The world is in a very grim state at the moment. There’s always something going on in the news that makes living on planet Earth a little bit less appealing: terrorism, shootings, inequality, health scares, and every once in a while, the environment.
Recently news broke that we have officially passed the 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide threshold. Permanently. This 400ppm threshold is symbolically seen as the point of no return for climate change, and a sign that things are going to just get worse over the course of the century.
The best case scenario is that we don’t push this number up any higher, which might cause a drop a few decades from now. The worst case scenario is that by the mid-2000s sea levels will have risen enough to devastate coastal cities around the world, and some nations like Kiribati (which is already in the process of evacuating its populace to Fiji because of rising sea levels) and Tuvalu will be entirely flooded. This would have knock-on effects for basically every part of life from healthcare to the economy.
This is why we really, really need Solarpunk games right now.
Solarpunk is an emerging movement and genre of fiction that could be described very loosely as the equal and opposite to Cyberpunk. Where Cyberpunk (think Deus Ex, Shadowrun, Cyberpunk 2077 etc.) is characterised by grungy, grimy dystopias, Solarpunk takes the cutting edge technology of today and applies it to a more positive and peaceful future.
The genre imagines smaller post-scarcity societies. Communities driven by renewable energy sources and the latest advancements in ecological technologies as they exist today. As Solarpunk author Claudie Arseneault told Hopes & Fears, it “says both ‘here’s what our future needs to look like’ and ‘here’s how we can get there’.” It could be seen as the modern-day equivalent of sci-fi in the 1950s and 1960s. It has the optimism of the likes of the Jetsons and Star Trek, but with an ecological and socially focused twist.
Solarpunk’s influence can already be felt in some recent games. Last year saw Eco by Strange Loop Games get kickstarted. While it’s for all intents and purposes a voxel-based survival game a-la Minecraft, it shakes things up by placing the emphasis on smaller multiplayer communities coming together to make their new home as sustainable as they decide it to be. Keeping track of resources and the wildlife in the area, as well as the social elements of governing a society together, as peacefully as possible gives the game a real Solarpunk taste.
There’s also bigger releases like Cities: Skylines, which makes exploring and working towards sustainability and reducing pollution a major goal. It doesn’t have the futuristic elements we typically relate to anything with a “-punk” suffix, limiting itself to only things like wind farms and hydroelectric dams, but there is still that aim of building a clean and happy city using the technology we have today.
By far the highest profile Solarpunk game, though, is none other than Blizzard’s Overwatch. Its world is a post-scarcity one where humans and robots (mostly) live together in harmony, set towards the end of the 21st century. While there is a fair amount of grimness to it – Australia is a nuclear wasteland after all – there are also signs of a happier, cleaner world beyond the immediate fight.
There’s ecologically friendly construction through the use of hard light, as evident in Symmetra’s backstory, and the Numbani map shows a West Africa that is economically stable and peaceful enough to have huge, glistening cities teeming with plant life and technology.
Making Solarpunk games might be challenging, especially in the major releases sphere, as clean and sustainable utopias don’t lend themselves very well to conflict and combat. But in return they offer a fresh aesthetic that’s both visually and emotionally a nice change of pace from blown-out buildings, crumbling cities, and stories about how awful the world is.
To many, optimism in the face of what’s actually going on today may make Solarpunk seem like burying our heads in the sand. Especially with the news that we’ve passed a symbolic point of no return. We’ve been imagining the alternative for decades already, though, with an endless onslaught of post-apocalyptic, dystopic fiction and that’s clearly not done us a whole lot of good.
It’s been over a decade since The Inconvenient Truth and The Day After Tomorrow, so why not shine a light on what could be achieved and how things could be better instead? Maybe Solarpunk is that blast of hope we really need right now?