SFTW: Beneath a Steel Sky

Iain Simons selects a game this week that could keep you occupied not just for a few hours, but for

Iain Simons selects a game this week that could keep you occupied not just for a few hours, but for a few days. Enjoy responsibly...

Building on the clear enthusiasm shown to the recent Infocom suggestion, I thought it might be a welcome treat to point you toward a downloadable and very extensible piece of software.

As the text adventure, pioneered by Infocom and the likes of Scott Adams, became gradually less fashionable/commercially viable the genre of the narrative adventure game required some radical re-invention. As the videogame became more and more obsessed with graphical representation it seemed there was to be no place for something as bookish as an ‘adventure game’.

The saviour was to come from an unexpected source in Lucasarts (then known as Lucasfilm games), the then fledgling game development outfit setup by George Lucas as an extension to his entertainment behemoth. In 1987 they released ‘Maniac Mansion’, the first of a hugely successful series of ‘point and click’ adventure games which were to become known as the SCUMM series, so named because of the programming engine created for the first game (Script Creation Utility for Manic Mansion).

Created by Aric Wilmunder and Ron Gilbert, the SCUMM engine was to prove a fertile foundation for some of the wittiest, most intelligent games of the nineties. Eventually however, that engine too was to be consigned to the dump-bin of history as the games industry’s inexorable march of super-cession continued.

To date, the SCUMM games have not been ported to modern platforms (surely the Nintendo DS is the spiritual home for these titles?) and so we should consider ourselves incredibly lucky for the ongoing work of the SCUMMVM project.

SCUMMVM is a open-source project dedicated to creating an interpreter allowing original SCUMM games to be played on a wide variety of modern platforms. Thus, should you wish to, you can now play SCUMM games on everything from your windows machine to your PSP to your inevitable iPhone. The efforts of the project are apparently boundless.

Of course, the problem remains of where to find the games to play on the interpreter. Assuming you don’t have any of these titles knocking around in boxes in your attic, the SCUMMVM site has a handy list of online vendors who will be happy to sell you old copies of some of these seminal works.

But that’s not going to help you play something today is it?

Fear not. Thanks to the remarkable generosity of Charles Cecil at Revolution Software, a couple of their early adventure titles are available for download entirely free. I’d like to direct you toward 1994’s Beneath a Steel Sky, a cyberpunk sci-fi adventure featuring artwork by no-less than Dave Gibbons of Watchmen fame. BASS is a wonderfully realised, dense and literate adventure that should keep you occupied for a few days. Once you’ve finished that, you can download some of the other games that have been made available there for free and enjoy a time when games enjoyed exploring paces other than frenetic.

Download SCUMMVM for your platform

Download Beneath a Steel Sky (CD Version)

Download Beneath a Steel Sky (Floppy Disk version)

Iain Simons writes, talks and tweets about videogames and technology. His new book, Play Britannia, is to be published in 2009. He is the director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University.
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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation