The Genre of Cyberpunk
Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that features advanced science and technology in an urban, dystopian future. On one side you have powerful mega-corporations and private security forces, and on the other you have the dark and gritty underworld of illegal trade, gangs, drugs, and vice. In between all of this is politics, corruption, and social upheaval. This is generally summed up in the quote “High tech. Low life.”
Originally a literary movement, cyberpunk has become a subcultural organism with a life of its own that sought to focus on the blending of lowlife and high tech. The term “cyberpunk” itself can be traced to the short story Cyberpunk by Bruce Bethke. Then of course, there are the core cyberpunk authors that are generally accepted to have laid the ground work of the cyberpunk movement William Gibson (Gibson is considered the founder of Cyberpunk with the 1984 release of Neuromancer, which drew influence from punk subculture and the early hacker culture), Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, Rudy Rucker, John Shirley and Lewis Shiner.
Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” in his works, and this word has largely been connected to the cyberpunk world ever since. Breaking the term into its parts, we find the definition easily:
- Cyber: reference here to technology (cyberspace, cybernetic enhancements, biotechnology, and nanotechnology)
- Punk: reference to the general people and overall attitude found within the genre. Protagonists tend to be the outsiders, anti-heroes, dissenters, and misfits. The common theme among them is the subversive nature they all have.
Some of the various offshoots of the “punk” subgenre include:
- Cyberpunk themes dominated by biotechnology from early 1990s, seen as building on the biotechnology instead of information technology. People are changed via genetic manipulation instead of mechanical.
- Set in an alternate history Victorian era that combines anachronistic technology with cyberpunk’s bleak film noir worldview.
- Genre is similar to biopunk, but describes a world in which the use of biotechnology is limited or prohibited, and only nanites and nanotechnology is in wide use (while in biopunk bio- and nanotechnologies often coexist). Currently the genre is more concerned with the artistic and physiological impact of nanotechnology, than of aspects of the technology itself.
The Cyberpunk Universe
Introduction to Cyberpunk 2077
The single player RPG developed by CD Projekt Red is an adaptation of the 1988 tabletop RPG, Cyberpunk 2020 – set 57 years later in the dystopian location of Night City, California. This iteration of the title has, at the outset, a more limited number of districts than the older version, though some are shared with the traditional layout of Night City previously seen. The player assumes the role of V, a mercenary introduced by the developers as a cyberpunk taking their first step into becoming an urban legend in “a world of cyber enhanced street warriors, tech-savvy netrunners and corporate life-hackers”. Through the first person perspective, players will witness Night City, an American megacity in the Free State of California, controlled by corporations and unassailed by the laws of both country and state. Conflict from rampant gang wars and its ruling entities contending for dominance have etched their own legacy over the decades. In the City, robotics are responsible for everyday aspects like waste collection, maintenance, and public transportation. Homelessness abounds, but does not preclude the poor from modifying themselves with technology, which has brought people to addiction and violence. If they become a threat, the armed force Psycho Squad deals with them. Because of the constant threat of physical harm, all citizens are allowed to own and openly carry firearms in public.
A quick note on Cyberpunk 2020 – this role-playing game was heavily inspired by the novels of Phillip K. Dick and William Gibson, and in particular the 1982 film Blade Runner. Another major inspiration was the novel Hardwired by Walter Jon Williams, who helped playtest the game. Hardwired, in turn, was written as a homage to Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley.
Taking place in the year 2020, the game’s default setting is the fictional Night City, a city of five million people on the west coast of the United States located between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It is described as being near San Jose but the map puts it closer to Monterey. Later supplements to the game have contained information about the rest of the US and the world.
Following a vast socio-economical collapse and a period of martial law, the United States government has had to rely on several megacorporations to survive. This has given them a veritable carte blanche to operate as they will.
Taking a closer look at Night City, we find a diverse place with people from all walks of life, backgrounds, and culture – a seething mass of what had once been the foundations of a utopia. Founded by tech giant and visionary Richard Night, the city was originally planned to be known as Coronado City and was envisioned as a perfect city that would stand as a monument to progress and the power of technology to improve people’s lives. His optimistic vision of the future is now a haven for violence and corruption.
While still technically on American soil, the city falls completely outside of state and national legal jurisdiction. Here, the corporations are in charge. Over the years, the city has been fractured by various corporate conflicts and gang wars, the most notorious being the Mob Wars. The Mob Wars marked the campaign starting in 2009 in which Arasaka paramilitaries took to the streets, dealing a final blow to the mobs which had taken control of the city following the death of Richard Night in 1998. Those caught in between were left desperately trying to make ends meet and survive the riots and violence that raged throughout the streets. In 2011, the Wars were over – and the mob was ousted from the local government. By 2020, the city had become relatively peaceful due to the continuous police presence – though dangers still remain and the aftershocks of the Mob Wars are still felt from time to time. For most, despite the pervasive violence and poverty, leaving Night City is not an option.
And yet, even though it was announced as being the “worst place to live in Amercia,” corporations are selling the unattainable dream of making it big and the masses are buying into it hook, line, and sinker. Night City is a shining example of consumerism run rampant. No matter where you look, you’re pitched a product, an aspiration. Whether you’re riding the metro, brushing your teeth, or pissing in an alleyway, the glitter, vibrant color, and allure of it all sucks you in. Advertisement saturation is a constant part of the sensory experience. Everyone is a lone wanderer in their own right and Night City presents an undying hope for fame and success where failure is the ultimate fear. Self-preservation and self-promotion – not money – are the driving forces behind societal advancement. In order to be someone, you have to be more than yourself. To become immortal, you have to become a brand, an ideal.
One such example of this consumerism can be seen in the existence of the Trauma Team – paramedics expertly trained in combat, who will go to any length to deliver their clients from harm. Those wealthy enough to afford a Trauma Team medical plan receive a card and biochip implant. When the chip recognizes a medical problem in a client’s system, it immediately informs the Trauma Team who rush to the scene to stabilize and extract the patient – rain or shine, war zone or picnic.
Megabuildings are a prominent feature of the Night City skyline in 2077 and function like cities within a city. They are self-contained architectural behemoths that offer housing, food, firearms, medicine, and training. But don’t mistake them for a futuristic realization of a utopian society – these structures share much of the same grit, grime, and danger encountered out on the streets.
The currently known regions within Night City are:
- City Center
- Watson (starting location)
- Santo Domingo
Technology in 2077
Technology in the world of 2077 is omnipresent – it’s used to automatize industry, bombard the masses with incessant advertising, replace human flesh and bone with circuitry and steel, and the list goes on. While cheap electronic devices and services are available to even some of the poorest members of society, most cannot afford to buy the newest toys or replace broken equipment. As a result, from a young age many learn to improvise and work with discarded scrap to make repairs, to build their own diversions, to craft their own weapons.
For many Night City residents, crushing poverty and homelessness are significant and likely inescapable problems. As we mentioned before, despite this, most are still entranced by the glitz of showbiz and luxurious lifestyles of the privileged elite. Breakthroughs in neural technology paved the way for people to share recordings of their own personal memories and emotions via tech known as “braindance” (or BD). Some BD productions put actors in staged situations to create “false” memories, to give viewers the feeling that they’re living in an action film. Other BDs are simple recordings of a day in the life of the world’s biggest and brightest stars. The ability to “become” a celeb and experience a life of luxury gives many a chance to escape their own miserable reality. As a result, braindance addiction has become an ever-growing problem for the city’s poor. Also, as with all forms of entertainment media, illicit braindance recordings (XBDs) can be found easily in the seedy underbelly of Night City’s black market.
Two well known examples of this glitz can be seen in Lizzy Wizzy (the controversial frontwoman for the band Lizzy Wizzy and the Metadwarves, of which she is the only human member) and Samurai (a legendary rock band for whom music was a way to rebel and fight the system).
The Net is the name given to the vast telecommunications network of the Cyberpunk world. It is analogous to the real world internet, but much more extensive, including things like appliances and even cybernetic limbs. The Net is made of up of hard lines, radio links, cell networks, microwave transmitters and anything else that can transmit information from one computer to another.
While it is possible to access and use the Net as we do today (with devices referred to as Vidboards) – the true professionals experience the Net in 3 dimensions, using a complex cybernetic interface called a cybermodem. These devices, sometimes referred to by Netrunners as “Cyberdecks”, provides an experience that is much more immersive and intuitive than the traditional keyboard/computer interface. This allows Netrunners to react far faster than would ever be possible with a keyboard.
While in the Net, everything is rendered into “Icons”. An icon is basically a 3D avatar you control to interact with other stuff (people, programs ect) in the Net. Icons can be as simple as a flat 2D monochrome shape, to a complex photorealistic human form. Most of the Net environment is similar to the movie Tron, but the quality of the rendering depends on available bandwidth and memory. It is possible to render a completely realistic environment, similar to the movie The Matrix. More complex icons require more memory. For this reason, the bulk of the Net uses lower quality icons. Where originally, there were options to experience one of three unique interfaces (Megacity, D&D, & Tron), the UIs were eventually consolidated into one standard – the Tron-like model.
Artificial Intelligence in 2077
AI do exist in the Cyberpunk world, and the Net is their natural environment. There are many types of AIs. Some are deliberately created by corporations or governments, some by accident, and some are emergent properties of the Net itself. The following are some of the types of AIs experienced throughout the Cyberpunk series:
- Dedicated Heuristic Controllers (DHC AIs)
- The base level of AI – these are designed to perform specific functions, and their focus does not often stray from those functions.
- Symbolic Analysis AIs (SAD AIs)
- These are AIs deliberately designed to emulate human behavior. Mostly used as artificial assistants in some fashion.
- Human AIs
- These are AIs that were originally actual people, but have had their consciousness digitized and now exist only on computers in the Net.
- Transcendental Sentience AIs (TS AIs)
- These AI are are an emergent property of the Net…a natural consequence of how the Net functions – and as such their existence is highly debatable.
- Critical Pathway Plateau AIs (CPP AIs)
- These are similar to TS AIs, but on a much smaller scale. They are AIs that came into existence by some accident.
Cyberware in 2077
Even though cybernetic prosthetics were originally developed for practical and medical purposes, they’ve since become a matter of lifestyle choice. In 2077, cyberware has become as commonplace as tattoos and jewelry. The reasons for installing it are many and varied, including simple tech upgrades, combat enhancements, and even fashion statements. The possession of trendy cyberware has become an integral and defining part of Night City culture. Uniqueness is just another form of currency. To make it big, you need to look the part. Style is everything. Something that goes a long way towards helping this style is RealSkinn technology – synthetic skin designed to cover cybernetic implants.
Robotics in 2077
In 2077, society is highly dependent on drones and robotics – from live-feed camera drones, to sparring bots and massive warehouse machinery. Huge, automated trash collectors and robotic street sweepers can be seen any day through your window (if you’re lucky enough to have one). Whether top-of-the-line or pieced together from scrap, robotics serve a huge role in both the economic sector and everyday life. In fact, most public transportation services are handled by automated vehicles. These trains and buses are practically entities in their own right – able to communicate with each other and learn in order to improve efficiency.
On the other side of the coin, there is the Flathead, an experimental military grade unit designed for surveillance and reconnaissance missions equipped with dynamic camouflage armor and motor impulses that rival the human nervous system. The spider-like MTOD12 was originally stolen by the Maelstrom gang, but V is sent by the fixer, Dexter Deshawn, to ‘recover’ it.
The Political Environment of 2077
The world is broken. Following an economic collapse during the early 21st century, the United States was forced to rely on Mega-Corporations (MegaCorps) to survive. These corporations deal in a wide range of areas – weapons, robotics, cybernetics, pharmaceuticals, communications, and biotechnology to name a few – and many of them operate above the law. In Night City especially, MegaCorps manage every aspect of life from the top floors of their sky-scraping fortresses – their power eclipsing that of any world government. Down below, the streets are run by drug pushing gangs, tech hustlers, and illegal braindance slingers. The in-between is where decadence, sex and pop culture mix with violent crime, extreme poverty and the unattainable promise of the American Dream. Night City has seen its share of gang warfare over the years. The gangs that fill the city vary by structure, hierarchies, and backgrounds – however, all organized crime in this town is driven primarily by violence. Self-actualization through violence is a philosophy followed by many in this society, driven by an ever-present need to prove oneself. At the bottom, physical brutality settles most disputes. At the top, corporations do whatever’s necessary to maintain both hard and soft power. Here, fear is king. An important location to observe (and interact, if so desired) can be found in Below Deck – an underwater-themed club opened in a former aquarium.
Gun laws are lax in the most violent and dangerous metropolis of the corporate-ruled country – anyone can own a gun. And thanks to frequent riots and the daily threat of violence, just about everyone does. Open carry of firearms is commonplace and many even wear bulletproof clothing as they go about their lives – just in case. No one bats an eye at a pistol here or a rifle there. To stay alive, you need to look out for yourself…even if that sometimes means turning a blind eye to the constant violence happening all around.
The Megacorporations (MegaCorps)
Night City is a global center for megacorporation operations and home to regional branches of corporate giants such as Arasaka and Militech. In Night City, Arasaka specializes in protective services and the distribution of their Japanese-made products throughout North America. Over the years, it has developed a dark reputation as a corporation that is to be feared and one which covers its tracks using cyberassassins, an army of lawyers as well an alleged connection to the yakuza. Militech, on the other hand, is an arms dealer based out of the eastern US. Working closely with police and military forces, it has substantially contributed to civilian security systems. It’s a powerhouse manufacturer of high-grade military technology – from simple firearms to heavily armored combat vehicles.
Night City is also home to many shops, restaurants, and decor that draw inspiration from Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Indian culture, among others. The known MegaCorps in 2077 so far are:
- Dynalar Technologies
- Orbital Air
- Raven Microcybernetics
- Trauma Team International
The Corporate Wars
A series of conflicts which erupted between various MegaCorps after the turn of the century.
- First Corporate War (Aug 2004 – Feb 2006)
- Conflict that occurred between EBM and Orbital Air
- Importance of this War was that this presented the example to other corporations that using wholesale military-style warfare against one-another was a viable business practice. The first corporate war was the first conflict of its kind, and it lead to other corporations following suit in fighting massive conflicts with each over resources and business prospects.
- Second Corporate War (Apr 2008 – Aug 2010)
- Conflict between Sov Oil and Petrochem
- Importance of this War was in the manner that both sides had broken national and international laws throughout the conflict. Though both sides used the armies of Pacific Rim nations against each other, they also went as far as to depose governments and install new ones. SovOil particularly ignored the demands of nationstates and did as it pleased – SovOil was later forced to pay reparations to some nations.
- Third Corporate War (Feb – Nov 2016)
- Large-scale conflict between multiple MegaCorps
- Difference for this War was that it was fought nearly completely on the Net
- Fourth Corporate War (2022 – 2024)
- NOTE: While the events of Firestorm and v3.0 have been officially retconned, the 4th War is still on the canonical timeline – though currently it isn’t known which parts will remain fully in place.
- Shadow War between Militech and Arasaka (which started in early 2022 after the political conflict between OTEC and CINO had been resolved) escalated into a Hot War in June of 2022 that came to a head in 2024 with significant damage to Night City and to the Arasaka corporation.
The following are the available classes which characters will be able to access throughout the game – it is noted that these are fluid and able to be personalized rather significantly to allow for unique individual playstyles.
Netrunners are the types of savvy computer hackers you would find in the movie Hackers, but with a cybernetically augmented interface system implanted into their body. Using their brain-computer interface implants, they roam the Internet, looking for systems to hack and information to sell to Fixers. Their major ability/specialty is in their ability to “interface” – or utilize the “Menu”. The Menu is a group of Applications which allow a Netrunner to run a series of Interface programs.
The Netrunner will be best suited to players who prefer a stealthy approach – skills under this primary tree will grant access to mundane objects (doors, for example) as well as more intricate systems (i.e., security and encryption systems as well as eventually even other character’s brains).
Techies range from technicians to cybernetic specialists. They are usually underground techies, who do “off-the-record” work. They specialize in “jury rigging” (ability to repair or upgrade gear, weapons, or cyberware), “scrounging” (ability to find what you need), and some will display the ability of “med tech” (ability to use medical technology as well as identify drugs).
The Techie is geared to be an engineer/healer – their skills focusing on building and using a variety of weapons, gear, and items to upgrade/augment their playstyle. Some examples of the gear they have access to are drones and turrets.
Solos are hired hit-men, bodyguards, and mercenaries. Due to their professionalism and constant training, they have the ability to perceive danger, notice traps, and have an almost unearthly ability to avoid harm. This specialty is often referred to as their “combat sense”.
The Solo are mercenary characters – their skills are honed and focused on combat, especially close-quarter. They are strong and fast – ideal for the tank or brawler mindset.