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Retro-futurism: Merging the past and the future

Updated: Oct 6, 2023

By Ella Polak Sept. 28, 2023 The bright neon lights of flashing billboards and floating holograms reflect off the grimy streets of Night City, the setting of the dystopian game Cyberpunk 2077. Featuring towering skyscrapers, sleek cars and a wealth of cybernetic implants, the game offers its vision of a future where advanced hardware has fundamentally altered every aspect of life. Ironically, the forward-looking nature of Cyberpunk 2077 does not stem from contemporary aesthetics—instead, it merges modern technology with a vintage ’80s vibe to enter the stylistic halls of “retro-futurism.”

Sara Zhao Art

The term “retro” refers to any concept, theme or idea taken from the past and repurposed for modern culture. The genre can be seen everywhere, from the synth beats in Harry Styles’ and Dua Lipa’s songs to pixel art and flared pants. Retro often draws on influences from trends of the 1970s and 1980s, including funk and disco music, bright colors and geometric patterns. According to LUXlife Magazine, a lifestyle publication, retro’s appeal lies in the nostalgia it evokes, which is evident in the recent resurgence of old vinyl records and video gaming consoles.

However, some types of media, like Cyberpunk 2077, surpass the traditional confines of retro style by using old-fashioned ideas about the future to reimagine science fiction. Depicting the future through a historical lens allows the pioneering genre of retro-futurism to portray new technologies with a nostalgic aesthetic. The familiarity of those potential alternate realities can facilitate a more personal connection between the viewer and the content, per the news website ZME Science.

“A lot of people try to learn from the faults of the past and take inspiration from past advances, which is why retro-futurism’s historical focus has such a broad appeal,” Junior Titus Hsu said.

Retro-futurism contains many subgenres, including atompunk, which recalls the 1950s Cold War era; dieselpunk, where diesel vehicles have futuristic modifications; biopunk, a pessimistic conceptualization of biotechnology and Raygun Gothic, a visual style inspired by Art Deco and the Space Age. Likewise, the subgenres of steampunk and cyberpunk have gained notable prominence within mainstream popular culture.

Steampunk takes inspiration from the aesthetics of the Victorian era and romanticizes industrial machines driven by steam power. The novels “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” by Jules Verne and “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells introduced the steampunk genre to most audiences. Early literature solidified steampunk’s aesthetic of metal gears, bizarre inventions and the endless pursuit of scientific discovery, BBC Radio reports. In the 20th and 21st centuries, steampunk has inspired the movies “Mortal Engines” and “Howl’s Moving Castle,” along with the game “Final Fantasy 6.”

One of the other most widespread subgenres of retro-futurism is cyberpunk, which first emerged in the 1980s with Ridley Scott’s movie “Blade Runner” and William Gibson’s novel “Neuromancer.” According to Polygon, an entertainment website, cyberpunk typically depicts advanced and hyper-urbanized societies in which technology has monumentally impacted human lives. Polygon states that cyberpunk media often emphasizes the “underworld” of sprawling cities, where people suffer at the hands of massive corporations, indiscriminate violence and general lawlessness. The broad appeal of the cyberpunk genre stems from its criticism of modern societal problems through dramatized settings and storylines, as seen in Cyberpunk 2077.

“The world now, as compared to 100 years ago, is moving exponentially quicker in terms of communication, research and trade, so the fear of what might lie ahead always sits in our minds. We translate our sentiments, hopes, predictions and warnings about the future through the creation and absorption of science fiction,” Senior Declan MacNeal said.

While retro-futurism is still generally restricted to media and entertainment, its influences have begun to pour over into the physical world. Tesla’s Cybertruck, made of stainless steel and featuring flat surfaces and jutting edges, has been described by many commentators as retro-futuristic, per the design magazine Dezeen. Retro-futurism’s nostalgic vision of the future holds powerful possibilities for advancing human technology. As society continues to develop, the genre will naturally move toward a point where the creations of the 2020s evolve into the “retro” of “retro-futurism.”


About the Contributors

Ella Polak Lifestyle and Feature World page editor Ella Polak is a junior at Leland High School and is the Feature World and Lifestyle Page Editor for The Charger Account. She enjoys watching TV, listening to music, and hanging out with friends.

Sara Zhao artist Sara is an artist for The Charger Account. She likes drawing in a variety of colors.

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