One of this Fall’s most talked-about new releases is Dishonored, and the word that crops up in almost every preview of the game is “steampunk.” The assumption is made that the audience at large knows what steampunk is, but it’s not a genre everyone may know by name.
With Bioshock Infinite, which could also be considered steampunk on the horizon we’re probably going to be talking about this genre very often in the near future, so what is steampunk and where did it come from?
Steampunk as a genre of fiction is generally predicated on alternate histories in which advanced technology exists in much earlier eras than the technology existed in the real world. Much of the fiction that’s considered steampunk is set in the 19th century when steam power was one of the primary sources of power for machines, hence the” steam” part of the name.
The origin of “punk” is less clear but usually understood as a reference to cyberpunk, another genre in which technology plays a central or defining role in the creation of fictional worlds, but where cyberpunk takes place in the future steampunk takes place in the past.
The novel The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling is a quintessential example of steampunk. The story takes place in Victorian England, but in this alternate reality the inventor Charles Babbage succeeded in developing the first computer. In the real world, Babbage did conceptualize the computer but his designs were never completed. In the world of The Difference Engine, the introduction of punch card-driven computers leads to a rapid advance of other technologies such that Great Britain’s military is much more powerful than it was in the real 19th century, and Britain’s ability to intercede in world affairs leads to a much different Earth than the one we know.
Another well-known example is the comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill. Here the existence of advanced technologies in the Victorian era is presented less overtly than in The Difference Engine but giant, gun-riddled airships and the construction of a land bridge between England and France are part of the League’s alternate world. The film adaptation is much more obviously steampunk as it includes elements like Captain Nemo’s automobile and the advanced weapons developed by the villain, Professor Moriarty.
Steampunk has also been applied to the American West. The 1999 movie Wild Wild West is fairly identified as steampunk as it’s loaded with gadgets and fantastic machines that clearly didn’t exist in the real world. The definition of the genre is still developing and is fluid. Whether Bioshock and Bioshock 2 constitute steampunk is an open debate among fans of the genre, but it’s difficult to ignore the argument that both games could be considered steampunk when they feature automated flying turrets and machines that can be “hacked,” all of which according to the fiction were built before the 1960s.
Steampunk offers creatives a kind of leeway in world design that other, established genres do not. It is generally considered a hybrid genre that blends facets of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror, which means design elements from all of those genres can be made to blend together seamlessly in a steampunk world. For game developers this is a potential goldmine. Two pen-and-paper tabletop role playing games that utilize steampunk are Space:1889 and GURPS Steampunk. Steam-powered space travel, flying ironclads, and magic are all par for the course in these RPGs.
The appeal of steampunk to video game developers, and particularly first person shooter developers, makes sense when we consider how played so many of our genres have become. Modern military shooters and science-fiction shooters featuring space marines are par for the course nowadays, but there haven’t been many steampunk-inspired video games yet. That makes the genre fertile ground for new IP or for invigorating existing franchises.
Dishonored is set in a society that is clearly inspired by the Victorian era. It features mechanical enemies like Tallboys who use armored, stilt-like contrivances to their tactical advantage. Main character Corto Attano employs magic powers as well as gadgets to accomplish his assassination missions. All of these elements blend together without any sense of discordance, which might not have been possible without the development of the steampunk genre.
Bioshock Infinite’s city of Columbia is something that on the surface sounds like a science fiction element. A floating city in the sky may summon thoughts of anti-gravity fields or huge turbines holding the city aloft, but if you work within the steampunk genre giant hot air balloons holding up an entire city isn’t a silly proposition. Nor is a giant clockwork man, or the special powers that help define the franchise. A steampunk aesthetic allows Irrational Games to wrap all of these elements around an ideology of American Exceptionalism that’s tied to the 1893 World’s Fair and a city in which women wear petticoats and men sport spats and nothing feels out of place.
Guns of Icarus Online is a great example not only as to how flexible the steampunk genre is in terms of what belongs and what doesn’t, but also what defines the genre. No historical time period is cited in the fiction of Guns of Icarus, instead it is sometime after a Great War and now humanity uses blimp-like technology to travel the skies. The steampunk of Guns of Icarus doesn’t lie in alternate histories; it’s in the art design and the aesthetics.
Steampunk is also a sub-culture lifestyle. The San Diego Comic Con regularly sees a ton of steampunk cosplayers and offers cosplay panels. If you watch the sixth season of The Guild you can get an idea for what goes on in the steampunk cosplay world.
The more deeply ingrained and popular steampunk becomes in geek culture, the more we can expect other video game developers to follow the examples of Dishonored, Bioshock Infinite and Guns of Icarus and tap into the rich tapestry of the genre. This first wave of steampunk games could well become a rising tide in the not-too-distant future.