There’s clearly a lot to explore throughout Cyberpunk 2077’s vision of the dystopian Night City, but much like its shiny towers and skyscrapers, CD Projekt Red’s new sci-fi adventure has some deep foundations.
With more than 30 years of lore behind it, there’s a lot to catch up on -whether you’re a total newcomer to the Cyberpunk Universe or a tabletop veteran looking for a refresh. Here’s a (relatively) brief history of the Cyberpunk world before 2077.
1989 – 2012: The Dawn of the Dark Future
Even though 2077 is set 50 years from now, the Cyberpunk universe really gets its start in the late 1980s – this is where the world’s timeline starts to deviate from our own.
Coming out of the Reagan administration, the world starts unraveling as the US government as it was known falls to a secret coup by the heads of the FBI, CIA, NSA, and the DEA. Colloquially known as The Gang of Four, this shadow government went full-bore on the whole “profits over people” thing, which would ultimately lead to a complete collapse of the United States as we know it.
Updated: 92 Cyberpunk 2077 Gameplay Details
The soon-to-be-former superpower becomes almost immediately bogged down by an alleged “War on Drugs and Communism” in South America that was little more than a thinly-veiled resource grab at Chile and Bolivia’s lithium reserves. What the Gang doesn’t tell the public is that they also engineered and released plagues to kill off the cocaine and opium production of worldwide cartels – something the European megacorps secretly sponsoring the cartels doesn’t take too kindly too. This becomes a continuously-escalating conflict across the western hemisphere culminating with a Colombian cartel setting off a suitcase nuke in Manhattan in 1993.
The next year, the world experiences a full-scale economic meltdown after it was revealed the US had been manipulating the global markets to launder money earned in illegal arms sales. By the late ‘90s, this one-two punch of war and recession – along with several epidemics and natural disasters, including a 10.5ML earthquake that sent more than 30% of Los Angeles into the Pacific Ocean – had left the country in shambles. One in four people are homeless and most cities have been abandoned, leading to the rise of mobile communes known as Nomads – as well as the augment-addicted boostergangs. Several states, like California and Texas, secede to become “Free States” as the Constitution is suspended and Martial Law is declared nationwide.
The rest of the world fares a little better through the end of the 20th century, though not necessarily by much. Several Asian/Pacific nations – particularly China, Korea, and Japan – remain fairly stable along with the European Union (known as “Unified Europe” in-fiction), resulting in the Eurodollar (€$ or “eddie”) emerging as the ranking global currency. South America recovers from the US’s failed imperialist takeover, though the Russian government becomes openly kleptocratic, disease and food shortages crop up all over the planet, and most of the Middle East is turned into a glassy radioactive wasteland by a small-scale nuclear war.Of course, nobody cleans up better in the wake of global disasters than multinational corporations. With governments large and small on the verge of collapse, many were left with no one to turn to for aid aside from the megacorps, who were all too happy to help in return for even more power and influence. By the early 2000s, corporations were operating at the scale of first-world nations, with just as much (if not more) control over the world’s governments and resources. The heaviest hitters were the energy conglomerate PetroChem and their Soviet counterpart SovOil, bio-engineering firm BioTechnica, arms manufacturer MiliTech and, of course, the “it only does everything but mostly private military contracting” grandaddy megacorp, Arasaka – though there were plenty of smaller fish in the sea as well.
That’s not to say the millennial era was all bad. The central African nations unite and develop a highly successful space program, establishing far and away the most spaceports and strongest hold on earth-orbit territory (though that is after some violent conflicts with other space stations and the lunar colonies). A new, more efficient renewable fuel source called CHOOH² is developed (that’s not a chemical formula, just something BioTechnica’s marketing team thought sounded good) and effectively replaces gasoline within a few years, and while the staggering amount of wounded vets returning to the US from the South American wars of the early 90s was tragic, it catapulted technological innovations in prosthetics and biomechanical integration to new heights, resulting in the development of cyberware that becomes so ubiquitous throughout the 2010s and ‘20s.
– Cyberpunk 2020
However, along with cyberware naturally came cyberwarfare, and cybercrime, and plenty of other morally ambiguous uses for such revolutionary technology. In a world where kibble has become a mainstream food product, it’s no wonder that so many took to life on the fringes of society, whether it’s to feed themselves or whatever their vice of choice may be. Life on the edge soon became mainstream, a default life many simply fell into. These cybered-up hellraisers for hire – whether street kids or corporate wannabes – eventually became known as Edgerunners or, more commonly, cyberpunks.
Throughout all this, Night City emerged as one of the few cities able to survive the collapse and the turmoil that followed, even though it saw its share of troubles, too. Originally founded as Coronado City in 1994 – and subsequently renamed after its architect Richard Night was assassinated in a power grab by either the megacorps or the mafia (it’s still unknown which) – the city didn’t see any sort of real stability until the early 2010s. After years of open war in the streets between corporate security forces and the mob, the organized crime syndicates finally called it quits. While it was still a dangerous place, and some of its districts – like the half-developed Pacifica – never fully recovered, it began to feel more like a city and less like a warzone… or a few years, at least.
This is where we get into more serious spoiler territory, so if you wanna go into 2077 totally green, you’d best turn back now.
2013: The Soulkiller
In 2013, unironically-named rockstar and cyberpunk Johnny Silverhand – a veteran of the Central American wars of the 90s who opted to replace the arm he lost with a chrome-plated one – is leaving a gig with his girlfriend Alt when they’re jumped by a corporate hit squad. They leave Johnny for dead and kidnap Alt, dragging her back to Arasaka HQ. As it turns out, the megacorp isn’t particularly satisfied with being one of (if not the) biggest multinational corporation in history; its founder Saburo Arasaka and his son, the CEO Kei, have their sights set on, well, basically world domination. And what Johnny didn’t know about his new flame is that Alt was a really extraordinary Netrunner – a hacker – who had designed a legendary bit of malware known as Soulkiller.
It was originally built to transfer a person’s consciousness into a cloned body, but the program had been weaponized – not just as a means to fry a target’s brain, but as a way to imprison and torture souls digitally. It was both one of the most vile and heinous innovations of the modern era, and also the key to immortality – though Arasaka had kidnapped Alt to focus on the former rather than the latter.
– Never Fade Away
Meanwhile, Silverhand survives and gets together a rescue team, setting up an impromptu show outside Arasaka and inciting the gathered crowd into a riot as a means of getting inside. At the same time, Alt reprograms and jumps inside Soulkiller to make her own escape, but the two plans collide in the worst way possible:
Johnny and his crew blast their way into Arasaka, inadvertently cutting off Alt’s retreat back to the real world when they destroy a command console and sever the bridge back to meatspace. Thinking her dead, they make their escape, leaving a disembodied Alt trapped floating in cyberspace.
2021: The Fourth Corporate War
As the name implies, there’d been three previous wars between competing megacorps prior to the 2020s – when a company operates with the GDP and military strength of a small country, the fight over market dominance is bound to get ugly – but these were all petty squabbles compared to the Fourth Corporate War.
– Lilaya, Grunge Rocker
It started innocently enough – at least, as innocently as it could when factoring assassination into corporate espionage – as a competitive hostile takeover by rival oceanic shipping firms in 2021. However, as things escalated each side hired one of the two biggest PMCs – Arasaka and MiliTech – who’d been itching for an excuse to duke it out for years themselves.
Before too long, the war had ravaged the planet and pushed most countries to their breaking points. Almost all trans-global shipping had been shut down, the orbital colonies had declared independence to avoid of the conflict – by way of hurling multi-ton rocks at earth from orbit – and the entire Net was wiped out when Arasaka’s assassination of renowned hacker Rache Bartmoss released a virus that infected nearly 80% of the network, crippling corporate and governmental entities alike.
2023: The Fall of Night City
Night City ended up being ground zero for the end of the war. As a free city in a free state, both MiliTech and Arasaka had strongholds in the city, and without a national government to hold them accountable the city was a hotbed of continuous fighting between the two. Finally, in August of 2023, it all came to a head when a small-scale nuclear device went off at Arasaka’s headquarters in the city center.
Some more potential spoiler-ish stuff coming up here if that’s still a concern for you at this point.
The specifics of what actually happened in the hours leading up to what would become known as the Night City Holocaust are hazy – and by hazy I mean there’s a chance that 2077 retcons what happened in the tabletop adventures… but we’re going to assume those books are mostly gospel, especially since the original creators partnered with CDPR and just released a new one. There was never an official ruling on who triggered the bomb – the two leading theories are that MiliTech got overly bloodthirsty or that Arasaka nuked their own HQ to protect their corporate secrets, but – as you might expect – the real story is nowhere near that simple.
Even though the US government didn’t formally nationalize MiliTech after the Night City bomb, in reality, the feds joined forces with the PMC just beforehand. Apparently, Arasaka had managed to lock down the Alt’s digital consciousness and used her to build a new version of the Soulkiller – something neither MiliTech or Uncle Sam could really let slide. A unified command assembled a black ops team headed by the legendary mercenary Morgan Blackhand consisting of another merc named Rogue, a journalist by the name of Thompson (who still writes for The Night City Inquirer in 2077), a netrunner codenamed Spider, and – you guessed it – Johnny Silverhand, who was all too eager to both avenge Alt and attempt another rescue mission. The objectives were simple enough: get in, rescue Alt, eliminate the Soulkiller and drop a tactical nuke in the basement to destroy Arasaka’s corporate databases.
Of course, this being Cyberpunk, nothing goes according to plan. Despite getting in and making it to the Soulkiller lab relatively unscathed, everything goes to hell when Arasaka’s favorite cybergoon Adam Smasher shows up and pumps a bunch of lead into Johnny Silverhand. Spider tries to download his brain using some sort of data slug given to her by Alt – we assume this is the biochip that V eventually steals in 2077 – but fails to back up his consciousness as her equipment is destroyed in the firefight. The team manages to burn out Soulkiller, but can’t save Alt from (once again) remaining trapped in the collapsing data net.
– Cyberpunk RED Rulebook
By the time the bomb goes off, it’s unclear who beyond Thompson, Rogue, and Spider are left standing – though we get a good look at Adam Smasher
alive functioning and well in 2077 – though Kei Arasaka (Saburo’s favored son and CEO of the company) is allegedly killed as well. It’s also still unclear who was actually responsible for the bomb going off before it reached the basement.
The blast itself wasn’t big enough to destroy the city, but thousands were killed as the Arasaka towers and most of the city center was destroyed, and the filled bay it was all built on flooded a bunch of the inner city. In the aftermath, the MiliTech-backed US government stepped in with a force Arasaka effectively couldn’t match, and the Japanese government soon convinced the PMC to cease operations. Finally, under threat of nuclear retaliation against their Tokyo HQ, Arasaka was effectively banished from conducting any business in North America.
2024 – 2070: Reconstruction and Reunification
Much like iconic eras of the 20th century such as “The Summer of Love” or “The Great Depression,” the years immediately following the fourth corporate war are remembered as “The Time of the Red” due to a mix of debris and radioactive fallout circulating through the atmosphere turning the sky a violent shade of red that didn’t fully dissipate for nearly a decade.
The Fourth Corporate War had shattered nearly every cultural norm that had come to prominence since the 1980s. The global balance of power shifts away from corporations and back to national governments, with laws being put in place to demand at least some semblance of accountability in the face of any corporate malfeasance. Ultimately this just means that they have to be more discreet about their illegal operations, but it loosens the vice grip many corporate entities once had over most of the world’s population.
– Cyberpunk RED
With much of its industrial and commercial infrastructure destroyed or crippled, the world experienced something of a technological recession. As countries focused on rebuilding, the production and development of cyberware wouldn’t reach the levels it was at in 2020 for nearly 30 years. This may have been quicker if the Net were still around to share information, but after Bartmoss’s DataKrash it was so overloaded with rogue AIs and self-aware viruses that it was effectively written off as a digital wasteland. As the Net was eventually rebuilt via a series of local, national, and/or corporate hubs – though nowhere near as ubiquitous as it had been – the cybersecurity agency Netwatch developed The Blackwall – a digital barrier cordoning off the remnants of the Old Net from the new.
Amid all this, Night City – along with several others that had been abandoned during or after The Collapse – rebuilt itself, thanks mostly to Nomad supply chains and corporate philanthropy (aiding in reconstruction efforts was the best option for the old megacorps to regain the trust they’d lost in the wars). The “New United States” – which was really just the east coast and some inland states, with most of the central and western territories remaining independent from the government in Washington, D.C., which – failed to provide any meaningful aid, instead trying to leverage offers of assistance against the free states’ hesitancy to rejoin the union.
This “Reunification” effort by the NUSA government eventually escalated as what remained of the former superpower declared war on the independent territories in 2069. Night City found itself wedged in the middle as Southern California rejoined the States and the northern Free State refused – though managed to avoid being drawn into the fight thanks to the help of an unlikely ally: Arasaka.
The security giant had been covertly assisting many of the Free States’ resistance, but when its private military became directly involved it instantly made the Feds back down – they knew they couldn’t afford a large-scale conflict or risk another global crisis. In 2070, a treaty between the remaining free states and the NUSA was signed, and Night City was designated an “international free city,” exempt from the laws of both the New US Government and the Free State of NorCal – to the immense delight of megacorps everywhere, not least of all Arasaka, who wasted no time setting up their new American HQ right on top of the ruins of the old one.
And that pretty much brings you up to speed. The monitors may have changed from CRT to LCD, but Night City is once again a good old-fashioned hive of corporate greed and violent crime. Sure there are still plenty of questions left unanswered, like exactly who grabbed up Johnny’s digital consciousness when the towers fell, and what happened to Arasaka’s real area-denial nuke – because they definitely had one down there – or, at the very least, has kibble released any new flavors in the last 50 years?
Once Cyberpunk 2077 is out, you can count on us for the answers to… most of those questions. In the meantime, why not check out our interviews with Cyberpunk’s original creator about how the latest PnP edition, Cyberpunk Red, bridges the gap to the video game, and of course our thoughts on the game after 16 hours straight in Night City.
JR is a Senior Editor at IGN who wants you to check out the tabletop version of Cyberpunk, too. If you do, tell him all about it on Twitter.