Saturday, February 9, 2008

Beneath a Steel Sky

Yay! A game with a story! Beneath a Steel Sky is an adventure game, a blessedly not-so-prevalent genre in todays world whose only contribution to the realm of electronic gaming lies in the fact that they had to focus on story, because their gameplay was painfully unfun. Which is a broad generalization, and not exactly accurate in this case, but mostly true most of the time. Adventure game elements are found in most of the games that see release every year, but the bad parts have mostly vanished from the face of the earth.

This is really two reviews in one: firstly, there's the software. That's SCUMM-VM, a sort of emulator that allows you to run a collection of old-school games (mostly LucasArts games from the early 90s, which featured and engine called SCUMM, but also a few others). Then there's the game itself: a collection of datafiles being interpreted by the SCUMM-VM and thus being something we can interact with on our Linux (or Win32 or Apple or... ad infinitum) machine.

SCUMM-VM is mostly amazing. It works very well on this machine; I'd used it to play other games under Windows in the past, but this is my first experience with it in Linux. It was essentially the same experience; they even hard-coded using alt-enter to switch between windowed and full-screen modes, so that works under Linux. The fact that everything in the Linux world seems to have a different short-cut for toggling full-screen is a constant source of frustration to the person who came up on Windows.

When you install Beneath a Steel Sky it adds shortcuts for both the game, and for SCUMM-VM, to your 'Applications' menu - I recommend starting SCUMM-VM, as that allows you to configure some things, the most important of which is probably the graphics engine. SCUMM-VM supports several different anti-aliasing and multi-sampling graphics modes, that look much nicer than the default un-touched-up visuals you get with most of these games. It's a way to triage some of the pain that comes from playing a game from 15 years ago, if you didn't play them at the time. They weren't ugly - some were quite pretty - but they certainly weren't as slick looking as everything these days is. 640x480 was hi-res.

Configuration aside, the SCUMM-VM machine integrates seamlessly into the game itself. Outside of hitting 'F5' to get to the menu that allows you to save and load and turn sound n' sub-titles off, you're mostly working within Beneath a Steel Sky. The gameplay is simple; left click to look at something, right-click to interact with it, and if you want to use any of the items you've picked up on your travels, hover the mouse at the very top of the screen/window, and your inventory appears.

The story starts out uniquely: a helicopter full of riot-gear toting police lands in the middle of your savage-wastelands-post-apocalyptic-style tribe, and demands that you be handed over, in the middle of the tribe's chief/shaman guy having a vision of your impending doom n' whatnot. You leave with the cops, the cops blow up your tribe from the air, and take you to a city, where your 'copter crashes, allowing you to escape. Meanwhile, you had a flashback in there at some point where you saw another helicopter crash involving you, when you were five years old; said crash killed your mom, and led to you being taken in by that tribe.

Your goal? Escape the city! Return to the wilderness of The Gap (the region you're from, not the store). It turns out that the city is built way up into the air, you're on an upper level, and you need to get to the ground level to get the hell out. The plot has a tendency to thicken nicely in well-managed increments, so there's always something new to deal with and think about. Generally, the pacing is quite good, though the game isn't really that long.

Thank the blessed Mary, the puzzles are mostly sensible. I played a number of adventure games back in the day - back when they were still making them a lot, as opposed to the current slow trickle - and mostly, they blew. They existed to sell hint books. How do you defeat the yeti? A pie in the face, obviously. Etc. (that's actually almost too logical to count as a ludicrous adventure-game puzzle - see Old Man Murray's famous examination of Gabriel Knight III for a better example). Some of them were so obscenely funny and fun due to the writing and general aesthetics that you didn't really give a shit (see Grim Fandango), and some adventure games actually made enough sense that you weren't disgusted by them. This is one of the few, the proud, the latter.

I didn't have to consult GameFAQs until the last third of the game, and then - painfully - it was to discover that I needed to do something I'd already tried, only there was a small section of pixels where it would work, and I'd clicked the wrong section of the object in question. The only thing worse than a stupid puzzle is a puzzle that makes perfect sense, that you solved correctly in your head an hour ago, and then spent an hour wasting your time trying to find some imaginary other solution. But at least it's my fault; I don't blame the game (much).

Oddly, for a game that's beloved by tons and tons of people, I found that the aesthetics were a bit confused. The game's quite funny, and also features a dark vision of the future, but they don't seem to mesh well. You have funny bits, and you have dystopic bits, but never darkly humorous bits. At least, not much. It is genuinely funny, so it's still a pleasure, but it seems a bit confused.

The art-direction seems equally confused. Beneath a Steel Sky seems sort of like it wants to look like a post-apocalyptic Fallout-style future most of the time, but then you step on the wrong corridor, and there's nothing post-apocalyptic about it. It's a megapolis that stretches towards the heavens, featuring millions of people, high technology, futuristic forms of transportation, and so on. More like Bladerunner (technically that was post-apocalyptic too, but a very different vision) or something from one of William Gibson's books. Each scene looks fine, but very often the transitions between them are quite abrupt.

It's worth mentioning that the voice-acting is brilliant. I'm not even going to add 'for a game' - it's just hilariously well-done. People actually have realistic inflection, great comedic timing, and intriguing personalities. It's even better than the real thing!

While I've mentioned mostly flaws, don't let me convince you the game sucks. It doesn't. It's brilliant, it's funny, it's witty, and it's fun. Graphically, while I don't think it necessarily fully reflects a coherent vision, it's very well-done and it's a delight to discover. The story features twists and turns, surprises of all sorts, drama, and all the rest of the jazz you associate with good storytelling (a beginning and an ending! I hate it when they don't have those). The game is considered a classic by many fans of sci-fi and adventure gaming for very good reason, and I was delightfully surprised to get the chance to play it for this blog.

Beneath a Steel Sky is available via the Ubuntu packages because it was released into the wild as freeware by its developers. As such, unlike most of the games that SCUMM-VM works with, it's available for free from the SCUMM-VM website. Whatever platform you're reading this on, you can probably go right there, download the game and the engine, and have it up and running in less than ten minutes. Best of all? Beneath a Steel Sky isn't the only one! There's also Lure of the Temptress (from the same developers) and Flight of the Amazon Queen. I'm assuming I'll end up playing both of those for this blog.

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