'The Ascent' Developers on 'Cyberpunk 2077' Similarities: 'There Is Going To Be a Giant Overlap'

The Ascent invites comparison to Cyberpunk 2077 in a number of different ways, featuring a very similar world, comparable lore, overlapping themes and even some kindred gameplay mechanics. Yet while the developers over at Neon Giant are acutely aware of these parallels, they also believe they have done enough to distinguish their title from the crowd.

In an exclusive interview, Newsweek spoke to the team to find out more about how they built the world of The Ascent and their reaction to CD Projekt Red stealing their thunder.

Creating the Ascent Group Archology

The Ascent is a twin-stick shooter, with a few RPG elements sprinkled throughout, set in a dystopian future. In the game, you play as an indentured contractor who has been toiling away for years at the behest of a megacorporation, one that happens to own the very space station you live on. When the company unexpectedly goes under, the entire community is plunged into chaos, and everyone is suddenly left to fend for themselves.

You, however, take this opportunity to pursue a career change and make a name for yourself as a gun-for-hire. Throughout the ensuing campaign, you will work your way up the levels of "The Ascent Group Archology" (basically a corporate-owned city in the form of one big skyscraper) where you fight different kinds of enemies and acquire new loot.

For example, when you start in the basement tier you will just be gunning down feral mutants, equipped with only a dirt-cheap revolver, but as you rise through the world things will gradually escalate. Before long you will be waging war against local gangs in the slum district and, eventually, you will even get to rub shoulders with the Archology's elite near the top of the building.

Speaking about this premise, Tor Frick, co-founder of Neon Giant and one of the game's creative directors, said: "It's a location that is self-contained. We didn't want to do this grand, planet-hopping tale [...] It's also thematically very fitting because you are always moving upwards in the world, both figuratively and literally".

His collaborator, Arcade Berg (the other creative director and co-founder of Neon Giant) points out that the insular setting also enabled them to set boundaries in the game without resorting to invisible walls. Like your character, you are trapped in this environment and when you get to the peak of the skyscraper there is nowhere else to go. In the words of Berg: "It just ends there naturally."

The Ascent Archology
"The Ascent" takes place in a giant "Archology" skyscraper, where the residents are segregated into different zones according to their social class. Curve Digital

The Cyberpunk 2077 Resemblance

The idea of fighting your way up a dystopian tower block might sound familiar to anyone who has seen the 2012 film Dredd, in which the titular antihero has to do the same thing to take down a local crime syndicate. The resemblance makes sense given that, according to Frick, the 2000 AD comics were one of the many inspirations that fed into The Ascent.

He explained: "We are big fans of sci-fi and the cyberpunk genre in general, so we cast a pretty wide net of references. We aimed for a vibe and a tone that is similar to the original Robocop movies or the Judge Dredd comics. You know, it's a dark world but there's humor in it and people are still trying to live their best possible lives."

Berg expands on this point, noting that they had a diverse range of conscious influences when making the game. He added: "We cover quite some ground. I am very much into anime and comic books for example, whereas Tor reads all the books with actual words on them. So, we can grab from all over the place. It's not just two movie buffs."

One piece of media that was not an inspiration for the team was Cyberpunk 2077. Neon Giant has been working on The Ascent for over three years, but as CD Projekt Red began to reveal more of their open-world blockbuster, Berg and Frick started to worry that people might think they were just copying the bigger game.

After all, if you have played Cyberpunk 2077, it is hard to ignore the considerable overlap. Parts of The Ascent have near-identical imagery (such as the holographic fish swimming around food trucks) and the characters use much of the same idiolect, like "Netrunner," "chrome" and "flatline" being used as a euphemism for death. Meanwhile, a few of the archology's districts look like they could have been ripped straight out of Night City, with "The Node" most clearly evoking the Waston district.

The similarities do not stop there either. Both games have territories that are ruled over by katana-wielding, Yakuza-esque gangs and The Ascent's grafters effectively serve the same function as Cyberpunk's back alley ripperdocs. Not to mention, they have remarkably similar satires on corporate (or "Corpo") culture and even their soundtracks are very much alike.

A Grafter in The Ascent
"The Ascent's" grafters are back alley surgeons who will modify your character with mechanical augmentations. Curve Digital

Of course, some of this can be attributed to the fact that these are largely tropes of the genre, with CD Projekt Red and Neon Giant both drawing inspiration from the same places. Nevertheless, it is hard to get Cyberpunk 2077 out of your mind while playing The Ascent

When this topic was broached during our interview, the developers amiably laughed it off as an unavoidable comparison. Frick said: "Of course there is going to be giant overlap because their game has everything in it. I think one of the things that was really frustrating for us was that, when they revealed more gameplay, we kept thinking: 'Oh, we have that. We have the same mechanic. We're also a class free game."

Berg mentioned that they even considered showcasing more of The Ascent while it was in development, just to prove that they had been working on the game before Cyberpunk came out. He said: "It got to the point where we started wondering if [we] should post stuff early to show that we weren't mimicking [CD Projekt Red]."

Yet Frick maintained that this element of competition did not prompt the team to make any changes to what they already had. "It didn't really impact us much because, by the time [Cyberpunk 2077] was released, we were pretty locked down in terms of what we were doing."

Building a More Fun Dystopia

In terms of pure gameplay, Cyberpunk 2077 is actually quite a different beast from The Ascent. The former is a single-player RPG, whereas the latter is a chaotic twin-stick shooter with 4-player co-op. The similarities mainly arise when you look at their stories and their respective worlds.

Yet Frick maintains that his team did a lot to distinguish their game from others in the genre. "For a start, we tried to pull away from just having an Earth-based setting and went a little more fantastical with everything."

Indeed, The Ascent takes place in a far less grounded world than Cyberpunk's, filled to the brim with mutant creatures, diverse alien races, and wacky abilities that cause enemies to spontaneously combust into piles of gloopy viscera.

Frick continued: "We definitely wanted to make a dystopian and grim world, but that doesn't mean it has to be sad all of the time [...] Happiness is fun, and we want to have fun. We want to be able to create whatever gameplay we can come up with. If we have a cool idea, like the Volatile augmentation that lets you implode bad guys, we should be able to put that in the game without worrying about whether it fits."

A Neon Bar in The Ascent
With an otherworldly setting and alien NPCs, "The Ascent" does manage to distinguish its world from 'Cyberpunk 2077's' Curve Digital

The development mantra seems to have been to prioritize entertainment at every turn, by making a world that accommodates eccentric characters, over-the top-weapons and cartoonish mayhem. On that note, Berg said: "I think the best way to deal with violence in games is to make it silly. You know, just take it beyond that point where it is uncomfortable, because [players] smile when they get their hands on that Volatile augmentation. And it is fun to use.

"If we can go: 'Here is a minigun and, by the way, it shoots missiles' then we can give people that experience because our world is not all grim, dark and serious [...] I don't even know if we could go that far because, as developers, we like to find the fun in misery."

Frick was quick to point out that there is obviously room for more contemplative storytelling in video games as well, but that Neon Giant was aiming for an "early Robocop" tone with their outing. "When you do something like The Last of Us 2, where they went out of their way to make something that is not conventionally 'fun,' I think that is great. I think the problem comes when you can't decide and try to do something in the middle. We chose one way to do it, which was to go all-in on the fun."

An Indie Alternative to Cyberpunk 2077

According to the creative directors, this wilful celebration of excess is not the only thing that distinguishes their game from Cyberpunk 2077. Built by a 12-person development team (using Unreal Engine 4) The Ascent is also an indie release, even if some AAA alumni were working on it behind the scenes.

Without having to answer to as many stakeholders or marketing teams, Frick believes that the developers were able to follow their gut instinct more often and explore unique concepts. He said: "When you are in a bigger company it is a lot harder to [indulge] silly ideas. You need to get it through the bureaucracy. Everyone needs to be on board and that is not always the case."

Berg echoed these sentiments, adding: "I believe we are a bit more risk-prone. Having worked at several AAA studios, I can say that, for every game I have ever worked on, there have been cooler ideas that were not shipped in the finished product. But this is our studio, these are our creative decisions and our financial risks to take. There is no one to tell us 'no' [...] It's just us guys in the room".

The pair think this might give The Ascent an edge over some of the competition, as it is free to be as zany, provocative and gleefully violent as it needs to be. Again, the "Volatile" augmentation is a good example of this, as it was an idea that one the artists came up with in their own time, and everyone was able to sign it off straight away. In the words of Berg, there was no marketing team "worrying about if it would hurt the brand".

The Ascent is out now for PC and Xbox consoles. It is also featured as part of the Xbox Game Pass Service.

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