Monday, May 3, 2010

Now Go Back to Another Earth


If you haven't played Another World in the past few years (or ever), you'd be well served to do so. Right now. Seriously, it's $10 on GoG. Go, I'll wait.

Another World was the latest selection of the Vintage Game Club, a group started by Michael Abbott, David Carlton and Dan Bruno to "demonstrate how a community of gamers can work together to discuss, analyze, and enjoy classic games." It's a great group that has looked at all kinds of titles, from Grim Fandango to Alpha Centauri, from Beyond Good & Evil to Thief.

I had not seen Another World since playing the SNES port with a friend, well over 15 years ago. I still remembered certain moments vaguely (the arena, the steam baths), but I'd forgotten almost the entire experience. And wow, how much I forgot. Another World holds up incredibly well. Not just in a wistful, nostalgic way, but in a genuine, this is still really good way. With far, far less, it is able succeed where games today still struggle.

Aside from a small amount of text during the introduction, there isn't a single line of text or dialog in the entire game. Everything learned about the place you find yourself in is discovered through the environment and the agents in it. The player is explicitly told nothing; they are left to piece together the narrative themselves. It's a subtlety that's still uncommon in games. Often, players are either bludgeoned with excessive backstory and unengaging cutscenes or the pendulum swings too far the other way and we get games that are abstract to the point of meaningless. Another World trusts the player to put together what they want of the narrative and does so basically without ever taking control away. It's bold even today and it was downright revolutionary then.

The other most notable character of Another World is that you die. A lot. You'll die in the first five seconds of the game if you're not paying attention (and it's bloody awesome). Some have classified Another World as difficult, but I'm not sure that's exactly correct. It's certainly not akin to other punishingly difficult games of that era, a la Mega Man or Battletoads. I think the important difference might just be that- Another World is not punishing. The only meaningful state in the game is the player's progress. Dying means going back to the last checkpoint, which is usually a loss of 5 or 10 seconds of gameplay.

John Walker of Rock, Paper, Shotgun coincidentally wrote a retrospective on Another World for Eurogamer. He discussed the game's difficulty a lot and while I appreciate his tack, I think he overstates how difficult the game is. I think part of the problem is that, as gamers, the notions of death and failure have been completely conflated. For the vast majority of games, death means we did something wrong and if we had been playing better, we could have avoided such a fate.

But in Another World death is a vital part of the gameplay. Walker classified the game as unfair and reliant on trial and error, but I don't think fairness enters into it at all. Another World may look something like a platformer, but it's really a puzzle game. It's no more unfair than Braid is unfair for not making every puzzle piece immediately accessible or Monkey Island is unfair for not instantly providing every item needed to a solve a puzzle. Aside from the charming vignettes when you die, each death provides new information. Dying is an exploration of the game's possibility space.

It's actually where Another World deviates too far from "death means new information" that it shows some rough edges. There are several instances where you'll clearly figure out what to do, but the game requires some very specific inputs (either twitchy platforming or some very exact timing) to achieve success. Unfortunately, the feedback is nonexistent at times, so you can't be sure if what you're doing is basically correct or completely off track. There are some gunfights that seem un-winnable, but simply require good luck and timing. Others seem un-winnable ... and are, and you need to do something else to get past them. Telling these two things apart is more difficult than it should be. I only went to a walkthrough a few of times for Another World, and each time it was because I suspected I was trying the right thing but didn't want to waste a bunch of time if I was completely on the wrong track. At times, the gap between the player's intent and what they are able to easily accomplish is just a little too wide.

The game's only other real shortcoming is that, similar to the above, it lets you go on for far too long a few times after you've made a failing decision. You done something incorrect and won't be able to progress, but you might not actually know it until you expend a non-trivial amount of effort discovering you're blocked. This contributes to the problem where you're not sure if you're doing the right thing or not.

This is definitely an aspect of game design we've improved upon in the almost twenty years since Another World's release. But there is plenty in Another World that we could still be doing far better. So again, I encourage you to check out the game if you haven't (and it runs with no compatability problems on my Windows 7 install).

Eric Chahi hasn't done much in games since creating Another World, but rumours of him potentially doing something new are exciting. If nothing else, he gave an awesome interview with Jordan Mechner that's definitely worth a read. And if you've played Another World recently, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts.

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6 Comments:

Blogger Chris Lepine said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

May 3, 2010 at 9:02 AM  
Blogger Graham said...

The other thing re: the "difficulty", is that many of the challenges in this game are execution challenges. That is, the whole point of them is to see if you can deduce a pattern and execute it with precision. If it wasn't "hard", then it wouldn't even make sense as a game element!

As every designer worth their salt knows, the greater the challenge, the greater the satisfaction of overcoming it. Naturally, there is a spectrum here: Easier challenges allow a greater number of people to experience a lesser degree of satisfaction, and vice versa.

Something I think so many people (reviewers especially) is that choosing a point on that spectrum is a designer's prerogative. Another World is a game that has pointedly been made to have deeply satisfying challenges.

So is it hard? Sure! Is it too hard? Nonsense; it's hard enough!

May 3, 2010 at 9:07 AM  
Blogger Chris Lepine said...

Crap. Hit submit by accident.

Anyway, I was saying: check out Heart of Darkness (PS1/PC) if you get a chance. Although it clearly caters to side-scroller gamers, he manages to fine tune his storytelling skill to perfection. Besides, it has one of the cutest protagonists I've seen in a game, a la Commander Keen.

May 3, 2010 at 9:08 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Wow this game takes me back. I remember playing it when I was maybe 10 or so.

Needless to say I don't recall ever getting too far.

May 3, 2010 at 7:15 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Graham Totally, although I think challenges being deeply satisfying because they're difficult is predicated on them seeming fair and achievable. If a challenge is unfair or you're forced to a walkthrough to even understand the challenge, the opportunity for creating a feeling is satisfaction is likely squandered.

I can count numerous occasions where I finally overcame a challenge but didn't feel rewarded, merely exhausted and glad to be done with it. But at the same time, I could die over and over again in Mirror's Edge trying to shave a few seconds off of Time Trial record. I think it's because I always felt in control with ME and never like I was doing something obtuse/impossible. The few instances where Another World became frustrating for me was when it become too obtuse.

@Chris I noticed that when looking at Chahi's Wikipedia entry. I never played it, but may have to try and seek out a copy.

@Brian Seriously, give it another go. It's totally worth it and probably not as hard as you remember (I think the 15th anniversary edition also doubled the number of checkpoints the game has).

May 3, 2010 at 11:37 PM  
Blogger Shahbaz Sadiq said...

Finally, I cleared all stages of this Game "Another World". This is a Big Challenge for mind. We need Luck to clear its Stages. We feel by ourself in this game that we are facing the hard problems. Remember, we need Luck to play this Game...

October 5, 2010 at 10:41 PM  

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