Beneath a Steel Sky
|Beneath a Steel Sky|
|Release date(s)||DOS & Amiga
|Distribution||Amiga: 15 3½-inch Floppies, 1 CD-ROM
Beneath a Steel Sky is a 1994 cyberpunk science-fiction point-and-click adventure game developed by Revolution Software and published by Virgin Interactive for MS-DOS and Amiga home computers. Set in a dystopian future, the player assumes the role of Robert Foster. As a child, he was stranded in a wasteland known as "the Gap" and adopted by a group of local Aboriginals, gradually adjusting to his life in the wilderness. After many years, armed security officers arrive, killing the locals and taking Robert back to Union City. He escapes and soon uncovers the corruption which lies at the heart of society.
Originally titled Underworld, the game was a collaboration between game director Charles Cecil and comic book artist Dave Gibbons, and cost £40,000 to make. It received extremely positive reviews at the time of its release. A remastered edition was released for iOS in 2009 (as Beneath a Steel Sky Remastered), which also received a positive reception from the gaming press. Development of a sequel will begin after the completion of Revolution's Broken Sword: The Serpent's Curse in 2013.
In Australia, the six states and two territories who have been consumed by their respective capital cities are described as "city states". Union City is the second largest of the six remaining city states after the acquisition of Asio-City. Within this socio-political milieu, the national intelligence agency ASIO wield a great deal of power.
After the "Euro-American War", all participants agreed upon a set of ideals described as the "neo democratic principles" which remove all labour representation and social benefits. Ironically, those that subscribe to these principles are called "Unions", contrasting the real world definition of what a trade union pushes for. Those that oppose the Unions' ideals are called "Corporations". All of the City States in Australia are either Corporations or Unions.
The larger political context of the game involves a conflict between Union City and the Hobart Corporation, whereby they are each trying to achieve market dominance by the use of sabotage. During the game, characters in Union City remark that Hobart Corporation is winning the "economic war" by flooding the market with "cheap, gimmicky garbage," although it is never clarified whether this is mere propaganda.
The immediate backstory is introduced via a comic book that tells the story of a young boy called Robert who is the sole survivor of a helicopter crash in "the Gap" (the name applied to the Outback at the time of the game). Too young to fend for himself, Robert is adopted by a group of locals, who teach him the skills he needs to survive in this harsh new environment; they name him Robert Foster, partly due to him being fostered by them, but also because of the discovery of an empty can of Foster's Lager found near the crash site. Over the years, Foster learns engineering and technology and builds a talking, sentient robot called Joey. Joey's personality is stored on a small circuit board, which can easily be inserted and removed from many types of robot. This allows him to change bodies as the situation requires, provided his circuit board is not damaged. His commentaries on the current "shell" he is in are a running gag throughout the game.
As the game starts, Foster is kidnapped and his tribe annihilated by security soldiers sent from Union City by its all-powerful computer, LINC. The abductors refuse to give Foster any explanation as to what is happening. Shortly upon arriving in the city, the helicopter malfunctions and crashes in the city's upper level. Foster survives and flees, making his way into a recycling plant, carrying Joey's circuit board with him.
Foster places Joey's circuit board into a robotic vacuum cleaner (something about which Joey is none too happy). He then attempts to escape the plant, but is cornered by a security officer who had also survived the accident. The officer, Reich, addresses Foster as "Overmann". Just as Reich is about to kill Foster, a nearby security camera shoots a laser, disarming him. Reich tells the camera, whom he reveals is controlled by LINC, that Foster must be stopped. In answer the camera shoots him again, killing him. Foster takes the officer's access card and sunglasses before he continues his escape.
As he makes his way further down the city, Foster eventually arrives in the abandoned subway tunnels. There he discovers that LINC has grown exponentially, to the point where he is now half-machine, half-organic entity. However, in order to function, LINC needs a human host to share its brain. The current host is Foster's biological father, who is old and has become severely worn out from his symbiosis with LINC. It is revealed that LINC sent for Foster because, with the death of its current host inevitable, it needed a replacement, and only a blood relative would do. Foster ultimately defeats LINC by plugging Joey (now calling himself Ken) into the mainframe. Joey/Ken is able to take control of the system, and he and Foster set about turning Union City into a utopia.
While working at Activision, Revolution co-founder and CEO Charles Cecil got the idea of working with Dave Gibbons, artist and co-creator of comic book Watchmen, as Cecil was a fan of the comic book himself. He approached Gibbons, but shortly thereafter, the old Activision broke down. However, they maintained a friendship, and Cecil later contacted Gibbons to ask him to work on Revolution's second game. Seeing his son play video games, Gibbons became interested and realized that his skills in drawing, writing and conceptualizing could be useful in a gaming environment. Joining the team just before the release Lure of the Temptress, Gibbons was sent a rudimentary outline of what could happen in the hypothesised game, and wrote a longer story with new characters and scenarios, to which Revolution then further added. Originally the game was named Underworld, a title proposed by Gibbons, but it was renamed due to the release of Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss.
The production values became much higher for Beneath a Steel Sky than for Lure of the Temptress, resulting in a game six times larger, and by the end of 1993, the team working on the game had grown to eleven. The game was created in sections, which allowed the team to ensure that each part was "perfected" before moving on. Its 2-year development cost £40,000, a large amount of money for the company at the time.
Creative and technical design
The designers' goal was to create a visual bridge between comic and video game graphics. Gibbons drew the backgrounds in pencil, starting with roughs, which were sent to Revolution to see if they were technically feasible. Once agreed upon, Gibbons would then make the final sketch. The pencil sketches were then colored, mainly by Les Pace. The backgrounds were scanned on a Macintosh as 24-bit, 1000x1000 pixel images with 16 million colors, and then transformed to 8-bit, 320x200 pixel images with 256 colors for the PC version. The backgrounds were designed so that the sprites would appear clear on the screen and wouldn't mix with the backgrounds. Gibbons created the sprites using Deluxe Paint. Steve Ince, who joined the team in February 1993, created a number of sprite animations, also painting some backgrounds based on Gibbons's sketches. Gibbons also designed the characters, although he found it challenging to get a character's personality and expression in a face that was only around seven pixels wide and nine pixels high with a limited palette. He would have liked to design a character in a similar manner to Prince of Persia or Flashback, but Revolution wanted something more detailed, so the result became a compromise. All character sprites are smoothly animated with around 20 positions each. According to Gibbons, about 75% of the backgrounds and characters he designed were used in the game.
Dave Cummins wrote the dialogue for the game. The tone of Revolution's early games was born from a tension between Cummins and Cecil. Cummins wanted to be more flippant with dialogue, while Cecil wanted to be more serious. Their goal was to find the middle ground between Sierra's "ridiculously earnest" stories and the slapstick comedy of LucasArts games. For the voice acting, which is only included in the CD-ROM version, Revolution used actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company. Only two days were spent recording over five thousands lines of dialogue. Not pleased with the results, however, Revolution decided on a lengthy re-recording, and realized that voice actors should be used, rather than stage actors. As a result of this, the speech doesn't always match the on-screen text, with English terms being Americanized. Cummins was also responsible for the score of the game, writing a specific tune for each of the main locations.
Beneath a Steel Sky became the second game to use Revolution's Virtual Theatre engine, after Lure of the Temptress. According to Cecil, the original version of the engine seemed less applicable in Beneath a Steel Sky, as the ability to issue commands conflicted with the gameplay they intended to create. Lure of the Temptress had one story that was moved forward by a key event, whereas Beneath a Steel Sky had multiple threads. In one way this presented them with "exciting gameplay opportunities, but in others it cordoned off more ambitious ideas in terms of multilinearity." As a consequence, some of the engine's features were scaled back. Tony Warriner and David Sykes, both Revolution co-founders and programmers, had to update the engine, which was part of the new deal with Virgin Interactive. As an example of change in the updated engine, Virtual Theatre 2.0, Warriner explained that in Lure of the Temptress, the system controlled everything, for instance specific routines to a door. So if there was a door on-screen, the door-routine was called up to handle it. The consequence was that every door looked the same and acted the same, so if a door was somewhat different from the last one, it caused a problem. This was changed in the new system, as it was object oriented and no distinction was made between a proper object like a door or key.
Beneath a Steel Sky was presented at the European Computer Trade Show in the London Business Design Centre in April 1993 and at the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago in June 1993. According to French magazine Génération 4, the game was supposed to be released by the end of October 1993. Various playable demos of the game were made; one was added to the first issue of PC Gamer, and Amiga demos were added as cover disks to several Amiga magazines.
Beneath a Steel Sky was published in March 1994 by Virgin Interactive on floppy disks and CD-ROM. It came on 15 floppy disks, as opposed to Lure of the The Temptresss, which came on four. Because of the Amiga restrictions, a few animations had to be left out, as not all Amiga owners had a hard drive. Each conversion of the images to the Amiga resulted in a loss of detail because of the Amiga's limited palette and resolution. According to Revolution in-house artist Adam Tween, it took a couple of days to "touch up" the screens. A comic book created by Gibbons, which was translated into the introduction sequence of the game, came as part of the game package.
Freeware release and Remastered edition
In August 2003, the game was released as freeware and support was added to the ScummVM, allowing it to be played on Windows, OS X, Linux, Windows CE and other compatible operating systems and platforms. In November 2011, James Woodcock released an enhanced soundtrack of the game for ScummVM. The game is also available for free download on digital distribution services, including Desura and GOG.com.
In July 2009, Revolution announced that a remastered edition of Beneath a Steel Sky would be released on iOS later that year. The remastered edition features new animated movies by Gibbons, a context-sensitive help system and improved audio quality. The game was released on the App Store on October 7, 2009. The animated movies in the iOS remastered version make use of the original stills and use a sliding paper-like style to animate them.
Beneath a Steel Sky was critically acclaimed. PC Gamer awarded it the "Best Dialogue" award, and it won the "Best Adventure" award at the Golden Joystick Awards in 1995. It was also a commercial success, reaching the number one place on the British GALLUP charts.
CU Amiga's Tony Dillon gave the game a score of 95%, calling it "one of the greatest adventures ever." He praised the game's controls, saying: "The control method in Steel Sky is so simple that Revolution can finally lay claim to having created the ultimate in intuitive control methods." He also praised its "logical but not too obvious" puzzles, characters, "adult content", art direction and "addictive" gameplay.
Amiga Format gave the game a score of 94%, and praised its story, graphics, characters, puzzles and gameplay, saying: "Beneath A Steel Sky is a massive, intense and atmospheric adventure which will keep you on tenterhooks right until its final startling conclusion. Utterly brilliant." However, the magazine criticized "a few minor glitches," stating that "another annoying factor is that it is incredibly easy to die."
PC Gamer US gave the game a score of 91%, calling it "one of the most playable adventures of all time [...] A slick, funny, and absorbing adventure that will appeal to a wide variety of gamers--two thumbs up!" However, the magazine also stated that "the difficulty of the puzzles in the final third of the game is disproportionately high."
Amiga Power's Cam Winstanley gave the game a score of 86%, saying: "With as much care and attention taken on the storyline as the graphics, Steel Sky is an example of what an adventure game should be like – funny, enthralling and convincing. There are not any jumps in logic in the story line, or stupid coincidences that propel you through the story. Read as little about this game as possible and you will genuinely be surprised as the story unfolds."
Adventure Gamers' Claire Wood gave the game 4 out of 5 stars, saying, "Overall, Beneath a Steel Sky is an engaging adventure classic, which fuses an intelligent, thought-provoking storyline with light-hearted humour, to create a thoroughly enjoyable playing experience. Revolution succeeds in creating a 1984 for the computer game generation. Not even the dubious LINC-space sequences can mar the payoff at the game's completion."
Lemon Amiga gave the game a 9 out of 10, praising its story, graphics, music and controls, and said: "Beneath a Steel Sky has it all, and in spades - a challenging absorbing game with lots to see and do, and wonderful graphics and sound to boot. A Masterpiece!"
The remastered 2009 iOS version was also very well received. It holds an aggregate score of 85% on GameRankings, based on seven reviews, and 82 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on five reviews. Slide to Play's Keith Andrew awarded it a score of 9 out of 10, saying "Beneath a Steel Sky somehow feels bigger and bolder than its rivals, raising the bar and highlighting what others have so far failed to achieve. Perfectly suited to its new home, this remastering of a classic game serves up point-and-click play nearly unmatched on the App Store." IGN's Eduardo Vasconcellos awarded it a score of 8.5 out of 10 and an "Editor's Choice" award, stating "This classic adventure is a reminder of how good the old point-and-clickers really were. The updated elements only add to the experience -- especially the cutscenes. If you're looking for an intriguing story, solid gameplay and some nostalgic charm, Beneath a Steel Sky is for you." Pocket Gamer's Tracy Erickson scored it 8 out of 10, giving it a "Silver Award", and stating "Beneath a Steel Sky remains as entertaining as it did 15 years ago, galvanising the adventure gaming resurgence on iPhone."
"Be vigilant", a quote by the character Hobbins and the last words in the game, has become Revolution's signature quote; it can be seen on the bottom of their website, and their original YouTube channel's title is "revolutionbevigilant". Beneath a Steel Sky is often referenced in Revolution's Broken Sword series in a form of an easter egg, such as in 1997's Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror and in 2009's Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars – Director's Cut.
In 2004, Cecil commented "Beneath a Steel Sky 2 is a project Revolution has been considering for a while, and has started to move forward on, but we are unable to comment beyond this."
Cecil spoke in a Eurogamer interview dated August 10, 2006 of his admiration for the work done by ScummVM and the resulting interest in a sequel. He also stated that if he were to make the game he "would dearly love to work with Dave Gibbons again." In a February 20, 2009 interview with IGN UK about the Wii and DS versions of Broken Sword: The Director's Cut, Cecil and Gibbons re-iterated their interest in a sequel to Beneath a Steel Sky.
In September 2012, Revolution announced that Beneath a Steel Sky 2 would be greenlit if their Broken Sword: The Serpent's Curse kickstarter reached $1 million. Cecil stated, however, that failing to collect that amount of money would not necessarily result in the Beneath a Steel Sky 2 project being cancelled, but that the development timeline may be extended.
Despite Broken Sword: The Serpent's Curse failing to meet the $1 million 'stretch goal', Revolution announced that the success of its crowdfunding campaign had inspired them to begin work on Beneath a Steel Sky 2. With production due to commence following the completion of Broken Sword: The Serpent's Curse, Beneath a Steel Sky 2 is to be developed for iOS, Android, PC, Linux and OSX, whilst Revolution confirmed that it was looking into the possibility of a console release.
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