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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It's not WhatsApp that was at fault in the Westminster attacks. It's our prisons

Britain's criminal justice system neither deterred nor rehabilitated Khalid Masood, and may even have facilitated his radicalisation. 

The dust has settled, the evidence has been collected and the government has decided who is to blame for the attack on Westminster. That’s right, its WhatsApp and their end-to-end encryption of messages. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, wants tech companies to install a backdoor into messages like these that the government can then access.

There are a couple of problems here, not least that Adrian Russell aka Khalid Masood was known to the security services but considered to be low-risk. Even if the government had had the ability to gain entry to his WhatsApp, they wouldn’t have used it. Then there’s the fact that end-to-end encryption doesn’t just protect criminals and terrorists – it protects users from criminals and terrorists. Any backdoor will be vulnerable to attack, not only from our own government and foreign powers, but by non-state actors including fraudsters, and other terrorists.

(I’m parking, also, the question of whether these are powers that should be handed to any government in perpetuity, particularly one in a country like Britain’s, where near-unchecked power is handed to the executive as long as it has a parliamentary majority.)

But the biggest problem is that there is an obvious area where government policy failed in the case of Masood: Britain’s prisons system.

Masood acted alone though it’s not yet clear if he was merely inspired by international jihadism – that is, he read news reports, watched their videos on social media and came up with the plan himself – or he was “enabled” – that is, he sought out and received help on how to plan his attack from the self-styled Islamic State.

But what we know for certain is that he was, as is a recurring feature of the “radicalisation journey”, in possession of a string of minor convictions from 1982 to 2002 and that he served jail time. As the point of having prisons is surely to deter both would-be offenders and rehabilitate its current occupants so they don’t offend again, Masood’s act of terror is an open-and-shut case of failure in the prison system. Not only he did prison fail to prevent him committing further crimes, he went on to commit one very major crime.  That he appears to have been radicalised in prison only compounds the failure.

The sad thing is that not so very long ago a Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice was thinking seriously about prison and re-offending. While there was room to critique some of Michael Gove’s solutions to that problem, they were all a hell of a lot better than “let’s ban WhatsApp”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.