In the heyday of point-and-click adventure games, Beneath A Steel Sky stood out as special. It boasts a cyberpunk setting and it featured a visual style developed by Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons. There were moments of levity in it, but it had a dystopian theme and dark story beats. It won awards for its dialogue and reviews tipped over 90% in all the bigger mags. It gave developer Revolution, run by Charles Cecil, the momentum to create the bestselling Broken Sword games.
Beneath A Steel Sky was remastered and released on iOS back in 2009, so a new generation of gamers could check it out. But now, in 2019, some 25 years after the original introduced us to Robert Foster and the corruption of Union City, a whole new story is zooming our way, to be part of the newly revealed Apple Arcade. Brace yourself for Beyond A Steel Sky.
The Boys Are Back In Town
“This is a game absolutely based on the universe of the game that we worked on 25 years ago, called Beneath a Steel Sky,” begins CEO and creative director Cecil, when we run into him at Gamescom in Germany. “I didn’t want to call it a sequel because a sequel would suggest that the gameplay is very similar… which would mean you’ve got a 320-by-200 side-scrolling point-and-click game. Which this most certainly is not!”
While still a puzzle-driven adventure game, this year’s follow-up will be a 3D game built with the Unreal engine. We’re sitting down with Cecil and producer Tobias Fossheim in a cosy room in Cologne in August, and they introduce us to a game very much still influenced by comic art and following the story of the original.
“We’re very keen to bring forward the spirit,” continues Cecil. “But we assume, absolutely, that nobody would have played the [original] game, or would know anything about it, but can enjoy this. That’s really, really important.”
Cecil reminds us of Dave Gibbons’ influence here. “Working in a sort of comic-book universe works really well for us, because in an adventure game, unlike other mediums, you’re looking at an environment. You’re looking for hotspots. You’re looking for things of interest. So we were keen, because of the relationship with Dave Gibbons but also from a gameplay perspective, to have this comic-book style – the simplicity of the open area. The characters too, whether they be Gang Gangs or humans, we put a border around them so that they stand out. So anything important in the world should be clear.”
Cecil fires up a trailer that shows off the game’s engine, including nuanced features on the characters’ faces as you get closer. “We are using Unreal engine, which we love. What we want is to be able to control it, as you can see, with much more subtlety by being able to control the colour. There are various process, until you have a character that you can light dynamically with lines that you can control, and a darker line so that it stands out.”
All The World’s A Stage
“Robert Foster is the same character as from Beneath a Steel Sky. He finished the original story 10 years ago. He’s been living happily in the area outside called The Gap,” explains Cecil. “One day, he’s about to move onto a new village, and his best friend convinces him to go fishing with their son, despite superstitious warnings.”
The game begins in the wilderness of The Gape, but we don’t tarry there for long. “They’re fishing at dusk. The boy gets very excited because there’s something coming towards his line, but it turns out to be a huge wolf-like, mechanical creature with androids. They almost kill the father. They knock out Foster. They take the boy. Obviously Foster goes in pursuit of him!”
“It’s important to emphasise that he walks through a terrifying sandstorm,” continues Cecil. “You can see the remnants of the sandstorm in the distance. These birds are scavenger birds, so he knows he’s near humanity. As he crosses a hill, he comes to a place he didn’t want to return to – Union City. But he has no choice...”
There’s a small tutorial level in the desert but the first full level has you trying to break back into Union City. We’re reminded the Virtual Theatre strategy Revolution has always been famous for, a concept Charles Cecil came up with about 25 years ago. “Do you remember Lure of the Temptress?” he grins. “In that game, characters walked around and they lived their own life. Like that, this world is an arena full of little sets, with different people who are doing different things. All of them are related to the story, of course, to the gameplay.”
Our character Robert wanders around inside this set, encountering characters such as a lorry driver, technician, a flock of scavenger birds, robot workers, and trying to figure out what each needs in order to unlock the puzzle. “It is a chain reaction,” says Cecil. “You want the player to go ‘aha!’ and to have these dominos that work backwards from each arena. What we want is for the player to come into this virtual theatre area, and to work out what they need to do. Because instead of looking into the mind of the game’s designer, we want them to have the agency to solve the puzzles in the way that they want to. So we’re giving multiple ways of solving the puzzles. Not by scripting lots of different ways – which is what most people talk about – but by giving people the agency to accomplish their objective in ways that they discover.”
There’ll be other characters who are familiar from the original, and the story should take eight to nine hours to complete, a manageable length. “And it’s a very intense story,” says Cecil. “I love eight-to-nine-hour games, because you can finish it in a weekend. I love games that are finishable. It’s great. You remember the beginning by the time you finish it at the end!”
Another bite of the Apple
The team have been working on the game for a little over two years. “What’s so funny is, we have a very small team,” says Cecil. “I wanted to work on a prototype just to make sure that the prototype was right. So we took our time to get it right. It’s this idea of going back to Virtual Theatre, and I didn’t want to go to production too early.”
“When you work with publishers, you kind of have to go in early,” confides Cecil. “You have to define exactly what you’re going to do, and then you have to deliver it. And they beat you over the back if you don’t deliver exactly what you said. Which is kind of ludicrous. It’s the whole point about software development for games. It’s that you iterate, depending on what you’ve learned. So it’s wonderfully liberating to be able to self-fund.”
Apple Arcade, that fresh initiative from the iOS gods, will be where you find Beyond A Steel Sky (there’ll also be a PC version at the same time, with console following at some point). “We are part of the Apple Arcade programme, which is brilliant,” says Cecil, who reveals how the iPhone platform saved Revolution back in the day, when previous Revolution games made the leap to mobile. “We were on the verge of bankruptcy at one point, despite licensing very successful games. And then we got a call from Apple. We were huge Apple fans, and huge Steve Jobs fans. They said, ‘We think your game would work in our catalogue!’ And that was the beginning of a turnaround for Revolution. So we get a lot of support from Apple. Always have done. They’re wonderful partners.”Beyond a Steel Sky will be releasing on Apple Arcade later this year, keep up to date on all the latest Apple Arcade news in our dedicated section.