Personal blog of Elijs 'X2Eliah' Dima

Where are all the steampunk games?

Videogames are a fairly rich medium for all sorts of imaginative settings, circumstances, scenarios and character-pieces. The ability to simply conjure up literally anything simply by creating it – whether by text/video, on a 2D palette, a 3D model or a 5D gromphoriate (or if you are reading this from ~2012, well… um… more 3D models, I guess?) – there is no necessity to limit a game to constraints of reality, and unlike film, the actual extent of deviation does not really matter – it is about as much work to make a virtual spaceship as it is to make a virtual USS nimitz class whatever-it-is. Fantasy and Sci-Fi are both rich fields for videogames, and the gaming industry has long followed the cultural trends of other creative media (such as abusing wubstep in a ton of recent trailers). And if we are looking at the field of sci-fi/fantasy literature and other media, few things stand out as prominent as the relatively recent (in terms of decades, at least) resurgence of interest in all things steampunk. Books, music, dress style, artwork – it’s all done & being done… Except for videogames. Where are the decidedly steampunk videogames?

Well, sure, admittedly there are a scant few games embracing this subgenre. “Bioshock Infinite”, for instance, and it’s two “Bioshock” (no subtitle, but with a number on the second one) predecessors are adequately steampunk-like in their visual presentation. The indie darling “Bastion” seems to exhibit some elements of this as well, though mostly in it’s music, not visuals or story. And, of course, there is the upcoming potentially-totally-awesome “Dishonoured”, that has been making all the right noises during it’s development up till now (so fingers crossed for it to pull everything off just right).. But that’s more or less about it, off the top of my head. So that’s two released shooters, one shooter in development, and one sneaky-stabby-shooty kind of game also in development. … Really, videogame industry? Is that the best you can do?

Bioshock 2 concept art


It’s not as if the steampunk genre is lacking in grand ideas that each could be a foundation for multiple game types. For instance, China Mieville’s “Railsea” universe of which I’ve written before – the entire world crisscrossed with intersecting interweaving railways on which massive trains travel akin to ships in sea around the 1800s – whalers, pirates, navies, merchants, salvagers, and so on, with ports located on cities dotted around on higher elevation bedrock fragments jutting out of the earth that’s occupied by mutated subterranean monsters. That can be a foundation for an rpg, for a strategy game, for a futuristic train simulator that’s actually pretty cool and not dull as a bucket of old slop, for a shooter (there could even be cover!), for an adventure-exploration game, for a tycoon-style game, for a post-apocalyptic Sims iteration.. All these genres could produce even their respective standardized frameworks and apply this universe, concept and styling – I’d say that alone would be enough to elevate them well out of the common muck of games and generate a fair bit of buzz.

Real-world traintracks

Imagine this, but as far as the eye can see in all directions and all angles, with the trains ranging from sail-powered to fusion-driven and the ground being home to mutant moles, womp-rats and insects the size of whales.

Or how about Karl Schroeder’s “Virga” series novels? An entire air-world, a filled gas bubble floating in space, populated not by solid ground (bar a few asteroids) but by assembled semi-clockwork semi-steam powered cities, generating gravity by inertia, orbiting both the sphere’s centre and local, human-created mini-suns, populated mostly by humans at a roughly 1900s tech-level. There’s possibility for all kinds of flying vehicles that do not need proper newtonian motion (because here, unlike space, you do have air resistance and aerodynamics), that have justification for loud fiery explosions, for close-quarter dogfights (no super-advanced selfseeking missiles or lasers). There’s possibility for management and building games that require a different approach to just plonking a city down next to a seabed and building some roads – for instance, the addition of the factor that the city itself drifts within the universe-sphere and criscrosses all sorts of environmental and political zones. There’s so much potential for sheer awe-inspiring spectacle…

Ashes Of Candesce book cover artwork

This picture alone could be used to promote an rpg, a stealth game, a flight simulator or an empire-builder.

Okay, okay, I know. Ideas are dirt cheap and don’t mean squat. Even so, the point is that the steampunk genre is definitely flexible enough to allow all sorts of ideas. It is grounded enough in our reality to provide for recognizable shapes and very, very mechanical-looking things (which are inherently far more easy to draw and model than true ‘alien’ stuff or complex organic/natural shapes), and sufficient amount of fantasy lee-way to incorporate any game-mandated concessions. Heck, even the literature of steampunk often ignores science or logic – so game developers wouldn’t even need to concern themselves overmuch on that front either, no need to “scale things back” or “make it more realistic”. Why is this vast open field left so very untapped?


EDIT: I am, of course, referring to new/upcoming/current videogames… There probably have been a few steampunk-ish games from 2000s or so, but let’s stick to the current/next generation for now.

3 responses

  1. To find more Steampunk games, you probably have to delve into the indie scene. I can’t think of any names off the top of my head, but I know the esteemed Total Biscuit has done WTF on at least one steampunk indie game quite recently, one about making and controlling creatures out of liquid.

    19/06/2012 at 21:40

    • Yeah, I think it was called “Vessel”, iirc. Not a bad little gem, as far as I have gathered, and has a clever use of the steampunk’s “mad science with gears” principle. Good call for bringing it up though, I had forgotten about it.

      On a side note.. it’s almost depressing to how many questions the natural answer is “it will probably be found in the indie scene”…

      19/06/2012 at 21:46

      • Yeah… I think that in spite of Bioshock’s success, publishers might still be wary about throwing money at projects that include steampunk or cyberpunk. Especially since they borked up Bioshock 2 by feeding it through the Blanderizer™ and it wasn’t met with the raging success they hoped for. Hopefully Dishonoured and Bioshock Infinite might shake something loose.

        20/06/2012 at 10:14

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