Gaming

Stormtrooper-inspired "comfort food": An architect unpacks the PS5 design

"In the midst of a pandemic, dinosaurs like a gaming console may be the very thing we most want."

The PlayStation 5 will change the landscape of countless living rooms, bedrooms, and home offices later this year. The rollout of the new game console will be long and extensive, what Sony hopes will be a breakout sales moment in a year of crashing profits. Experts expect it to crush its competition, the Xbox Series X. Looking beyond the immediate cash influx, the PS5 will also be the cornerstone of Sony’s gaming experience for years to come, as gamers eventually move on from the PS4.

Which all begs the question, why does it look like that? The white panels, the flashing blue lights, the fins. Why? Sony's PlayStation CEO Jim Ryan told CNet the company “wanted something forward-facing and future-facing, something for the 2020s.”

Sony's new PlayStation 5Sony

Which still begs the question, why does it look like that? Sony's June reveal video doesn't provide many clues, showing the PlayStation 5 apparently birthed from an ocean of glowing blue balls.

For answers, Inverse went to Mark Pasnik, founding principal of OverUnder, an award-winning architecture firm that designs books, exhibitions, cultural and educational buildings, and large-scale urban projects for places as varied as Abu Dhabi, Jeddah, Guatemala City, and Somerville, Massachusetts.

Pasnik teaches architecture at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, and last appeared in Inverse discussing the allegedly "brutalist" design of Tesla’s Cybertruck.

What were your first impressions of the PS5?

It’s a bold and provocative design, channeling a sense of retro-futurism that comes directly out of automotive design and film. But the plastic finishes, the empty gesture and thinness of the fins, and the low blue hum of illumination in the reveal between the surfaces are all too much for my tastes. But I’m also aware that I’m far from the target market for this device.

A 1957 Chevy Bel Air, seen from the back. The car's fins came to define post-World War 2 era optimism, which would later be defined as "retro-futurism."ehughes/iStock Unreleased/Getty Images

Does any school of architecture come to mind?

I don’t see a parallel school of architecture here, maybe more a grab-bag of contemporary motifs.

If there is any architectural inspiration, it could be that the module is a lovechild of Zaha Hadid’s continuously unfolding curvilinear forms (in the blackened band and the overall profile) and Santiago Calatrava's animated zoomorphic expressions (in the wings as well as the repetitive structural elements of the gaps between the wings and band).

The Heydar Aliyev cultural center in Baku, Azerbaijan, designed by Zaha Hadid.Zaha Hadid Architects
The Lusitania Bridge in Merida, Spain, designed by Santiago Calatrava.MyLoupe/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Throw in a little of the slick exuberance of David Rockwell’s theatricality (in the blue-tone illumination).

More than architecture, the retro-futurism recalls the anthropomorphic forms of George Lucas’s Stormtrooper uniforms—molded plastic plates in reflective white with deep black reveals between them. (Note: the original Stormtrooper design was created by Ralph McQuarrie.)

The Kodak Theater in Los Angeles, CA, designed by David Rockwell.Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
The stormtrooper design as envisioned by Ralph McQuarrie.Michael Tullberg/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

In saying all this, I feel slightly ashamed. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, mocking something for looking like something else can be one of the laziest — although one of the more enjoyable — forms of criticism.

Does this design show durability?

It’s hard to say much about durability, not having held one in my hands or inspected it up close. The draw of retro-futurism is that it takes us to a nostalgic time in the past where we could imagine a different future from the one we are currently facing.

In the midst of a pandemic, dinosaurs like a gaming console may be the very thing we most want—the technological equivalent of comfort food.

What would a brutalist game console look like?

Contrary to popular expectations, a brutalist gaming console would not need to be concrete. It would probably reveal its inner workings to us, rather than hiding them behind the kind of flowing veneers of the Playstation 5. The mechanical functions of buttons and knobs would become important elements of the visual expression of the console. The materials necessary for each element would be on display for their actual character, showing us the way they perform and how they connect to one another.

A brutalist console would probably need a joystick, which would create a cantilevering element with a dramatic profile similar to many brutalist buildings. And all these elements would be composed into an image that is memorable and exciting—and that would likely provoke ire as well as admiration.

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