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.
Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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