Another World: a timeless classic

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In the 30 odd years that I’ve been gaming, few titles have captured my imagination like Another World – it is without doubt one of the standout games of the Amiga era and justifiably still enjoys a cult status to this day. I fell in love with this game the first time I played it and the cinematic intro sequence just blew me away – I hadn’t seen anything like it before. And even playing it today, I’m still filled with a sense of awe and wonder. There are not too many games that can make the same claim after more than 20 years.

I must confess that the 15th and 20th anniversary editions slipped me by – I was vaguely aware of their existence, but for some bizarre reason I never got round to buying them (stupid brain!).

Fortunately I’ve recently been revisiting my favourite Amiga games (via the WinUAE emulator) so when I finally got round to playing Another World, I suddenly remembered about the updated version and promptly purchased through Steam (for an incredibly reasonable £1.50). And I’m very glad I did.

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20th Anniversary Edition
Another World, also known as Out of This World in North America and Outer World in Japan, was originally published in 1991 by Delphine Software and is the brainchild French graphic designer and programmer Eric Chahi. A 20th Anniversary Edition was published in 2001 (funnily enough).

In the updated version Chahi expands the 16-colour palette of the original game with repainted HD backgrounds, subtle texture updates and rescaled graphics. Chahi has done an excellent job of updating the visuals while remaining faithful to his original vision. A nice touch is being able to switch between the remastered and original graphics at any point during the game. See the video above and the two images below for a before and after comparison of the visuals (all other screenshots in this article are from the 20th Anniversary Edition).

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A scene from Another World in the game’s original 320×200 resolution

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The same scene with remastered graphics and rescaled to 1920×1200

It also features a remastered soundtrack and an improved control system. Extras comprise a short documentary on the making of the game (definitely worth a watch), a copy of the soundtrack, a copy of the original game (in Amiga Disk Format) and a PDF discussing the design of the game, which includes much of Chahi’s original concept artwork.

Gameplay
The player takes control of Lester, a young physicist who is teleported from his laboratory to an alien world in a freak accident caused by a lightning strike interfering with the particle accelerator he is working with (Lester’s employer might want to think about investing in a lightning rod).

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Lester finds himself in an austere and unforgiving landscape. His first task upon arriving is to evade and fend off a variety of carnivorous lifeforms. He is then captured by members of an intelligent but unfriendly humanoid race and taken to an underground prison complex. From here on the aim of the game becomes to escape from the prison and the alien city.

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Lester can walk, run, crouch, jump, swim and interact with specific objects. Early on in the game he acquires a laser pistol which he can use to defend himself against hostile creatures. The multifunctional gun can also be used to create a temporary forcefield to protect Lester or overcharged to release a powerful bolt of energy that will destroy enemy forcefields and smash down some doors and physical barriers. Knowing how and when to use these additional functions is crucial to winning many of the firefights.

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The game combines skill-based action with puzzle-solving. In his attempt to escape the alien city, Lester must negotiate traps and pitfalls, dodge bloodthirsty creatures and shoot it out with the hostile humanoids. He must also find solutions to various obstacles; these are not always obvious and sometimes rather complex and the game requires significant experimentation and patience. Unlike contemporary releases, which often spoon-feed the player, there are no in-game hints (there is not even a player interface) – Another World requires you to think for yourself. But when you finally have that eureka moment it’s a hugely rewarding experience.

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However, the game can also be quite frustrating at times. Lester has no health or lives, he dies easily and you must restart the adventure at the most recent checkpoint, of which there are only a very limited number (the remastered version introduces additional safe points and a choice of difficulty level). Progressing through some areas requires a protracted sequence of running, jumping and shooting. Mistime a single jump or react too slowly to an enemy and it’s a gruesome death for Lester and back to the checkpoint for you. This is a challenging game.

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Ahead of its time
Where Another World really shines and what sets it above other games of that era is its innovative graphic style and direction – all the product of Chahi’s vivid imagination.

Another World excels in its minimalism. There is no dialogue (the odd moment of unintelligible alien speak aside) – the narrative is skilfully related through a combination of cinematic cutscenes, in-game occurrences and Lester’s own actions. It’s a story told entirely through images. And there are some touching moments in the bond that develops between Lester and a fellow prisoner; despite not being able to communicate verbally, these unlikely allies work together to escape the city.

The understated and dreamlike synth music, composed by Chahi’s friend Jean-François Freitas, helps bring it all together and set the tone. Sound effects are raw and relatively sparse, yet it’s a game drenched in atmosphere.

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The lovingly-crafted graphics are simple yet evocative – it’s hard to believe the original game was produced with just a 16-colour palette and the visuals have withstood the test of time well. Chahi cleverly masked the limitations of the Amiga by using a little to imply a lot. It’s a universe constructed from simple polygons and flat colours.

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Yet despite this simplicity, the alien world is beautifully realised – from the arid and rocky landscapes where Lester first arrives, reminiscent of the badlands of Colorado or Arizona, to the decaying middle-eastern inspired alien metropolis. Culturally, with slaves working in the mines and gladiators fighting animals and each other on the sands of a colosseum, the city evokes ancient Rome. Personally, I’m also reminded of Dune and the original Planet of the Apes film.

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The character animations are fluid and depict realistic movement thanks to the technique of rotoscoping (a motion capture prototype that involves tracing over film footage frame by frame); Chahi said he was inspired by the 1978 animated film adaptation of Lord of the Rings. He also draws inspiration from Manga, using simple lines to imply motion, energy, depth and texture (Chahi was a fan of Dragon Ball at the time).

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Realistic-looking animations like the opening of the soda can were made possible by rotoscoping – Chahi still possess the original props used for these sequences

A labour of love
Chahi had already programmed several commercially successful games on the Oric-1 and Amstrad CPC in the early 80s. In the late 80s he became a graphic designer for Delphine Software, creating the graphics for classic adventure game Future Wars (1989), programmed by Paul Cuisset who notably also created 1992 game Flashback, which is often mistakenly considered as a successor to Another World despite no involvement at all from Chahi. Frustrated by working on other people’s projects and inspired by the Amiga port of the laserdisc game Dragon’s Lair, which demonstrated to him that cinematic animations could be coded on floppy disks, Chahi dedicated himself to creating his own cinematic game.

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Chahi spent two years working on Another World, which he created on an Amiga 500. Still living at home with his parents, he would lock himself away in the basement for days on end to work on the project in total isolation.

In the making of video, Chahi explains that it was success of Future Wars along with the associated royalties that allowed him to work on Another World without constraint or editorial pressure. As such, he was responsible for virtually every aspect of production, right down to designing the box art himself – something rarely seen today outside of the recently re-emergent indie scene and is very much a part of Another World’s enduring charm.

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Unable to find anything suitable on the market, he even went as far as developing his own specific game editor, which he coded in GFA BASIC. This allowed Chahi to efficiently manage his vector-based images and animations, and to create and test the whole game without having to recompile anything or change applications constantly. It even uses a custom scripting language independent of any operating system and this is reason it has been so easy to port the game to a multitude of platforms over the years.

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Chahi’s game editor for Another World, as seen in the Making of Video that comes with the 20th Anniversary Edition

For the sound, Chahi drafted in his old school friend Jean-François Freitas. Freitas composed the music under Chahi’s direction, and together they created the sound effects by manipulating everyday objects and recording the result, e.g. cracking nuts, smashing fruit and using Chahi’s noisy dot matrix printer, as well as sampling their own voices.

It seems a little tragic that Chahi didn’t go on to produce anything that quite measures up to Another World, but one masterpiece in a lifetime is more than most can dream to achieve.

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Legacy
I’ve read some online articles that question the game’s status as a classic, they talk about rose-tinted nostalgia and fiercely attack the gameplay. And of course, by modern standards, the gameplay has dated a little and it’s certainly not without its flaws (such as the clumsy control system of the original release). But its easy to forget that gaming was less evolved back then and constrained by the technological capabilities of the available platforms.

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A cutscene animation very reminiscent of one of the final scenes in the 1982 film Blade Runner

But this is all missing the point. Another World showed us that games could be narrative driven, that they could cinematic. That they could be beautiful, mesmerising and evocative. That they could be something more than just games. It was probably the first title to successfully bridge the gap between game and film. And as such Another World has been hugely influentially and this is why it is considered to have been so ahead of its time (several respected game developers list it among their all-time favourite games). It fact its minimalist approach to storytelling and visual design is something many modern developers could still learn from. Sometime less is more.

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The original box art, illustrated by game creator Eric Chahi

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