Sunday 16 November 2014

Another World: The Phenomenon

As a kid I loved games. It didn't matter to me if they were good or not, I still loved playing them. Each was a different experience, with a distinct graphical style and unique music and that was what was important to me at the time.  

Even the not-so-good games were worth a quick blast every once in a while but most didn't hold my attention for too long; There were just too many other games to play and besides, completing a game was an insurmountable task which demanded the kind of dedication I couldn't commit to just one game given the glut available. In short I was a computer game tart, just out for quick and easy thrills.

Once in a while though, something comes along that's so unlike anything else that it's like being woken up with a frappuccino enema.  I can still remember my first glimpses of Another World, contained in this Amiga 600 TV advert:

I didn't know what it was at the time as it isn't mentioned by name within the advert, but it looked incredible and unlike anything I'd ever played before and I'd been an Amiga user for years.  With a bit of asking around in the playground, I soon discovered the title and then set out to acquire the game for myself.

On booting the game for the first of many, many times, I was immediately captivated by the visuals.  I'd seen much more detailed graphics before, but there was something about the style and accuracy of the animation which made it seem special.  

I was convinced that the lack of detail was an artistic decision rather than the result of technical limitation and it's uniqueness added immensely to the immersion and mystique of the game.  

While some other games were trying to make the graphics as realistic as possible, this game concentrated on accurately capturing movement and subtle gestures for it's realism and unlike the others, it succeeded.

I now know that these natural movements were captured by a technique known as 'Rotoscoping' whereby the actions of a real-world stand in - such as a toy Ferrari and cut-out pistol - are filmed and traced from a TV screen one frame at a time. 

This is the kind of painstaking attention to detail which really added to the experience. Some may question whether it would it have been a lesser game if swigging from that drinks can, or grabbing that pistol didn't look quite so realistic, but while the gameplay may have been the same, the experience over-all would have suffered tremendously. Those carefully crafted incidental moments anchored the game in actual reality, making the highly stylised visuals more striking but somehow more natural at the same time.

The visuals and clean sound effects of the lavish intro were exceptional and I was immediately hooked. I couldn't wait for the game to start and as it turned out, I hadn't realised that it actually had already and I got munched immediately. No start screen, no menus just straight in - sink or swim, quite literally as it turned out! 

Gamers of the time were accustomed to a noticeable change in quality of visuals between the into and game proper and it would be many years before we saw game engine driven cut-scenes becoming the norm. Already this was feeling like an interactive movie, and not the naff kind of poorly acted, grainy FMV tosh that become popular in the early days of CD-ROM. The game proper had been running for just a few seconds and it had already broken new ground almost all areas.  What was to lay in store on the next screen? And the screen after that? I needed to know, I was going to find out - the game world had beckoned me. How could I refuse such a rare invitation.

And what a world. How completely realised and sublimely rendered.  The lack of graphical detailing actually enhanced the visuals as it dared the imagination to complete the picture the that superb animations hinted at. Incidental details included to enhance the immersion; Distant, wondrous mountain ranges and dreamy vistas punctuated with strange and fearsome creatures.  

Strange, towering cityscapes archaic in appearance yet alive with futuristic technology and hostile natives.  And to complete the experience, sounds, dreamily reminiscent and startling realistic. Now this was a world worth exploring if you could survive. 

Being unceremoniously dumped into a completely foreign environment with no tutorial to explain the controls was yet another bold move, but it was a challenge I relished.  

Again and again as new challenges arose, the player is forced to adapt and learn, or die.  The pistol for instance; once acquired, only by the careful observation of others wielding this versatile weapon will you unlock it's full potential.  

Fail to pick up on the clues and you'll die. You'll be eaten, mauled, have your head gnawed off, you legs chewed through, fall to your death, drown, be pummeled by rocks, be beaten to a pulp or have your moist flesh zapped off leaving only a carbonised skeleton unable to support it's own structure. 

Back at my school on Earth, an informal support group spontaneously developed amongst us Amiga owners. 

Problems and potential solutions to each of the puzzles could be discussed, theories and anecdotes about the world were exchanged and achievements applauded. 

This helped lend gravitas to the actual game as kudos was up for grabs if you were the first to figure out how to pass a certain point.

What unfolded was to be an epic journey of exploration, adventure and even companionship.  A glorious, balanced mix of desperate combat and devious puzzle solving; each as tricky as the other.

There were furious firefights where the air was livid with crisp, sizzling laser beams.  These encounters required cunning tactics as well as a quick trigger, using all available resources and exploiting the environment to gain the advantage.

To juxtapose this furious pace, there were liberal amounts of logic puzzles where only fiendish lateral thinking could see you safely through.  Many's the time I'd get that light-bulb moment, a potential solution to the puzzle that I couldn't wait to get home to try.  If it worked I was were elated, earned bragging rights for the next day and I saw the next section first.  If the gambit failed, I was crushed, frustrated but not deterred.

Having invested so much into this journey, it was with mixed emotions that I neared the conclusion. It was a relief to have completed such a grueling journey, but I knew my life would be emptier without the game to explore and I felt a genuine kinship for my alien companion, with whom I'd relied on and been through so much. It was partly due to my personal investment and partly due to the wonderful cinematics, that the bitter-sweet ending sequence evoked real emotion in me and, I must confess, the final sequence brought a tear to my eye - something no other game has managed before or since.

It's possible to play the game right through in 25 minutes, but going in blind with none of the solutions it took weeks of evenings.  The game, also known in America as Out of This World, was such a hit it was ported to the other 16-bit systems around at the time, but the console publishers, concerned about re-playability demand some minor changes: an extra baddie here and there which added little to the length of the game to the game.  Nintendo in particular were keen on having the length of female alien bum cleavage reduced in one scene as it was thought to be too provocative.  

Despite the publisher's concerns about it's length, it offered such a unique experience that it was ported to just about every machine of the day, with some creative tweaking required in by the game's creator, Éric Chahi, in some cases to get the required performance from machines. The game, a triumph of quality over quantity, continues to be ported to this day to modern systems, including iPhone and PS4.  

This release for the 20th anniversary features the options of high res graphics, re-drawn backgrounds, high quality music and remastered sound.  

The 20th Anniversary Edition really is the ultimate version (so far) and I was delighted to play it through again recently with one of the original playground partisans. Being armed with many of the solutions, it took us around 1.5 hours as our memory had faded a little and some sections needed figuring out from scratch.  It was immensely enjoyable to revisit that unusual place once more and it's highly recommended for first times too.

GYL Guest Review - by Andy Pryer

Follow Andy on Twitter @clammylizard

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