Beneath a Steel Sky Review and Analysis
This was supposed to be an analysis of Beyond a Steel Sky, Revolution Software’s newly released sequel to their 1990s cyberpunk thriller Beneath a Steel Sky. But BeyASS is a buggy mess. And though it has now been patched enough that I could play it beginning to end, it’s not yet sufficiently fixed to warrant playing a second time or do a full analysis. I’ll wait for a few more patches come out.
In the meantime, I went back to BenASS to see how it compares. Is Beneath a Steel Sky really the classic it’s held up to be? I’ll be analysing its structure using four Puzzle Dependency Charts that map out the whole game.
Briefly, a puzzle game can be thought of as a series of locks that bar progress and keys which open the locks. A lock might literally be a lock on a door that requires a key to open. But good games have many conceptually varied locks and keys such as guards or goats you need to distract, information you need to obtain in conversations, or logic puzzles to solve.
PDCs show all the locks and keys as blocks and lines between them show how they depend on one another. This tells you what order you need to solve the puzzles, or if there are many parallel routes through the game.
My full graphml file for BenASS can be downloaded here if you want to play with it.
Introduction to BASS PDCs
In the charts below, colour coding is used to represent different locks and keys. There’s a colour key at the top of each graph to tell you what the different colours mean.
BenASS has a lot of bright green blocks – these represents conversations. You’re going to be talking to a lot of different people! Yellow represents inventory objects which become much more prominent in the LINCspace sections of the game. Dark blue blocks are used to explain actions such as using an inventory item. Purple blocks are new locations. Red represents items that are found in one section but aren’t used until the next.
Although there is some back and forth between the different levels, I’ve split the game up into four main sections – the Top level (with the factories), the 2nd level (with the shops and simple living quarters), the ground level (with the rich people and their clubs) and the underground (where your destiny awaits!)
I hope you enjoy tracing the paths through this game. For me, it’s interesting to see how some parts of the game are very linear, requiring you to do exactly the right things in the right order, whereas other parts are more freeform and there are a couple of different puzzles you can work on at the same time.
Part 1: The Top Level
After the subtly animated comic strip opening, you take the role of Rob Foster and find yourself trapped in an industrial zone high among the polluted clouds of Union City. Your only possession is a circuit board containing the personality of your home-made robotic friend, Joey. An opening monologue helpfully informs you that your first task is to get Joey running. Though I’m not sure how Foster predicts this, Joey proves an essential companion and many of the game’s puzzles require speaking to Joey at the right time and place, or interacting with an object while Joey is nearby.
It quickly becomes apparent that sudden, unexpected death is a risk in Union City. I’ve left death-causing actions off the chart to avoid clutter, but if you walk down the stairs at the start of the game, you’re immediately shot and killed. This is a perverse outcome, since the guard announced five seconds previously that he’s under orders to bring you in alive.
Throughout BenASS, there’s this unease and uncertainty of what’s going to happen. At first glance, it’s an expected consequence of the dystopian nightmare you’ve been thrust into. But on closer inspection, particularly once the “I am your father” end rolls up, it looks more like a flaw in internal logic. I can’t help but think the creator rushed things or failed to think everything through when mashing together a great many ideas.
And it has to be said that many of the ideas in BenASS are great. Many of the individual moments affecting and memorable, the writing and artwork managing to be both funny and bleak. This is an entertaining game to play, and starts well with the multiple puzzle and story threads on the top level.
But despite its status as a classic, BenASS’s cracks are easily visible once you see enough of the whole. Fortunately, before things start going wrong, the next level down really is a classic example of the adventure game genre.
Part 2: The Second Level
Once you get the lift to the second level working, a slew of new locations and characters suddenly become available. This is disorienting but forces you to explore and learn a bit more about the world while you try to find the next “key”. Fortunately, this level has some very nice story touches and is easily the strongest section of the game.
You can have an enigmatic talk with Gallagher, the chap sat in the small garden. It’s completely irrelevant to gameplay, but I remember it seeding my mind with the idea that people were being reprogrammed to comply with the social order. I didn’t see the literal android angle coming.
Less successful from a story perspetive is the rude guy outside the surgery. I’m pretty sure he’s supposed to be an android as well, but you get nothing from him except a couple of lame jokes. Particularly with the overall story arc that LINC is trying to get you to its lair, why don’t the androids offer you subtle help rather than being so intent on killing you or just being mean to you? It’s a frustrating plot hole.
As you explore, your one clue for proceeding is a new conversation option with Lamb that suggests you should get him a holiday. I’m not sure why you would do something nice for such an arsehole and expect it to get you anything in return, but it’s still an obvious pointer to head to the travel agent.
Thinking about Beyond a Steel Sky for a moment, the idea of doing nice things for people to get ahead comes back in that game with the QDOS system. I really thought it was going to be a significant part of BeyASS that you would have to go around finding positive things you could do in the city in order to up your QDOS and progress to ground level. It was a real disappoint that never happened.
Anyway, progress through the 2nd level of BenASS is basically very linear. First to the travel agent, which opens up a key sequence back in the pipe factory, which leads you to Dr Burke’s surgery, which leads you to Billy’s insurance, which finally gets you into the security building and LINCspace.
But these sections also have a side quest or two that keeps things a little more interesting than pure linear progression. First, there’s the investigation of Reich’s apartment in tandem with securing the holiday. Then there’s the fun D-LINCing of Lamb and finding the video cassette which you can do while figuring out how to gain access to Burke’s surgery. They’re not much, but I think it makes a huge difference to improving gameplay.
Compare BenASS to the LucasArts design ethos. In their games, most obviously the Monkey Islands and Day of the Tentacle, you often have three different questlines to perform – map, ship & crew to set sail, or pieces of the head, body & dead to make a voodoo doll, or fixing times machines in each of the past, present & future.
These questlines are almost entirely independent of each other. If you get stuck on one, you have at least two other puzzles you can focus on. Eventually you’ll hit bottlenecks, but the bulk of the gameplay is non-linear. It’s epic and, I’m sure, very difficult and time-consuming to design.
Games by Revolution Software or most other producers are very linear in comparison. You have a series of small areas to explore, each with one or two puzzles to solve. If you can’t work it out, you’re stuck and there’s nothing else you can do. I think it’s that excessive linearity which is the reason the adventure game genre struggles at times.
The advantage of linearity in gameplay is that it’s easier to tell a detailed and coherent story. I’ve been playing through the first few Broken Swords recently. They’re restrictive and episodic, and probably remembered more for story, characters and presentation than gameplay.
This section of BenASS hits a sweet spot between linearity and gameplay freedom. Just those two little parallel threads are enough to give a satisfying amount of player agency. It’s interesting that you don’t need the complex three-way independence offered by LucasArts and I think a lot of indie adventure games would benefit from just a little more non-linearity. And that chat with Gallagher proves that fleshing out a world can be done independently of gameplay, so linear puzzles aren’t necessary to keep a story in order.
One final comment in this section: it finishes with the first LINCspace section. To me, LINCspace is a highlight of the game. I’m surprised to see it get a lot of hate from some reviewers. They’re not difficult, but they are a conceptual leap requiring you to get used to a slightly different inventory and understand the slightly different rules of this digital world. I like that. I like when a game takes one of its mechanics and twists it slightly to force you to think in a different way.
Part 3: Ground Level
Ugh, ground level. This is by far the weakest section of the game, and the PDC reveals quite clearly why.
Not only is there a huge linear section in the middle but it’s predicated on unconnected events that lurch the story forward.
After a solid start chatting to the new characters you gain access to the cathedral. There, you find Anita’s body. This takes you all the way back to the top level to get her LINC card, which gets you access to LINCspace again. Her final testament points you to the gardener, but he shuts you down and is completely useless, basically ending the game.
After some aimless wondering, you notice that the courthouse door has opened, which leads you to a funny but pointless cutscene where your actions have no impact on the result. Also, despite the obvious fact that it’s the people in Union City that are corrupt and unpleasant, Foster decides to give a big speech about how LINC must be to blame.
With the court scene over, you’re left to wonder aimlessly AGAIN! until you discover that the band in the club have packed up and gone home. This finally enables you to move forward or, rather, downward.
It’s really awful design and I have nothing positive to say about it. I can only imagine that there was a larger plan at some stage and time and budget contraints led to the things being chipped away until only this skeletal husk remained.
Part 4: Underground
This is it, the finale. And I’m happy to say that BenASS finishes on a high.
It starts with a strangely dangerous section where you can get killed by rockfalls, monsters and androids. Why? If LINC is so powerful and so controlling of the city, why is the only route to get you where it wants you so perilous? And why do the androids MADE BY LINC all want to kill you?!
But once all the deathtraps are avoided, the end is refreshingly freeform after the linearity of the ground level. There are parallel LINCspace and real world puzzles to solve, during which you’re awarded by an amusing section with Ken, and access to LINC’s creepy feeding pit. The idea that a computer virus can be fed to LINC is a bit of a stretch, but I’ll let it go as being a nice concept.
The ending is exposition heavy and excavates huge plot holes rather than filling them in but is still one of the best endings to any adventure game. I think that’s because it creates a satisfying ending for Joey and doesn’t worry too much about Foster.
Foster is a blank page. All he wants is to get out of the city and go back to the gap, perhaps getting some revenge along the way. The characters you meet flesh out the world, rather than Foster himself. I’ve seen some reviews of BeyASS that criticise Foster’s smug blankness, but I think it’s a good choice to avoid forcing too much character on someone who is under your control. So long as you have a Joey!
Joey, by the end is the one we care about. He’s gone through interesting emotional arcs mirroring his physical transformations. He’s funny, and imperfect and all the things you want from a good character.
And, at the end, he’s the one given a chance to make the world a better place, not you. You’ve finished the game, and it’s time to get on with your life. Someone else can take it from here. Someone else can remain in this game world to look after it while you move on.
If anything makes Beneath a Steel Sky a classic, it’s this ending. It’s satisfying without being obviously “meta” or knowingly philosophical. It just works.