GOG Box: Beneath A Steel Sky
(This is the first installment of the GOG Box, a weekly feature by Jim Sterling in which he investigates a classic from GOG.com)
I used to love point-and-click adventures, quite possibly for the exact same reason they fell out of favor with mainstream gamers. They’re brief, linear, and you barely go anywhere. That’s what makes them so great, however. What I love about a good adventure game is how so much can happen in such a restricted space, featuring interaction with only a handful of characters. Spending so much time in one area, as opposed to traveling the universe or climbing fantastical, dragon-infested mountains, allows one to grow incredibly familiar with it. It becomes almost like an old friend. There’s a depth of connection there that you just don’t get from ambitious games that trot the globe and never stay in one place for too long. With just a few rooms and a cast of characters that barely enters double digits, a good point-and-click game can craft a more believable and involving universe than some of the biggest triple-A products on the market.
One such game is Beneath A Steel Sky which, thanks to its status as a free download on GOG, reignited my love for the point-and-click genre. I’m not sure why I ever fell out of love with it in the first place, but I’m back in the saddle now, thanks to this little beauty.
Beneath A Steel Sky tells the tale of Robert Foster, a man raised in the Australian Outback in a dystopian future. The cities have now become huge corporate entities, controlled by artificial intelligence programs and a rigid caste system coldly differentiating between the wealthy and the destitute. Foster is forced from his free life in the Gap (as the Outback is now known) and taken against his will to Union City, along with the personality chip of his sarcastic robot, Joey. However, the helicopter transporting Foster crashes, and he escapes into the City while cops give chase. Thus begins a tale of personal identity, class disparity, corporate control and an inexplicable lack of Australian accents.
As far as Adventure games go, Beneath A Steel Sky is one of the most simplistic. The greatest challenge is usually in simply finding the objects needed to progress, rather than solve intricate puzzles or fathom the developers’ twisted logic. The classic Virtual Theater graphics weren’t really accounted for when it came to item placement, so finding the one small cupboard that can be opened, or the crucial tool lying on the ground, can be something of a hassle. Still, there are some truly inspired moments, such as the contrived way in which Foster catapults a dog into a pond to distract a nearby guard.
What truly stands out with Steel Sky, however, is the writing. A classic Adventure game often lives or dies by its script, and Beneath A Steel Sky still sports one of the best. With a unique blend of silly humor and genuinely dark, disturbing moments that sometimes border on horror, I feel confident in saying that there just isn’t any other game quite like this. Joey’s sarcastic commentary plays wonderfully off Foster’s gullible stupidity, and there’s a lot of joy to be had in clicking on random objects just to see what’s said about them. Although other games go for wittier, sharper dialog, there’s something unfailingly charming about the weird comments that come out of Foster’s mouth. He’s not snarky and he doesn’t do quips. He’s just a bumbling goof whose attempts to crack jokes come off as awkward and confusing … which just adds to the amusement.
Underneath the abstract humor and ludicrous voice acting, however, is a truly morbid science fiction story with elements that ring true today. Steel Sky’s world is one where corporations have complete, uncontested control. The rights of workers have been wiped away by ironically named Unions. Labor representation and social welfare are gone, and one’s place in society is determined by a “LINC” grade. Should one become a D-LINC, they are a non-entity, bereft of even basic rights and forced into the most demeaning, dangerous jobs just to make ends meet. A bone of bitter commentary runs throughout the game that remains light enough to be ignored, but strong enough to really resonate with more politically-minded gamers, especially today when class struggles and economic issues are at the forefront of many minds.
All of this is wrapped up in a twisted science fiction story that becomes quite grisly toward the end.
Beneath A Steel Sky costs nothing anymore, but don’t let its status as a freebie fool you. It’s still one of the most affecting point-and-click games available, with a story that can be enjoyed on multiple levels, solid (if unremarkable) inventory gameplay, and a vein of silly humor keeping things interesting. Although it’s only a short game, and the adventure spans a handful of environments, Beneath A Steel Sky truly encapsulates a feeling of warm familiarity that all good adventures bestow upon a player. You can’t argue with that for the price of free!