Forever a Steel Sky

Even the plastic of the game cartridge promised that you were you about to experience something unique. When other NES cartridges were grey, Zelda’s was golden. Inside, just beneath the plastic cover, awaited something magical. Kids running to their game console, eager to find out what this magic was, were not in for a disappointment – Zelda was brilliant.

I only remember one other game that was so evocative before you even played it. An almost completely black game box, with a minimalistic silhouette of a futuristic city in silver. A bold typeface with letters in black.

Beneath a Steel Sky.

It was released in 1994, but I have yet to see a better box design. 16 years have passed, but I doubt a studio has given any game a better name. But what of the content of the box, what of the game?

Dark, deep, funny, beautiful – I remember it to be all those things. But I was just a kid when I played it. Perhaps, with the mindset of an adult and with so many technological revolutions between now and then, all of that would be lost if I played it today. Perhaps.

A couple of months back I bought an iPod Touch. Why not. I like gadgets. But this gadget demanded software. Or, as the Apple marketing department wants me to call it, apps. I’m a gamer, so I bought some board games and some unplayable action games (yes, twitch gameplay is best played with the tactical feedback that physical buttons provide).

So what kind of games would work well on a pure touch screen interface? Searching the app store on iTunes, I decided to search for non-twitch games like point-and-click adventures. After a while, I found a “remastered” version of Beneath a Steel Sky.

The iPod/iPhone version has one thing other versions do not – a small screen. To be honest, playing Steel Sky on my 22″ monitor would not be pleasant, with pixels so large I could choke on them. On the iPod the game looks more the way I remember it, the small high resolution display making it quite pleasing on the eyes.

And yes, it still is beautiful. All the backgrounds were drawn by Dave Gibbons, the artist behind the Watchmen comic, and whatever he charged it was worth it. Every screen is filled with atmosphere and small details, and while the locations sometimes seem strange, they more often than not feel authentic. The art direction is consistent and makes exploration inviting and rewarding.

The story is a dark tale about a post-apocalyptic society of city states in Australia. Big Brother is watching, and the lives of its citizens are shaped by the status they are given. Access and material standards are all dependent on this, and the higher your status is the closer to the ground you live – far away from the pollution those closest to the steel sky breath. Make one mistake and lose it all.

The player controls Robert Foster, a free man that grew up outside the city states, in the wilderness of Australia. He’s kidnapped/arrested (depending how totalitarian your views are), but manages to escape when taken to the city, which he explores with his cynical robot friend Joey. His motivation is twofold; to flee the city and to discover the mysterious history of his family.

It handles exposition of this unknown world brilliantly, feeding you fragments of the big picture without ever deteriorating into self-serving storytelling. It knows what to leave out and what to show, giving the player a feeling of being in a consistent world with a history.

While the dialog is well written, it reveals a certain lack of self-confidence on behalf of the designers. It’s witty and entertaining according to the traditions of point-and-click adventure games, but this almost ever-present humor weakens the power of the quite dark and serious plot.

The core of the classic adventure games was the puzzle. Their narrative unfolding by solving puzzles, unlocking new areas, characters and new puzzles. Steel Sky suffers, to some degree from the same problem that plagued most adventure games. Quite often the solutions to the puzzles were abstract and could only be reached by trial-and error. What is worse, sometimes the story doesn’t even motivate the puzzles beforehand, forcing you to perform bizarre actions without realizing why.

This, perhaps, was one of the reasons why the adventure genre was largely abandoned by the games industry.

Despite these criticisms, it is still a fantastic game. Dark, deep, funny, beautiful? Yes, it still holds up! It stands apart from other games in the same genre through art direction, setting and story, all building a unique and (grown up) experience with a punch that the games industry still struggles to reach today.

If you’re interested, try the iPod version. A new intro by Dave Gibbons, a decent control system, “high resolution” graphics and a good hint system makes this perhaps the best possible way to experience Beneath a Steel Sky today.