Now a much wider audience is finally getting a good look at what Pondsmith has been imagining this whole time, with a new video game adapted from his life’s work. Due out on December 10, Cyberpunk 2077 is one of the most lustfully anticipated games in recent memory. Trailers depict a seedy, retro-futuristic playground, a sprawling world dense with detail and packed with violence and mayhem. Fans and reviewers are excited about seemingly endless player choice (players can customize their genitals) and dozens of hours of immersive, do-whatever-the-hell-you-want game play. It stars a digital likeness of Keanu Reeves as Johnny Silverhand, a rock-star revolutionary who sports a tactical vest, leather pants, aviator sunglasses, and a metal arm.
Pondsmith, now in his 60s, has been known to wear his own cyberpunk uniform: black leather jacket, black jeans, motorcycle boots, mirror shades. Today, at home in the suburbs of Seattle, he’s in a black T-shirt and regular spectacles. It’s fitting that we’re speaking over Zoom, the kind of now-ubiquitous telepresence technology that felt futuristic in Blade Runner in 1982.
“Writing,” Pondsmith tells me, “is a lot like basically eating a pound of dough, a whole pepperoni, a couple of pounds of mozzarella, and a bunch of spices, then throwing up a pizza.” It takes a lot of work to make an unreal world feel real.
For eight years, the Polish video-game developer CD Projekt Red has likewise been consumed with the task of making Pondsmith’s world feel authentic on-screen. In 2012, when the studio first contacted R. Talsorian Games about adapting Cyberpunk, Pondsmith paid a visit to the Warsaw headquarters expecting the operation, he has joked, to consist of “four guys and a goat.” Instead, Pondsmith met a team with epic ambitions, well on the way to becoming what it is now—one of the most valuable gaming companies in Europe.
Like the tabletop games before it, Cyberpunk 2077 asks serious-minded questions about the place of technology in society. “Technology is sort of like the magic of this world,” the game’s director and the head of studio, Adam Badowski, says of his understanding of Pondsmith’s core themes. It “grants massive amounts of power to those who possess it. Governments, corporations, and the ultrarich all use it as a means of keeping their place at the top of the food chain, while dominating society and keeping down the individual. But what if powerful technology gets into the hands of individuals who wish to use it to fight for themselves, for their personal freedom and independence, to take their fears head-on?”
After years of development featuring an attention to detail verging on the maniacal, the result, Pondsmith said, “looked like it had walked out of my brain.”
The son of a psychologist and a U.S. Air Force officer, Pondsmith spent the first 18 years of his life shuttling around with the military. It gave him an uncommonly panoramic perspective for a young person, and the ability to quickly adapt to whatever surroundings he found himself in. His imagination roved widely too. He became addicted to stories, the more transporting the better: Isaac Asimov’s science fiction, Robert A. Heinlein’s juvenile novels, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom series.