“Retrofuture” is a strange term. Contradictory, it asks us to imagine what tomorrow might look like through the lens of yesterday. This strangeness brings something else into focus: the fact that “the future” is always rooted in history. When we talk about the future, we’re not just referring to some point in time, but to our collective dreams.
Why are so many of these visions retro? Well, because some of them literally come from the past — like the chunky monitors of Blade Runner or the blocky spaceships of sci-fi novels. But why do they still hold so much appeal? Perhaps that’s because the future, as well as our dreams for it, seem to be waning. Maybe you’ve heard that Fredric Jameson adage: “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” This is why, Jameson might argue, we see the continual return of old perspectives. Seemingly antiquated sub-genres (e.g. cyberpunk) are recycled and brought back into fashion as postmodern pastiche.
And yet we’re still obsessed with these past futures and the relics they leave behind. They bring us comfort when newness seems increasingly hard to forge. Chief among these retrofuturist artifacts are various analog gadgets and gizmos. Some people even argue that analog tech is superior to digital — more authentic, more textured. Things sound better on vinyl, things look better on film, and things certainly feel better when pressing a big chunky, mechanical button.
The following are the best games that capture this spirit. Because while we can’t reach in and touch a CRT monitor or mechanical lever of the future, there are still ways to pretend.
Technology today is sleek, compact and often frictionless. In the Fallout timeline, however, tech took a different turn. The post-war boom never ended. Markets were continually flooded with the latest consumer products — often mundane household appliances like fridges, microwaves, toasters, mixers, vacuum cleaners, and dishwashers, each larger and more chrome than last year’s model. The microprocessor was never invented, so America and its tech became super-sized.
Most of Fallout’s computers are large mainframe systems and rows of boxy terminals. One of very few personal computers is the iconic Pip-Boy: a wrist-mounted gadget that’s hardy and built to last as long as an atomic age vault. It’s hard not to find a certain joy in the concept of this souped-up watch/computer hybrid. Even now I bet you can picture the fidgety geiger counter, exposed wiring, bolts and screws, big tactile buttons, various dials and knobs, tinny analog speaker, and, in later games, even the nostalgic green glow of a command-line interface.
The monochrome CRT monitors and terminals of Alien: Isolation also glow an ominous green. This was common in the early years of office computing. Vacuum tubes were coated in green phosphor, which meant when the electrons impacted with the screen, everything looked fluorescent emerald. The color takes you back.
Isolation is full of beautifully-designed physical gadgets and equipment. Saving your game involves clumsily slotting a big chunky key card into a terminal on the wall, whilst the game’s audio logs are reel-to-reel tape decks (it’s the new vinyl). Then there’s the motion tracker… about as sleight and tidy as this universe’s tech comes.
Beep… Beep… Beep… Is the xenomorph in the walls, the ventilation shaft, or right behind you? The motion tracker is, like a lot of Alien’s tech, imprecise and impractical. But it also just looks and sounds cool, which sometimes is enough.
On top of having the best concrete in video games, Control has some superb analog props. It has its own whirring tape decks and Cold War consoles, as well as film projectors, rotary telephones and jittering seismographs. On top of this, it features vintage Olivetti-style typewriters, standing film projectors and even a punch-card computer system. It’s an eclectic mix spanning the decades. Because, just like in Battlestar Gallactica of all things, the enemy can interfere with everything digital!
Control’s elaborate pneumatic tube network is probably the most interesting physical element present in the Bureau. I can almost hear the *THUNK* sound it would make as the cylindrical containers get pulled up and whisked away into the impossible, criss-crossing maze of air-compressed tunnels hidden just beyond the office walls. Finally, the system spits the container back out, and then you have the wonderfully ritual experience of opening it up like a present. Bureaucracy doesn’t get any sweeter than that.
MachineGames’ Wolfenstein series is another classic retrofuturist setup. In fact, it’s pretty much the de facto alternate history premise: what if the Nazis won World War II?! Whilst it won’t win any awards for originality, the new Wolfenstein games showcase a ton of detailed retrofuturist tech.
The New Colossus’s submarine hub is a series highlight with an extensive array of computer consoles. All of them scroll with green and amber (the second most common colour of phosphor) hacker-symbols and pinging radar systems. Then you cram it into a creaking Control Room. There’s even an Enigma machine:,an encryption device with one of the best names in history. Last year’s spinoff Youngblood pushed things further into an alternative 1980s, and is notable for its inclusion of “UVK.” We finally got an answer to the question no one was asking: What if the Nazis invented VHS?
Untold Stories is another game channeling 80s nostalgia. A “compilation tape” made up of four unique interface-based adventure games, each of which involves clunky analog equipment in some fashion. The first chapter plays out like a classic text adventure. Except you’re actually sitting in a virtual bedroom, watching the text scroll on an old CRT television.
In another chapter you use your mouse cursor to fiddle with an elaborate “brain scanner,” whilst in another you’re situated in an isolated station and have to tune dials to change radio frequencies. These pick up strange sequences akin to numbers stations — another Cold War classic. Untold Stories is analog tech at its most arcane. Like other interface-driven indie games, such as Nauticrawl and In Other Waters, the physicality of all the rotating dials and runic keys and switches gives an almost otherworldly quality to the process.
From the get-go, Half-Life: Alyx is obsessed with detail. In its fiction, human technology halted in the late 90s after an event known only as the “Seven Hour War” (spoiler: we lost). There’s isn’t much elaboration beyond this. Suffice it to say, this is why you see so much antiquated tech in your journey through City 17. Humanity’s dusty, malfunctioning tech is interspersed with the all-too-functioning, futuristic equipment of the Combine. The aliens’ computers are all blue-holo and, like the invading architecture, polished obsidian black in the vein of the spaceship from Arrival or the latest iPhone.
Alyx doesn’t push the envelope in terms of analog tech, but it does allow you to interact with it handily in VR. With Alyx it truly feels as though you’re really brushing by all these old rows of computer terminals and exposed wires and pipes. You can reach out and pick up stuff —old VHS tapes, mechanical keyboards, analog radios — which is really what retrofuturism is all about. You want the physical element. It reminds us of a time when the future felt a little more tangible, a little more material, and a little more real.