Revisiting the Aesthetics of TrickStyle and Dreamcast 20XX Futurism

You can tell a lot about a society’s hopes and fears by how its fictitious works depict the future. In this regard, the Dreamcast is a fascinating time capsule of our most prevalent insecurities at the turn of the millennium. As we’ve come to view the Dreamcast through a retro lens, we can also try to understand the historical context behind its own brand of retro futurism.

Revisiting a smattering of early Dreamcast games on the console’s 19th anniversary, I’m reminded of some of the common themes and aesthetics imbuing many futuristic Dreamcast and PC titles of the late '90s and early aughts. Notably, these games depicted vaguely dystopian futures that were all at once gritty, vibrant, desolate, and shrouded in a thick fog, both literally – to mask pop-in due to hardware constraints – and figuratively in their perturbed sense of uncertainty.
For me, this aesthetic characterized a fair share of the Dreamcast’s library, propagating a trend of worn, sterile, and heavily-industrialized future settings. I feel compelled to interpret this style – let’s call it “Dreamcast 20XX” for now – as a reflection of our most prevalent cultural anxieties at that time, both real and embellished. In other words, it is easy to imagine late ‘90s game developers – particularly western ones – depicting a future where the Y2K bug could’ve actually fucked up some shit. These themes manifest themselves in numerous games across a variety of genres.
They feature prominently in action titles like MDK2, Slave Zero, and Red Dog; but also in first person shooters Quake and Unreal Tournament; the open-world adventure game Omikron: The Nomad Soul; even racing games like the spectacularly boring Magforce Racing. Although these depictions vary in their degrees of cynicism, they broadly portray the toll that years of industrial and economic disrepair could take on the world in the wake of vague, societal catastrophe.
Towards the surprisingly bleak end of this spectrum is one of my favorite Dreamcast racing games, Criterion’s TrickStyle. Its chief conceit surrounds an international community struggling to rebuild itself following worldwide, war-torn devastation. In TrickStyle’s post-war future, society pulls itself up by its hoverboard binding straps and instills racing as a shared cultural tentpole, both as a means to stave off boredom and to strengthen global stability by way of awesome fucking hoverboards. It’s Marty McFly’s new world order.

TrickStyle’s hoverboard racers are given free reign of its far-flung renditions of London, New York, and Tokyo. In its ostensibly post-capitalist future – sans commuter and pedestrian traffic -- large swaths of city infrastructure have been repurposed for competitive racing. Courses weave through eerily desolate streets, grimy subway/tube tunnels, and defunct industrial complexes amidst a backdrop of cascading urban skylines adorned with iconic, real-world architecture. However, these preserved landmarks mainly serve as set dressing for the racing, albeit with occasional utility. Players can smash through Elizabeth Tower’s clock as a makeshift shortcut.
Several Dreamcast games exhibit aesthetics similar to TrickStyle’s brand of futurism and it’s a look I’ve come to closely associate with the console despite the fact that nearly all of them were ported from the PC. Suzuki Alstare Extreme Racing was another Criterion-developed racing title featuring copious industrial structures strewn across much of its desolate scenery.
I’ll note Suzuki Alstare stops just shy of billing its setting as an overtly futuristic one even if its general bleakness, silky sense of speed, and slick presentation imply otherwise. However, like TrickStyle, Alstare’s environments are awash in a jarring blend of muted, gritty textures and a surprisingly diverse color template. This tone is further punctuated by a techno soundtrack rich with all of the pulsing beats players need to forget they’re racing in the present. The other games I listed earlier also incorporate several of these elements into their more explicitly futuristic imaginings.
Another sidebar: For its western releases, Suzuki Alstare ironically tacked on the branding of a Japanese company while the Japanese version, Redline Racer, lacked such a sponsorship. As a value judgment: the PAL and North American versions of Alstare were far more enjoyable versions of that game.
To be fair, it’s likely this “Dreamcast 20XX” aesthetic was more a product of hardware limitations than deliberate artistic vision. These games’ futuristic environments could have been just as easily defined by angular assets, colorful fog, and sterile texture work because those things were simply easier to produce. Perhaps devs just wanted a convenient way to differentiate their products from the optimistic, bubbly sheen of iMacs, Space Channel 5, and basically everything else of that era. However, if those aesthetic choices were indeed a reflection of developers’ pessimistic future outlooks, their anxieties would have been fully realized when one of Y2K’s most devastating impacts turned out to be Nickelback.
Unfortunately, that horror would soon give way to the events of 9/11 and a deep, worldwide recession. These actual catastrophic events would give creators a far more tangible image of what a dystopian future would realistically look like. However, the jury is still out on whether terrorism, xenophobia, and corporate corruption are issues that can be easily solved by hover boards.


What do you think? Do you like the early 2000s depiction of our all too real present? Let us know in the comments, on Twitter or in our Facebook group. Thanks Brian Vines (@TheVirtuaSchlub on Twitter) of our sister site The Saturn Junkyard for this outstanding look at aesthetic design seen in certain Dreamcast titles. You can follow The Saturn Junkyard on Twitter and also find them on Facebook here. They also have a pretty great podcast, which can be found on iTunes here.


lerabot said...

I love article like these. More about socio-historic themes. Great article Tom!!

Blondejon said...

anything that highlights the dystopian misery of nickleback deserves to be heaped with praise. An ejoyable and well researched article, well done old chap.

Jet Brian Radio (@VirtuaSchlub) said...

Thank you, good sir!

MrKnowNothing said...

Nice article! I think some of what you're trying to describe here is what's known as the Y2K aesthetic? Though some of the more darker dystopian stuff you mentioned are definitely a bit more unique.

Jet Brian Radio (@VirtuaSchlub) said...

That's an interesting point. One of the distinctions I wanted to get a bit more into was how these games took on a far more cynical approach than the optimism of things like Space Channel 5 and Atomic Purple N64s, which to me were more representative of the Y2K aesthetic. Thanks for reading!

Retro Faith said...

A great article. Not much more I can add to the above, but one point I would like to make is some of the visuals on the DC helped to set a standard of sorts for modern gaming. When you look at the dark and sometimes bleak presentation of a lot of DC games it can be tracked right into modern day. Just look at the plethora of modern, so called AAA, titles that have more grey and brown than anything other colour. Take a look at Medal of Honour on the PSX, released 1999, and you will see that was also a 'trend setter' for the modern colour palette of many games.