Retrospect: Design Dystopia

Beneath a Steel Sky

In the not so impossible future, in the melting pot of Union City, all of Man’s social problems are coming to a boil under the claustrophobic lid of a steel sky.

Truth in Fiction:

Good dystopian stories push the reader to reflect on parallels between fiction and reality.

Science fiction has historically been object-oriented. Technologies are manifested in devices or systems that influence people and cultures. Naturally, some are utopian and optimistic about change while others are dystopian and pessimistic. Unfortunately, most science fiction stories these days seem to take the dystopian perspective and devolve into simple fearmongering instead of pushing the reader to reflect on parallels between fiction and reality.

I stumbled upon “Beneath a Steel Sky” in 2005 and was not expecting to find an interesting dystopian story. I was looking for a game to play on an old laptop and Steel Sky had been released in 1994, old enough that I wouldn’t have any hardware troubles. It was a point-and-click adventure about a man who is forcefully taken to a city gone mad and who must find his way out. It wasn’t exactly a compelling story and it seemed to borrow tropes from several famous dystopian stories. Yet I found myself strangely drawn in by the game’s ostensibly mundane city. Only after revisiting the game recently did I realize that the game’s backdrop, the world populated with eccentric characters, serves as a critique of consumerism, one that’s eerily accurate today.

The protagonist, Foster, escapes his captors upon entering the city and progresses through multiples levels of the city in his quest to escape. He encounters quirky characters, such as a worker who obsesses over his clipboard, a man whose bookshelves are lined with empty covers, and a socialite who thinks that his status physically elevates with his clothing quality. Despite all the physical glamour, the city-state is locked in and losing an economic war with other city-states who are “flooding the market with gimmicky garbageā€. In order to combat this, the city supercomputer plans to “upgrade” the populace with the assistance of Foster…

Narrative Context:

Looking back, the game was released on the cusp of the Dot Com Boom.

More text and at a time when consumerism was booming with cheap Chinese imports . This certainly informed the game designer’s critique of consumerism. Surprisingly enough, the commentary that served as the game backdrop is still relevant today, especially one character’s comment about the difference between rich people and people with credit. Consumerism has been covered extensively in many nonfiction works but rarely has it played a part in a fictional work apart from some pieces like Idiocracy.

Are We Living in a Consumerist Apocalypse?

It might feel true in certain parts of the world where that nebulous concept of “design” is under-valued but I don’t think the world will ever experience a global devaluation of design, especially now in the Information Age. The internet is a wonderful medium for fostering diversity and creativity, which is only possible as a result of people’s natural diversity in values and interests.

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