Oddities: Beneath a Steel Sky

steel sky instruction coverBeneath a Steel Sky is a highly regarded 1994 computer game developed by Revolution Software and released on the MS-DOS, Amiga and iOS platforms. I bought it a couple of years after it was published but I never managed to get it to install properly, even though my PC at the time was a top-of-the-range model.

PCs were like that, back in the olden days: sometimes software just wouldn’t run. But technology has progressed quite a lot in the intervening twenty-six years: nowadays, PCs are still like that, but considerably faster and with lights on the front.

Luckily, the game is now available on gog.com (a site that cleverly tweaks and re-jigs old games so that they’ll run on more modern computers), and not only that, it’s now free, too.

It’s a single-player graphical adventure of the “click on the screen to make the character go there” style, and it’s great fun, very inventive — though pretty difficult at times. Younger people should be aware that it runs in a very low-resolution graphics mode, 320 by 200 pixels (in the olden days you could have lots of colours or lots of pixels, but rarely both), so it looks very chunky on a modern-day monitor… here’s a screen-grab shrunk down to the original pixel-size:

steel sky screen grab

The reason I’m featuring the game here, on a comics blog, can be found in the opening titles…

steel sky dave gibbons credit

Yes, that’s the Dave Gibbons!

Revolution’s CEO Charles Cecil sent Dave an outline for the proposed game, and Dave substantially fleshed it out, adding new characters and situations. The final product is a sumptuous, immersive interactive story that, at the time, looked and felt like nothing else on the market. To cap it all, the packaging contains an eight-page comic drawn by Dave that sets the scene for the game.

I’ve loved Dave’s artwork since the very first issue of 2000AD where he drew the “Harlem Heroes” strip, and his work here is just sublime. That’s one of the rules of comics: Dave Gibbons never lets you down. Never. (And he’s a gifted writer, too: check out The Originals — one of my favourite graphic novels!)

My physical copy of Beneath a Steel Sky is long gone (another victim of the Great Purge of 2017 in which I got rid of almost all of my old PC game boxes), but I kept the comic and instruction manual. The latter is a tiny forty-page book (105mm by 150mm) featuring handy background information and character profiles that might provide the player with some clues…

steel sky instruction pages

The comic is a little larger, at 140mm by 218mm, and features this fierce classy all-black embossed cover…

steel sky comic cov

… justice to which my scanner does not do.

The comic-strip within is credited as “Drawn by Dave Gibbons” but I suspect he wrote, coloured and lettered it too. (Actually, he definitely lettered it: that’s Dave Gibbons lettering if ever I saw it.)

steel sky 01
steel sky 02
steel sky 03
steel sky 04
steel sky 05
steel sky 06
steel sky 07
steel sky 08

The story continues in the game itself… Of course, being designed to run on computers that had pixels the size of Lego bricks means that the game now doesn’t look quite as nice as the comic, but the atmosphere is still there and you’ll very quickly become so engrossed in the game that you won’t even notice its graphical chunkiness. (A remastered version of the game, released on iOS in 2009, featured new high-resolution animations by Dave Gibbons, but the game itself was still in low-res mode. The reviewers didn’t seem to mind, and gave the game a lot of praise.)

The downloadable version of Beneath a Steel Sky would be well worth getting even if it wasn’t free, but I recommend you also try to locate a copy of the original physical boxed edition — a worthy addition to the collection of any Dave Gibbons fan.

beneath a steel sky box

Two handy hints for getting through the game: First, if you’re stuck on the very first location, keep moving the mouse pointer around until it changes from an arrow to a cross-hair. That means it’s landed on an object with which you can interact. This could take some time because the thing you need to get out of that first room is rather small.

Second, disable the game’s background music because if you don’t it will burrow into your brain and take up long-term residence there, absolutely refusing to leave and keeping your other thoughts awake all night.


 

By an amazing coincidence — I swear I didn’t know this until about two minutes ago! — the game’s long-awaited sequel, Beyond a Steel Sky (not to be confused with the awesome Alphaville song “Beyond the Laughing Sky“), was released last month on macOS, with the Steam edition due in a couple of weeks. The original creative team of Dave Gibbons and Charles Cecil are both behind this one, too, so it’s definitely worth a look!

 

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