Just as was the case at E3, the behind-closed-doors demo of Cyberpunk 2077 was one of the highlights of this year's Gamescom, with hefty queues made up of journos and influencers (and a number of developers too, we should add) hoping to catch an extended glimpse of CD Projekt Red's super-ambitious sci-fi RPG. The exclusive jackets being handed out to attendees probably helped drive up interest too, but even without the offer of some stylish new threads, there's a huge amount of interest in CDPR next major RPG and we're not the only ones who walked out of the demo thoroughly impressed by what we had just seen.
Having said all that, we're not going to zero in on the finer details of the demo, as we pretty much did that after seeing the game at E3. Instead, we're going to look at Cyberpunk 2077 from a different angle, from a more visual perspective, and to that end we spoke to Marthe Jonkers, senior concept artist at CDPR, about the design of this expansive futuristic world, and the extraordinary attention to detail that's being poured into the project.
When it comes to visual design in Cyberpunk, it's clear that a lot of preparatory work has gone into creating a world that feels plausible, despite its futuristic setting. With city planners advising on the layout and graffiti artists adding some style to the bricks and mortar, the studio has gone to great lengths to provide players with an urban sandbox that feels authentic. Underpinning all of these efforts, however, are a series of distinctive art styles that have their tentacles spread into all facets of the game's design.
"The styles are really the backbone of the visual design of Cyberpunk 2077," Jonkers explained to us in a booth inside CDPR's stand in the business area of Gamescom. "So you might have seen the posters - there are four - and actually they all represent a different visual style connected to the timeline. Cyberpunk 2077 is, of course, based on Mike Pondsmith's Cyberpunk 2020 [pen and paper RPG system], but 57 years have passed in between, a lot of stuff happened, and connected to that different art styles or visual styles that reflect the fashion, architecture, vehicles, even the weapons, start to emerge. So we actually made this sort of visual timeline."
"Entropism was in a time when it wasn't going so well and people were poor, so that reflects what it looks like - the designs are very practical, the materials are very cheap, there's not much decoration," Jonkers explained.
"But then you had kitsch," the concept artist continued. "Things were going better, great. People were happy and you see that because there's so much colour in kitsch, it's very vibrant and the shapes are much more rounded."
"After that you had neomilitarism. That's when the corporations were in power and they really have some influence on the fashion of that time.
"And the most new style we call neokitsch because it's sort of connected to kitsch; it's also very colourful, but this was when the gap between the rich and poor became so big that you have these super, super, ultra-rich and they have their own style. It's very based on kitsch, very colourful, but they have this added element of natural elements because in Night City, in the future lots of animals got extinct - it's not going really well with nature. So if you have like an animal print or something, you must be really rich, you know? And if your house has wood on it, you must be one of the ultra-rich."
The city itself is looking like a busy, sprawling play space, but from the demo, it's hard to discern just how vast it is. Last week producer Richard Borzymowski told Gamesradar that it was a bit smaller than the map for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, but much more densely packed.
"If you look at pure surface [in terms of] square kilometres, then Cyberpunk 2077 might even be a little bit smaller than The Witcher 3, but it's the density of the content, taking the world of The Witcher and squeezing it right in, deleting the wilderness between... [Night City is] an integral part of the setting; it's essentially a protagonist if you want to call it that, so it has to be denser. It wouldn't give us the end effect we wanted to achieve if the city wouldn't be believable [...] so we packed it full of life."
We've been told that we'll be able to explore Night City freely with no loading screens as we move between districts. It's a trick we've seen before in other games, but clearly differentiating parts of a city is a design challenge not to be underestimated, and far too many digital towns and cities of the past have felt bland and uninteresting to explore because of a lack of variety when it comes to their overall composition. CDPR, by digging into the four dominant art styles listed above, hopes to make this futuristic city feel like a living, breathing entity on its own. Borzymowski's protagonist, if you will.
"So in Night City you will see a mix of all these styles," Jonker continued, "so when you drive around and you see a building that's bright pink and has all these round corners you will know that's kitsch and it must have been built in that age, and those kind of people built it. In that way, we really wanted to give Night City this level of believability and visual lore so you actually feel like you're in a real city."
It's not just a case of rounding off a few edges and throwing on a coat of neon paint, however, as it goes much deeper than that. CDPR and its design teams has clearly been building Night City from the ground up - a cliché maybe, but it's an apt description of a metropolis that has been layered with detail and brought to life in a number of ways, from the brick and glass walls that tower overhead through to the temporary scrawls left by street artists of the future.
"Designing a city is not easy and we really wanted to have the six districts of Night City to have their own feel so we connected their design a lot also to their history. But we also thought about, like, if you walk around a city, like in Cologne, you will see all these different types of architecture, you will see different types of cars driving around, people will wear different types of fashion. You know, this is such an important part if you're trying to design a city, and that's why we created these styles that really are now the backbone of the visual design of Night City.
"We added a lot more to that. For instance, we have a super-talented team who created all the graffiti in the game, and every street gang in Night City will have their own visual style that we will put on top of the city. So you will get all these layers of story purely just by visual elements, and that really makes you feel, when you walk around, like 'wow, this is a city, this city has history, these people lived here for a long time.' You can actually see that."