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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Brexit confusion is scuppering my show – what next?

My week, from spinning records with Baconface, Brexit block and visiting comedy graves.

I am a stand-up comedian, and I am in the process of previewing a new live show, which I hope to tour until early 2018. It was supposed to be about how the digital, free-market society is reshaping the idea of the individual, but we are in the pre-Brexit events whirlpool, and there has never been a worse time to try to assemble a show that will still mean anything in 18 months’ time.



A joke written six weeks ago about dep­orting eastern Europeans, intended to be an exaggeration for comic effect, suddenly just reads like an Amber Rudd speech – or, as James O’Brien pointed out on LBC, an extract from Mein Kampf.

A rude riff on Sarah Vine and 2 Girls 1 Cup runs aground because there are fewer people now who remember Vine than recall the briefly notorious Brazilian video clip. I realise that something that gets a cheer on a Tuesday in Harrogate, or Glasgow, or Oxford, could get me lynched the next night in Lincoln. Perhaps I’ll go into the fruit-picking business. I hear there’s about to be some vacancies.



I sit and stare at blocks of text, wondering how to knit them into a homogeneous whole. But it’s Sunday afternoon, a time for supervising homework and finding sports kit. My 11-year-old daughter has a school project on the Victorians and she has decided to do it on dead 19th-century comedians, as we had recently been on a Music Hall Guild tour of their graves at the local cemetery. I wonder if, secretly, she wished I would join them.

I have found living with the background noise of this project depressing. The headstones that she photographed show that most of the performers – even the well-known Champagne Charlie – barely made it past 40, while the owners of the halls outlived them. Herbert Campbell’s obelisk is vast and has the word “comedian” written on it in gold leaf, but it’s in the bushes and he is no longer remembered. Neither are many of the acts I loved in the 1980s – Johnny Immaterial, Paul Ramone, the Iceman.



I would have liked to do some more work on the live show but, one Monday a month, I go to the studios of the largely volunteer-run arts radio station Resonance FM in Borough, south London. Each Wednesday night at 11pm, the masked Canadian stand-up comedian Baconface presents selections from his late brother’s collection of 1950s, 1960s and 1970s jazz, psychedelia, folk, blues and experimental music. I go in to help him pre-record the programmes.

Baconface is a fascinating character, whom I first met at the Cantaloupes Comedy Club in Kamloops in British Columbia in 1994. He sees the radio show as an attempt to atone for his part in his brother’s death, which was the result of a prank gone wrong involving nudity and bacon, though he is often unable to conceal his contempt for the music that he is compelled to play.

The show is recorded in a small, hot room and Baconface doesn’t change the bacon that his mask is made of very often, so the experience can be quite claustrophobic. Whenever we lose tapes or the old vinyl is too warped to play, he just sits back and utters his resigned, philosophical catchphrase, “It’s all bacon!” – which I now find myself using, as I watch the news, with ­depressing regularity.



After the kids go to sleep, I sit up alone and finally watch The Lady in the Van. Last year, I walked along the street in Camden where it was being filmed, and Alan Bennett talked to me, which was amazing.

About a month later, on the same street, we saw Jonathan Miller skirting some dog’s mess and he told me and the kids how annoyed it made him. I tried to explain to them afterwards who Jonathan Miller was, but to the five-year-old the satire pioneer will always be the Shouting Dog’s Mess Man.



I have the second of the final three preview shows at the intimate Leicester Square Theatre in London before the new show, Content Provider, does a week in big rooms around the country. Today, I was supposed to do a BBC Radio 3 show about improvised music but both of the kids were off school with a bug and I had to stay home mopping up. In between the vomiting, in the psychic shadow of the improvisers, I had something of a breakthrough. The guitarist Derek Bailey, for example, would embrace his problems and make them part of the performance.



I drank half a bottle of wine before going on stage, to give me the guts to take some risks. It’s not a long-term strategy for creative problem-solving, and that way lies wandering around Southend with a pet chicken. But by binning the words that I’d written and trying to repoint them, in the moment, to be about how the Brexit confusion is blocking my route to the show I wanted to write, I can suddenly see a way forward. The designer is in, with samples of a nice coat that she is making for me, intended to replicate the clothing of the central figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 German masterpiece Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog.



Richard Branson is on the internet and, just as I’d problem-solved my way around writing about it, he’s suggesting that Brexit might not happen. I drop the kids off and sit in a café reading Alan Moore’s new novel, Jerusalem. I am interviewing him about it for the Guardian in two weeks’ time. It’s 1,174 pages long, but what with the show falling apart I have read only 293 pages. Next week is half-term. I’ll nail it. It’s great, by the way, and seems to be about the small lives of undocumented individuals, buffeted by the random events of their times.

Stewart Lee’s show “Content Provider” will be on in London from 8 November. For more details, visit: stewartlee.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage