Beneath a Steel Sky is Revolution Software’s Ride the Lighting—a masterpiece in the shadow of the pop icon. I haven’t played Broken Sword for quite a long time, and my memories may be blurry, but I consider Beneath a Steel Sky a much better game overall. The reason is perhaps a bit ethereal, for it concerns a rare mythical creature—good taste.
Everything Beneath a Steel Sky does, whichever risks it takes—it’s always in good taste. It’s a dystopian cyberpunk point-and-click adventure game released in 1994. The first half of the previous sentence implies that there is violence here (even some gore), and the last—there are tons of humor and puns. In this precarious position, finding the equilibrium is hard, but Beneath a Steel Sky manages flawlessly.
As a side note, I rarely get so much enjoyment purely from how the game is written—not in the sense of plot, characters, and conflicts, but in the sense of written language itself—Beneath a Steel Sky is among the best examples of this I’ve ever encountered. I appreciate it when the text unfolds smoothly like silk without losing your attention for a second.
Most humor comes from dialogues between Robert Foster—the protagonist—and Joey—his robotic sidekick. They are involuntary newcomers to the dystopian Union City and comment on their new surroundings with ardor.
Joey Stay away from him, Rob! He’s a human BOMB! Foster What ARE you talking about? Joey He’s got a FUSE in his MOUTH! Foster That’s a CIGARETTE. He’s inhaling the SMOKE for PLEASURE! Joey Get SERIOUS, Foster!
Union City is a cyberpunk city, alright. High-tech, low-life—it’s how it goes. You arrive by means of a helicopter crash and move downwards to the city’s core, witnessing and experiencing the typical class inequality with just a minor twist—elites live in the lower levels of the city while the lower classes are up high, breathing all the polluted air.
Humor in Beneath a Steel Sky gives a tonal salience to the grim plateau. I like when dystopian and dark texts have an emotional counterweight: it makes characters more humanlike and real—it’s okay for people to have a laugh even in the gravest circumstances. We’re already living in a dystopian world, and guess what? We also have the best jokes!
Foster So the BASTARDS had her KILLED! Mrs. Piermont You’re OVERWROUGHT, Robert… Would you like some PARACETAMOL? Foster I don’t want ANALGESIC—I want ANSWERS!
Cyberpunk is a tight genre with quite a strict checklist of usual themes that Beneath a Steel Sky follows dutifully. In addition to the already stated evident class conflict, there is also a scopophilic totalitarianism of an algorithm—AI named LINC that rules the Union City with the help of a human host—and, predictably, a plane of cyberspace.
When in cyberspace, everything is weird and strikingly inhuman. Beneath a Steel Sky presents it as a fancy equivalent of the early 90s’ point-and-click games’ labyrinth sections. They’re annoying, unintuitive, brain-cracking, and game-flow-breaking. Although precisely because these sequences are so out of the ordinary—the rest of the puzzles in the game are fairly logical and reasonable—they work. Like humorous dialogues in the grim setting, contrasts make wonders when made in good taste.
Anita The only ACCESS is through a special INTERFACE. There’s just one little PROBLEM… You’ll need to get a SCHRIEBMANN port. Foster How do I get a SCHRIEBMANN PORT? Anita Well, you’d have to undergo SURGERY. Foster I need THAT like I need a HOLE in the HEAD. Anita The Schriebmann port IS a hole in the head!
But the main typical cyberpunk theme that Beneath a Steel Sky focuses on—is the theme of body autonomy. The game’s plot briefly touches on the subject of body augmentation as a commodity and culminates in the physical manifestation of the ultimate conflict of humanity versus technology. The resolution for this conflict comes from an anomaly—a character that combines the qualities from both sides of the binary conflict. Like in classic western films—the conflict between civilization and the wild is solved by a civilized savage, John Wayne—he’s, on the one hand, a western white cis male, and on the other, can’t live within the western white cis patriarchal society, therefore departs toward the sunset.
Beneath a Steel Sky’s anomaly is the protagonist’s sidekick—Joey. This robot is a shapeshifter of the story—he changes several shapes, shells, or bodies, throughout the plot. Accumulating an understanding of humanity along the way, Joey reaches the point when his new body, a humanoid synthesis of biological and mechanical tissues—is precisely what he needs. And with Foster’s support, Joey rebirths into Ken, symbolizing the completion of the character’s progression. Nor Foster nor Joey can solve the game’s central conflict and bring peace to Union City—but Ken can.
Foster How do you FEEL, Joey? Joey I’m not entirely SURE, sir… I feel SOFT and curiously VULNERABLE! Foster That’s because you’re practically HUMAN. Joey Then this feeling of INSECURITY is NATURAL? Foster Oh, yes. You’ll get USED to it. […] Foster I think you need a new NAME, Joey. Joey I CONCUR with your OBSERVATION, Mr. Foster. What do you CONSIDER an appropriate SOUBRIQUET? Foster I’m going to call you… KEN. Joey That’s WONDERFUL news, sir. Tell me, are there any MEMORABLE Kens in HISTORY? A Ken whom I might seek to EMULATE? Foster All the Kens I can think of were DORKS… Ken SPLENDID! It will be my MISSION in LIFE… …to make the name Ken SYNONYMOUS with DORKS!
Nevertheless, it seems that everything crumbled eventually. Because the game’s sequel, Beyond a Steel Sky, was released in 2020, and its plot takes place ten years after the original game’s events. I haven’t had a chance to play it yet, but both Beneath a Steel Sky masterminds—Charles Cecil and Dave Gibbons—stand behind it, so it should be good.
Anyways, Beneath a Steel Sky is one of the best point-and-click adventure games ever made, and let’s be bold enough to say that it’s also one of the best cyberpunk games ever made. It’s that good!