Legendary Designer Charles Cecil on ‘Beyond a Sky of Steel’ and Switch’s Suitability for Classic Adventure Games

Image: Microides

Charles Cecil does not need to be introduced to adventure game enthusiasts. The veteran designer co-founded Revolution Software in 1990 and has produced a series of classic graphical adventure games, including Lure of the Temptress and the Broken Sword series. His latest project, Beyond a Steel Sky, released on Switch in late November and reunited Cecil with Watchmen co-creator Dave Gibbons on a long-awaited follow-up to Under a sky of steel, the classic 2D adventure they released in 1994 – the heyday of the classic point-and-click adventure game.

Recently we had the chance to speak with Cecil via email to find out a little more about the project, what it was like to return to a world he created over a quarter of a year ago. century, and to see if he has any plans for other adventures on Changer…

What was it like to create a sequel to one of your games so long after the original? We read you had story ideas shortly after the original – were they used?

The original game, Under a sky of steel, was written in partnership with Dave Gibbons (comic book artist and co-creator of Watchmen). Dave and I had been talking about a sequel on and off since, well, since the original game launched in 1994. Indeed, when I approached Dave with the somewhat crazy plan to write a “spiritual successor” (j I tend not to call it a ‘sequel’ because so much time has passed) around 2017 he sent me a story idea he wrote in 1995. It was about pterodactyls mechanical through the Bass Strait – water between Tasmania and mainland Australia.

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The first thing I did was look back to identify why the original game has such enduring popularity and what fans are hoping to see in a successor. This would include Foster’s relationship with Joey and Union City almost as a character in its own right. Plus, it always seemed quite naive, perhaps unfair to his friend, that Foster left Joey in charge and he just left: what happened to town during Joey’s reign? I wanted to explore – and how would a caring AI seek to rebuild a city to make people happy.

The latter question seemed very relevant in modern times – initiatives like China’s social credit system in which an AI rewards or punishes citizens’ micro-behaviors based on its own judgments. I was particularly interested in a BBC report in which Chinese citizens praised the system by saying it prevents people from spitting on trains!

The adventure community is so passionate about the genre. I feel elated and extremely privileged that, despite the long gap, the game has been so well received by fans of the series as well as new players.

When you put together ideas for Beyond a Steel Sky, was there ever a point where you thought it might not be a 3D game?

The game has always been imagined in 3D for several reasons.

I’ve always been guilty enough that our original publisher, Virgin Interactive, claimed that Beneath a Steel Sky was an “interactive comic” – which, with the exception of the comic book that came with the game, wouldn’t. could not have been much further from the truth. Now, by using the Unreal Engine, we have had the opportunity to keep that promise. We wrote real-time post-processing technology that creates a visual aspect that complements Dave’s gorgeous comic book style – and I remember how thrilled Dave was when he first saw the game run. . Beyond aesthetics, art style also supports gameplay – on adventures, players study backgrounds for clues, and comic book style allows us to focus on them. relevant objects to enhance the gaming experience.

I’ve always been guilty enough that our original publisher, Virgin Interactive, claimed that Beneath a Steel Sky was an “interactive comic.”

The first Revolution titles were written around an engine called “Virtual Theater”. The characters moved around the world and responded to changes in the world brought about by player actions. At the time, it was revolutionary. This was played out, for example, in the original puzzle game that I was particularly proud of in which a factory owner, Gilbert Lamb (who proudly announces that his beaver coat was made from the last beavers in the world ) uses an elevator to go down one floor to his apartment. The player can hack into computer systems and revoke their travel authorization – and sit back and watch their frustration when the elevator refuses to carry them.

I had always regretted that we never pushed the concept of Virtual Theater further. This was, at least in part, because in fixed 2D locations the characters would disappear off-screen and be invisible until they reappear – which could be very frustrating and feel rather haphazard. . In 3D, with the ability to move the camera around and view the characters wherever they are in the game world, I felt virtual theater could be reborn – with puzzles based on the player’s ability to subvert the world’s computer systems, and how characters react to these changes. The ability to subvert the world using a simple hacking system is at the heart of the game, allowing puzzle solutions to emerge from the way the characters in the game behave in response. This can lead to some really funny situations – with citizens being sure that any outcome was intentional, even ridiculous.

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In revisiting Union City after so long, how did you strike the balance between the old and the new, between nostalgia and the world in new directions?

If this game had appeared just a few years after Beneath a Steel Sky, we would have assumed that almost everyone would have played the original. However, after more than two decades, one of the main goals was to make sure that people who didn’t know anything about the original could play and enjoy the game without feeling disadvantaged. It required us to weave considerable exposure into the backstory – but I think the game feels richer for it, both for new players who see that there is a vast tradition that we respect and pass on, and for fans of the original who get to see this same tradition but told from a different perspective.

And for those who want some nostalgia, we include a museum location – the Ancient History Museum (next to the more popular New History Museum) which has collected many of the most iconic items some players will remember from the first time.

What changes have been involved in the introduction of gaming on consoles, and in particular on Switch?

The game debuted on Apple Arcade last year. It was fantastic to be able to take fan feedback into account and continue to improve the game (and ultimately fix the bugs we missed before the original release). We have added a comment mode. We’ve added a new feature – my favorite is letting the player find and then choose to wear a lot of holo-pins: graphics that look like memes in the game world.

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Switch’s touchscreen and portability make it an ideal home for adventure games – had you planned to bring it to the platform from the start or did that decision come later?

Our plan has always been to bring the game to Switch – it’s, as you say, an ideal platform.

If you play adventure games at home, what is your ideal setup? PC with a cup of something? Phone on the couch?

I love my Switch. I have so little free time and really enjoy the time I take to play adventures – normally on the couch or sitting in bed. I’m ashamed to admit that it’s often (usually) accompanied by a glass of wine.

Do you fancy bringing Beneath or maybe other Broken Sword titles to consoles? Switch seems like a good choice for them.

Yes – and yes, Switch would indeed suit them very well. [smiles]

While the adventure game genre has seen its ups and downs, there have been some shining examples in recent years and a sort of ‘resurgence’. Why do you think, and which examples did you particularly like, on Switch or elsewhere?

Adventure, as a genre, has seen an incredible resurgence since it was resurrected by the Nintendo DS just over a decade ago (it’s funny to think that at the dawn of the new millennium , the publisher’s mantra was that the adventure was dead and the PC was no longer a viable gaming platform). In recent years, games like What Remains of Edith Finch, Return of the Obra Dinn, His history etc. have innovated the genre.

I would like to claim as adventures two of my favorite games of recent years – Untitled Goose Game with its marvelous chaotic gameplay, and Inside which manages to tell a deep and beautiful story without a line of text or speech to explain. It’s such a privilege to have been able to write adventure games for 40 years: 30 years at Revolution and text adventures for 10 years before.

NSwitch BeyondASteelSky 02Image: Microides

Finally, what are your plans for Christmas? And what projects do you have planned for 2022?

I look forward to a few days off at Christmas. Of course, it will be nice to see the family and do Christmas things. But I’m also really looking forward to having the space to seriously think about the ideas and concepts of our new adventure game which is in pre-production, and which will be announced at some point in the new year.

Many thanks to Charles for speaking with us. Beyond A Steel Sky is out now on Switch – read our review to find out more.

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