“Beneath a Steel Sky”

Beneath_a_Steel_Sky_Coverart “Beneath a Steel Sky” is a science-fiction puzzle game created by Revolution Software and Virgin Interactive. On launching the game, a five-minute intro cinematic (played in a comic-book style) introduces us to our protagonist and the character whose persona we will be adopting: Robert Foster. Although I found the game absorbing and funny, I cannot offer a recommendation without certain caveats. I’ll cover those first, and move on to my take on the gameplay, before touching on the storyline.

I’m afraid I came to this game with high expectations. Upon receiving it for free from GOG.com, I read the comments to find out whether there was any inappropriate content in it before I played it. I’ll address that issue in a moment, but first let me say that “Steel Sky” received generally positive reviews when it was first released in 1994, and the nostalgic gamers on GOG.com were similarly complementary of the game’s richness, depth, and “dark humor”.

There is plain-old snarky humor in “Steel Sky”, and a lot of it is

Foster: “How could anyone mistake me, Joey?” Joey: “Because you have no personality… …no distinctive characteristics…
…you ARE Mister POTATO HEAD.” Foster: “Thanks, pal.”

Foster: “How could anyone mistake me, Joey?”
Joey the robot: “Because you have no personality…
…no distinctive characteristics…
…you ARE Mister POTATO HEAD.”
Foster: “Thanks, pal.”

very funny. However, some of the dialogue moves into the crude zone, specifically focusing on private organs. While not exactly a large part of the game, the indiscretion ranges from off-hand comments or low-aimed jokes to a part (not an explicit part) of one of the puzzles.

It’s probably no worse than the average PG-13 movie, but it’s still something a conscious Christian should be aware of before playing the game.

This leads to another issue of discretion. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to admit that during the course of the game the player enters another dimension of existence by merging Foster’s mind to the computer system controlling the city. In this separate space composed of the computer’s memory, everyone is naked. This actually makes acceptable scientific sense, and at this graphics resolution nothing is too explicit. However, forewarned is forearmed, and now you are forewarned.

Finally, I’ll get to the actual gameplay. I had real trouble with many of the puzzles. Maybe I was just lazy, and didn’t put in the time I should have to solve them on my own. Especially given the hassle it was to switch between the game and Safari for the walk-through (see Technical issues below), you’d think I would’ve put more into it. I can well remember the happy hours and weeks I poured into “Riven” and “Myst 3: Exile”…perhaps I’m getting slothful in my old age. Nevertheless, I do believe that the “Steel Sky” puzzles require more thinking outside of the box for some people than for others. For me, it was more like “climb out of the box, pull out your folding grocery cart, and run the box over.”

Hyperbole aside, many of my problems boiled down to being taken in by the succulent red herrings that seem to be everywhere—the objects that you don’t actually need yet, but need to have later, or the objects you’ve already used but the game didn’t take away when you were done with them… That kind of thing. A couple times, my problem was that I had missed something – I had not seen something – which I could blame on the 1990s graphics if I wanted to alleviate the guilt of having peeked at a walk-through.

Incidentally, I might as well mention that the Universal Hint System (link here) is not a bad option for hard-core puzzlers who nevertheless find themselves stumped. It doesn’t hand you the answers on a platter, but it can ease your anxieties about whether you’re doing something right by confirming that there is no solution to that problem; the way forward lies elsewhere. I also found it informative to discover what some other people were trying to do: as in, “How do I ____?” “Hmm…maybe I’ll try doing that…somehow.”

Ironically, Wikipedia reports that PC Gamer US’s coverage of the game’s release, while giving “the game a score of 91%”, thought that “the difficulty of the puzzles in the final third of the game is disproportionately high” (qtd in “Beneath a Steel Sky”, Wikipedia.org: link here). This is likely the part of the game where Foster’s backward route is blocked, you have nothing but what you brought with you and what you find ahead, and I finally started making headway and finding solutions all by myself. That just goes to show you that what works for some people is going to be impossible for others (or at least very difficult).

I’ll touch on the technical issues briefly before getting to the story. I had no problems running the game; GOG.com did an excellent job bundling it so that it would run on a modern MacBook running OS 10.6 (also available for modern versions of Windows and Linux). However, even though the previously mentioned opening cinematic is gripping and a good introduction to the story, having to watch all five minutes every time you launch the game (yes I timed it; it feels like ten minutes) became a little laborious. The graphics aren’t anything like what the modern game-player is used to (even if they’re into Minecraft). Nevertheless, the way objects interact and the way the characters use 3D space is impressive and engaging, especially given the technology of the ’90s.

Finally, the storyline. Anything with a lame storyline is going to be disappointing to some degree. “Steel Sky” reveals a polluted world dominated by various city-states that “protect” (and subjugate) their people under huge steel domes. After Robert Foster is plucked from his home in the surrounding wastes and brought back to the city of his birth, a place he barely remembers, he must discover who has ordered his retrieval, why he’s been brought back, and why they need him alive. Shocking plot twists and deadly consequences surround him as he works his way down – to the ground-level of the city and into the heart of the mystery (a mystery that I solved at exactly the same rate as he did).

Potential spoiler alert:
 The story conclusion poses some important questions about the nature of evil. What turned the computer malevolent and destructive? Is it really that the machine is evil…or is it the human designers who, inadvertently or not, fed their own greed, selfishness, and anger into it? As Christians, we know that the true seat of evil is the human heart, and that computers, like the rest of our creations, reflect our own fallenness.

In the end, “Beneath a Steel Sky” is a challenging game, but for those who enjoy dystopian worlds featuring all-powerful, megalomaniacal computers, it boasts a satisfying story with some genuine, sarcastic humor and a little out-right silliness.

Be vigilant.

Legal note: The images in this post are used under “free use” guidelines: low-resolution images for the purposes of review that could not be replaced with other material. The source of the cover image at the top and the rationale for its use is the Wikipedia page found here. The screen-shot of actual gameplay is from me, and seeing as the whole game is available for free on GOG.com (here), I consider using it for the purposes of review acceptable.

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