Monday, 15 February 2010

Steampunk Your Avatar

I've said before and I'll say again that I'm at my happiest when the two worlds of Steampunk and gaming collide. After the widespread reports on the shelving of FuzzyEyes Steampunk game Edge of Twilight, the revelation that you can now Steampunk your Xbox 360 avatar went a little way to assuaging that disappointment and strengthening the increasing connection of the Steampunk aesthetic and mainstream gaming.

You can find the customisation kit via the Xbox dashboard if you click through the following tabs:

profile>customise avatar>marketplace>lifestyle collections>styles>steampunk.

Or you can browse the collection online here.

Below is an image depicting the clothing options available:



This one shows the final result of my avatar customisation:



Probably not the most Steampunk of ensembles I've ever seen but...I don't really do dresses, even on my avatars.

So if you have a few Microsoft points spare and your fancy a change for your Gamertag, don a pair of goggles before you start playing Bioshock 2 and Steampunk your avatar. It's guaranteed to make your play better (but not necessarily a better player).

The Steampunk avatar customisation was pointed out to me by @alan_hook. Thanks for brightening up my Sunday!

Monday, 18 January 2010

Oxford Steampunk Exhibition

Being car-less and Manchester based, it was always going to be a bit of a trek to get to the Oxford Steampunk exhibition but I finally made the journey at the weekend and it was well worth suffering the unique traumas of the National Express. If anyone is considering going to see the exhibition I would strongly urge you to do so before it close on the 21st February 2010. The exhibition is being held at the Museum of the History of Science, or the Old Ashmolean. The museum was built in 1693 and houses thousands of fascinating science related instruments and documents, making it worth a visit in itself, without the added benefit of the Steampunk exhibition.

When I began working on Steampunk as an academic venture, the main problem I faced was convincing people that Steampunk was a cohesive and popular enough aesthetic or fictional genre to be worthy of study. Now it seem you can't escape the term; the Steampunk's have launched a successful assault on the mainstream consciousness from a variety of angles. Note the exhibition's triumphant proclamation on the historic building's facade:



The exhibition is curated by Art Donovan, a New York based artist who work with brass, glass, and light. His Siddartha Pod Steampunk Lantern was a particular favourite of mine in the exhibition. I took a rather awful photograph of it that fails to apprehend its beautiful detail so to head over to the artist's blog to see a more fitting likeness. In a special issue of the museum's Broad Sheet, Steampunk is described as a movement 'rooted in the aesthetics of Victorian technology' without being a 'nostalgic recreation of a vanished past'. The Broad Sheet proclaims that the driving impetus of Steampunk is celebratory rather than cynical, pertinent rather than nostalgic. Certainly, in his choice of artists and artifacts, Donovan has managed to capture that sentiment.

There are far too many outstanding pieces to discuss here. Again, check it out for yourselves before the exhibition closes. There are a few artists that particularly resonated with my own perceptions of the aesthetic that I will pick out here. The first of these is Tom Banwell, a leather worker and resin caster whose range of fantasy masks combine his interests in 'history, costuming, mechanics and fantasy'. This image is of the Pachydermos Gas Mask, my favourite of his works on display. There's something about the potential type of being that would utilise such a mask and the dystopia that they would be inhabiting that fits in with the darker side of Steampunk that I am drawn to in my work on the subject. On the other hand, has there ever been a more triumphant and celebratory animal that the elephant? This mask fits in at one and the same time with the strong dystopian elements of much Steampunk fiction and the more light-hearted impetus that this exhibition proclaims to capture.


Interestingly, on his website Banwell states that while Steampunk began as a literary genre in the 1980s, he has not read 'a single 20th century author writing in the genre'. Rather, the Steampunk works he has read are those that inspired the movement: those by H.G Wells & Jules Verne. I find it fascinating that contemporary Steampunk literary works aren't as instrumental in the motivation behind Steampunk art as I had originally expected in the early stages of my research. In fact, I think the reverse is true, that visual Steampunk work's have far more influence on the direction of the movement than do literary pieces.

The next artist I want to flag up is Stéphane Halleux. His blogged about his work some time ago so it was excellent to see a number of his pieces on display at the exhibition. I think what surprised me about see his work in person was the size of them. While they are by no means huge, they were generally much larger in scale than I had imagine. Seeing the images on the web, and recognising the intricate nature of the sculptures, I had imaged model sized pieces. But many of the pieces were approximately two thirds of my height and all had a visual bulk to them that had passed me by in the 2d images I had seen before hand. The below image is entitled Robot Pet and for me implicates a much larger Steampunk world to which such a creature would belong. Such a world draws strong parallels with the world of Shane Acker's recent 'StitchPunk' film 9.


Finally, I was pleasantly horrified by this piece by Molly 'Porkshanks' Friedrich. It's called The Complete Mechanical Womb and as you can see in the close up image, the true horror is in the detail. Again, this piece appeals to a more sinister apprehension of the Steampunk aesthetic and may be at odds with the 'celebratory' impetus identified by the exhibition's curators, as the three previous pieces do. However, I have chosen these three pieces because they stood out particulary for me; the exhibition certainly contains many less macabre artefacts than Friedrich's.


The Oxford Steampunk exhibition is, in my opinion, excellent and I hope to see more exhibitions and events as a result of its success. Again, I urge you to see it for yourself as there are many more fantastical pieces on display that can only be fully appreciated by seeing them up close. You can also purchase a copy of the museum's special edition of its Broad Sheet for the reasonable price of £1. The Broad Sheet contains a specially commisioned double page strip of Sydney Padua's Lovelace and Babbage comic. If you are unable to get down in person, the Broad Sheet is available to download in PDF format. And, if you like the comic, Padua's Lovelace and Babbage series can be found at her website: http://sydneypadua.com/2dgoggles

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Edge of Twilight - Cancelled?

According to Destructoid and Kotaku, it looks like the Fantasy/Steampunk RPG I've been keeping my eye on has been cancelled. This is disturbing news indeed as this supposedly upcoming game from FuzzyEyes Studio has been getting a fair bit of attention online and the trailers and screenshots have looked very promising indeed.

To be honest, I'd had my suspicions. I've been checking the official site now for some time and the 'under construction/come back soon' sign has been speaking volumes. Volumes I didn't care to listen to but there you go.

Let's hope the rumour is unfounded. If anyone is listening, put the game out; I'll buy it.


Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Riese: The Series - episode 1 (spoilers)

Well, Riese: the Series is finally here. Episode 1 - The Hunt - has been posted. What do you think?




Personally, I enjoyed it. The opening episode has high production values for a low-budget web series and I was pleasantly surprised by how realistic this fantasy Steampunk world appears. Loved the 'passport' scene. Such a little incident but it fills in quite a bit of detail about the kind of world Riese inhabits.

There's a CGI frame depicting of a settlement seen by Riese from afar which is perfectly understated and fits right into the forest location used for the shoot. I enjoyed the twisting setup of the relationship between Riese and the wolf. It made for an opening that hooked me right in.

I admit I was beginning to grope around for the Steampunk element in Riese until what I can only assume was a suitably nefarious mechanical automaton/hybrid showed up mid-way through. That such a character spoke the first line of dialogue in the show was a compelling touch.

It's only the first episode so how the rest of the series pans out is anybody guess at the moment. Let's hope it lives up to the quite considerable promise this initial installment shows.

Visit http://riesetheseries.com for the latest episodes and info.

Friday, 30 October 2009

SteamPunk's Dead! Long Live JunkPunk!

Not true, in my opinion, but since watching Shane Acker's 9 (2009) and playing around on Amanita Design's Machinarium (2009) I can imagine that these two fabulous texts will be filed away under a brand new portmanteau descriptor. JunkPunk is as good a name as any.




I first blogged about 9 back in May after catching both the trailer and the original short film on YouTube. I finally got to see it at the cinema last night and it did not disappoint. I would rank it up with the best example of CGI animation I have ever seen and the story - although seeming quite short - was engaging and pertinent.

Essentially, 9 is a reworking of that ever-popular SF trope - man vs. machines. It seems that the fear of a 'technological singularity' heralding the point humans will be superseded by their mechanical creations is increasing rather than diminishing, even as we become more and more engaged with technology on a personal level in everyday life. Briefly, a selection of miniature creatures awake in an apocalyptic world from which mankind has been erased during its war with a vast army of robots. The creatures - mechanical/ragdoll hybrids - make their way to safety in the dead world and try to avoid a menace known only as 'The Beast'.

When '9', the last of these creatures, awakens, he challenges the logic of the others, hiding from rather than tackling the Beast head on. While his willfulness and bravery win out in the short-term, a much more dangerous entity is disturbed as a result of his actions.

image from http://www.filminfocus.com/article/images_from_9_1

Machinarium is a 'point and click' adventure game by Czech indie developers Amanita Design available on Windows/Mac/Linux. Head over to their site and try the demo for free. The full version costs £11.73 - this includes the rather stunning sountrack as an additional MP3.

Machinarium is an enthralling experience. The player character is robot dumped from a aircraft landing scattered across a junkyard strewn with mechanical waste. After reassembling your avatar, the game takes you into a polluted, mechanical, citadel populated by various other robots. Your mission is to save the city, and your robot girlfriend - from the machinations of the dastardly Black Cap robots you encounter soon after entry into the city.

Machinarium screenshots (Machinarium 2009)

One of the most incredible aspects of this game is the way that the narrative is delivered without recourse to language - written or spoken. Instead, the story unfolds visually and audibly through thought balloons, atmospheric sound, and the non-diegetic score. Even the help manual - which I have had to resort to on more than one occasion - is composed of images or symbols rather than words (and the fun sideways shooter you are compelled to play to gain entry to the help manula is another little twist that makes this game so good).

9 and Machinarium have much in common. Most obviously the portrayal of an apocalyptic post-human landscape of junk and pollution, hence the JunkPunk of this post's title. Ray Kurzweil has already referred to the 9's characters as 'stitchpunk' creations in an article he wrote for Film in Focus, emphasizing their material components. However, disputing these kinds of distinctions is part of a larger concern I have with the vast majority of Steampunk inspired texts being classified out of the still nascent genre (diesel, sandal, stitch, junk, candle, elf etc etc). My opinion is that there has always been exceptions to any rigid categorization of what is and is not Steampunk, even from the beginning. For instance, The Anubis Gates (Powers 1983) is often cited as being one of the genre's formative works, but I'll be damned if I can locate a recognisable steampowered machine within its pages.

I am much more interested in what works like 9 and Machinarium share with Steampunk. While the temporal locale is not specifically Victorian - 9 being post-apocalyptic and Machinarium occupying a fantasy space - neither are the locales of various other texts I certainly count amongst the Steampunk corpus...Casshern (2004), Perdido Street Station (Mieville 2000), City of Ember (2008). What counts are the themes imported from the more traditional Victorian aesthetic. In the case of 9, the fears over the mechanisation of society and the fusion of occult practices with Tesla devices; in the case of Machinarium - the almost Dickensian characterization of the criminal enemy NPCs along with overt observations of technological obselescence inherent in its mise-en-scène.

As far as I'm concerned, and many people will disagree, 9 and Machinarium make welcome additions to the Steampunk fold, while remaining unique in their own individual ways. That's how genres function. They evolve or they die. And Steampunk is, I'm happy to report, alive and kicking.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Riese: The Series

Here's the newest trailer for upcoming Steampunk inspired webseries Riese: The Series. Looking pretty smart, I think. Can't wait to watch and review.

Check out the series' offical website for all the details. And for those interested in Augmented Reality Games, Riese has you covered. Find out more at The Sect is Here.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Steampunk Wedding Cake

It's great when you've got friend's that are getting married. They can trawl through the sites not on my radar. It's even better when they come up trumps.

Cheers to @rachyconks for sending me the link to the pretty awesome Steampunk wedding cake. Pity she hasn't offered to help me out and have one made for her own impending nuptials. *Wink Wink. For research, obviously...

The cake was found over on Offbeat Bride and the image comes from the Flickr stream of exoskeletoncabaret who kindly gives permission to use her excellent photograph.

Now...where did I put the chocolate and cogs?