Interview with Jakub Szamałek, Lead Writer for Cyberpunk 2077
JAKUB SZAMAŁEK is a Polish novelist and video game writer. He has written six books in his native polish and now works as a writer for the game company CD Projekt RED, which produced The Witcher series and recently Cyberpunk 2077. He is a graduate of Oxford University and holds a doctorate from the University of Cambridge. We reached out to Szamałek to ask him about the influence of cyberpunk fiction on the game, the shape of game narratives, and how he sees the cyberpunk genre now.
The London Reader: Your first crime novels were informed by history, but since then you’ve turned to exploring the impact of new technologies on our lives. What led you from history into writing novels (and games) that explore the near and coming future?
Jakub Szamałek: For a long time, I had very little interest in new technologies. Whenever I’d hear anything about megabytes, megabits, or megahertzes, I’d just zone out of the conversation. I assumed, naïvely, that if I don’t concern myself with new technologies, they won’t play a big part in my life. This was flat out wrong, of course; the internet has spilled out of the computers and permeated every aspect of our everyday existence.
I remember the very moment I realized this, the end of my sweet ignorance. I was on parental leave, pushing the pram with my sleeping seven-month-old daughter, and listening to the radio. A soft-spoken cybersecurity researcher told the shocked interviewer how paedophiles use new technologies to share pictures and videos of abused children or to find and groom their next victim. I felt my skin crawl; the contrast between what I saw in front of me, my sleeping daughter, and what I heard, was harrowing. I realized that I can no longer afford to be ignorant, that I need to know more about the net that surrounds us, ever more tightly, if not for my own sake, then for the sake of my daughter.
When I got back, I emailed a few friends of mine—programmers, white hat hackers, cryptographers—and asked them how can I catch up, what should I watch and read. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. Since then, I’ve trained with open intelligence gurus, consulted malware analysts and gone to an academic conference on AI at one of the world’s top universities. Though I’m no expert, I’ve grasped enough to realize that new technologies have, in a very short span of time, deeply affected our society, and most of us don’t even realize it. Most people still think—just like I did, a few years back—that new technologies are a niche interest, a hobby for nerds. I felt that we need a wake-up call, but one that would be as accessible as possible, with a wide reach. And so I started writing Hidden Web, a series which combines deep research with a fast-paced tech-thriller.
LR: Hidden Web tracks the jarring impact of technology through shocking scenes like a live-streamed murder and through immediate issues such as fake news, troll-farms, and the influence of money and social media on political campaigns. What drew you to these themes? Are you concerned about the impact technology will have on democracy? Have any of these pressing subjects made their way into your work on Cyberpunk 2077?
Jakub Szamałek: Well, after 2016 it’s hard not to be concerned about the impact of technology on democracy. Its influence is multifaceted: it changed how news stories are written, shared and consumed, completely redefined political campaigning and made outside meddling in electoral processes shockingly easy and cheap. And all the while, Silicon Valley behemoths pretend that they don’t see the problem and are powerless to fix it. Worryingly, it doesn’t look like things are going to improve any time soon. I agree wholeheartedly with Carole Cadwalladr that in the current internet landscape, liberal democracies cannot function normally.
But what I’m personally most worried about is the death of privacy. It’s already happened; we just haven’t realized it. In the era of Big Data and AI, even the most innocuous data can be used to uncover our secrets and decipher our most intimate thoughts. Just a few data points from social media are enough to determine our sexual orientation; a few hundred—a data trail generated over just a few days of activity—is sufficient to create a detailed psychological profile. Purportedly “anonymous” data collected by internet providers and mobile advertisers can be deanonymized with shocking ease and then used to follow our every move online—and in the real world too. Pictures of our faces, taken by omnipresent cameras, can be effortlessly tied to our identities, as demonstrated by the Clearview AI scandal. We’re creating an infrastructure for automated mass surveillance, assuming it will not be put to use. I very much hope we will not be proven wrong.
We covered some of these topics in Cyberpunk 2077—but the game universe is not an attempted extrapolation of our own world. It has its own, unique feel. Some of the topics we tackle in the game will definitely feel familiar, though—like environmental degradation or extreme social stratification and its consequences. At first glance, the world of Cyberpunk 2077 is colourful and exciting, but it has a grim, disturbing undercurrent. It’s a future I hope will never materialize.
LR: You’ve written fiction for both novels and for popular video games, like The Witcher and now Cyberpunk 2077, both originally inspired by novelized fiction. Which kind of story do you prefer to tell? And what do you find the most engaging with each medium?
Jakub Szamałek: I love working in both! What I enjoy the most in crafting narratives in video games is the nonlinearity. The player isn’t a passive consumer; she’s given agency to change the course of the story. Figuring out how to split the storyline—and where each of the branches should lead—is not unlike solving a hard puzzle: challenging, but uniquely satisfying. The best thing about writing novels, in my experience, is having total control over the story. There are no budget constraints to consider, no technical difficulties to overcome; anything is possible.
LR: The novel is an art form that is just a few centuries older than video games, and we see games such as Cyberpunk 2077 pushing narrative into collaborative spaces responding to player choices. The medium has now come full circle and there’s a whole genre of novels based around the game experience (LitRPG). Aside from the obvious reader interaction, what do you find are the main differences between telling a story in a novel and in a video game? What do the two media have in common?
Jakub Szamałek: In video games, players identify very deeply with the protagonist they control—much more so, I think, than in linear narratives, like books or movies. And no wonder: after all, they are drawn in, given the reins. Players feel like they star in the story; the boundary between them and the character on the screen dissipates almost completely. This has tremendous consequences for storytelling. For example, most readers will get through a scene in which the main character does something ethically questionable, eg tortures his antagonist, without moral qualms; they might feel disturbed or even disgusted, but they don’t assume personal responsibility for the hero’s actions. But if you put the pad in the player’s hands and ask her to actively do the same, she will feel extreme discomfort and might prefer to quit the game than to continue the story. To give another example, a book might feature a confused protagonist, who lost his or her memory, doesn’t know what to do next, and stumbles from one event to another, largely by chance. Video game players would likely find this extremely annoying since they assume the role of the protagonist; they need to know what they have to do and why.
Of course, there are many commonalities. The building blocks are the same. Irrespective of the medium, characters need to be relatable, dialogue lines must evoke emotional reactions, and plotlines have to be resolved by the end of the story.
LR: Cyberpunk is often defined as ‘high tech; low life’ and by William Gibson, the grand-father of cyberpunk’s famous quote, “The street finds its own uses for things.” Cyberpunk in part grew out of rising inequality in the 1980s that saw punk culture rebel against corporate influence. Inequality and the influence of corporations have only grown worse since then. In many ways, we’ve come to live in the world envisioned by the early cyberpunk authors, as your own novels explore. So in 2020, what is cyberpunk? What does cyberpunk represent to you? And what is cyberpunk in 2077?
Jakub Szamałek: If I were to define cyberpunk as a genre, I’d say it explores what a sudden technological advance does to a broken society. It imagines a world where the social contract has been torn to pieces and everyone—regular people, governments, corporations—fights for themselves with cutting edge technology at their disposal. The results are rarely pretty.
For me, a cyberpunk in 2020 is someone who looks beyond the cutesy logos and user friendly interfaces of modern tech giants and tries to identify their real goals and actions. It’s someone who understands that we have a civic obligation to understand how the digital sphere is run and object to injustices therein. It’s someone who knows the value of their privacy and takes steps to protect it.
In 2077, people are given a false choice: you either sell your soul to one of the giant corporations, or choose a life of crime. Without the protection of powerful businesses or gangs, sooner or later you will perish in the merciless streets of Night City. Cyberpunks are people who reject this dichotomy and try to carve out their own path. Technology, which often is a tool of oppression, also offers a way out. Cyberpunks know how to harness it to break free of the constraints of an unjust society.
LR: There is already something a little bit cyberpunk about bringing a story to life in an immersive 3D environment, but Cyberpunk 2077 is also full scale envisioning of the classic fiction genre. What familiar elements of cyberpunk show up in the game? Does it bring anything new to the genre?
Jakub Szamałek: Fans of the genre will surely recognize many familiar themes and topics: what does it mean to be human in a world where our bodies and minds can be fully mechanized and digitized? What happens when the elites have access to life-changing inventions, but others don’t? How do we function in a world where the boundary between the real and virtual is blurred?
But we also hope that Cyberpunk 2077 brings something new to the table. Most importantly, we tried to update the genre for the modern audience. Cyberpunk always explored our fears about the future, but some of these fears changed from the 1980s and 1990s, when some of the genre-defining novels were first published. For example, we’re less worried about an atomic apocalypse (perhaps wrongly…) and gang violence, but more concerned about privacy issues and the unfettered rise of tech giants. Our game attempts to explore these fears, make them the cornerstone of the story we’re telling.