By Adam Smith on April 5th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
Another World’s 20th Anniversary Edition is now available on Steam. In 1992, when I first played it, discovering something so beautiful and strange contained on two disks seemed like an act of science fiction in itself, and realising that I can now download the entire thing in about four seconds is astonishing. Eric Chahi’s enduring voyage is a masterwork of visual communication and companionship, and it has grown in my memory over the two decades since its original release.
The first time I picked up the gun, I felt like I’d reached into the bulbous screen attached to my friend’s dusty Amiga. The object was on the ground, a dead alien’s loot drop but before such banalities, and the thrust of the skinny arm that grabbed it was seen from my perspective, the side-on view cutting for a brief moment of immersion that was book-ended by a tiny but noticeable pause as the computer processed this glimpse of the future.
Little did I know that I’d spend a great deal of the next twenty years picking up and firing weapons from a first-person perspective, and a much smaller portion of time exploring other worlds. Some of the weapons I collected later in my gaming life would spin and float just above the ground, others would flash and flicker to draw attention to themselves – the vast majority would make it very clear, one way or the other, that they were the most important part of the worlds they inhabited. Levels are often designed around the guns they contain, whether to demonstrate the firing of them, be they shotgun or sniper rifle, or to secure them, tucked away in mazes or behind locked doors. Guns are the prizes at the centre of too many labyrinths.
In Another World, I wasn’t collecting the gun because it was bigger and more bombastic than the sixteen others I had rammed up my inventory. I didn’t have an inventory beyond the pockets of my jeans and whatever could be held in my two hands. The gun, despite its ability to create energy shields and reduce living creatures to ash and bone, was valuable because it was the only means of fighting back against the unknown. I would have gladly taken a cudgel or a fork. Until that point I’d been pursued, devoured punctured and imprisoned, and discovering the means to fight back changed the emotional state and rhythm of the game, from the twitching back and forth of the hunt to the screen-flipping staccato spit of instantaneous laser death.
If I were to pick through my collection of favourite games, many could broadly be described as ‘immersive, first-person things of one sort or another’; in that category I include the likes of System Shock, Thief, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Frictional’s fine work. I’d stretch to the gun-focused but distraction-packed dust, sand and danger of Far Cry’s various locales as well, but there are few side-scrolling (or flip-screen) games that have successfully drawn me into a credible environment. Another World, with that teasing early tangent into first-person, is one.
Playing now, the game quickly and neatly divides into a collection of short activities, none of which require instruction but many of which require repetition to perfect. Although the individual components are lethal, rapid, and rely on timing and the sort of predictive powers that only memory and reincarnation can provide, Another World is no Dragon’s Lair. The actions performed by the ludicrously named Lester Knight Chaykin are directly and clearly related to the player’s input – he is a fluid and elegant avatar rather than a series of stubborn storyboard sequences.
Anyone who has played the game must surely remember the beast as one of gaming’s most memorable monsters? The cutscene in which it is first encountered is a masterpiece of minimalism – eyes red, teeth white, shape as black as emptiness, the thing pounces into position and looks directly at the player. The animation lasts for less than five seconds and tells the entire story. You’re alone, you’re lost, fuck knows what this thing is, but it’s hungry or angry or both and it is RIGHT THERE.
Before the face-to-face meeting, the background holds the tale. The beast is there from the start, scrambling and leaping as it stalks Lester. It always ensures that it’s one step (or screen) ahead, a hint of the pursuit to come, which defies the left-to-right commandment that is as natural a part of gaming as end credits that scroll from bottom to top. Fleeing from the beast, covering ground already trodden and moving away from your unknown goal (escape? to where?), which MUST SURELY BE TO THE RIGHT, is disconcerting. It’s Braid’s untwisting knot, Kiss Me Deadly’s inversion of the credit sequence and Seven’s moodier adoption of the same. Another World uses visual cues to teach, to tell its story and to convey mystery.
It’s a happy coincidence that I didn’t first meet the game under its alternate title, Out Of This World, because it’s the wrong title. Lester’s world, shown in the game’s introductory and most indulgent non-interactive sequence, is not THIS world. It’s already another, in which scientists perform dimension-tearing experiments and own sports cars. The most warming trace of the familiar is Lester’s appearance, his shock of hair and everyday clothes, the way that his every movement is a convincing recreation of the somewhat cumbersome and yet remarkable human form.
The opening chase, capture and escape are the moments that live strongest in my memory. Weird, wonderful, full of threat and subversively educational without featuring a single tutorial or button prompt. If you don’t swim to the surface when you find yourself inexplicably transported into a tendril-haunted fathom, you die. If you don’t kick out at or jump over the alien ooze-slugs that litter the landscape, you die. If you don’t run, you die. Another World teaches by killing but every death contains a clue for the next attempt, sometimes by forcing a change of direction, sometimes by suggesting an entirely new approach.
Another World’s makes the player try and try again, often failing and not always failing better. But the beauty of the game isn’t only in the environments and character designs, which would be lauded as artistic marvels if they appeared now, it’s also in the ways that it communicates the reasons to care and to go on. Alec recognised Bioshock: Infinite’s Elizabeth as “perhaps the best FPS companion character since Alyx Vance” and the time that has lapsed between the two is telling. Games have not tackled companionship well, which is one reason why the term ‘escort mission’ exists and is a warning flag, and also perhaps one reason for the desirability of cooperative play.
Eric Chahi created one of gaming’s greatest companions more than twenty years ago, an alien being who communicated through gestures and a small lexicon of syllabic barks and encouragements. Like an all-but silent film, Another World doesn’t waste its close ups or its perspective switches. There is value wrung from every precious byte and hour of work, and for all of the frustrations its crueller screens contain, its controlled elegance remains, and the many methods by which it communicates its intent and credible strangeness to the player are as potent a lesson as ever.
Another World: 20th Anniversary Edition is available now but was the catalyst for these thoughts rather than the focus of them. I’m very much writing about Another World: 0th Anniversary Edition.