Either Beneath a Steel Sky has some very obtuse puzzle design, or I’m just terrible at adventure games. Here I am in the game’s opening location, a factory, and I’m stuck. Perhaps the game wants me to feel out of my element. After all, my character, Foster, is certainly out of his element. Abducted from his home by scary authoritarian soldiers and nearly killed in a helicopter crash, he just wants to get back home. Unfortunately for him there’s one giant obstacle standing in his way: A city, made of steel and held aloft from the world below by means of giant supports. To get out is to get down. That’s easier said than done, especially when I can’t even figure out how to leave the room.
The factory floor contains an elevator, a large broken robot, and a pile of junk. It’s pretty obvious that I’m supposed to fix the large robot and use the elevator to go down to the lower level, but I don’t know how to fix the robot. There’s junk on the table, but it’s just junk, right? Times like these I’m thankful for the great video game manuals that were so common back in 1994. When you’re stuck like an idiot on the opening sequence of the game, they include a short walk through to help you out. What does the guide say for me to do? “Insert a character board into the discarded robot shell on the table.” But there is no discarded robot shell on the table. It’s all junk, junk I tell you! I click on every portion of the table and my character confirms my observations. Junk. To YouTube I go in search of a hint. I watch as a player in the video makes Foster look at the junk, and all of a sudden it’s a robot! Apparently, I didn’t notice the robot because I told my Foster to pick up the junk before looking at it. How silly of me.
The robot I just activated is named Joey. He’s a friend of Foster’s and came with him on the trip to the big city. But my task is to fix the other broken robot in the room, the one that will activate the lift to the basement. Fixing robots seems like something Joey would know how to do, so I ask him to fix it. “Do it yourself, Foster.” Smug little bucket of bolts. I ask again. Same Response. Again. Rejected again. Just as I’m about to go back to YouTube to see what I’m doing wrong now, I ask a final time. “You just don’t give up, do you?” Joey moves to fix the robot. Is that what this game is trying to teach me? Don’t give up.
There’s a common theme or cycle I’m observing as I wind my way though Beneath a Steel Sky: Exhaust all options. Discover people, places and objects. Reveal them for the first time, then discover them again. Pursue every possible option to progress the game. Click every item and search every pixel for something new. Do this, and don’t get frustrated when logic gets left behind. Ninety minutes into the game it almost makes me feel smart. In a manufacturing plant there’s an equipment room that only allows access to robots. I instruct Joey to go in and disable the security system so Foster can go in and rummage around. Once I’m there I take a key and a can of WD-40. Both those items make logical sense to have in an adventure / puzzle game. Key card? Lets you into places! WD-40? There’s nothing it can’t do! Armed with what I’m certain are items essential to my progress, I leave the equipment room. Foreman Potts is there to greet me. He confiscates my useful items, leaving me with nothing and I begin to wonder if I did something wrong. After about twenty minutes of retracing my steps in the game, I go back to YouTube to see what I missed.
The key and the WD-40 were red herrings. I needed to get some putty from the floor of the storeroom. Take a look at this screenshot and tell me if you see any putty. Look long and hard:
Give up? So did I. That’s because the putty is right here:
Note to self: look at all the pixels!
I suppose I ought not be surprised at the presence of pixel hunting in an adventure game. It is one of the things the genre is known for. That, and requiring players to be observant, have great memories, and generally willing to combine all manner of inventory items in all sorts of asinine combinations. Beneath a Steel Sky requires all this of its players, and more. And yet, the experience seems to leap from puzzle to puzzle with little to no explanation of what the current objective is. In one case, I was supposed to con a travel agent into giving me a pass for a tour of different levels of the city. Naturally I assumed I was to use this pass to get to the lower levels, whereupon I would be able to affect a new means of escape. Nope. This was another brick wall, with no obvious means of progression. Consulting a walk through yet again revealed that I was to give this tour pass to a factory owner, who up to this point voiced no mention of a need for a vacation, nor desire to travel anywhere.
The only conclusion the game forces me to make is that I must try giving every item to every different character in order to find the correct means of progression. It’s not that any puzzle design is inherently illogical or counter intuitive, but the important details you need are drip-fed to you one minuscule crumb at a time. Talk to a character and exhaust all options with them. Then leave the scene and come back, only to have more avenues for action. Short of repeatedly engaging in conversation with the same people, there’s little indication of what your immediate path of progression is.
That’s not to say the game rewards curiosity. On the contrary, there are quite a few ways to die here. My first experience with death occurred when my character failed a retina scan at security checkpoint. ZAP! The next time it was electrocution at the hand of a light socket (this is what I needed the putty for). SIZZLE! Other times I was exposed to a massive dose of radiation, crushed by a collapsing tunnel passage, eviscerated by a horrible mutant creature, and crushed by an evil android. FRY! CRUNCH! SQUISH! SQUISH! In most of those cases there’s almost no warning that what your character is about to do is potentially deadly. At least it’s easy to save and reload your game. Just remember to save often, else you’ll be stuck replaying large segments you wish you didn’t have to revisit. It would have been fun if it wasn’t so frustrating.
And there’s that key word, “fun”. Beneath a Steel Sky just isn’t. While seemingly self aware, the game exhibits some sudden and jarring shifts in tone. In one scene, your character will ruminate over a series of dead bodies found in storage lockers, but thirty seconds later he removes his overcoat to reveal a gaudy sweater with a teddy bear on it. It’s symptomatic of the larger issue that players don’t have a reason to connect to the story. Is this a comedy or a serious look at something else? While we’re meant to care that Foster desperately wants to leave the city so he can get back to his beloved home on the wasteland, the game makes no connection between Foster and his home. The events of the game seem more like an annoying inconvenience to Foster rather than a life changing event. With no connection to the past or interest in the future, it’s hard to find any motivation to want to progress forward.
It doesn’t help that nearly everything about the game is ugly. Don’t get me wrong, the pixel art and classic adventure style is handled fantastically! However, the environments are a little too bleak and post-apocalyptic. Everything is brown and run-down. Environments are ugly and utilitarian, because they’re supposed to be. There is no beauty to be found either above or below the city in the sky. While serving as an effective representation of the game world, it doesn’t make for an environment that players want to spend any time in. There’s no greater indicator of this than a look at how long it took me to finish the game. Somehow I managed to reach the end after about five hours and fifty-six minutes of play time, but those six hours took me seventy-seven calendar days to grind through. Like, I said: there was nothing about Beneath a Steel Sky that drew me in. Maybe it’s not the game; maybe it’s just me? Perhaps it’s been so long since I played an adventure game that my tastes and abilities have completely changed. The only way to know for sure is to try playing another adventure game to see if I get the same results. Only time will tell…
The Final Raving – Don’t Bother. Go to YouTube and watch a video of someone else playing this, and then fast forward through about half of it.
Beneath a Steel Sky is the first game to fulfill part two of my Backlog of Resolutions.