Chances are you’ll be aware Cyberpunk 2077 is out this week, a trip into a futuristic criminal underworld Rob Zacny describes as surprisingly strait-laced. It’s also the product of a grueling production schedule and capable of triggering serious epileptic seizures.
If this doesn’t sound like a great time, let me recommend another video game indebted to the in-vogue retrofuturistic style. Fashion house Balenciaga has released Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow, a full-blown walking simulator which doubles as a showcase for its AW21 collection. I can’t confirm or deny whether it’s six-month development involved extensive overtime but I can tell you it lasts a merciful and manageable twenty minutes; you can play it right now on any PC or phone internet browser.
This last point is worth bearing in mind because the game is unbelievably pretty, apparently the result of technical wizardry involving cloud streaming. Before it starts, a loading page made to look like a character select screen cycles through a series of pristinely rendered 4D models. After a few moments, I’m transported to a pop-up fashion store in an immaculate concrete building; bright sunlight streams through vegetation and a haunting piano plays. I simply move forwards, taking a cursory look at the clothes but mostly reveling in the exquisite vibe.
Next up is a busy street scene sandwiched between towering skyscrapers; then, a few minutes later, having wandered through a seedy leisure district, I’m at a psychedelic forest rave which looks like it could belong in Death Stranding. The shimmering Y2K surfaces and green utopia is a refreshing detour from the dreariness of other recent dystopias. I won’t spoil the finale but, suffice to say, it’s fittingly corny—a perfect conclusion to a mini-epic which gleefully packs an entire RPG’s worth of tropes into less than half an hour.
Really, what could be more cyberpunk than a branded video game designed to sell high-end clothes to the mega-rich? We can ogle these virtual fabrics but will probably never touch the real thing. According to Demna Gvasalia, the creative director of Balenciaga, “apocalyptic is very last season,” which literally refers to a previous collection while also sounding like a cheesy line from a cyberpunk movie. But even these notes of corporate nightmare aren’t off-putting enough to stop me enjoying the game; I love the sense of luxury suffused into every pixel—beautifully and ostentatiously art-directed.
One culture writer has described the Balenciaga video game as “gamerbait,” part of a growing trend to capture a Gen Z demographic which has grown up living dual IRL and virtual lives. In fashion, this isn’t new; Square Enix partnered with Louis Vuitton while techwear label Acronym teamed up with Hideo Kojima to produce perhaps the most coveted piece of gamerbait ever—the Death Stranding jacket. But the Balenciaga video game takes this idea further, partially out of the pandemic necessity to make the collection accessible remotely, but also simply because it’s a cool way to tap up this new generation of customers and fans.
What Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow suggests is that the crossover between gaming and the real world goes beyond aesthetics—it’s suffused into how we access culture and content. That’s why Travis Scott performed in Fortnite, there’s a music festival in Minecraft, and LA party Subculture delivers raves on Zoom. While physical events were already being hosted across virtual platforms prior to the pandemic, this new circumstance has arguably fast-tracked the process; now we all live in a pervasive mixed-reality.
I, for one, am looking forward to a redress of balance towards old reality—the smell of bars and nightclubs, throngs of bodies, and clothes stores where I can run my fingers through actual material. Clearly, we’re not there yet, nor will we be for a good few months. But in this absence, Balenciaga’s video game is a treat—cyberpunk which leans into the genre as seductive and opulent fantasy. I could happily live in it for a few moments more.