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Ah, the point-and-click adventure – a genre so fondly remembered yet so close to extinction… ~Lewis Packwood
The fortunes of these most traditional of adventure games took a nosedive with the demise of the Amiga and never really recovered; the kids got into their fancy new ‘Grand Theft Autos’ and ‘Tomb Raiders’ and rapidly lost interest in figuring out how to combine broken string with some mud in order to create a mask with which to frighten the temple guard into giving you the key for the dungeon. Actually, when you put it like that it’s probably not surprising that the popularity of these games waned – after all, one of the best points about Grand Theft Auto is that you never have to spend twenty minutes painstakingly combing the screen with the mouse in a bid to work out whether you’ve missed picking up an essential item. “Ah, so that tiny yellow-green blob 14 screens back was actually a key!” is something you’ll never hear uttered by players of GTA.
Of course, I’m doing the genre a disservice – for all the frustrating back-and-forth wandering and pixel hunting there were a hundred more golden moments of ‘Eureka!’-style puzzle solving, not to mention elaborate plot twists. For, of course, ’tis in the narrative where these games truly excel, and Beneath a Steel Sky was a shining beacon in this respect. The developers even went so far as to create a mini-comic to be shipped with the game, detailing the events leading up to the opening credits.
Set in a dystopian future Australia, the comic describes how the main character, Robert Foster*, is raised by Indigenous Australians after a helicopter crash in ‘The Gap’ (the Australian Outback). He learns electronics and builds himself a robot, Joey, who becomes your companion throughout the game. Upon reaching adulthood, Foster is kidnapped by stormtroopers sent from Union City (a possible future Sydney), and his tribe is murdered. The stormtroopers have been sent by LINC, the mysterious computer mainframe that controls the city.
The game proper opens with a jaw-droppingly animated (for the Amiga) sequence as the helicopter crashlands in Union City and Foster escapes. It emerges that in this ruthless future world, cities comprised of mammoth skyscrapers have swallowed up most of the remaining liveable land. Working class citizens are confined to the upper levels of the city, whereas the leisure elite luxuriate below (‘beneath a steel sky’, geddit?). In order to confront LINC and learn the truth about his past, Foster must evade security and work his way down to the lower levels.
If the set-up sounds a little similar to Mega-City One in Judge Dredd, then it’s no coincidence – Dave Gibbons (of 2000 AD and Watchmen fame) did all of the artwork for the game (including the mini-comic), and every screen simply drips with cyberpunk chic. At the time it looked astonishing, and even now the dystopian backdrops are capitivating. The anticipation of what graphical delight awaited you on the next screen was almost as much of a draw as the fantastic plot.
Even though the game plot was more serious than some of it’s point-and-click contemporaries (e.g. The Secret of Monkey Island), BaSS still managed to squeeze in a fair amount of humour, mostly of the British variety (i.e. double entendres and sarcasm). Indeed, the fact that the game never takes itself too seriously is one of its most enduring features (Gears of War take note – non-stop, po-faced machismo is more likely to make gamers laugh derisively into their sleeves than empathise with the characters).
Of course, it wasn’t all a bed of roses. The chief problem with the game was it’s sheer size (in terms of memory space anyway): the Amiga 600 version of the game came on a whopping 15 floppy disks (which I believe is actually the most disks used by one Amiga game – correct me if I’m wrong). This meant that backtracking through screens might involve several bouts of disk-swapping and loading, which became very tedious very quickly. Luckily I upgraded to an Amiga 1200 after I got BaSS, which meant that I could load the game in its entirety onto the 1200′s mighty 60 megabyte hard drive.
Blimey, it’s crazy to think now that my current mobile phone has nearly 67 times more memory than my old Amiga 1200…
The other major problem with the game was the problem shared by many point-and-clickers – that of the obscure puzzle. To be fair, BaSS was relatively good in this regard compared with some other examples in the genre, but even one of the first puzzles in the game (which involved wrenching a rung from a ladder to use as a crowbar) had me backtracking between screens for AGES. And of course, all this was in the days before GameFAQs.com (God bless you GameFAQs! Sing hallelujah, for yay, the days of becoming frustratingly stuck in video games hath endeth!).
Of all the games on this list, I’d rate BaSS in the top five games I’d like to play again, which just goes to show how much of an impression it left on me (if you fancy giving it a go yourself, you can play it for free using ScummVM). Interestingly, it seems that point-and-click adventure games are starting to make a bit of a comeback, chiefly thanks to the Nintendo Wii and DS. The laid back pace of the point-and-clicker is perfect for the older end of Nintendo’s gaming spectrum, and the Wii remote and DS stylus might as well have been custom made for playing this kind of game… With talk of a Director’s Cut of Broken Sword to be released for the Wii and DS, as well as the release of a new generation of point-and-clickers (e.g. Sam & Max: Season One, The Secret Files: Tunguska), perhaps this is the start of a point-and-click rennaissance?
In the meantime, here’s a clip of BaSS to whet your appetite – this is the CD-ROM version of the game, which used voice acting rather than text (although, inexplicably, everyone seems to be American, even though the game is set in Australia…).