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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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