Friday, February 20, 2015


When it comes to the "punk" collection of sub-genres my favorite of the bunch is diesel-punk.  That said, I do like certain aspects of the steampunk genre too.  It's a pity that it has foundered for the most part when it comes to video game adaptations.  In large part I feel it's because the genre's strengths and weaknesses are oftentimes not well understood.

To really illustrate what I'm getting at here let me point to one of the biggest steampunk productions in media history, Steamboy.  It's an animated film by the director of Akira that took ten years to make and at the time of its release had the largest budget of any feature length Japanese anime ever.  While some of the music and visuals are nice, the story and characters are utterly forgettable.  The technology on display is also unremarkable for the most part.  It's a common mistake for fans of the genre to get hung up on the visual athletics (i.e. wanting to cover modernity in gears and boilers thinking it will impress).  It doesn't really work because it just turns into the 1890s with today's conveniences.  Conversely, stuff like the monowheel seems to exist solely to have a piece of flashy gonzo tech that's purpose would have otherwise just as well been served by a much more mundane conveyance such as a horse, bicycle or handcar.  Actually the one and only truly clever piece off design in Steamboy, I would argue, is the steam ball.  This story maguffin is actually intriguing in that it helps address issues with a key aspect of steam power in general.  I believe the webpage on TV Tropes regarding steampunk sums it up nicely:
[A]ny Victorian-era society which actually tried to create steampunk technology would soon find itself in stark trouble. Barring magical intervention, the power requirements necessary to make real-world versions of steampunk devices (or at least Victorian-era versions of 20th century technology) would be enormous, and would soon exhaust all available supplies of coal and wood. A real steampunk society would have to either immediately transform into a fully modern society (with oil, gas, and nuclear power driving devices made of modern, lighter materials) or would quickly become, in all probability, a technological dead end. With this said, the recent development of a number of designs of rocket stoves beginning in the 1980s, have demonstrated that a highly fuel efficient steam boiler may in fact not be quite so impractical after all, at least on a small scale. On this point, it is also worth mentioning that the average contemporary power station still runs primarily on large coal-fired steam turbines, and that nuclear power still actually involves running a steam turbine as well, but simply uses the heat from (ideally) contained nuclear reactions to generate steam, rather than a wood or coal-fed fire.
So, now that we have a reliable (albeit fantastical) source of energy, what to do with it?  Well, as you can probably guess based on some of the artwork on display in this post, how about airships?  In reality the first steam powered dirigible flew in 1852.  Combine that with the major navel building programs that industrialized nations like Germany, the United Kingdom and (to a lesser extent) the USA embarked on toward the end of the 19th century and it's easy to see why/how something like this could come to pass.  Likewise writers of the late 1800s such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were telling stories featuring similarly imaginary pieces of technology based off real designs.  Reliable air travel could also lead to some interesting expeditions into difficult to reach parts of the world such as central Eurasia, the Heart of Africa, or even Antarctica.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is most famous for his stories about Sherlock Holmes, but he also wrote tales about lost lands and civilizations in remote corners of the globe.

Navel technology leading up to World War 1 progressed so rapidly regarding weapons, armor and propulsion that it was possible for a brand new warship to become obsolete after only a few years of service.  Unlike the highly specialized nature of more modern designs, pre-dreadnoughts carried a bristling armament of many different caliber guns meant to engage everything from tiny gunboats to protected cruisers, all the way up to huge vessels of equivalent firepower.  This lack of combined fleet thinking meant that warships often operated independently of one another.  Realistic engagement ranges were also fairly close.  So much so that some vessels were outfitted with ram bows.

Swapping out aquatic themes for aerial ones could also produce some interesting classifications and naming conventions.  "Skytanic" instead of "Titanic" might be a bit too on the nose, but "stormbreaker" instead of "icebreaker" sounds cool in my opinion.  Alternatively, it might be equally intriguing to see what real ships turn out to be if they were made to ply the skies instead of the seas.  RMS Oceanic would probably be called RMS Stratospheric if it were an airship, and the polar explorer SS Terra Nova might be better suited to the designation SS Caelum Nova.  Windjammers and Junks are kind of obvious choices for eye candy, but how about the IJN flagship Asahi, or British ocean liner Lusitania?  Maintenance and repair also present some interesting possibilities.  At the very least docking spires are need to safely transfer personnel and cargo.  Proper airship pens would have to be built into tall cliff faces or be free floating structures of their own supplied from the ground by cable lifts, elevators or gondolas.

So what would a game in this setting be about?  Two words for you, sky pirates.  No, not the generic "Yar, booty and grog!" kind of pirates, but more along the lines of privateers, who deal in smuggling and mercenary work as well as more honorable pursuits like trade and exploration.  Look no further than the Nautilus for an iconic example (just make it airborne rather than underwater).  Or for those desiring a more action packed experience how about a hunt for the Bismark scenario except in the air and all over the globe?  The exploits of the Kriegsmarine pocket-battleships or the fictional HMS Surprise from the film "Master and Commander: Far Side of the World" are also great sources of inspiration.  Players could get their hands dirty participating in real historical events such as aiding or suppressing the Boxer Rebellion.  Which in turn would allow the game to explore some of the prevailing attitudes and philosophies of that era.  All too often in steampunk settings characters have overly modern views when it comes to race and gender and even the villains are oddly free of prejudices common to the time period.  Regardless if the game is an RPG like Skies of Arcadia or something more abstract such as High Seas Trader, I think it could be a lot of fun.  Just don't set it in 1886 or make it a shooter...Damnation...the game, not the curse word.

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