What is steampunk? We’ve all heard the term before, but many of us have never heard it explained in an easy to understand way. Well, that ends today, because we’re going to break down everything there is to know about this genre and aesthetic, from costumes to characteristics. By the end, you’ll know what steampunk is, why it’s an important part of fiction, and how to utilize it in your own works.
Steampunk Meaning Explained
What does steampunk mean?
The term “steampunk” is actually more contemporary than you might think. Who invented steampunk? Writer K. W. Jeter is credited with coining the term “steampunk” as a riff on the popular 1980s label “cyberpunk.”
In a 1987 letter to science-fiction magazine Locus, Jeter wrote “I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for [Tim] Powers, [James] Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like "steam-punks.”
In the years that followed, all pieces of art that reconstructed Victorian-era settings with retro-futuristic costumes and devices inherited the label.
Here's a video from Curious XP that breaks down steampunk history.
As you can see, the movement is incredibly active, from comic conventions to major motion pictures. So, without further ado, let’s define steampunk.
What is steampunk?
Steampunk is a fantasy genre that’s defined by a focus on the style of the industrial era mashed up against futuristic technology. In a retroactive sense, steampunk introduced major story props such as automatons and airships.
Precursor Steampunk Examples:
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
- The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
- The Steam Man of the Prairies by Edward S. Ellis
Where did steampunk come from?
Steampunk (as we know it today) wasn’t formally defined until 1987 – but that hasn’t stopped people from ascribing the term to much older works. In fact, many casual observers suggest the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are steampunk; scholars argue they’re precursors to the movement.
Let’s take a look at a movie adaptation of one of Verne’s most famous works: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Notice anything noteworthy about the set? Well, it’s one of the most noteworthy in cinema history! The production design of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is regarded as a foundational aesthetic, from elaborate machines to ornate machinations; combining the industrial aesthetic of high Victorian society with a fantastical view of technology.
Worldwide, we can trace the origins of this genre back even further, especially through Japanese manga. Japanese artists – such as Osamu Tezuka – founded the aesthetic. Although they didn’t know it then, their works would go on to inspire countless successors.
Steampunk Genre in Video Games
What is steampunk in video games?
The steampunk aesthetic is an aesthetic that video games love to explore. Over its brief history, we’ve seen some of the most critically and financially successful games of all-time centered around this genre.
Let’s take a look at a few steampunk examples:
The fictional setting of Dunwall in Dishonored was largely inspired by the Victorian-era industrial setting that we associate with this genre. This video from GameSpot examines how Dishonored developer Arkane Studios built a beautiful steampunk world.
The game’s costume designs were lauded for representing plague-era inspired outfits with retro-futuristic flair. Dishonored was a critical and commercial success, spawning a series of DLCs and a direct sequel in 2016.
It’s hard to qualify Bioshock Infinite as a “steampunk game” but there’s no denying that it was inspired by the aesthetic. Many of the character designs – such as Songbird and various other enemies – feature pipes, gears, and mismatched metal.
Here’s a video on Songbird – a character who’s widely regarded as one of the best characters in all of gaming.
The whole setting of Bioshock Infinite is rife with steampunk designs from flying airships to steam pipes. Bioshock Infinite is reported to have sold more than 11 million copies; at the time of its release critics regarded it as one of the best games ever made.
THE ORDER: 1886
The Order: 1886 is perhaps the clearest example of steampunk in video games. There’s no doubt about it: The Order: 1886 wears its steampunk influences on its sleeve. Everything from weapon design to costume design to world design has steampunk written all over it.
Here’s a trailer for the game:
The Order: 1886 received mixed reviews from critics and was retired by Sony shortly after its launch. Still, it remains an iconic example of alt-history steampunk.
Examples in Movies/TV
Impact of steampunk in movies and TV
The representation of steampunk in movies and TV has brought its signature aesthetic to the masses. Let’s take a look at a few iconic movies to see just how popular the genre is.
HAYAO MIYAZAKI MOVIES
Okay, I admit I’m cheating a bit by including a bunch of Hayao Miyazaki movies… but how could I not?! Miyazaki is known to incorporate steampunk into his movies, including but not limited to Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso, and Howl’s Moving Castle.
Much of Miyazaki’s contribution to this aesthetic can be seen in his airships’ designs. Let’s take a look at a video on Hayao Miyazaki’s airships by The Royal Ocean Film Society.
Not all “Miyazaki airships” are steampunk-inspired, but it’s safe to say you know them when you see them.
Mortal Engines may not have been the most commercially-successful movie ever made, but it was probably the highest budget for a piece of steampunk art.
Check out the trailer for the movie below:
Mortal Engines received poor reviews from critics, which likely played a significant role in its poor box office performance. But there’s no doubt that the financial failure of the picture will lead some producers to be hesitant to greenlight similar projects moving forward.
Best Cyberpunk Movies of All-Time
Seeing as steampunk was inspired by cyberpunk, it’s only right that we move into the future with our next article: the best cyberpunk movies of all-time. Follow along as we break down the best aspects of cyberpunk movies like Dredd and A Scanner Darkly. Can you guess which movie took the top honor?