Home Interview - Exploring the World of Cyberpunk: Edgerunners With Bartosz Sztybor

Interview - Exploring the World of Cyberpunk: Edgerunners With Bartosz Sztybor

It has been a little over six months since Cyberpunk: Edgerunners premiered on Netflix worldwide. The original series took the anime world by storm: it marked the “return” of Studio Trigger while also delivering an engaging story set in the world of a CD PROJEKT RED game. Although the game did not have the smoothest launch, the anime didn’t suffer from similar issues and it went on to win multiple awards, including Anime Corner’s title of the Best New Anime of 2022 and Crunchyroll’s Anime of the Year award. We were curious to learn how this unique project came to life so we reached out to Bartosz Sztybor, who is a comic book and animation narrative director at CD PROJEKT RED, but also a Cyberpunk: Edgerunners screenwriter and producer. We got to ask some interesting questions that we have compiled into an interview that you can read below.

Q: Can you share with us how the idea of Cyberpunk: Edgerunners anime came to be? What kind of impact, if any, did the release of the Cyberpunk 2077 game have on the Edgerunners’ production?

A: It was a long process with making Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, but it was clear from the beginning that we wanted to create an anime in the world of Cyberpunk 2077. Cyberpunk has very strong links with anime and we felt that making our own series would be our tribute to the genre. With that idea in mind, we started searching for the perfect story that would work best with the anime format and Cyberpunk 2077’s world. After dozens of drafts for both the characters and story, and many many hours of brainstorms with Studio Trigger, we decided that the story of David and Lucy was the perfect fit.

As for the game’s release impact on Edgerunner’s production, to be honest, it didn’t have that much of an impact. I was typically writing the story for the whole day and then I had 6-8 hours of calls with Studio Trigger, so I didn’t know what’s going on in the “real world”, ha ha!

But of course, there were days when I was hearing what was going on in the studio or talking with my friends during lunchtime, but it still didn’t change a thing. I knew Cyberpunk 2077 had so much to offer. I played the game, I knew how much emotional, world-building, and story potential it contained. I knew that we as a studio have so many amazing stories to tell and we want to tell them. And that gave me even more power.

Q: Did you know from the beginning that you would be writing a story for an anime? What was your initial reaction?

A: Oooh, I was so excited! I was asked to join the team by Rafał Jaki (the creator of the whole project) because I had experience in writing for comic books, TV shows, and animation, so I knew how to write scripts and I knew how to work with pop culture tropes. But I’d never written an anime — and I’ve loved Japanese animation since my early childhood, so it was like a dream come true. There was fear, of course, because I didn’t know how different it was from writing a movie or a European animation, but those calls with Trigger gave me a lot of guidance and knowledge I wouldn’t have learned anywhere else.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about how the production looked? What was it like working with TRIGGER and Netflix?

A: The writing process was really hard because there were definitely some creative differences during the first couple of months that both sides needed to adjust to. We wanted to create something different than all the anime that were made before, our goal was to mix anime visuals and narration with a storytelling approach you know from live-action premium TV shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire, or The Sopranos. And it was hard to find the balance, for us and for Trigger as well, because — firstly — we were trying to create something fresh and — secondly — we were two companies from different countries with totally different cultures and experiences. That’s why we had to learn from and about each other, build trust, and start speaking the same creative language.

We figured it would’ve definitely been much easier if we could spend time together in person, so there was a plan I would go to Japan and write the final scripts with the team at Studio Trigger. But then, two weeks after everything was greenlighted and I was counting down the days to my flight, COVID came and forced us to continue communication via video calls. So it was much harder — but we finally got there! We started understanding each other, we started talking about character motivations and scenes to learn how we perceive them, what’s their meaning, etc.

When we felt that the themes of the story were meaningful to us, that we saw each other in these characters — that’s when everything became easier. I guess we saw that we’re telling the same compelling tale. We started talking about how our characters feel and what we want to feel while telling this story. And from that moment the writing process, and later the whole production effort, became much easier.

Q: You wrote several Cyberpunk 2077-related works. Was there a specific thing you used as an inspiration when writing the story for Edgerunners?

A: I’m always trying to use Cyberpunk 2077 to talk about things that move me, that I think are real and important in today’s world. Sometimes these are bigger, more global issues (like the decline in the importance of family as an element of social life in Cyberpunk 2077: You Have My Word), but very often I like to keep things close to myself and another human being. I like to talk about their emotions, and about things that I feel or think but I don’t understand. When we knew that Cyberpunk: Edgerunners would tell David’s story, including his three key relationships over the course of the show — with his mother, his father-figure Maine, and his love Lucy — I knew the series had to be about how much you should give to help another person; when should we start thinking about ourselves and what we can sacrifice for the good of the person we love?

Q: Were there any specific challenges you encountered while adapting the material to an anime format? Was there anything that surprised you?

A: There were moments when I thought it wouldn’t be possible to translate a 35-page script into a 20-minute per-episode anime, but surprisingly it worked! So it was a discovery to learn how different anime pacing is compared to the pacing of live-action or European animation.

This pacing made writing dialogue and scripts interesting too. I had to be mindful of not writing too many stage directions, and I also had to sometimes forget the “show, don’t tell” rule. In other words, writing needed to be more direct, because some information may be lost in the fast pacing. This process was so much fun because anime is very emotional and expressive. I like to look at it like this: If writing live-action is introverted, then writing anime is extraverted. It gives you a lot of freedom, but you need to open yourself to that freedom and allow yourself to go with the flow.

Q: If someone played the game he could tell at the first glance that the Night City in Edgerunners was pretty much a 1:1 recreation of the Night City from Cyberpunk 2077. What was your reaction to seeing how it turned out?

A: It looked amazing, but I was close with Trigger during the whole process, so it wasn’t much of a surprise to me. I knew they were very into recreating the city. They played the game for hours to learn the city so they knew more than me about where each building is or where each street goes. It’s amazing because it feels real, Night City suddenly becomes a city that really exists.

Q: In an interview with TheNeonArcade you mentioned that some things were lost in translation during the production process. Do you have any specific examples? Did it affect the final product?

A: Nothing was lost and forgotten. When both studios started working on the story, we were seeing and understanding things differently. We did have some communication problems because we interpreted David’s behavior or the meaning of some scenes differently. But as I said earlier, there was a moment when we started speaking the same language and then everything started moving forward much more smoothly. We both knew what kind of story we wanted to tell and did everything to make that happen.

Q: We know that Edgerunners’ story is told over the course of 10 episodes. Is there a reason a sequel was not planned from the beginning?

A: All of us at CD PROJEKT RED want to tell important, emotional, and meaningful stories and it’s not that easy with an ongoing series that can get canceled in the middle of the story arc. Also, we wanted to tell the story about David’s tragic journey and we knew it’s a story for one standalone season, 10 episodes — no more and no less.

We’re doing the same thing with our comic books and other Cyberpunk 2077-related works, it’s always a mini-series that tells a self-contained story you can read without knowing anything else about the world.

Q: How different was writing anime characters? Were there any particular things you struggled with? Was it difficult to bridge the “gap” between western characterization and what we typically see in anime?

A: It was not difficult at all, but maybe because I wasn’t writing anime characters, haha!

Like I said earlier, the idea was to bring some live-action elements to the anime format. That’s why the characters were created as if they were live-action characters, but with anime elements. But of course, there was a moment when I started working with Studio Trigger to add the anime flavor to all characters.

I had problems with characters being too obvious sometimes or expressing their emotions out loud, about moral statements in the dialogue, but I had to learn that it can’t be 100% live-action characterization because we’re creating an anime. We needed emotions, exaggeration, we needed to be over the top. I had to learn as a writer to go with the anime flow and sometimes forget about the rules I learned as a screenwriter because they were taming me.

So with that in mind I think we managed to find a balance between the anime way and the live-action way of creating characters.

Q: Did any of the characters significantly change from how you originally imagined them in the concept? Who is your favorite character in the story and why?

A: With more than a few dozen versions of the storyline, there were tens of character changes. Sometimes whole backstories and character traits were rewritten, with only names remaining. Other times two characters would be combined into one, or a person’s mentality stayed the same but their motivations changed. 

There was a version — one that I really liked — where David and Lucy knew each other before, they had a third friend and were a trio of thieves mostly stealing skill-chips and selling them to their neighborhood ripperdoc, dreaming to be like Maine, a famous cyberpunk from their block.

In one storyline Faraday was much closer to David. He was not as villainous as in the final version, but he was a really complex character struggling with the difficult choices he had to make. In another one, Falco became a good friend of David’s after — SPOILER ALERT! — Maine’s death. There was a moment during the creative process when a new storyline was made every week, so trust me, there were many great characters and a lot of changes.

As for my favorite character, I really like David. We share similar struggles and there’s always a place in my heart for tragic romantics. That’s why I like Maine, too. He’s a lost cause, he wants to stop, but he can’t. I think his journey is the saddest one. For me, he’s the most tragic character of them all.

Q: While writing the story, did you have a moment where you wanted to change the fate of some characters?

A: Many times, because I felt so bad for them. You know, I spent more than three years with them or some versions of them, I started to really like them. So yes, I was thinking a lot about changing their fates.

But after many moments of doubt, I always knew some things just need to happen for their arcs and the story to be complete. It’s a tale about the meaning and legitimacy of sacrifice, so one way or another it would end with the death of one of the lovers and a glimpse of hope for the other.

Q: On a similar note, were there any notable differences between the original concept and the final product when it comes to the story?

A: As I said before, there were dozens of storylines, so there were lots of cool concepts floating around, but the final story is identical to the final product.

As for cool concepts, I mentioned the skill-chip-stealing trio idea that I really liked, but there was also a different — much darker for David (is that even possible?!) — ending to the David-Maine arc. Maine was getting deeper and deeper into cyberpsychosis, and much more dangerous, so David had to kill him to save the team. After that David is not the same again and he gradually gets swallowed up by his inner darkness.

Q: What is your favorite episode in the anime?

A:Girl on Fire” (episode 6) and “My Moon My Man” (episode 10) are fan favorites — the first one for being action-packed, visually stunning, and for the vivid portrayal of cyberpsychosis, and the second one for being so damn sad! I really like those two, but I love “Lucky You” (episode 4) for the sudden change of mood not only in the episode but in the whole anime. I also love it for telling us the truth about the Cyberpunk 2077 world and for being the shocking beginning of the downward spiral. For me, it’s the most shocking death of them all.

Q: Did you expect the community to welcome the Cyberpunk: Edgerunners anime so warmly?

A: Not at all, it was a huge surprise! To be honest, I thought there will be a couple of people writing nice things, my mom will call with congrats and some of my friends will send me a “good job” text, and that’s all. When Edgerunners dropped I was in a different country, jetlagged, so I overslept the exact moment of release. I woke up a few hours later, had many missed calls, and my DMs were jam-packed.

I was shocked and still am. People are still sending messages, still creating amazing fan arts, and also all these awards — it’s like a beautiful dream that doesn’t end. I’m really moved and so grateful for such a warm response. And all the fans are so amazing!

Q: With the great reception of the show, if you could tell us, were there any talks about making another anime set in the Cyberpunk universe? Or maybe a story in some other format?

A: Last week I finished writing the second issue of the 4-issue comic book miniseries called Cyberpunk 2077: XOXO which tells the story of a Maelstrom gangster falling in love, a dark romantic story that will be released later this year by Dark Horse Comics.

Aside from that one, me and all my colleagues have many stories to tell in Night City and beyond, so keep your fingers crossed for us and I hope we’ll show you plenty of cool stuff in the future.

In addition to Cyberpunk: Edgerunners screenplay, Bartosz Sztybor also worked on a number of Cyberpunk 2077 comic books, including Big City Dreams, You Have My Word and Where’s Johnny. You can follow him on Twitter.

Big thanks to Mr. Sztybor and CDPR for the interview.
Authors: Kuba Kezja and Tamara Lazic
© Cyberpunk: Edgerunners © 2022 CD PROJEKT S.A.

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