How does a game qualify as “dense”? An excess of dialogue that fleshes out the plot? Books upon books of lore and mythology that augment the reality and tangibility of the game world? The layered interface and menu system of a hardcore RPG, the sort that allows the player access to any tweak or customization that he can reasonably desire?
While these are all means of providing the player with bounties of important information, they are tactics that are difficult to label as graceful or invisible. (This is not to say they cannot be used effectively. At their best, “hardcore” game staples like dialogue choices and menu navigation become a sort of game-within-a-game, so entrancing and thought-out that they not only reflect but deepen a developer’s vision and a player’s involvement with it.) They are the equivalent of a title card in cinema, or a footnote in literature: tools that can certainly be used with purpose and integrity, but ones that call attention to artifice, to the (sometimes glorious) limitations of a medium.
There must be a way around these tricks. Density, after all, is not simply quantity, but mass per volume; while it is difficult to apply such a straightforward definition to things as ephemeral and subjective as art and media, doesn’t it follow that a “dense” work would be one conveying the most information within a limited space and through a simplified means? I love a sprawling, rambling masterpiece as much as the next guy — your Infinite Jests and Celine & Julies — but what really impresses me is when a piece can move and enlighten me through economy and grace. I’m talking about the static, low-angle camerawork of Yasujiro Ozu, how he could compose a still shot that at once obscured and exposed the thoughts and feelings of his characters. I’m talking about how Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons layered every panel of Watchmen as a perfect progression of theme and setting as well as story. I’m talking about the man-and-his-guitar, boombox-recorded quasi-anthems of the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle — that much more plaintive for his sparse take on lyrics and instrumentation — or the paragraph-length reviews of Robert Christgau and Pauline Kael, able to sum up an artist’s entire career in about a fifth of the words I’ve used thus far.
Eric Chahi’s Another World is a game — perhaps the only game — that is dense like the examples above, packaging every moment and detail with meaning without sacrificing its austerity, vision, or humility. That it was made almost entirely by one man should be equal parts inspiring and damning for our current gamemakers.
How does Another World achieve this? Through an unprecedented focus on composition. Unlike many platformers released in the wake of Super Mario Bros., Another World’s “camera” does not scroll through the environments along with its protagonist. It stays firmly planted, unveiling each room and scenario as its own perfectly crafted plane. (Pitfall! and Prince of Persia are noted predecessors in this design philosophy.) This allows Chahi to truly design each screen, to insure it is at once engaging on its own terms and as a piece of a larger puzzle. It’s difficult to find a review of Another World that doesn’t describe it as “cinematic,” and this has less to do with its handful of rotoscoped cutscenes and everything to do with how it visually presents information to the player. Here is a game — a two-dimensional platformer, no less — that forces the player to observe pertinent details in both the foreground and the background, to notice how the visual flow from one location to the next affects both the scene-setting and the puzzles.
Take the game’s iconic opening. After a brief sequence displaying an experiment gone horribly wrong, scientist Lester Knight Chaykin finds himself transported to a hostile alien world, immediately fighting for his life in a murky pool of water. When he emerges, he finds himself surrounded by strange mountain ranges and plateaus. If he goes left, he reaches a cliff with a couple vines. If he goes right, he runs into a group of slow-moving, gelatinous slugs; contact with these creatures results in immediate death, unless they are quickly kicked and destroyed. All the while, a black, shadowy monsters prowls through the scene’s background, slinking after Lester as if it’s caught his scent. When Lester reaches another dead end, the beast finally attacks, forcing Lester to backtrack and sprint toward the left-hand cliffside. But this time, Lester can grab the vine, swing back around the monster, and continue toward the right again. Before too long, he encounters some humanoid aliens who dispose of the predator with a laser gun and — before he can even exchange a greeting of peace — knock out and kidnap Lester as well.
There is so much to unpack from this sequence, in how fluidly it conveys both design and story, and it accomplishes it all without a word of speech or text. First, you immediately know you are in a hostile environment; as Lester swims out of the pool, a group of tentacles inch upward in an attempt to pull him under. The next moment, you learn how entirely vulnerable Lester is when he encounters the slugs. You learn through encountering the beast that the game’s background animations do not exist simply for show or flourish; they offer valuable hints as to what lies ahead, and should be viewed like a deep focus shot in a film. During the chase, you come to understand how puzzles will work through the rest of the game, and that you will sometimes have to backtrack and find new uses for old objects in order to progress. And the aliens’ unfriendly reception at the sequence’s conclusion comically highlights just how in over his head the protagonist will be for the rest of the game.
If you do not die (and you probably will die, but more on that later), this chain of events should take roughly two minutes. Two minutes into the game and you are already completely aware of so many of Chahi’s guiding design aesthetics and his underlying theme: plunging into the unknown — be it through exploring a new land or designing a landmark video game — is not fun. It is challenging, frustrating, and something that leaves you feeling feeble and exposed. The unknown is as terrifying as it is enticing; it is concurrently what reminds us of how weak we are and what keeps us striving to stay alive.
The next bit of gameplay is equally as instructive and seamless. Lester awakes to find himself in a suspended cage with a hulking alien, visually indistinguishable from the ones who captured him but instantly rendered a friend by the shared circumstance. In the background, a group of these aliens toil away in some sort of mine; without any unnecessary detail, you understand that this is some sort of society larger than it looked at first glance. You can swing the cage back and forth — again reminding you that attention to the environment is important — causing it to come off its hinges and crush the guard. (So these aliens can, in fact, be killed.) After a moment of bonding with his new alien friend, reinforcing that you’re on the same team, Lester grabs the crushed guard’s gun and rushes off. The rules of the gun become quickly apparent; it can fire, charge up to create a force field, or charge up further to create a blast that can dissolve said fields. This is the same gun that every enemy in the game carries. One hit from Lester’s can kill them, but one hit from theirs can kill Lester, too.
While these early moments are perhaps the most enthralling in how they intuitively layer new mechanics and subtle world-building into the game in real time, Chahi never stops informing the player and adding twists to the formula. What’s amazing is how naturally he achieves a steady build and allows for new puzzles and scenarios on every screen without ever breaking the flow of the game or coming across as didactic. Something as simple as enemies firing through the floor vents in a dark room speaks volumes to the thought and care put into this game; it looks “cool,” yes, but it also communicates to the player that your nemeses are below you and that you will probably soon be heading downward, all without breaking the emotional reality of the story for a second. If this doesn’t sound impressive in writing, there is a consistency to the logic and tone that culminates in something remarkable.
Another World also forced me to appreciate hard games. I’m talking about a specific sort of “hard” here; I always enjoy a clever puzzle, a hint of true strategy, a game that makes me stop and think. But Another World is blisteringly, uncompromisingly, almost arbitrarily hard, in a way retro gamers and Dark Souls fans lament that games just can’t be anymore. These challenges of reflex and timing, these trial and error puzzles that must be attempted umpteen times before a solution is found are not, by and large, my favorite types of gaming; a great percentage of Another World‘s running time consists of these set-ups. But they struck me completely differently here, as what frustrated me at least tied into one of the game’s key thematic threads. The entire universe stands against Lester Knight Chaykin in Another World, and the odds are permanently stacked against him. This is how things should be in all great adventure narratives; who wants to see a hero who can capably handle any challenge thrown his way and never struggles with anything? The twist, though, is that Lester is completely incapable of facing even an easily squashed alien slug; how absurd is it that he would be able to make it through a fortress swarming with brutish, Hulk-sized guards? You will die a million times in Another World because you would die a million times in Another World. Player death is not arbitrary in this game; it is just a sometimes sad, sometimes comic reality. Even when the story is successfully completed, the player leaves Lester in pretty bad shape, flying off into the unknown with his alien pal, barely able to stand on his own two feet. What keeps Another World from becoming merely a playable version of the Moebius illustrations that inspired it is the cruel joke that some pasty, computer-loving dweeb wouldn’t last five seconds in the fantasy-hero role he so often pictures himself inhabiting.
It also helps that it’s so compelling to watch Lester die. Whether getting fried by an alien laser or devoured by a hungry Venus fly trap, Chahi takes great pains to make Lester’s deaths an integral viewing experience. The animation is so fluid, and the sadistic (masochistic?) thrill of seeing your character get drowned, crushed, impaled, or eaten is so palpable that I would guess plenty of Another World veterans would list, say, Lester getting burnt to a crisp as one of the game’s best moments. The presentation is all-around spectacular; I’m usually not a fan of rotoscoping, but the cutscenes here fit the tone perfectly and enhance the mood without ever intruding on the game’s visceral appeal. That Lester himself is so disconnected from our idea of a human — proportionally correct, but lacking in characteristics and cartoonish in color and movement — grants the game license to depart from reality and fly off on whatever odd, alien tangents it wants to. Chahi is smart enough to know that animation is always a gateway to the surreal, and uses the greater fluidity provided by his production techniques to highlight just how removed Lester is from the Earth that he knows. Plus, the game is just plain gorgeous, especially in its remastered fifteenth anniversary edition. Its light blues and violets stand in sharp contrast to the character models, and when Lester peers out over the imposing alien architecture in a famous, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, the result is still breathtaking.
Those who complain the game is too short are missing the point. It’s not about length; it’s about perfection. There’s not a detail that feels out of place, not a single screen that isn’t working toward something grander. Even the story, as vague as it is, needs no addition. (There was a sequel, Heart of the Alien, made without Chahi’s involvement. It is rightly dismissed.) Why would anyone want to know more about this alien society when the hints offered already contain multitudes of intrigue? There are plenty of conclusions we can draw from Lester’s brief time in this place, all of them suggested by the game itself and not supplementary novels or self-indulgent cutscenes. Another World stands as a remarkable testament to what one man can achieve and how deeply the most basic elements of video game language can resonate. We still have not seen a true successor to its melding of restraint and depth. Braid, another auteur piece, might come the closest; it’s a fantastic game, but not quite as tightly constructed, and prone to laying its themes on a bit thick at points. Another World never resorts to such bookish philosophizing. All it needs to say is right there in the game.
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