Cyberpunk and Retrofuturism

One of the first things about Trafique that was locked-in was the aesthetic.

I knew I wanted it to be a very classically 80's cyberpunk look, if anything, an outright Synthwave aesthetic: more 80's than the 80's, to the point that any allusion to an actual historical aesthetic is lost, like a billion JPEG artifacts creating a whole new picture. 80's nostalgia has long since reached the point of total disconnect with the actual decade. As a person born in 1992, taking influence from Nicholas Winding Refn and Synthwave, Trafique is a copy of a copy of a copy of something that might have once been how an actual movie in the 80's looked. 

And even though Synthwave is what I'm evoking, and using as the soundtrack, and making a game that will absolutely be seen as being artistically downstream of Hotline Miami, Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon, and all the others, and even though the game's aesthetic evokes the games of the 90's, my intent isn't to make something that's a throwback. I see my artistic priorities as ultra-modern, just being expressed in an older way because there is where you can find the roots of the ideas.

Cyberpunk is the only genre of science fiction that ever came true.

Arguably that's because it was already true when it was written; an understanding of the world that Reagan wrought, taken to the extreme. It's a genre that's spent 30 years wildly veering between being hopelessly outdated and being impossibly timely. The first Watch_Dogs game was criticized for its handling of cyberpunk, with critics claiming that it "couldn't make up its mind whether it was a cyberpunk story or a story set in modern times". There are a lot of very valid criticisms of that game, but it should be plain to see that the point the game was that modern times are cyberpunk. Probably the only worthwhile idea that game had.

But what I'm going for is a distinctly less-relatable setting, set in the future of 2049, where we've finally transitioned all the way, and nation states continue to exist like the Senate continued to exist after Augustus. And because I'm mixing a futuristic hovercar setting with a retro low-fi aesthetic, it invokes the question of retrofuturism.

A lot of contemporary media with a synthwave aesthetic, especially those with a facetious bent, lean into retrofuturism, comically setting themselves in either the far-too-near future or the recent past, imagined with the level of progress the 80's imagined there should have been. The original Blade Runner was set in 2019, after all, and we're exactly as close to flying cars and indistinguishable androids today as when that movie came out.

Trafique is not retrofuturist. I used to like retrofuturism but at this point it's an old joke. Trafique isn't an alternate future imagined by the 1980s, it's my tongue-in-cheek but still genuine visioning of a plausible future. To answer, then, why the game looks the way it does, I'd like to talk about Alien: Isolation and semiotics.

Alien: Isolation is brilliant because it manages to be retrofuturist without being retrofuturist.

Let me explain. Alien Isolation religiously adheres the the aesthetics of the original 1979 film, including the computers. The game is, however, ostensibly still set in our future, not some alternate timeline where computer tech never progressed past the 80's. So what sense does that make?

The thing is, Alien Isolation is not set in a place with tech that is top-of-the-line for the era. Sevastopol Station was outdated when it was built and it's an absolute relic by the events of the game. The implication is that  the tech looks like it's 30 years old because that's how our 30-year old tech looks. And this brings us to semiotics.

Semiotics, or the study of symbols and meaning, is something that sounds very confusing, but is something you probably understand intuitively. Let's consider Declan's cab:

What do you see when you look at it? You see that it has headlights, a mechanical device for illuminating the road. You see a windshield, which is to protect the passengers of the car while allowing them to see out of it. You can see parts of it and understand their function.

But you also see that the car is yellow, and has a checkered border. This has no inherent meaning. The yellow colour and checkering have no function, no mechanical purpose. But you see them, and you understand that they mean this vehicle is a taxi. That's semiotics.

Another semiotic element is that the shape of the car evokes Art Deco styling trends of the 1950's, and 1950's cars carry a whole raft of semiotic meanings and cultural associations; but to put that look in a contemporary setting, or at least a setting where that is not the dominant aesthetic, communicates the idea of an old-but-well-loved car. It evokes classic car shows, or maybe somebody who loves cars enough to drive a car that requires a lot more care and skill than a more modern car, or maybe somebody forced by poverty into driving a very old car and by gumption learning to maintain it.

The point of the tech being retro in Alien Isolation is to tell you that it's junky in a setting where realistic tech aesthetics would look super-advanced to us. The point of the car aesthetics in Trafique is to use your existing ideas of car culture to flesh out the setting by implication. When you see that the cars in the industrial end of town look like crappy 90's cars and the cars in the upper-class old town look ultra-futuristic by our standards, you understand the economic situation without needing to be told anything.

And that's important because it can be hard to communicate tech levels in a setting that's entirely alien. Even Star Wars struggled with this: Luke Skywalker looks at the Millennium Falcon and sees a piece of junk, but to our eyes it doesn't look any less advanced than any other spacecraft in the film. 

Reappropriating car aesthetics into a situation where they make no sense if you really think about it (the timeline would require an Art Deco aesthetic to come into style within the next 5 years, which seems unlikely) allows me to piggyback on your existing cultural notions of cars to do world building without needing to drop a load of exposition about trends in car design in this action game.

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