For many people in the early nineties, the console was king. It was the only way to game… the only way for the masses to enjoy playing video games in the comfort of their own homes. But there was a fringe contender that was slowly creeping in on the console market’s turf – the home computer.
Home computers have been around a long time. From the Spectrums and Commodores of the early eighties, to the powerful Amigas and Ataris at the end of the same decade. Personal computers offered an alternative to what a console could do, there was just so much more versatility on offer.
Many, many classics made their debut on PC, and some never even crossed over into the console market. In fact many games in franchises have never made an appearance on a console, and it’s only in the last few years that the line between what defines a console and what defines a PC has become blurred.
One of those classics was a point-and-click adventure that went by the name of Beneath a Steel Sky.
Point-and-click games were all the rage on PC, a game type that never made the transfer to console on a massive scale. The traditional control scheme of the PC, a mouse and keyboard, were the natural input devices for point-and-click. This was long before PC gamers could enjoy a gamepad, this was a time when if you didn’t know how to use a keyboard and mouse then you didn’t stand a chance. The Monkey Island series, Grim Fandango, Broken Sword, and Simon the Sorcerer to name a few all made their debut on PCs, and many of these franchises still exist to this day, and now they exist as legends in the gaming world. Beneath a Steel Sky belongs in the same list, but before we heap the praise and laurels the game deserves, let’s step back in time and see just how this classic came about.
Creating a World
Dave Gibbons is a name many comic book fans will be familiar with. He is the artist responsible for Watchmen, The Secret Service and many more. So what was one of the most iconic comic book artists of the latter half of the twentieth century doing working on a video game?
Well, this starts with Gibbons was approached by Activision,who were interested in making a video game of Watchmen. That game never happened, but Gibbons kept in contact with the co-founder of Revolution and former Activision employee, a man called Charles Cecil. The two decided it might be a good idea to work on something together, and from this Gibbons wrote a treatment for a story called Underworld. This was the first step into what would become Beneath a Steel Sky.
If this were today and an artist was involved in making a video game, the most you would likely expect would be for that artist to be producing character designs or some concept art. Normally a named artist will be used to generate some excitement for the game, but having no real hands-on involvement in the actual production of sprites being used in the game. Take Jim Lee for example. Jim is the co-publisher of DC Comics and a legend in the comic book industry, he’s been known for doing the character designs of DC Universe Online, a popular MMO. But Gibbons didn’t just do the character designs for Beneath a Steel Sky he produced the pixel art itself. Along with creating the painted matte backgrounds the game would use, Gibbons’ pixel art would be handed over to a team of animators at Revolution to incorporate as animated sprites in the game. The entire look, feel, and design of the dystopian future of Union City, the main setting of Beneath a Steel Sky, came from Gibbons’ mind. Quite an achievement considering that most games nowadays have the artist count you would expect to see in a design department for a blockbuster film. Gibbons involvement didn’t stop there though, the traditional comic book artwork the artist normally produced, was seen in the cutscenes between the levels of the game. On the look and feel of the game, Gibbons had been inspired by what was happening in Britain at the time. In an interview with PC Gamer he exclaimed: ‘So we looked at how society was in the present day and imagined how it could move forward. Beneath a Steel Sky was made at the height of Thatcherism. A consumer society with divisions that were deeper than ever. And these ideas were floating around in our heads when we created the game.’
It’s not hard to see that the artwork in the game comes from Britain in the eighties. The DNA of what went into Beneath a Steel Sky could be seen in the pages of 2000AD and Warrior, both publications that showcased worlds of stark authority, usually rendered in nothing more than pen and ink, colour was a luxury that was overlooked a lot of the time. Although the artwork in Beneath a Steel Sky has a very muted colour palette, it wouldn’t look too out of place were the colour to be drained from it, thanks to Gibbons’ skill of rendering in tones of grey and black.
Words and Weapons
A game can’t get by on beauty alone. As good a looking a game can be, there’s got to be some substance and weight behind the actions of the protagonist as they journey through the storyline with us. A game’s narrative can only be as good as those who put the words in the mouths, and the actions in the hearts of our characters, and those people are the writers.
The scribing duties were left to Tony Warriner, Dave Cummins, and Charles Cecil, with input by Gibbons. Although the game was known for its witty dialogue and humour, it was a contrast with the bleak setting the game represented. There’s not many futuristic dystopian tales that have the typical quips you would expect to find in a Monty Python sketch. Beneath a Steel Sky is so very British. Considering it is set in a burnt out version of Australia, you wouldn’t be embarrassed to believe you were in a future version of burnt earth Britain with the amount of accents kicking around in the game.
That’s not to say the writing suffered for its confused setting. The story bristles along at a good pace in Foster discovering who he is and why he is so important to the authorities that constantly hunt him. The game is full of some excellent gags and little jokes that break up the seriousness of the whole bleak setting. Imagine if the Cleese and co had come up with Mad Max and this what you’d expect from them. Disgruntled factory maintenance men complaining about their sandwiches being interfered with, robot sidekicks with a cutting sense of humour, Douglas Adams would be proud with the level of wit roasted into a sci-fi story.
But what of the company that made the game? Revolution Studios were a small startup company that existed in a small office in the town of Hull. More famous for their other series, the Broken Sword franchise, the company specialised in the point-and-click adventure type of game. The team consisted of eleven members with a development budget of £40,000, a king’s ransom at the time, but if you consider the cost spent just animating Batman’s cape in Arkham Asylum ran into the hundreds of thousands, you really do get to realise that this is a game that was born out of passion and talent, rather than a massive budget. Beneath a Steel Sky wasn’t even their biggest hit, it was a game that had a lot of rough edges, but was a bag of ideas that held together by the sticky tape of witty writing and great artwork.
One of the other main hits of the game was the diversity and performance of the voice actors in Beneath a Steel Sky. CD-Rom-based games were a luxury that were only just beginning to creep into the console market, and the PC gamers were more used to games coming on multiple floppy disks rather than contained on a CD. However, Beneath a Steel Sky featured a full soundtrack, not restricted by the MIDI file format, that although effective, was restricted by the amount of data that could be stored on a floppy disk. Also the added luxury of the ample amounts of storage space a CD-Rom had to offer was enough room to feature a fully voiced game rather than the text-based adventures people were so used to at the time. One of the highlights of the game is the putdowns of your robotic sidekick Joey, which wouldn’t have the same effect were they to be in text only. The voices of Joey and Foster and company bring this game to life as much as Dave Gibbons’ artwork does.
The game has managed to survive to this day as a cult classic. Often there will be talk of a sequel being released, but a follow-up to the critically acclaimed masterpiece is still nowhere to be seen. Even Gibbons has, perhaps half-jokingly, referred to a potential sequel as Beyond a Steel Sky, but the last report regarding a sequel was with a Kickstarter project that offered if backing for a new Broken Sword game reached one million dollars a sequel to Beneath a Steel Sky would enter development. Although the Kickstarter failed to reach the one million mark, Revolution announced a sequel would enter development, but to this day no more has been said on the project.
Sequel or not, Beneath a Steel Sky stands as a testament to a golden era of gaming on home computers. These were games that consoles could not easily replicate, and if they tried the interface of a keyboard and mouse would make it difficult to translate the controls to a gamepad.
For those interested in playing this masterpiece, you can find it today as a free download on GoG, or there is an IOS version also available. Despite its low resolution it does hold up by its pure imagination alone.
Beneath a Steel Sky was one of the defining games of the 90s for PC gamers, and to this day is remembered for its brilliance and inventiveness.