The last time the video game industry gathered for a major event in Los Angeles, at 2019’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, fans were eager for glimpses of games that would show how the current generation would come to a close and what was ahead for the next one. But despite new consoles from Sony and Microsoft looming as well as glimpses of assorted big name franchises, the talk of the show was one man: Keanu Reeves.
The star, known for this work in “The Matrix,” “John Wick” and even “Toy Story,” appeared at a Microsoft event to announce he would appear as a nonplayable character in “Cyberpunk 2077,” the hotly anticipated and already highly debated game from CD Projekt Red, a work that wants to push boundaries with its grim and cynical view of our world.
Out this week for consoles and PCs after delays and controversies — the game has been questioned for how it presents marginalized communities, and CD Projeckt Red’s demanding studio culture has also been a point of contention — “Cyberpunk 2077" still promises to be one of the biggest games of 2020, despite barely making it out before the year’s end.
There is one aspect, however, that most early players appear to agree on: Reeves’ performance as Johnny Silverhand is the heart of the game. An aging rocker, Silverhand is sometimes a hard-to-stomach, disillusioned figure but one with an underlying sense of idealism, however deeply hidden it might be.
Reeves’ interest in the role was partly due, he says, to his fascination with sci-fi stories and the difficult characters who inhabit them. But he’s also curious about the game medium as a whole and how interactivity can affect the stories we tell as technology continues to advance and more audiences than ever before begin to play.
“This has gotten me closer to the idea that I originally heard when I was a young kid with Marlon Brando saying they could make a digital version of him when he was doing ‘Superman,’” says Reeves, who is appearing as a presenter at Thursday’s Game Awards. He referenced then his work on “The Matrix” films as further exploring his interest in what a digital character could do onscreen. For “Cyberpunk 2077,” it was the idea that Silverhand might be a different character depending on how someone opts to play the game and interact with him.
“That was one of the ideas that drew me to play the role, when CD Projeckt Red brought the project to me they showed me and spoke to me about the platform of the game and the character,” says Reeves. “It’s an open-world, role-playing game. What decisions you make for your dialogue and how you want to be, gives Johnny Silverhand not just one role. I’m playing different versions of the character. That’s something I normally don’t get to do when I inhabit a character.”
The next challenge? Making someone so downcast in an oppressively bleak city feel likable. Or at least interesting.
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“He’s ex-military, disillusioned, angry, started a rock band, who was doing protest music — wake-up music — he was looking for a cause. He was looking at the world around him and confronting hypocrisy and subjugation,” says Reeves. “That stance of the character felt fun to me. Within that character, they gave him the love of his life. So there’s a tough exterior but underneath is this positive, hoping-for-a-better-world presence. I think we all relate to that.”
Reeves hasn’t played the game yet. He’d just received a copy the day before we spoke but says he would like a more game-inclined friend to come over and walk him through the world. For now, on the subject of games, he’s thinking bigger, referencing, for instance, how the Disney+ series “The Mandalorian” uses a game engine, Epic’s Unreal, in its production. The line between built and virtual sets is often difficult to discern, allowing for more possibility in how we can imagine worlds.
“I think what that means is going to change a lot in the next five years for science fiction — [artificially intelligent] modeling, what Epic Games is doing with the Unreal Engine, the pursuit of technologies to create photo-real from source,” says Reeves. “I don’t know where it’s going, but I know it’s going to be wacky. It’s a good kind of puppeteering. Like, if I can play with the animation, I have more control.”
While it seems hopeful right now amid our pandemic times to look to the future, there’s the simple matter of dealing with the now. Asked how, or if, he’s able to stay creative in 2020, Reeves had a simple message: Go easy on yourself and look out for others.
“Try and respect others,” he says. “Try and continue to get the most out of life, and find ways to get that in this situation, but also to respect it. Find ways to connect. If you can. I mean, just .... survive.”
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