Revolution Software is best-known for the Broken Sword series but, before George Stobbart was ever bothering the Templars, the British studio made its name with the cyberpunk adventure Beneath a Steel Sky. 25 years later it’s getting a follow-up, although creator Charles Cecil is at pains not to call it a sequel.
“We’re really assuming people haven’t played the original at all,” Cecil tells me, though certainly anyone who has will recognise the protagonist Robert Foster as well as the dystopian metropolis of Union City, where the bulk of the story will take place.
The point-and-click adventure has seen a revival in recent years, from Broken Age to Thimbleweed Park, while Revolution’s own Broken Sword 5 went back to its original 2D style. It would be easy to imagine a Steel Sky follow-up going down this route to give the old-school fans exactly what they want. “Ultimately, we do have a responsibility to deliver what people want,” says Cecil, “but I think we also have a responsibility to do it in a way that they don’t expect.”
On that note, Beyond brings Union City into 3D, though that doesn’t mean the game has gone open-world: Cecil uses the phrase ‘open arenas.’ The leap to 3D also isn’t as aesthetically jarring as it was for Broken Sword thanks to a combination of cel-shading and exagerrated visuals. Working once again with comic book artist Dave Gibbons, the game opts for a comic book visual style: no matter how close or what angle you’re looking at a character, they have a hand-drawn quality. It’s an aesthetic that suits the genre down to the ground.
“When you play an adventure game, you’re looking for points of interest,” Cecil explains. “By creating it in this cel-shaded look, we can ensure it’s easy to look around and see things: you’re not overwhelmed by photorealism, where lots of things might or might not be significant.”
The old 2D Revolution games were developed using the company’s proprietary Virtual Theatre engine. But while Beyond a Steel Sky is making use of a modern 3D engine, this doesn’t mean a more action-oriented experience: Cecil reckons that 3D space allows the concept of ‘virtual theatre’ to be more fully realised.
“Virtual Theatre isn’t an engine, it’s a philosophy,” says Cecil. “And the core philosophy is that instead of a world that is basically static, and it’s waiting for the player to come and disrupt it, this is a dynamic world with dynamic characters.”
The opening demo, located just outside Union City, gives a good idea of how these ‘open arenas’ work. Here Foster is trying to find a way to get into Union City, but to do that means figuring out the motivations of the other characters sharing this arena. No one is just a bit-part rooted to the spot, churning out the same old lines: each character has their own requirements, desires, and motivations, even if it’s as simple as some birds trying to scavenge food.
There’s a bit of that elementary old-school adventure principle where you just need to find the right item to please a character after which they’ll help you: here there’s a trucker who will smuggle you in once you can find a replacement battery for his van (he depleted it using the air-conditioning and a tequila-making machine: this dystopia certainly seems to have its benefits). But there’s also more dynamic solutions that don’t just require figuring out obtuse uses of an item, and some puzzles have multiple solutions.
Part of this comes through LINC hacking, which allows you to mess with the logic of various systems so, for instance, if you’re not given permission to enter an area without producing the relevant ID, you just need to break into the system and swap the outcomes, so that it will let in someone without ID (and deny access to those with the correct ID).
You’ll also see elements of the ‘virtual theatre’ concept and LINC hacking combine. In the above case of a vehicle battery, you can nick one from a nearby robot who’s responsible for maintenance of the conveyor belt delivering crates. Messing with the conveyor belt speed will send the next crate flying out rather than landing on the pressure pad as it should, prompting the robot to investigate, whereupon it steps on a pressure pad, gets lifted up by a magnet, and you can swipe the battery as it hangs helpless. But you could also just time the crate’s exit, send it shooting off the conveyor belt straight into the robot, and take the battery from its now-prone form.
Beyond evidently takes in some modern influences, but there’s other areas in narrative adventure that Cecil is less keen to incorporate. He says he’s a fan of Telltale Games, which you get a sense of that from Beyond’s visual style, but he also finds the emphasis on narrative choices a little too frustrating.
“Maybe it’s because of my age, but I want more challenge, I want to feel that I’m driving the narrative through my own progression, rather than just making choices,” Cecil says. “Telltale were moving much more towards just interactive movies, where you have some sort of control. But it was quite clear that they were diamond shapes that very much came back very quickly to the same point. I always think the idea of writing multiple endings is very ill-founded.”
Beyond will have just one canonical ending, though what Cecil is more interested in is how our nuances and perception of it can change. He elaborates: “For example, Foster discovers fairly early on that he’s taken the ID of a dead man. Later he meets his wife, and it turns out that the dead man and the wife once loved each other, but she now thinks he’s a total loser. As you play the game, you discover that actually he was a real hero. Do you take the time to convince her that actually he was a hero? Or do you continue and just let her believe that he’s a loser? This wife then actually becomes a really critical part of the ending. The nuances around it are affected by the choices the player makes within the game, the moral choices.”
Beyond feels both unashamedly old-school and an adventure title that’s absorbed more modern influences. It’s also a return to a more traditional development model for Revolution, after the crowdfunded Broken Sword 5.
“The ability to communicate directly with our community is really important, we very much value the feedback,” Cecil says. “But the thing about Kickstarter is you promise in advance what you’re going to deliver. And that means that you are pretty tied to that. Because if you want to move away from it, there are going to be some people who are quite reasonably going to be very unhappy, because they’ve put sometimes quite significant amounts of money into a vision that you promised them.”
There’s been a significant hiatus since Beneath a Steel Sky, and the time feels ripe for a comeback: not least because the gaming audience is belatedly realising how cool everything cyberpunk is. But under its slick new visual style and modern tricks, Beyond a Steel Sky is powered by the same philosophy of virtual theatre that has defined Revolution’s work for decades.