Pawel Sasko, Quest Director for Cyberpunk 2077 & Phantom Liberty talks Idris Elba, Keanu Reeves, the Sequel & So Much More (EXCLUSIVE)

Things are looking up for the Cyberpunk franchise, with games, anime, sequels and more all on the way. Pawel Sasko tells all!

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Released in 2020, Cyberpunk 2077 was on the tips of every gamer’s tongue before it launched, and for all the best reasons. CD Projekt Red was coming out with another sprawling RPG to hopefully rival their Witcher franchise, and with the pedigree the developer had, it was going to be Game of the Year right?

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Unfortunately, after launch, the game was on everyone’s tongues for the wrong reasons. Buggy, broken, unoptimized and unplayable, it seemed for a long time that this burgeoning franchise would languish and be considered the studio’s biggest flop. Thankfully, a lot of hard work, patches, time, and the recent Phantom Liberty and Update 2.0 drops mean that not only is Cyberpunk 2077 in a better state nowadays, but it’s also considered to be the game we were promised, and fans are finally looking forward to the upcoming sequel, codenamed Orion.

We were lucky enough to speak to Pawel Sasko, Quest Director and one of the senior designers for both the base game and the recently launched Phantom Liberty expansion, about various facets of the game, the actors involved, and the future of the franchise.

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Cyberpunk 2077, Phantom Liberty and All Things Future

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Firstly, thank you for your time, Pawel! With reports indicating multiple games are on the horizon for CD Projekt Red, is it true that the Phantom Liberty team will be split between the Cyberpunk sequel and the secretive Witcher title?

Paweł Sasko, Quest Director: Naturally, with Phantom Liberty already released, its team members will join other projects that the studio is working on. Of course, this includes project Orion, the followup to Cyberpunk 2077, but at this stage only a very limited number of senior developers — such as some of the leads and directors who drove Cyberpunk 2077’s production, including myself.

At the same time, Polaris — the first installment of the new Witcher saga — is growing, and former Phantom Liberty team members are joining this project as well. Having said that, there is no “secretive Witcher title”; we announced Polaris over 1.5 years ago, and then in October 2022 we also shared a list of the rest of the projects the studio is developing. There are no unannounced projects.

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What was the biggest challenge with trying to rebuild and adapt the base game, whilst also working on the expansion at the same time?

PS: Rebuilding and adapting the base game while simultaneously working on the expansion, presented our development team with a unique set of challenges. Phantom Liberty was constructed on the foundations of Cyberpunk 2077 — including Update 2.0, necessitating a meticulous consideration of all reworked gameplay features and functionalities. This process required us to navigate through integrating the improvements made to the base game seamlessly.  

One significant aspect we had to grapple with was ensuring that the expansion not only retained the essence of the base game but surpassed it in terms of quality. We aimed to incorporate an additional layer of polish into Phantom Liberty, elevating it beyond the standards set by Cyberpunk 2077. This commitment to higher quality, however, introduced a delicate balance in our production timeline, demanding careful planning and execution.  

While we made numerous improvements, fixed bugs, and added small enhancements, our primary focus was on refining gameplay systems and addressing issues.

The release of Cyberpunk: Edgerunners marked a pivotal moment for us. Despite the positive outlook on the game’s prospects post-launch, there lingered a palpable sense of apprehension. This expansion was slated to be our first full release since Cyberpunk 2077, and the pressure to deliver was very visible.

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The challenge was not just about rebuilding and adapting but also proving to ourselves that we still possessed the capability to create exceptional art and an outstanding game. Believing in our abilities became the ultimate hurdle. It wasn’t merely about knowing what to do and how to do it; it was about regaining confidence and trust in our creative instincts. The journey to self-assurance was, arguably, the most daunting aspect of the entire process. We had to rediscover our collective belief that we could produce a beautiful, engaging experience for players. 

In the end, overcoming this internal challenge was a testament to our resilience and commitment. The successful release of Phantom Liberty not only revitalized our confidence but also reinforced the notion that, despite past setbacks, we can indeed make very good games.

With all the work you’ve put into the base game as well as the upcoming Phantom Liberty, do you plan to release any more major expansions for Cyberpunk in the future?

PS: Thank you for this question, because I very much appreciate the enthusiasm for more content in Cyberpunk 2077. As we’ve communicated previously, our focus is now shifting toward the development of the Cyberpunk sequel, a new Witcher saga codenamed Polaris, and several other exciting projects. Our goal is to bring you the next big gaming experience. At this time, we don’t have plans for additional major expansions for Cyberpunk 2077. That being said, I love that you are asking for it, it makes me very happy.

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Cyberpunk 2077 is a gigantic game, with hundreds of hours worth of content as it is, but how much of that has been reworked, and in what way should we expect the base game to change exactly?

PS: The core content of Cyberpunk 2077 has not undergone significant changes in terms of story, quests, or characters in Update 2.0. While we made numerous improvements, fixed bugs, and added small enhancements, our primary focus was on refining gameplay systems and addressing issues.

Simultaneously developing Phantom Liberty meant that major content changes to the base game weren’t feasible. We take pride in the original story and quests of Cyberpunk 2077, and while hindsight reveals areas for improvement, it served as valuable learning for the development of Phantom Liberty. And hopefully, the content of the expansions shows how much we have learned.

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Game development and design are not easy, so with past game expansions bigger than other developers’ own full games, how do you juggle the size of content with the time needed to develop, as well as managing and meeting gamers’ expectations?

PS: Our approach revolves around consistently surprising players with exceptional art, intricate stories filled with twists, believable characters, and a vibrant, immersive world. Our goal is not just to meet but to surpass gamers’ expectations. Over time, we’ve evolved our production methods, transitioning to Agile methodology post-release of Cyberpunk 2077. This has enabled us to streamline processes, reduce iterations, and enhance overall quality.

The allure of a spy-thriller theme, a narrative terrain relatively unexplored in the cyberpunk gaming realm, presented itself as the perfect avenue to distinguish the expansion and infuse it with uniqueness. 

Efficiency is a key focus, emphasizing quick decision-making and unwavering commitment to chosen directions. We recognize the importance of creating games that players love and admire, aligning with our own passion for making games we want to play. This shared enthusiasm guides our decisions regarding content, features, and production, and ultimately shapes experiences that resonate with both our team and our players.

What part of Phantom Liberty was the most difficult, yet most rewarding to implement?

PS: The most challenging yet rewarding aspect of implementing Phantom Liberty was crafting gameplay features and functionalities centered around the spy-thriller theme. Choosing this theme for our expansion opened up a realm of creative possibilities, and devising innovative ways to vividly portray the life of a spy was both enjoyable and gratifying.

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Throughout Phantom Liberty, we introduced various elements tied to the intricacies of espionage, making the creation of main and side content a thrilling process. One particularly satisfying element is a specific faceplate that players acquire at a crucial point in the story. The interactions between this faceplate and the police system stand out as a personal favorite; it exemplifies the unique and immersive experiences we aimed to deliver within the spy-thriller theme, adding depth and intrigue to the gameplay.

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Compared to The Witcher 3’s excellent Blood and Wine, how much content would you say Phantom Liberty has?

PS: Comparing Phantom Liberty to The Witcher 3’s Blood and Wine expansion is intriguing, particularly due to their similar main story structures. In terms of narrative depth and engagement, I would say they are very comparable. However, it’s essential to note a distinction in design philosophy. Dogtown, where Phantom Liberty takes place, is crafted as a subdistrict within the existing Night City, whereas Blood and Wine introduced an entirely separate region. While Phantom Liberty may seem smaller in terms of square kilometers, its density sets it apart.

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The expansion features numerous interiors and even underground sections, all playable with custom quest content. This density contributes significantly to the overall experience. When considering how long it takes players to complete Phantom Liberty, the comparison to Blood and Wine holds up well. It’s also crucial to acknowledge the unique challenges of creating content for Cyberpunk 2077.

The game’s first-person perspective, continuous action without loading screens, and the inability to employ certain development tricks pose both beautiful opportunities and tough challenges. Every new element must seamlessly integrate into the game, be visible from various camera angles, and function flawlessly within the expansive and immersive world of Cyberpunk 2077.

If you’re able to tell us, is there any gameplay mechanic or design choice that has been actively held back from the first game and its expansion, and instead has now been pushed towards the sequel?

Game development is a constant iterative process, during which a huge number of ideas are shared and considered. Some of them end up in the game, and some are ultimately rejected for various reasons.

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This concerns story, gameplay, design, audio — virtually every aspect of the game. From this perspective, you could say there were ideas that didn’t make it into the game and maybe some of them will resurface during our work on Orion. At this point though it is really way too early to discuss any of them in particular, as Orion is still in an extremely early phase.

Is V the protagonist of the sequel? If not, is it an established character?

Again, given the extremely early stage of the work on Orion, we can’t share any details about the game.

Where did the idea for Phantom Liberty come from, considering the stark difference in themes and seemingly sharp right turn from the main game’s desperate scramble for survival to Phantom Liberty’s secret agent espionage thriller adventure?

PS: The genesis of Phantom Liberty stemmed from a collaborative effort among the directors involved, driven by the desire to create something distinct, possessing a unique personality and identity within the cyberpunk subgenre. Through extensive discussions and research, the inspiration crystallized during our appreciation of the atmosphere found in the movie Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

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The allure of a spy-thriller theme, a narrative terrain relatively unexplored in the cyberpunk gaming realm, presented itself as the perfect avenue to distinguish the expansion and infuse it with uniqueness. 

We view the chosen genre and theme as guiding principles in content creation, ensuring consistency and a deep connection with the game’s atmosphere. Building on the lessons learned since the early days of Cyberpunk 2077, we’ve honed our ability to wield themes and genres more effectively.

This refined approach is evident throughout Phantom Liberty, where the spy-thriller theme manifests in diverse scenarios. From quests structured like Bond movies to stories inspired by Bridge of Spies, The Bourne Identity, and even Ocean’s Eleven, the expansion explores the theme’s versatility, providing players with a rich and varied experience.

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It’s been said in the past that The Witcher 3 is about family and Cyberpunk 2077 is about death. What would you say Phantom Liberty is about, and why?

PS: Phantom Liberty delves into a profound and expansive theme, one that could warrant an entire conversation in itself. In essence, while The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt explored the theme of family and Cyberpunk 2077 focused on the concept of death, Phantom Liberty grapples with the conflict between the individual and authority. The narrative unfolds around So Mi and Reed, both emblematic of different facets of this struggle.

we’ve gained valuable insights into leveraging genres and themes effectively within quests and stories. The lessons extend to crafting dense and believable worlds, creating well-crafted open-world experiences, and preparing a plethora of activities to enrich the player’s overall experience.

Their characters are intricately entwined in the tapestry of history and politics, each yearning for liberation in their own distinct way. The central theme challenges players to navigate the complex interplay between personal agency and the influence of external authorities. Much like Cyberpunk 2077’s exploration of terminal illness, Phantom Liberty invites players to ponder the dynamics of power and individuality, prompting them to make choices within a context that raises profound questions about autonomy, freedom, and the intricate dance between the self and external forces.

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Given the choice between Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Silverhand being stuck in your head, or Idris Elba’s Solomon Reed pulling your strings forevermore, who would you rather be stuck with, and why?

PS: Choosing between having Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Silverhand stuck in your head or Idris Elba’s Solomon Reed pulling your strings is a fascinating dilemma. While both characters bring unique qualities, I’d prefer not to be stuck with any of them! Having Johnny Silverhand in your head means navigating the complexities of a rebellious and iconic rocker with a strong, independent spirit.

On the other hand, being under the influence of Solomon Reed involves being guided by a charismatic and authoritative figure, entangled in a web of history and politics. It’s a matter of taste and the kind of dynamic you’d find more intriguing or comfortable navigating in your mental landscape. For me, both seem to be broken on a very fundamental level and if I had a choice, I’d prefer to be free from them both!

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What is the biggest lesson from the development of the game and its DLC that you’ll be taking onto the sequel?

PS: The development of the game and its expansion has been a profound learning experience, and these lessons will undoubtedly shape our approach to the next game in the franchise, codenamed Orion. The primary takeaway revolves around the necessity of placing equal emphasis on technical excellence alongside narrative, world-building, and characters. We’ve come to understand that even with a stellar narrative, an immersive world, and compelling characters, technical difficulties can hinder the player’s enjoyment. Therefore, achieving and maintaining technical excellence is paramount. 

Additionally, we’ve gained valuable insights into leveraging genres and themes effectively within quests and stories. The lessons extend to crafting dense and believable worlds, creating well-crafted open-world experiences, and preparing a plethora of activities to enrich the player’s overall experience. While specific details about Orion remain undisclosed, rest assured that the learnings from Phantom Liberty will not be lost, as things we have figured out while working on this project are absolutely invaluable. 

How much has the change in genre affected the different playstyles for gamers? Can you still choose to attack all-guns-blazing, or do you have to stealth everywhere now?

PS: Phantom Liberty, being an expansion to Cyberpunk 2077, adheres to the fundamental gameplay principles of the base game. Players can still choose their preferred playstyle, whether it’s an all-guns-blazing approach, stealthy maneuvers, hacking, or a combination of these strategies to accomplish objectives.

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Update 2.0 brought enhancements and improvements to the gameplay loop while maintaining the core mechanics of the original game. The expansion introduces a heightened level of variety with engaging set pieces, ensuring a memorable experience for players. The changes and additions in Phantom Liberty are, in part, a response to valuable feedback from the player community. So, if you enjoyed the diverse playstyles offered in Cyberpunk 2077, you’ll find a similar, yet more varied and enriched experience awaiting you in Phantom Liberty.

Games live and die in the details, so what small, seemingly insignificant part of the game is the team as a whole proud of?

PS: In Cyberpunk 2077 and Phantom Liberty, our pride lies in the intricate details that breathe life into our game worlds. We’ve strived for unparalleled immersion, evident in the diegetic user interface that seamlessly integrates into the cyberpunk setting. Every element, from commercials and advertisements to brands, logos, and even stylized details like graphite, clothing, architecture, and food, is meticulously crafted to enhance the believability of the world.

We’ve gone the extra mile to design pizza boxes and other seemingly insignificant items to fit seamlessly into the created universe, creating layers of details that contribute to the world’s vibrancy. Special attention is given to the creation of fake websites, each representing various services or frontages of corporations within the cyberpunk world. 

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The depth of detail extends to written materials, including articles, books, notes, and conversations that provide insights into the dreams and struggles of the people in this world. As a testament to this commitment to detail, even a musical about the 4th corporate war has been written specifically for the game. In Phantom Liberty, we take particular pride in the mesmerizing performance of Lizzy Wizzy, showcasing our dedication to infusing every facet of the game with rich, immersive details.

How much harder is it to write a story and quests for a character like V, where everyone will have different versions of him/her, compared to doing the same for say Geralt, of The Witcher series, where the character is already preestablished and uniform in nature?

PS: Writing for V in Cyberpunk 2077 was an immensely challenging task compared to crafting the story and quests for Geralt in The Witcher series. Geralt, being an established character with a rich background from books and previous games, had a predefined personality, speech patterns, and decision-making tendencies.

Over three games and two expansions, we gained a deep understanding of Geralt’s character. Conversely, V was a new creation, and the challenge was magnified due to the player’s ability to shape V’s body type, voice, gender, looks, and skillset. These customization options created a character with vast potential variations, making it essential to find a universal personality that could adapt to each player’s choices seamlessly. Unlike Geralt, V’s responses and actions needed to accommodate a wide range of player-driven characteristics.

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Honestly, we are already really excited to be able to work on Cyberpunk again, having our heads full of ideas and also having developed many new skills during the production of both Cyberpunk 2077 and Phantom Liberty.

Crafting a character as versatile as V required careful consideration and collaboration to ensure a cohesive narrative experience. This complexity demanded extensive discussions and agreements across all narrative designers to capture V’s essence in a way that felt authentic in every conceivable player-defined scenario. And despite the difficulties, we ended up with various role-playing options for players, allowing us to strike a balance and design V in a way that accommodates different personalities, depending on the situation.

The franchise has extended onto Netflix with the anime, but do you anticipate a feature film, or live-action TV series at all?

Indeed we’re really happy to have been able to reach outside of the gaming community with Cyberpunk 2077. The anime you mentioned, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, is a prime example of how we managed to show that Cyberpunk 2077 is more than the game itself, but also a wider universe.

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Games, of course, remain the core of what we’re doing, but it’s no secret that we are trying to build more than that. This October we shared that we’ve started a collaboration with global media company Anonymous Content to produce a live-action project set in the world of Cyberpunk 2077. So, in short, yes, there is more to wait for in this universe!

Phantom Liberty has been met with rave reviews (including my own) and much fanfare, and rightly so. I imagine after the reception at the launch back in 2020 this was a nervous time but was there ever a point where the direction or content of the expansion was under threat of being completely different?

PS: First of all, thank you for your positive review; it means a lot to the entire team! In the development process of Phantom Liberty, as with any project, various elements underwent constant iteration — whether it be the story, characters, world, or gameplay features. While we didn’t face major shifts or changes in the overall direction, we did make numerous adjustments along the way, sometimes, major adjustments.

One notable example is the “heart to heart” scene with Alex, where she invites V for a drink in The Moth bar. Interestingly, this scene wasn’t initially part of the original plan, but through iterations, we recognized the necessity of incorporating it to properly depict Alex as a character. These adjustments were made to ensure that every element was executed as effectively as possible and given the appropriate screen time. It’s a testament to the iterative nature of game development and our commitment to delivering the best possible experience and memorable stories.

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The ending of Phantom Liberty changes a lot going forward, compared to the four endings in the base game. How did you come to this ending, creatively?

PS: Indeed, you’re correct in referring to the ending of the base game that Phantom Liberty introduces. The decision to bring about this change was deliberate… Unfortunately, I can’t delve into further details due to the risk of spoilers. However, I can share that it wasn’t accidental; it was a creative decision grounded in both community feedback and our vision for the noir and dystopian narrative centered around terminal illness.

Listening to player feedback and understanding that some may not have found the original base game endings entirely satisfying, we sought to provide an additional, meaningful conclusion — a sixth ending. Our goal was to offer a conclusion that resonated well with the themes of the game, addressing the complexities of terminal illness and how individuals cope with it. Without delving into spoilers, I’ll refrain from revealing more, as I understand some players may not have experienced the new ending in Phantom Liberty yet.

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Out of Idris Elba and Keanu Reeves, which do you think had more fun with the character, in the sense of adapting and changing the character?

PS: Both Idris Elba and Keanu Reeves brought immense passion and dedication to their respective roles in Phantom Liberty, and the sentiment from players attests to their heartfelt performances. Keanu Reeves, in particular, has been widely acclaimed, with many considering Johnny Silverhand to be one of his best roles. Additionally, Idris Elba’s portrayal of Solomon Reed earned him a nomination at the  2023 Golden Joystick Awards and The Game Awards.

In the game, you can observe the genuine effort both actors invested in bringing their characters to life. Each found their unique approach to playing the roles, adding depth and authenticity. Simultaneously, our writing team worked to craft characters that would suit the distinctive styles and strengths of both Keanu and Idris, ensuring that the characters on screen would be as compelling as possible. Working with such phenomenal actors has been an honor, and their contributions have undeniably enriched the immersive experience of Phantom Liberty.

Update 2.0 and Phantom Liberty have changed the game completely. How many of the changes implemented were original ideas vs fan feedback?

PS: The changes introduced in Update 2.0 and Phantom Liberty represent a significant blend of original ideas and valuable fan feedback. While we, as developers, made numerous observations and assessments of Cyberpunk 2077’s performance and player preferences, it was crucial to play the game ourselves and draw our own conclusions.

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It turns out that many of our internal observations aligned with the feedback from players. Recognizing that the community’s insights served as essential road signs, pointing out areas for improvement, and highlighting aspects that needed attention, we incorporated extensive player feedback into the updates.

The enhancements spanned various aspects, including the police system, cyberware, perk trees, car combat, improved AI, loot, itemization, and difficulty modes — areas where both players and developers acknowledged room for improvement. This collaborative approach, driven by the invaluable input from our community, allowed us to address the game’s strengths and weaknesses more comprehensively. The reworking of these elements is a testament to the continuous dialogue between developers and players, enhancing the overall experience of Cyberpunk 2077.

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With all the new cyberware involved, allowing for a HUGE variety of builds, what would you say is an absolute must-have bit of cyberware for players, and why?

PS: In Cyberpunk 2077, having a robust Subdermal Armor is crucial for survival, especially with the significant changes introduced to cyberware. It serves as a fundamental necessity for staying resilient in the challenging world of Night City. This, in my opinion, is a must-have as a baseline for any build.

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However, true enjoyment comes from experimenting with various core pieces of cyberware such as Mantis Blades, Monowire, Gorilla Arms, and the Projectile Launch System. Unlocking the Relic tree in Phantom Liberty introduces unique possibilities for these core cyberware pieces, significantly enhancing the gameplay experience.

The impact and fun factor of these significant cyberware pieces become even more pronounced. Among my personal favorites is also the Optical Camo, ideal for those who favor stealthy playstyles. It opens up exciting possibilities for stealth approaches and adds a layer of strategic depth to encounters.

Additionally, the Second Heart cyberware is a valuable choice for players navigating Phantom Liberty on very hard difficulty, providing an extra layer of survivability during intense combat scenarios. The combination of these cyberware elements adds a dynamic and engaging dimension to the game, allowing players to tailor their builds to match their preferred playstyles and challenges.

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When can we expect more news on Cyberpunk 2?

When it comes to the next game in the Cyberpunk franchise, the short answer is: in due time 🙂 Honestly, we are already really excited to be able to work on Cyberpunk again, having our heads full of ideas and also having developed many new skills during the production of both Cyberpunk 2077 and Phantom Liberty. As soon as we are ready to share any news on Orion, we won’t hesitate a minute to do so.

And lastly, there are some outstanding and iconic characters introduced in Phantom Liberty. Will we be seeing any of them again?

The games we produce are at the heart of everything we do at RED. At the heart of each of those games, there are the stories we tell. And at the heart of those stories lie lively, interesting, and sometimes mysterious characters that we develop meticulously. As for future Cyberpunk productions, but also for any other game we’re working on, I can assure you that this approach will prevail: we will still work hard to introduce multilayered and unforgettable characters. The question of whether you might’ve met them in our past games or not will for now have to go without an answer.

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Written by Luke Addison

Articles Published: 425

Luke Addison is the Lead Video Game Critic and Gaming Editor. As likely to be caught listening to noughties rock as he is watching the latest blockbuster cinema release, Luke is the quintessential millennial wistfully wishing after a forgotten era of entertainment. Also a diehard Chelsea fan, for his sins.

Twitter: @callmeafilmnerd