In 1990, R. Talsorian Games published their second edition of Cyberpunk, better known as Cyberpunk 2020, a tabletop roleplaying game set in a grim and gritty near-future. Inspired by a variety of works in the cyberpunk genre, the game gave players the chance to indulge in the neon-lit and rain-soaked worlds of visionaries like William Gibson and Ridley Scott. In doing so, they also helped pave the way for other cyberpunk themed tabletop games like Shadowrun (which went on to have several video games based off it) and Interface Zero.
It wasn't until CD Projekt RED put out a teaser trailer announcing Cyberpunk 2077 that R. Talsorian's setting finally got its due. But, unlike Shadowrun, it's a setting which a lot of players may not be familiar with, for all the genre conventions shown off in the various trailers.
Welcome to Night City, choomba.
The 1980s were undoubtedly the seminal decade for cyberpunk as a sub-genre, with the appearance of William Gibson's novel Neuromancer, the film Blade Runner, and the manga Akira in Japan. Yet the roots of the genre stretch back to the late 1960s and the 1970s, with works from authors like Philip K. Dick, Roger Zelazny and Joan D. Vinge. The name itself was coined by writer Bruce Bethke for a short story titled Cyberpunk, and quickly became a by-word for tales of lowlifes living in high-tech dystopias.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the genre grew across various media. From films such as Total Recall (another Philip K. Dick adaptation) and Ghost In The Shell, to television shows like Max Headroom and Serial Experiments Lain, the mix of chrome, neon, dingy back alleys and lurid tales were hard to escape. One can find a list of recommended films and books in the pages of Cyberpunk 2020, and it's not hard to see how much these works informed Mike Pondsmith and company when they were building the setting.
A Mirror Darkly
Like any good near-future sci-fi piece, Cyberpunk 2020 assumes certain changes in its timeline. Indeed, being the second edition of the game (the first is out of print), they actually retconned in events like the fall of the Berlin Wall to help ground the setting, though the vagaries of publishing schedules means that other real world events oddly help give the setting the right note of divergence.
For example, in the real world, the ruler of Panama, Manuel Noriega, was deposed towards the end of 1989. But in the Cyberpunk timeline, he wasn't deposed (and not officially named) until sometime in 1990. And while the Soviet Union dissolved on New Year's Eve of 1991 in the real world, Cyberpunk's version of it fell a year earlier, though it seems to have hewed more closely to Mikhail Gorbachev's vision for what the USSR needed to become.
In the Cyberpunk timeline, the three decades between 1990 and 2020 have their share of big upheavals. The Eurotheatre gets established a year earlier than the real world European Union, though the game incorrectly uses the name European Economic Community (which had been created in the Treaty of Rome in 1952). A united Europe becomes the major superpower of the 21st century, setting up advances in technology at a rapid clip which leads to the first permanent orbital habitats and the first lunar colonies, as well as manned missions to Mars and Jupiter.
Africa goes through a bloody period similar to the civil wars in Liberia and Rwanda, though South Africa does not make the peaceful transition out of an apartheid state, before finally coalescing into a single continental government with assistance from Europe. The Middle East goes through a period of escalating tensions, culminating in a "limited" nuclear war which leaves all but a few nations utterly destroyed. Central America, after two covert wars with the US, solidifies into a regional federation. And across the globe, megacorporations slowly ramp up their competitive activities into outright warfare as the desire to control markets becomes as powerful as any nation's desire to control territory.
As for the US, it doesn't just take a beating, it takes an asskicking. Admittedly, some of it is self-inflicted, such as the two Central American wars it starts. But between a stock market crash, over 25 percent unemployment and homelessness nationwide, a retaliatory nuclear attack by drug cartels and a shadow coup by a cabal known as "The Gang of Four," the US collapses in 1996 and martial law is declared. Drought and a massive earthquake destroying Los Angeles are just the diarrhetic icing on a crap cake. The Millennium didn't necessarily make things better or impart any particular wisdom to the federal government. By this point, "federal authority" is a cruel joke. Most states west of the Mississippi have declared themselves "free states," and California finally broke up into two separate entities.
Bright Lights, Big City
Night City (where the core of both Cyberpunk 2020 and Cyberpunk 2077 are set) started off as a grand vision to build the city of the future, even in the midst of difficult circumstances and deep upheavals. Designed by one Richard Night, and bankrolled by megacorporations looking for territory they didn't have to fight for, the project started off as Coronado City, a successor to the Del Coronado township which would later make up its "Old Downtown" section. The location around the middle of the California coast near a natural bay which could be dredged to make room for cargo vessels was just about ideal.
Unfortunately, Richard Night made too many enemies, resulting in his assassination five years into the building process. The City Council renamed the city in his honor, the last effective action they'd ever take.
For over a decade after Night's death, a power struggle between the megacorporations and the Mob (who arranged the assassination of Night) ensured that life in Night City was going to be nasty, brutish, and short. The Corporates "won" in the end, but only at the expense of preventing the city from functioning like an actual entity.
By 2020, the situation is not appreciably better. Rampant homelessness, absurdly high levels of street crime, and a dangerous degree of social instability make living there an adventure in and of itself. The Mayor's office is simply another department on a corporate org chart, the man himself an inoffensive stooge who has virtually no power. The only power that really matters in Night City is firepower, with money being a very close second, and the megacorporations have both in abundance.
The People In Your Neighborhood
Every town has its celebrities, famous and infamous alike. Some of them are rising stars, some of them are hometown heroes and some are international names who happen to find a new home. Some are people you don't pick a fight with if you value your life and internal organs. At least one of these characters has showed up in previous Cyberpunk 2077 trailers, but don't be surprised if others on the list either make an appearance or are referred to in various conversations or literature.
Johnny Silverhand: Night City's biggest rockerboy. Before he got into music, he served on the front lines of the Second Central American War, a cybernetically enhanced soldier sent to exotic places to meet interesting people and kill them. After he finished his hitch, he started a band called Samurai, recorded some albums, then started turning out solo albums. Like any properly tortured artist, he's talented as hell with music, but his personal life is as screwed up and tragic as any rock star before him could want. (For the video game, Keanu Reeves is playing this character.)
Morgan Blackhand: In Night City, if you want somebody killed, you go hire some boostergang member on the edge of cyberpsychosis. If you want them killed with a minimum of fuss, or to leave your enemies a message, you hire a Solo. If you want the job done right, you hire Morgan Blackhand. A consummate professional, Blackhand was a soldier from the old days, before cybernetics, before smartguns, before the private sector became just as dangerous and stingy as the public one. Forty years later, he's an old man who still plays in a young man's game, and he's undoubtedly the grandmaster.
Kerry Eurodyne: The Paul McCartney to Silverhand's John Lennon, Eurodyne was part of the band Samurai before Johnny Silverhand left. Forced to go solo himself, Eurodyne remained a big name draw, writing songs which were no less angry and critical of the state of the world, but not nearly as thoughtful as his former bandmate's works. While he attracts at least as much hostile attention as Silverhand, his personal life seems to be less of a train wreck. (A Cyberpunk 2077 booth at an event in Europe last year shows there are posters which say "Eurodyne." This may or may not be an indication he might appear in the video game.)
Alt Cunningham: Once upon a time, a nice girl named Altiera Cunningham worked as a computer scientist and Netrunner for a small corporation, playing around with ways to store AI personalities. She took her work a little too far and found she could store the living engramatic patterns of human beings, then return them to their original bodies. It was the promise of digital immortality. Her bosses turned her work into the deadliest security guard on the Net, calling it "Soulkiller," which prompted her to leave. She fell into the arms of Johnny Silverhand. Shortly afterwards, she fell into the clutches of one of the biggest megacorps around, Arasaka, who forced her to not only recreate Soulkiller but upgrade it with the ability to move throughout the Net. The story goes that Johnny Silverhand raided Arasaka's Night City offices to save her and failed. But she'd completed Soulkiller 2.0, exactly as requested, right before her captors threw her into her own creation. The first true digital immortal might still be around.
Rache Bartmoss: If the Devil has a nickname on the Net, it's Rache Bartmoss. He's many things to many people: entrepreneur, cyber-pirate, anarchist, enfant terrible, digital evangelist, all around asshole. These descriptions and more have all been leveled at him. For him, the Net is reality and meatspace is a purgatory to be tolerated only in small doses. He's also dead. Mostly. Because he's pissed off virtually everybody worth the effort, somebody went and mortally wounded him. The only reason he's not completely dead yet is the cryogenic life support system he built for himself and stashed in an undisclosed location. As his body very slowly approaches the point of non-viability, he's throwing himself headlong into the digital ether, racing ahead of the Reaper, and maybe pulling off one last grand gesture.
While all of this is almost sixty years in the past as far as Cyberpunk 2077 is concerned, it's good to see how some of the problems players will face first presented themselves. If nothing else, it certainly adds the flavor of history to the chrome and neon of the dark future.
Stay tuned for Future Imperfect: A Cyberpunk 2077 Primer, Part II on June 4th, 2020!