Incredibly, the original creators, comic book artist Dave Gibbons (Watchmen co-creator) and Charles Cecil (CEO of Revolution Software), got together decades later to finally deliver the sequel they had always expected to do but never had time for. And now, a full year later, the mobile game is being ported to consoles. These versions debut November 30 on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. It is available for preorder now.
Gibbons and Cecil shared their joy at collaborating again in an interview with me. Revolution Software, creators of the popular Broken Sword series, and French publisher Microids collaborated on the console version to get the title out to a wider audience.
One of the obstacles to a sequel is that the adventure game market tanked and publishers figured it was no longer a good bet. But because of the iPhone, the market opportunity came around again, first with Beneath a Steel Sky as a retro title and then as a beloved franchise with pent-up demand. Because of that second opportunity, Gibbons and Cecil were able to renew their friendship and collaboration.
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Cecil said the fax machine was the technology of the 1990s. Gibbons would draw an image and fax it to Cecil, who received the fax at an excruciatingly slow pace. They would talk about the image and send it back and forth until it was right. Cecil would then give that to the artist, who could create an animated digital version on the Amiga computer, which had just 32 colors. Gibbons used an art program called Deluxe Paint on the Amiga computer to create the art.
While Beneath a Steel Sky was popular, the company’s next game, Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars, became its biggest commercial success. It sold more than a million copies on the PlayStation. Revolution Software went on to create four additional games in the series, which forced it to push off any thoughts of a sequel to Beneath a Steel Sky. This was the case even though Gibbons had a script for the second game already written.
In Beyond a Steel Sky, players can go back inside Union City, the dystopian setting of the original. It looks like you’re stepping into a comic book.
The Beyond a Steel Book Edition contains the standard version of the game on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, or Nintendo Switch; the game’s original soundtrack (digital format); a stickers sheet; and an exclusive Steelbook featuring comic artwork from Dave Gibbons. The Utopia Edition has even more stuff.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What kind of reaction did you hear about last year to Beyond a Steel Sky?
Charles Cecil: Obviously, when we were talking, it was primarily Apple Arcade, with the opportunity to scale right up to 4K. We’ve had the pleasure of being able to work with Microids on the console version, which is both PS4 and PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X, and Switch. We’re able to scale all the way up to 4K. We’ve added new features. We have the huge benefit of the game having been out for a year, so we can get feedback from players on what they like and don’t like. We’re able to hone the experience. We get the most wonderful — we have a very passionate fanbase, and they say the loveliest things. We love them and they love us. It’s just fantastic.
GamesBeat: Did that wind up being an opportunity to do a lot more work on the game together? Or was a lot of your work done with the Apple version?
Dave Gibbons: My input into it was more conceptual. Since the game was released on Apple Arcade, really I haven’t had that much hands-on to do with it. Charles has been very busy. But I’m really pleased that we’re in the cycle of promoting it again, because it’s a thing that I’m very proud of. I’ve had a lot of interest in it from comics-type people, the kind of people that I know. I’m looking forward to getting more exposure, and I’m sure that Charles and I will be talking about it a lot more in the months to come.
Cecil: It’s fun that it’s bubbled back up again. We’ve actually been working very hard on the game for the last year. Just little features, like — there’s a holo-badge, and Dave designed some of them. We only used a couple. And then we said, “Well, these look really cool. It’s customization. Let’s do it.” The team has been very much kept on to just keep honing and honing. It means that the game has a lot more features than it did when it released a year ago, which I think people will appreciate.
Gibbons: I’m excited to see what’s been added to it. Obviously I saw everything that was done with the Apple Arcade version. Charles’s artists, who transformed my rough sketches into finished work and then eventually into 3D animation, have added so much to it that in a way it’s almost me scribbling something and saying, “Make that look really cool.” And they have made it look really cool. I can’t wait to see it on the 4K consoles.
GamesBeat: Can you review what took us all 26 or 27 years to get here?
Gibbons: That’s Charles’s fault, really. I was up for it since day one, but Charles was dragging his heels. But no, it’s strange when you do a follow-up to something that’s been successful. It’s actually great, I think, to have a bit of perspective, to be able to analyze what you did the first time around and see what really worked and what maybe didn’t work so much. Also, in this case, because the technology has moved on 25 years, which is an incredible distance to come in the world of technology today, what we’ve been able to do is so much more than we were able to do back in the ’90s. We probably couldn’t even visualize ourselves doing it back then.
Although it’s taken time, I feel it’s a good time, particularly because the original game has still had some life in it. It’s still available. There were a lot of people out there waiting for a sequel. Certainly there’s a very loyal, strong fanbase who’ve been prepared to wait. The timing, although long, actually turned out pretty well.
Cecil: Dave, you sent me a fax that you sent in 1995, which was some ideas for Beneath a Steel Sky 2. Which kind of swirled around for a time. But can I take you back to 1994 and the Amiga version, where we had 32 colors? Our resolution was 320-by-200. Every pixel mattered. You became a bit of a master, didn’t you? I remember you describing it to somebody as being like jewelry.
Gibbons: Because you had to construct with sprites, the little figures. I don’t know if people nowadays are aware what sprites are, but the little moving figures, just like building something from multicolored Lego. When you looked at it from a distance, it kind of looked real. I was fine, actually — when you have a lot of restrictions it can actually enhance your creativity. You have to think of solutions to things. But I was very much tutored in that by Charles’s team as to what you could and couldn’t do. Of course the backgrounds were all drawn in pencil on pieces of paper and then scanned and watercolored. It sounds like something from the time of Charles Dickens now.
To me, the thing that I can be quite boastful about, because I really wasn’t involved in it, was the gameplay of Beneath a Steel Sky. It was so compelling that it transcended the limitations of the visuals. That was the other thing that brought people back, that they remembered Beneath a Steel Sky as being a wonderful bit of gameplay. I think that’s true of Beyond a Steel Sky as well.
Cecil: I think you’re doing yourself down slightly, Dave. If you remember, when we were writing the story, you used to take that long trip to Hull, which we talked about before. It’s slightly embarrassing even to admit this, but it was actually quite late in the game where somebody in the design team, and it might have been you or me or somebody else, said, “It’s his dad.” And suddenly, in that incredible serendipity of — when so many ideas work — and I think they did, it was a strong story — and you make this thing, and then everything cascades back and you say, “Oh, wow. Actually that works really well.” You hadn’t started the comic book at that point. Everything worked. That then allowed us to really focus on the original comic book, because that was what it was all about, his father coming back to get him.
Gibbons: That’s true, because although the gameplay and the experience began with the comic, which introduced you to it and set all the backstory up, as you say, it was actually done last. It was really good that by the time we finally figured out the end of it, we were able to go back and make it appear as if we knew what the ending was going to be at the very beginning. That was a nice bit of of gameplay there.
I’ve found that with things before, where there’s a missing piece. It’s like you’re doing a jigsaw. If you can just find that missing piece, everything starts to coalesce around it. It was an exciting time, and I do remember those train journeys well. It certainly gave me hours and hours to think about things before we had our discussions.
Cecil: And now we’re like politicians. You asked one question and we’ve answered completely differently. Your question was, why 25 years? Part of it is actually commercial. You remember that at the end of the ’90s, or even before that — in the late ‘90s you had enormously popular adventure games. And then the PlayStation came out. Publishers who were absolutely keen to get their games on this new platform decided that adventures wouldn’t work. They stopped commissioning adventures, and retailers stopped stocking adventures.
That’s when, effectively, the adventure game died. It was impossible to get any distribution through a publisher or a retailer until quite late in the 2000s. The Nintendo DS did a great service, because they started introducing adventure games again, games like Professor Layton. We were able to publish Broken Sword on the Nintendo DS and bring it across to the App Store when that launched. That brought us a new lease on life. It was those commercial changes that made it possible.
Then, our ability to work in a different way — now of course it’s wonderful to be partnering with Microids. It’s a sort of relationship that would have been impossible 15 or 20 years ago. The world is generally a better place. It’s much better for gamers as well, because it gives a much broader range of games, and hopefully more creative ones. You probably remember, from the early 2000s, there was this sort of dearth of creativity in games. Now it feels like there’s been a creative explosion again, which is fantastic.
GamesBeat: This feeling of having fans re-engage with something you created so long ago, it must be similar to Watchmen, something you created in the 1980s and then this gigantic show appears in 2019.
Gibbons: You know, it’s strange. I was talking to someone online about this the other day, about — when you start these things, when Alan Moore and I first started work on Watchmen, we had no idea at all that it would be as long-lived as it has been, as well-received as it has been. All we wanted to do was do the kind of comic we wanted to read. We just really enjoyed ourselves doing it. We only sought to please ourselves.
It was very much that feeling with Beneath a Steel Sky as well. It was tremendous fun. I’ve always loved collaboration, bringing my skills to a project which is also seeing the contribution of completely different skills from other people. You just have great fun. It was quite an adventure for me to go up to Charles’s office every month or so. They were a great bunch of people. We’d have a good laugh and some good creative excitement. We enjoyed it so much that it was the same thing that communicated itself to the reader or the player. This is fun. This is an enjoyable experience. It’s not intended to be anything other than really good entertainment.
That’s certainly why Watchmen has continued, and I think that’s why there’s still interest in Beneath a Steel Sky as well. It was something that had a really good feeling to it. People have wonderful memories of playing it on the Amiga or on the early PCs. Now they can play its successor on today’s state of the art equipment. It feels like an old friend returned, but better.
Cecil: One of the things, of course — a lot of people slightly lament that it’s not 2D, that it’s not hand-animated sprites. But one of the objectives, one of the visions from the very start was this idea of reinventing something we called Virtual Theater. Virtual Theater is this idea that characters are moving around in real time, which was pretty revolutionary back in the early ’90s. Obviously, RPGs do it all the time now. We wanted to bring it kind of up to date in terms of how it could work with an adventure game. In other words, small arenas.
In the original Beneath a Steel Sky, we have a character that walks around called Lamb. He’s a Yorkshire factory owner, so he speaks with a Yorkshire accent, which is very unfair, because they’re fine folk in Yorkshire. Anyway, what would happen is he would walk off, but because it was a flat screen, you had no idea where he was. You had to go from screen to screen to screen. One of the objectives was to re-create this, but with the ability to move the camera around, so you’d be able to identify where the characters had gone, and then how you subverted their behavior, and in subverting their behavior of course puzzles can then be solved. In many ways what we were trying to do was to carry forward a vision that I think had been strong, that had been very well-received at the time, but make it a lot better than we’d been able to do back in the mid-’90s.
GamesBeat: I remember that the script turned out to be very different in the actual game, compared to the one that was proposed right after the first one came out.
Gibbons: All I can remember about the outline that I sent to Charles was that — essentially Steel Sky is set in Australia, though we never explicitly say that. It’s implied quite clearly. The thing I came up with was that Foster goes to Tasmania, an even more remote part of Australia, and there are all sorts of ramifications there with Foster’s family and his cousin and all kinds of things. The chance to have seaborne adventures as well. I don’t know. We’re still working on Beyond a Steel Sky, but at some point if anybody fancies robot sharks, there are some possibilities there.
Cecil: Pterodactyls as well.
Gibbons: Of course, all sorts of cool stuff. Make a great Hollywood movie, wouldn’t it?
Cecil: One of the big differences was that, had we produced the sequel within a year or two, then we could assume that people remembered about the game world. What we had to do 25 years later is, one, write a game that stood by itself, without having the requirement to play the original, and even if you had played the original, you might have played it 25 years ago. It needed to be far enough removed from the original that you weren’t expected to know what had happened before.
Second, after a year or two you would have probably wanted to move away from Union City, because you’d seen it all. What we felt with this was, after such a long time delay, we ought to take you back to Union City, because that’s what people would remember. The approach to telling the story 25 years later was quite different to the approach there would have been a year or two after the original release.
Gibbons: And of course the delay also kind of works in service to the story, because without giving anything away, we see Union City again for the first time, for many years. Of course it’s changed beyond all recognition. There are still some bits that you would remember from the earlier game, but part of what we’re doing is showing how it’s changed and how the society has become something different. In a way it feels right.
You mentioned Watchmen. There was another thing I worked on with Frank Miller, who I’m sure you’d remember, and that was the adventures of Martha Washington. We did it over the period of 20 years or so, with episodes coming out several years apart. But that actually fit to the story, because in between each episode years had passed in the story’s world. That helps the experience, and I think the same is true of Beyond a Steel Sky. Enough time had gone by that logically these changes could have happened in Union City. Part of the fun for people familiar with the earlier game was to see how it had changed and compare it with their memories of how it had been in an earlier, simpler time.
GamesBeat: Did your feelings about any of the themes evolve over time? Things like AI.
Gibbons: Again, part of Union City changing and developing was to do with the technology that it utilized moving forward, and of course AI is a very contentious thing nowadays. It’s the technology that I think is probably going to have the biggest effect ever on the way we live our lives. It’s by no means a definitive comment on AI, but it’s quite nice to deal with issues that exist today and didn’t exist back then.
Cecil: Back in 1994 we’d had a prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who you may or may not have heard of. She was known as the Iron Lady. She was, together with Ronald Reagan, pushing market forces and capitalism. I think there was a general sense of unease. What the original game reflected was that level of unease, the idea that society doesn’t exist, that it’s just people wanting to make money, which was very much a Thatcher view.
And then also fun things. In the original game the Yorkshire guy I was talking about, the factory owner, had a pipe factory. He was making pipes. The reason he was making pipes is because we’re based in Yorkshire, which is a county north of London, and one of our local manufacturers was actually making pipes that they claimed were just normal pipes, but they were incredibly high tolerance. It turned out they were going to Saddam Hussein so that he could build rockets to fire at Israel. You couldn’t make this up. We were putting all of these elements into the game. There was a judge that was very wayward called Judge Pickles. In the game we have this lunatic judge called Judge Chutney. Just lots of sort of insides that people would have got, but that was 1994.
As Dave says, now with artificial intelligence everything has changed. We wanted to write a story and create a game world that reflected 2020, 2021, rather than one that looked back at what was going on in 1994. Clearly the world has changed so profoundly, politically and from a society perspective, as well as obviously in the technology and what we can deliver in real time on a screen.
Gibbons: One thing I’ve always enjoyed about both of these games, and that particularly enticed me into the first game, was this strange sense of humor, the strange juxtaposition of elements. It was set, as I say, in what you could take to be Australia, but despite that fact there were lots of people with British accents and British senses of humor, a British way of carrying on. I’ve often wondered what people who live in the states make of this. It might have the same appeal as Monty Python, where you don’t quite understand it, but it seems like it makes sense to somebody. It adds a kind of craziness to it, and a light touch, in a sense, which I think is always a very desirable thing to have in a work of fiction.
Cecil: In the very beginning, when you arrive at Union City, you come across a character called Hobbsworth. Because the AI is so extraordinarily efficient, and because ultimately you’re finding out that the AI is trying to make people happy, even though the AI is enormously superior — this guy Hobbsworth is pointing a scanner at items. All he does is scan them. He’s incapable of actually fixing anything, because that’s what the AI does. It’s this slightly ludicrous world, what Dave was just describing, that we were trying to convey again, and hope that it would appeal to as wide an audience.
GamesBeat: I don’t know how many people worked on the original game, but you had something like 30 to 60 on the Apple Arcade game. Do you have another pretty large crew doing the work now?
Cecil: The original game, let me tell you — I had no money whatsoever. We set up in Hull because the two programmers that I was working with were both based in Hull. I had a 386 PC, which I was so proud of. It was just absolutely cutting edge. There were those two programmers, and we decided we would get an office, which turned out to be above a fruit shop. There was no heating whatsoever. These guys had to sit with fingerless gloves. The first bit of equipment we bought was a gas heater. But the problem with a gas heater was that it gave off such terrible fumes that they could turn it on and stay warm, but they’d have to open a window to let the gas fumes out. It was done so, so basically.
By incredible serendipity we recruited an animator who was self-taught, Stephen Oades, and a background artist, Adam Tween. They were both fairly local. We were extraordinarily lucky. By the time we worked on Beneath a Steel Sky and Dave was coming to Hull, there were about six or seven of us, I would think. That felt quite substantial.
With Beyond a Steel Sky we still have a fairly small internal team. But basically we work with partners, because obviously art can be done externally every bit as well as it can be done internally. And of course we can do it anywhere in the world. But we’ve always had quite a small team. Our core team is probably 15 people. We then expand and contract with external partners. Revolution has never been a big company.
GamesBeat: What kind of timing are we looking at for release? Do you know yet?
Cecil: We’re going to reveal the release date very soon. We haven’t defined it yet. But it should be around the end of November. You’ll know the official release date soon. We’re going up to 4K, the same as you would have had on a very powerful Mac. But it does look very beautiful. The control works very well with a console controller. We’re very proud of it.
GamesBeat: Is there anything else that’s coming to mind for you?
Gibbons: How long have you got? We always talk about the kind of bacon sandwiches that fueled much of the creativity on Beneath a Steel Sky. That’s the other thing, I would say. As a freelance contributor to it, my terms of employment have improved as well. I used to get a bacon sandwich from Charles. He’s taken me out for some rather nice Italian food several times during the making of the latest game. Quite frankly, that’s what I’m in this for. Hospitality and good treats.
Cecil: The offices back then — we’ve gone really upmarket. Compared to the fruit shop, which was just a disgrace — we were above an arcade that was full of young mothers with babies smoking, and very nice servers who fried thick bits of bacon and put them in baps that stuck to the roof of your mouth when you chewed them. As Dave says, I’m afraid that’s the best we had to offer.
As far as good stories are concerned, the one I’d like to add in — we met at New York Comic-Con. I was just so pleased to walk through Times Square with Dave and see all the Watchmen art that he’d created himself, that classic cover art and the logo. It made me think about how far all of us have come over 25 years. As you were saying earlier, you had absolutely no idea that Watchmen was going to be such a hit. With Beneath a Steel Sky, with Broken Sword, traditionally what would happen is you knew that the game would go to retail, sell for six months if you were lucky, three months if you weren’t, and it would go away. That would be it. I remember going to the dump with a whole lot of assets from our games, because I knew we’d never need them. Why would we ever need them?
When the App Store, back when it was called iTunes originally, allowed us to republish our games, it was just this extraordinary feeling. These games that had so much passion actually could be brought back on new platforms again. It was absolutely incredible. For Beneath a Steel Sky, we have a very hardcore group of wonderful fans who were always going to be super-critical. We took their concerns really seriously, because obviously what we wanted to do is write a game that’s totally true to the world, totally true to the characters. We wanted to get Foster and Joey back again. We wanted to go back to Union City, introducing some of the characters.
When Dave created the characters for the booklet that accompanied the physical version, he came up with some wonderful characters, but one of them was called Rat Girl. I always loved Rat Girl. She was called Rat Girl because she had quite big front teeth. It was a great pleasure to think, “Well, let’s bring her back. Let’s see what she’s like.” She was probably 12 in the picture Dave drew, so now she’d be in her 20s. What would she be like? It suddenly struck me that if she’s called Rat Girl, then she was probably called Raquel. Let’s call her Raquel. Somebody would have turned that into Rat Girl. It was terrific to take all of the lore from the original.
We talked to a number of our fans, but one of the huge fans was our CTO, Joost Peters, who’s absolutely fantastic. Joost came to Revolution about 15 years ago on the promise that we were going to do a sequel to Beneath a Steel Sky. He kind of stayed and stayed. He’s been with us forever. Finally we were able to deliver on that promise. I hope he feels that it’s true to the original, because he and many others have been wonderfully loyal over such a long time.
Gibbons: Again, it’s a great thing about the way technology has changed the world. Just like games, comics has its fandom as well. There’s the opportunity to be in touch with your fandom and for them to be in touch with each other. What’s important as a fan is to feel part of the thing you love. By the suggestions that they’ve made and the way they’ve supported these games, they’ve contributed to what we do and informed our sensibilities and made us feel there’s some people out there who really care about this stuff as much as we do, which only adds to the final product. I’d like to thank all the fans for their encouragement and their interest. It’s invaluable.
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