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“The Order: 1886” and the Rickety Definition of Steampunk

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The Order: 1886 is one of my most highly anticipated games of the year, mostly for the gritty Victorian setting that sets it apart from other games coming out. The last time I was this excited for a game based on its atmosphere was when Dishonored came out in 2012! (I literally had dreams about that game while I waited for it to hit stores…)

Set in 19th century London, The Order: 1886 centers on an order of knights based loosely on Arthurian legend. But what makes this world even more unique is that these knights are equipped with advanced technology. However, Ready at Dawn creative director Ru Weerasuriya explains on the EU PlayStation blog that the weapons are “actually not that outlandish or futuristic… We don’t twist the actual technology itself — what we twist is its use.” In other words, the technology behind the weapons is grounded in Victorian times, even though they weapons are not historical.

All of this makes me think the game is steampunk, but the studio says it’s not. The game is more about proposing an alternative timeline — a history that could have been, that’s believable.  There may be fictional, monstrous creatures and guns that shoot lightning, but all of the technology could have existed in that time period, and it’s not steam-powered. Weerasuriya also emphasizes that the game’s atmosphere is dark and gritty, which might separate it from the more whimsical vibe some steampunk gives off…

How Do We Define “Steampunk” Today?

The definition of steampunk seems a bit wobbly to me, but maybe that’s okay. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of “steampunk” is:

steampunk definition

This makes it sound like steampunk could be set in a sci-fi style future that’s littered with outdated technology from the Industrial Revolution. It could be a little more Blade Runner or William Gibson-y than how we think of steampunk today, at least at first glance.

Nowadays, steampunk seems to turn that definition on its head much of the time. Steampunk worlds are most often Neo-Victorian — old-fashioned, historical settings that have anachronistic technology. Some people seem very tied to that technology being steam-powered; otherwise, they believe it’s not true “steampunk.” But for me, whether that technology is steam-powered or not seems beside the point. The most important important thing is that the technology is more advanced than what that time period really knew — it may even be advanced for our time period, today — but it still has a vintage vibe to it. For instance, you might have an elaborate wooden computer desk, such as this one designed by Bruce Rosenbaum (ModVic) out of an old pump organ:

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Or you might have a weapon outfitted in an original way, with a distinctive Victorian coating:

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These staples of steampunk give the genre a definitive look and feel, but when it comes down to hard rules, I don’t know that all of us abide by them when we think “steampunk.” I’m sure there are steampunk purists who know a lot more about the genre than I do and have a very strict definition in mind, but for the rest of us casual fans, “steampunk” is a handy word to describe a lot of neo-Victorian settings.

Bending the Genre in The Order: 1886?

Even if the technology in The Order: 1886 is based on real Victorian tech, its anachronism makes the weapons feel more futuristic — hence the steampunk connotations. Just check out some of the game’s gadgets and weapons here and tell me they don’t seem steampunk-y.

Airships are another common staple of steampunk. Having them floating around the skyline of an industrial-era city makes that time period feel more tech-heavy, without actually adding anything “sci-fi” to the world. And guess what? The Order: 1886 has airships too!

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Airships in The Order: 1886

Some people might argue that it’s silly to say that a game is not steampunk when that word so aptly sums up the overall atmosphere of the world. But in spite of how steampunk The Order: 1886 appears at first glance, digging deeper into the definition of the genre helps me see creative director Weerasuriya’s point. Genre labeling can be limiting. (Like, if it’s not steam-powered, can it still be steampunk?) And it can also create misconceptions of what a fictional world is before it’s actually experienced.

The Order: 1886's setting
The Order: 1886’s setting

I like the idea that The Order: 1886 is an alternative history, offering up a more fantastical version of what life might have been like in Victorian London. Whether we call it steampunk or not, what the game shares with that genre seems to be a love of history and technology, and the creativity to match those two things in original ways. I can’t wait to dig deeper into the game’s worldbuilding as more information comes out, and I’m dying to hear that release date… =)

— Ashley

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