In 1948, George Orwell wrote his dystopian masterpiece, 1984, about a society whose citizens were under the constant surveillance of the Thought Police. Decades later, researchers have proved that our reliance on credit and store loyalty cards, mobile phones and computers could allow our day-to-day lives to be monitored in minute detail. The world has become increasingly dependent upon computer technology, but what if this dependency is abused? This is the premise at the heart of Revolution’s 1994 release, Beneath a Steel Sky. Set in a futuristic environment, BASS pushes our fears to their most chilling logical conclusion -- a totalitarian society in which humans have become slaves to progress.
Beneath a Steel Sky is set in an age of technology, where populations are packed into huge industrial cities, and only outcasts live beyond the metropolis, in a bleak wasteland known as the Gap (not The Gap you understand, as there isn’t a shred of denim in sight). In this third-person adventure, the gamer assumes the role of Robert Foster. Stranded in the Gap as a boy, Robert has gradually adjusted to his life in the wilderness. But in a gripping comic book-style introduction, featuring the work of Dave Gibbons (the artist behind Watchmen), armed security officers arrive to take Robert back. As their helicopter approaches the city, the flight is mysteriously sabotaged, allowing Robert to flee his captors. Initially hoping only to escape, Foster soon seeks to uncover the corruption that lies at the city’s very core.
BASS’s cult popularity stems from its original plot, which is worlds away from the traditional fairy tale staples on which Revolution’s first game, Lure of the Temptress, was based. Instead the gamer is confronted by a blend of bleak Orwellian nightmare and cyberpunk. The city is dominated by LINC, the computer mainframe which controls every aspect of people’s lives. Like Big Brother, LINC is always watching and is endowed with unimaginable power. Rebels are punished with death or downgrading to D-LINC status, where all their civil liberties are withdrawn. As Robert penetrates further into this murky world of technological takeover and conspiracy, the story becomes more and more compelling, punctuated by unexpected plot twists and macabre discoveries.
Revolution Software succeeds in maintaining a delicate balance between this dark subject matter and the brand of humour for which it is famed. Foster’s robotic sidekick, Joey, is particularly adept at lightening the tone, inflicting a torrent of dry, sarcastic barbs upon his creator. The other inhabitants of the gaming world are also drawn with characteristic flair and occasional comic touches, especially the hypocrite industrialist Gilbert Lamb, (whose coat is made from the last ten beavers in the world!) and the rebel D-LINC, Anita, who wants to bring down the system. The dialogues are witty and well-paced, and brought to life by a good standard of voiceover work. Quite where Rob picked up his American accent is a mystery, however, when the majority of characters speak in a diverse range of regional British accents. The high quality vocal performances really enhance the character portraits and make a refreshing change from the insipid, monotone voices often given to minor characters. In comparison, aside from the stirring signature theme, the soundtrack is far less inspiring, consisting of upbeat, looped themes which jar against the dark tone of the game.
Once you’ve adjusted the volume-control, you’ll likely find BASS a highly immersive experience, due partially to the unobtrusive interface. A simple left-click allows you to examine items, while right-clicking allows for interaction with objects. The inventory is accessible via a drop-down panel at the top of the screen. Because there is no SCUMM-style verb box to obscure the bottom third of the monitor, the detailed backgrounds can really be appreciated. In Foster’s attempts to escape, he makes his way down through several levels of the city tower block, each of which has a distinctive visual flavour. The bleak industrialism of the manufacturing level is characterised by dull, muted colours, whereas ground-level is presented as a colourful, luxurious paradise. The graphics have aged reasonably well, and the detailed artwork of the game’s comic book introduction remains impressive, even on a modern 17-inch monitor.
The game is also distinguished by its Virtual Theatre scripting system, pioneered in Lure. This endows non-playable characters with their own agendas, allowing them to move through the gaming world independently. In the case of Revolution’s first game, this was an innovative idea made impractical by poor implementation. In BASS, however, Virtual Theatre has been carefully refined to become workable. Gone are the days of pursuing fugitive peasants across a plethora of screens! In BASS, the characters’ agendas are not so hopelessly random, and can be logically predicted -- for example, Gilbert Lamb will be at the factory where he works, or travelling to his house, instead of just wandering aimlessly through the city.
BASS is a linear game with logical (though not immediately obvious) puzzle solutions. The game is of short-to-medium length, and I spent five evenings playing it through. Progression requires the use of inventory, interaction with other characters, and a little help from your robotic sidekick. Joey’s personality exists on a circuit board, and in the course of the game this can be plugged into a number of different shells. This provides your circuit-toting chum a range of different abilities to aid your progress, whether it is unlocking doors, exploring closed-off areas, or just a bit of synchronized button pressing! More controversial are the LINC-space sequences of the game. In order to advance, Robert has to enter the virtual reality zone of LINC-space, in which LINC’s documents, memory and data are represented abstractly. Theoretically, this is an interesting idea. In practice, however, pottering around a garish, eye-wateringly blue world, as an amorphous purple naked man, struck me as odd and more than a little trippy. I like to think that I’m open minded (heck, the other day I even tried anchovies!), but the degree of abstraction at times made it difficult to understand what on earth to do. Important documents, for example, can be collected by picking up a ball or a book, and kidney-shaped icons labelled ‘password’ have to be plugged into floor tiles in order to cross a room. Combine this with the incessant repetition of a six note midi and the whole experience takes on a nightmarish quality.
Now, just as you can’t expect to make an omelette without breaking any eggs, you can’t rove around a despotic society with no concern for your personal safety. The world which Robert explores is dangerous one, and on a handful of occasions it is possible to die. As you come closer and closer to discovering the city’s secret, your chance of dying increases proportionally, though these dangerous situations are clearly signposted, and, if you save regularly, will cause few problems. There are no action sequences or timed puzzles, and each of the potential death sequences has a logical puzzle solution.
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. Furthermore, the game’s http://www.revolution.co.uk/_display.php?id=16">release as freeware in 2003, and flawless performance in Windows XP using http://www.scummvm.org/">ScummVM give you no excuse not to play this game.