting a war over here?’ Because you didn't pay attention. Maybe you should have paid attention.”

In a world where people are feeling increasingly powerless, Pondsmith sees the message of hope inherent in the cyberpunk genre. “The thing that I love about cyberpunk inherently is that it's about paying attention, and dealing with things. If you use the technology and your knowledge right, you can make it better. You can’t just let the boostergangs roll over your community, or you’re going to let a microtech tear down your apartment building to put up a microwave tower,” he says.

“It’s never free. But the fight doesn’t have to always be violent. Sometimes it’s just about standing up and getting counted.”

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