Digital Watch

PrintE-mail Written by CB Harvey Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Exile On Augusta Street - by CB Harvey

Our dirigible safely secured, we are at large to explore the steampunk landscape around us. Our perambulations take us past marvellous mechanical automatons of varying descriptions, all pistons and cogs and pulleys. To our burgeoning surprise, however, when one of us happens to accidentally knock into such a device it erupts into a morass of spinning noughts and ones that dip and dance in the very air prior to dissipating. Damnation, these things around us are not wrought from brass or iron or copper at all! No indeed, they are something else, something we have heard tell of in the Explorers’ Club after one too many Taliskers. These things before us are digital.

How could this be? How could so much of the steampunk whimsy we so readily admire be formed not from material substance at all but from binary permutations we can barely comprehend? Not cogs, not pistons, but – steady yourself, my compatriots – microchips and processors. Surely the very point of steampunk is that it offers transparency as to mechanical affairs whereas the digital world offers only mysterious black boxes, hidden machinations and generally speaking obfuscation for the common man and woman.

Yet here is a device that might go some way to explaining the state of affairs. I hold in my hand an iPhone, one of the aforementioned black boxes in which, despite its moniker, the act of telephony plays only a minor subsidiary role. I contend that if we peruse its curious interface we might discover the peculiar allure of digitality, and its role in bringing the verities of steampunk to the masses.

Let us gasp, ladies and gents, at the images, sounds and interactions that come to us from the ether. Here are games, would you credit it, of a variety and sophistication guaranteed to make Mr William Gates himself whoop with untrammelled delight. Spry Fox’s Steambirds Survival posits a World War Two in which the Allies are losing the war to their dastardly Axis opponents. Humanity’s only hope rests with the eponymous aircraft, which you must pilot in daredevil fashion on a series of missions against our mortal enemies. A turn-based game in which strategy is a pre-requisite for success, the entertainment in question constitutes a slick, beguiling use of the iPhone interface. And since World War Two is assuredly an underexplored area for steampunk exploitation – Victorian antecedents having stolen our attentions for the most part – the aesthetic feels decidedly refreshing. A marvellously multilayered soundtrack assists our immersion.

For those requiring more of an ‘arcade’ engagement, Steam Hockey supplies a decidedly kinaesthetic experience in which rapid reactions are vital. Air hockey is here reimagined in terms of brass, the playing field frequently subject to blasts of steam. Though the premise is decidedly simple the gameplay is deucedly compulsive, rendered more so by the up-tempo soundtrack. Mr Kenneth Mayfield is to be simultaneously congratulated on his wondrous project though cursed for the time he and his accomplices have cost me.

Whilst I am prostrating myself in the shadow of greatness, let me also draw your considered attention to David Pientrandrea and Robox Studios, the team behind Grimm. The game’s flavour is that of gaslight romance, one of steampunk’s sub-sub genres, its dark humour redolent of Mr Tim Burton’s filmic oeuvre. In the establishing cut sequence a perambulator and its mewling occupant are forsaken at the seaside by its absent-minded parents. One is then tasked with piloting said pram away from the clutches of the terrible Mr Grimm. Though the side-scrolling format has been a mainstay of video gaming since its emergence as a commercial concern in the 1970s, well-wrought mechanics, stylised animations, a textured soundtrack and mordant humour make this platform game a distinctive, appealing engagement.

Beyond games there is much else for the steampunk von viveur to enjoy from the iPhone contraption. Steampulp Publishing’s Steampunk Tales, self-described ‘“Penny Dreadful” for your iPhone’ and a publication to which I have myself contributed on occasion, offers illustrious short stories for your delectation. Mr Jeff Paradiso’s Steampunk PhotoTada will render your pictures in tones familiar from the days of the Box Brownie. Chudigi Software’s Steampunk Music Box offers the free delights of a wind-up Victorian folly to entertain your children and aged relatives alike. And for a paltry sum Steampunk News will filter appropriate stories from the Web into your clammy palm, courtesy of Mr Warren O’Neill.

The steampunk philosophy is most assuredly a do-it-yourself one, so it is perhaps not surprising that steampunk material should make its way on to portable devices such as the iPhone. However, it would be foolish to presume that any old fool can develop games or other such applications. Though the tools of iPhone development are within the grasp of many – possession of an Apple Macintosh computer and Objective-C being the pre-requisites – the talent and skills needed to produce material of the polished quality we have encountered here are altogether harder to come by.

The ‘newness’ of the digital is of course massively over-hyped – so much of it borrows from our analogue past and present, as the respected theoretician of such matters Mr Manuel de Landa has commented upon. But the issue of audience and distribution has always been a concern for creative types of varying distinctions, and devices such as the iPhone offer new avenues through which to engage with willing participants, just as cottage video game production and distribution in the 1980s transformed aspects of that industry. The proliferation of such avenues for developers, writers, artists, publishers and the suchlike is surely something to be celebrated. Though the workings of these tiny black boxes may escape many of us, their merits are hard to underestimate.

So though those cogs and pistons may really consist of zeroes and ones, leave them be and let them carry out their tasks unencumbered. We are on foot now, essaying our merry way through the wilds of steampunk culture, ever keen to see what contemporary creators can offer up, but simultaneously ever cognizant of what went before.

CB Harvey is a writer, academic and consultant. He thinks Father Christmas might be going a little steampunk this year.

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