Outside edge: Adrian Turpin on the fine art of computer games

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The Independent Culture
On the face of things, it's just another story of boy meets robot: Foster is on the run in a Blade Runner-style dystopia, and to help him he has only a wisecracking, Wizard of Oz-quoting vacuum cleaner called Joey. But the computer adventure game Beneath the Steel Sky is also a peculiar British success story - and, as importantly, a sign of how the once discrete worlds of the arts and computer games are converging.

Steel Sky's success (it's topped the Gallup chart for weeks) is the reward for two years' work by the 11 employees of Revolution in Hull - underdogs who've had the joy of nipping the ankles of the US giants LucasArt (300 employees) and Sierra (450).

They've done it by putting a 'traditional' artist on screen. Dave Gibbons, the author of the cult 'graphic adventure' Watchman, leapt at the chance. A previous character of his, 2000AD's Rogue Trooper, had been franchised to a computer company, but he'd had no control in its development. With Steel Sky, he not only drew the characters and background, he also co-wrote the storylines.

The result is an 'interactive' adventure game as long on atmosphere (penumbral interiors and dazzling ochre cityscapes) as on action.

'What's always interested me about comics,' Gibbons says, 'is storytelling. This is just a new storytelling medium. I'm convinced the way to go is to produce games with the mark of a creator on them.'

If the new emphasis on design is fuelled by new technology, it's also the result of a generation growing up. The anoraks of the early Eighties, when the games market began to blossom, are now thirtysomethings, and they don't want crudely drawn, shoot 'em up extravaganzas.

It's no longer enough for games to be designed by programmers who barely know one end of a paint-brush from another. As Dan Marchant, the producer of Steel Sky and now chief designer for Virgin Interactive Entertainment puts it: 'We've all been letting no-talent designers animate our games, and there's no need for it.'

There have been knock-on effects, too. If Gibbons' art has influenced the games industry, that industry has had its effect on him: 'I've just invested in a state-of-the-art computer system to colour comics, and it's made a huge difference. And we've only reached the foothills.'

Meanwhile, Virgin's game designers are dipping their toes into the other arts. They've collaborated with Disney's stop-frame animators on Aladdin and Jungle Book, Genesis are being wooed to write a soundtrack, and Clive Barker (the best- selling science fiction writer) has been signed by Virgin's American sister company to create a new game. To quote a small computer company from Hull: 'The Revolution has only just begun.'