Feature Excerpt

Imagining the Future in Games

This is an excerpt of a feature story from Unwinnable Monthly #140. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

Two figures, bathed in red and blue light, before a wall of video and text panels.

For as long as people have been telling stories, we’ve been imagining versions of our own future to set them in. It doesn’t make them predictive – even if Star Trek did give us the flip phone – but any extrapolation is, to an extent, limited by and reactive to the world we live in now. This can be seen clearly in how past visions of the future can become dated by technological designs or particular cultural ideas. With that in mind, what are creators today imagining for games set in the world of tomorrow?

Cyberpunk, as a genre, is some forty years old. In the 1980s, it spoke to anxieties about corporate overreach and a struggle for individual autonomy in the face of rapidly expanding technology. It also predicted a relationship with the internet and technology adjacent to the one we live with today, painting the genre as distinctly, well, genre. It’s deemed retrofuturistic by the aesthetics that make it seem dated – but its recent resurgence suggests that the political anxieties at its heart speak to the modern audience that it once depicted as its future.

Indie developer Agnès Vuillaume is creating The Sundew, set in a post-WWIII Japan, “where robots live side by side with humans and where nature has been deteriorated by human beings.” The adventure game follows the story of cyborg woman Anna, “created and conditioned to be part of the police force.” With rising public awareness of police brutality and state violence, Vuillaume feels that the debate about policing is “inherent in cyberpunk.”

While the game is heavy on the aesthetic signifiers of cyberpunk down to the neon lights and flying cars, Vuillaume says that it’s the political themes of the genre that led her to identify The Sundew with cyberpunk. “I don’t see Anna’s story only as entertainment, I also see it as an expression of a possible future (overdone, of course).”

You can look much closer into the future to find potential visions of a future, however. For eco tycoon sim Among Ripples: Shallow Waters, players are sent not quite twenty years into the future – to grapple with climate disaster.

A pond with various marine life among a forested area.

Creative director Martin Greip explains, “There’s a lot of talk about that we need more positivity in Western global pop culture, that there’s too much grimdarkness and nihilism. That may be, but the mission we’re out to do is to present a future that is imaginable, a realist expectation, with hopes and fears. We cheekily call it the new genre ‘crabpunk.’”

Development of the game was heavily inspired by their location in Gotland, Sweden. “Our island is in the middle of the Baltic Sea, like many islands we struggle with freshwater reserves and the Baltic is also one of the most polluted oceans in the world. The water ecologists we’ve talked to are part of an ‘Avengers team’ that are trying to rehabilitate the Baltic Sea as well as freshwater reserves.”

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