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"Marvellous! I get kidnapped, nearly killed in a 'copter crash, hunted by professional thugs... and I'm stuck with a ROBOT in a SULK!—Robert Foster, exchanging angry words with his belligerent robot Joey.
Beneath A Steel Sky is a British Point and Click video game, released for PC DOS and Amiga platforms in 1994. It came in two basic versions for both of those platforms: a text-heavy disk-based affair with minimal sound effects and a more lavish CD-ROM production with full music and speech, the latter of which was unusual considering the limitations of most computer systems of the era. The artwork and general style was partially created by Dave Gibbons, whose illustrations grace the PC CD-ROM version's introduction video, with the subtitles using comic-book style EMPHASIS on KEYWORDS.
The player controls a character called Rob Foster. Rob was rescued by a tribe of bandits as a child after he was found as the only surviving member of a helicopter crash, on which his mother was also a passenger. He is raised by the tribe and comes to look upon them as his family, learning skills such as hunting and building himself a robot from discarded scraps found in local garbage dumps. They inhabit a barren wasteland known as "The Gap", a deserted area that was once part of the Australian outback, a harsh place where daily survival is a struggle.
They are brutally set upon by a team of Security agents from Union City, a sprawling metropolis with millions of inhabitants, looking for someone named Overmann. After kidnapping Foster, destroying his robot's shell and setting off in a helicopter, the leader of the forces gives the order to detonate an explosive, wiping out both the tribe and the land on which they lived. Overcome with emotion, Foster is restrained by the guards as they make their way back to the city. Without warning, the chopper spins out of control and crashes in Union City's industrial district, killing the pilot and all the passengers but two: Foster and an over-zealous Security agent named Reich. Climbing from the wreckage, he retreats to a nearby factory amidst a hail of laser fire. Reich proceeds to hunt him down, all the while referring to him as Overmann.
Union City, the "steel sky" of the title, is a classic dystopian Cyberpunk setting full of selfish, morally flexible and hilarious characters who don't much care for Rob, Joey and their unusual ways. Staying undercover and stealing anything of use, Rob endeavours to resurrect his robot companion, find a way out of the city and find the mysterious Overmann, who somehow seems connected to the supercomputer that forms the backbone of their society, known simply as LINC.
Beneath A Steel Sky was very well received upon release, fetching scores between 85-100% in the video game magazines of the time, with particular praise directed at the stylish graphics and darkly humourous off-kilter dialogue. Nevertheless, it failed to reach a larger audience and remains something of a forgotten gem, although Revolution Software commendably made it freeware to coincide with ScummVM porting the game using its custom engine, which means it can now be played on a variety of platforms. A "Remastered" edition was released for the iPhone in September 2009, which fixes some of the minor issues with the original game, features an intuitive new interface and an improved musical score.
There has been talk of making a sequel or converting the premise to film, but said plans have been in Development Hell for years.
This fine adventure game provides examples of:
- Arc Words: Rob often asks the question "Do you know a guy called Overmann?" and as the story unfolds he learns the power that name holds.
- Joey's line "I take my orders from Overmann!" is an example of this, about a third into the game. Oddly enough, it turns out to be the truth.
- Author Filibuster: Given the weighty subject matter they pretty much managed to avoid preaching a message about the evils of technology.
- Back-Alley Doctor: The unbelievably unscrupulous Burke, who operates on patients for no reason whilst huffing gas, performs bizarre cosmetic surgery procedures in the name of fashion and trades in people's organs. He also turned his dead wife into a holographic receptionist.
- Batman Gambit: The plans laid out to foil Rob in his goal to uncover the mysteries of the city. He played right into LINC's hands and didn't even realize it.
- Badass Longcoat: Rob's stylish silver, gray and black garment. Handy for concealing a crowbar, amongst other things.
- Black and Gray Morality: Rob versus everyone in Union City. For example, Robert disproportionately de-LINCs Gilbert Lamb and freezes Lamb's assets in order to steal a videotape that he needs as a distraction while Robert steals from his living ally, Mrs. Piermont, so that Robert can send her dog treading water in the park to distract a guard so that Robert can sneak into a church. What Robert actually catches Lamb doing is being disrespectful to Anita and sending her to the "testing area" and bragging that his coat is made from the world's last ten beavers. There is no sign calling the radiation-soaked area the "testing area", and Robert does not catch Lamb de-LINCing anyone nor freezing anyone's assets. However, Robert's motivations are commendable.
- But given Lamb's negligence leading to Anita's death, and the file saying that he may be received his promotion through dubious means, the retribution may be minor compared to what he's guilty for.
- Body Horror: Revealed in one of the game's closing scenes.
- Brick Joke: Rob gets complimented on his jumper by Potts in Gilbert Lamb's pipe factory, but it's not until quite a lot further on when we catch a glimpse of said jumper. Incidentally, this is one of the most hilarious moments.
- But Thou Must!: It wouldn't be an adventure game without it!
- The Call Knows Where You Live: Try as he might, Rob can't seem to escape his fate.
- Captain Obvious: Usually Joey's job, not that he's terribly happy to do it most of the time.
- Catch Phrase: "Be vigilant". Used in a variety of ways and by different people.
- Conveniently an Orphan: Twice, once when Rob's mother died in an aircraft hull loss, and again when Reich blew up Rob's tribe and foster family. Another aircraft hull loss soon followed. One of the reveals is that LINC's creator, absorbed into LINC, was the neglectful father of the protagonist.
- Cool Chair: Most of the time Rob will claim he is too busy to sit down, but the chair in Burke's office is too good to resist.
Rob: What a chair... it's a MASTERPIECE in UPHOLSTERY!
Rob: [after sitting down] Mmm! Comfortable AND aesthetically pleasing!
- Cryptic Conversation: Rob's first encounter with Gallagher down in Belle Vue, which makes sense in context. Seriously, complete the game and then go back to that scene and run the conversation again.
- Cyberpunk: It doesn't just have elements of this, it IS this. Rob is as unfamiliar with the future city as we are, and his observations act as a commentary on topics like Transhumanism.
- Deadpan Snarker: Joey can rarely say a line without biting sarcasm and critique of Rob's incompetence. He provides a lot of the humour which makes the game fun to play; try getting him to analyze inventory items.
- Do Androids Dream?: The further into the game you get, the more this question looms over you.
- Dubtitle / Fun with Subtitles: Due more to lack of attention to detail than anything else, often the spoken dialogue and written dialogue are different. Sometimes these are regional variations, like changing "spanner" to "wrench", but every so often the line is completely different, although the meaning is the same. This provides an inadvertent source of humour.
- Easter Egg: On the Amiga version, the programmers hid a little information in the main executable file. It was a short note on how hard it was to get the game running with only 1MB of RAM, written in "Olde Worlde" style English.
- Establishing Character Moment: BASS goes out of its way to provide motivations for the lead character and tells us what sort of person he is quite quickly. Though backstories and long cutscenes are commonplace now, this was a rare thing in 1994.
- Foreshadowing: All over the place. Seemingly throwaway lines and scenes can give clues to what happens later, in terms of both plot and puzzle-solving.
- Freud Was Right: There's plenty of dialogue that doubles as innuendo.
Lamb: Pipes are the arteries of this mighty ERECTION, the VEINS through which its LIFEBLOOD pumps...
- Also, the video tape "Pussies On Parade". While earlier Lamb was referring to his cat, it can bring some hilariously inappropriate connotations. Deliberate? Maybe.
- Fun with Acronyms: LINC, which actually stands for Logical Inter-Neural Connection.
- Gainax Ending: No-one could have predicted the conclusion. Very unusual, no easy answers.
- Game Breaking Bug: Both PC versions and the Amiga disk version, and all the subsequent ScummVM ports of them, are stable. But the CD32 version is riddled with problems... the code system used to save the game wasn't tested, and some codes will freeze the game as they fail to load certain key files the game needs to run. Not to mention the way the music ducks in and out unevenly on the volume slider, how the speech takes ages to load due to the slow CD drive and poor use of buffering or that sometimes cuts half the music while it plays, and several other things. Which is a shame, as it could have been the best version if more time had been spent fixing the flaws.
- Genre Savvy: About half the cast, but especially Rob. He gets an uneasy feeling at all the right moments.
- Guide Dang It: So how were you supposed to know that the putty was explosive?
- Actually, Joey tells you that if you show it to him.
- Grand Theft Me: A chilling, non-human version. To say any more would ruin the finale.
- Gone Horribly Wrong: Doesn't it always?
- Hoist by His Own Petard: This happened to LINC's creator.
- Hot Scientist: Anita. She's not quite a scientist but she's tech savvy and fits the description to perfection.
- Impossibly Cool Clothes: Rob's quasi-futuristic outfit, though amusingly throughout the game people poke fun at it and him.
- Except Foreman Potts, who loves the sweater he wears underneath his black/silver robes.
- Rob seems to be pretty happy with his outfit though, although this was possibly just for the sheer pun of it.
Technician- You can't come in here without a rad suit!
Rob- I think this suit is pretty rad...
Technician- I mean protective clothing.
- Inside a Computer System: How LINCspace works, among other things...
- Just Eat Gilligan: At several points there would seem to be easier options to leaving the city but you can't take them. Thanks to good writing, this isn't jarring and probably not even things you'll notice if you're playing for the first time.
- Karmic Death: What happens to Reich seems only fair, given his disregard for human life.
- Kleptomaniac Hero: Thankfully this doesn't mean you end up carrying around a bunch of junk. There are very few red herrings, and best of all there is some Lampshade Hanging on Rob being a thief, most notably what happens when Foreman Potts searches him after rummaging around in a store room.
- If anything, this is one the few games where this is a Justified Trope via Fridge Brilliance. Robert's Backstory involves growing up in The Gap, where scavenging junk and improvising what you need from whatever comes to hand is a fact of tribal life. Hence, his collecting various knick-knacks and using them to MacGyver up solutions to his problems is simply what he's used to.
- Love Interests: Anita - in an interesting subversion, she helps him escape his plight as much as he helps her achieve her goals. Sadly, it doesn't end well.
- Luke, I Am Your Father: Dad, way transhuman long ago, and recently made somewhat transhuman son meet as enemies in an ultra urban setting. Unlike Star Wars, there don't seem to be any lightsabers in the game nor a protagonist stealing everything of use on the Death Star, but there are great similarities between Star Wars and Beneath A Steel Sky.
- Mad Scientist: This easily falls to the LINC committee but the worst one of all is definitely Rob's father.
- Master Computer: LINC
- May Contain Evil: The LINC gazette mentions action being taken against a fast food chain whose food contained an unacceptably high level of human waste.
- Meaningful Name: Overmann, in more ways than one. Also Reich - from the name alone you can probably tell what kind of character he is.
- Meat Moss: A feature of the underground tunnels beneath the surface, and evidence of the "evil beneath the city" the old man envisions in the opening cut-scene. Even used in a couple of puzzles.
- Mind Rape: Played with; a sort of self-mind-rape, if you will.
- Mind Screw: There is a lot of symbolism in the game, some subtle and some obvious. If you play it enough times you can make sense of most of it, but some are best left to the imagination. Notable in that the game doesn't just do this for art's sake; it was meant as a staple of the narrative.
- Mooks: The entire Security team, and they're sometimes pretty poor shots too.
- Mr. Fixit: Hobbins, who turns up whenever some kind of machinery goes wrong. He even "lends" Rob his trusty wrench, which is key to solving certain puzzles. Rob also qualifies for this as he does spend quite a lot of time repairing items on his quest.
- Narm: Rob's reaction to the destruction of his family...
WHY YOU MURDEEEERRRRING!!!
- Obfuscating Stupidity: Gallagher's bizarre riddles and generally odd behavior are used to cover up the fact he actually knows precisely what he's doing.
- Pixel Hunt: The C4 consists of a single brown pixel on a grey-brown background. At least you can stick it into a live socket afterwards...
- Ridiculously-Human Robots: They're out there, and it's impossible to know who really IS human.
- Robot Buddy: Joey, and he's even more free-willed than R2D2.
- Sequel Hook: Added to the "Remastered" version of the game for the iPhone, which plays as an animated epilogue after the ending.
- Shout-Out: Lots of pop culture references to be found, some more obscure than others.
- Joey's initial incarnation uses a rather familliar voice distortion effect. Why? When Rob first gives Joey the welding shell, this happens:
Joey: EX-TER-MI-NATE! EX-TER-MI-NATE!
Rob: And cut that out!
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: In a world full of cynics this is an interesting proposition; who can be less idealistic?
- Snarky Non-Human Sidekick: Joey, the wise-cracking back-talking robot who enjoys criticizing things and one day dreams of using his welding tool to kill people. Seriously, this is Bender five years before the fact.
- Stay in the Kitchen: Lamb's attitude to women is terrible. He treats Anita like a slave, and he can get away with it because of his status.
- Stock British Phrases: Used in a savvy way, mostly. Including the time when Anita tells Rob that his idiom about getting a Schreibmann Port is actually a description of the procedure itself.
- Stuffed Into the Fridge: Anita survives until Robert visits a locker in the church, where he finds her radiation burned remains stuffed into a locker. It's as if opening the locker causes her to die and teleports her remains there.
- Talking to Himself: The voice actor who plays Hobbins also voices several other minor characters, and there are a few times when they both exchange words.
- The Other Darrin: Played with. Joey can use different robot "shells" throughout the game, some of which change his voice tone and/or attitude towards things.
- The Reveal: At the end they come thick and fast, with each subsequent reveal more bold and shocking than the last! You might guess a few, but you'll never see them all coming.
- Twenty Minutes Into the Future: Like all classic genre works, this is a necessity. Though cleverly the production team kept future embellishments simple and believable.
- Unusual User Interface: The only way to get into LINCspace is by getting a Schreibmann Port, which is an unconventional way to get online, to put it mildly.
- You Killed My Father: Part of the final reveal, but is the father in question really dead, and is he really avenged?
- Zeerust VHS is still being used in cyberpunk dystopia...