Overthinking It: Retro Future Noir Aesthetics and Nerd Nostalgia

Overthinking It

So much has happened since my last column: I caught a cold and then the flu and Andy Murray lost the Australian Open to Novak Djokovic. Needless to say, it’s been a rough couple of weeks. With that in mind, I hope you will indulge my anecdotal musings that are still overthinking the topic but probably not terribly noteworthy and don’t even come close to rigorous, thoughtful, or any of the words I like to pretend my writing is.

PerturbatorWhile I was laying on the couch getting up only to vomit or get more water, I caught up on both game news and Kickstarter updates, and I was struck by the large number of ’80s cyberpunk properties that have gained prominence lately. The most obvious one is probably the aptly named upcoming RPG Cyberpunk which saw a controversial trailer release, but Shadowrun is also coming back as a video game in the form of Shadowrun Returns. Furthermore, I also got my hands on the latest album by Perturbator (right), which is about as ’80s cyberpunk as it gets, so I have been wondering why this particular aesthetic — one which is largely anachronistic, at that — is coming back into prominence, at least with the type of nerds who play tabletop RPGs and obscure PC games?

The first of these questions is at least partially explained by the Forty Year Rule — it’s a thing, really. We’re a decade early, of course, but we’re also way, way too late since such a large aspect of these properties is discussing projections of future technology that were conceived of 30 years ago. The original Shadowrun, for instance, didn’t conceive of wireless technology, something which had to be written in for later editions. (Also, William Gibson famously has Case selling three megabytes of RAM in Neuromancer.) This type of anachronism, however, is part of the charm of the setting and the genre.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

For all of the aspects of the aesthetic that still resonate with audiences, and I would argue that something like Blade Runner still has a lot to say to contemporary audiences, part of the fun of the genre is indulging the bleak, neon, mohawked futurescapes. We like these aesthetics for the same reason that people go see The Rolling Stones or Ted Nugent; they remind us of a place and a time that, as we position ourselves currently, reaches backwards in its attempts to look forwards. It is not only nostalgia for a certain time in our past but also for a time that many of us spent a lot of time speculating about the future. I don’t think many of us expected magic, dragons, elves, and elves, but I’m sure a lot of us foresaw a society in which megacorps were essentially the ruling body in society and crime was on the rise. Looking at this belief in 2013 is close to laughable. While US corporations are still incredibly powerful and get away with a lot of stupid bullshit, it’s nowhere close to the Reagan wet dream it was in the ’80s. Furthermore, crime has been on the decline since the late ’70s when a lot of these properties were conceived, and the speculative half of the speculative sci-fi descriptor can probably be discarded now.

In a sense, I believe this aesthetic is coming back because it strikes this specific nostalgia chord. Shadowrun experienced its video game resurgence on Kickstarter, which is essentially a nostalgia machine. Remember that obscure RPG called Wasteland you played back in 1989? I do! Let’s kickstart that. (I sure did.) Only, with properties like Shadowrun and Cyberpunk, you are getting to dig up a time capsule and see how absolutely wrong the media you adored was about the future. And, more importantly, how it’s okay that it was wrong, because it’s enjoyable both in spite of and a result of the things it got wrong.


Overthinking It is our regular column that takes a critical approach to video games and the cultures that spring up around them. Author Calin Grajko spends far too much time playing games and attempts to justify this fact using big words and concepts he learned in college.

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