I vacillated shamefully over writing this post. It’s my blog, and I can do whatever the hell I want, but Another World is one of those games that’s already quite well-respected by the gaming establishment and has had plenty of words written about its storytelling and depiction of an alien world. I prefer to cover the less well-known stuff on here and was doubtful I could say anything useful about it that hadn’t been said already.
On the other hand, I really like Another World. Seriously. It made a hell of an impression on me as a kid, to the point where I stole the box art twenty years later to make one of the header images for the site. In my opinion while there have been games that have been superficially similar – including the also-excellent Flashback made by Another World’s publisher, Delphine Software — there’s never been another game quite like it. It’s not quite an adventure game, not quite a platformer, not quite a puzzler; the cliché here would be to say it combined elements of all three but I think instead that Another World is its own thing entirely, and just happens to resemble that particular genre mishmash because it’s the best way of describing it given the way games subsequently evolved. Another World is, for lack of a better term, unique – and truly unique games are very rare, and totally worth discussing further.
To get yourself in the mood for this, go and watch Another World’s intro. (Hell, watch the entire game if you have the time – it’s only 23 minutes long if you know what you’re doing.) Usually it’s hard to get an idea of how a game might have looked to contemporary gamers, but let me assure you that at the time Another World’s graphics and animation were nothing short of stunning. Prince of Persia had done rotoscoping a couple of years earlier, of course, but Another World took advantage of a couple of years of technology advances (plus the fact that it was being developed for the Amiga instead of the Apple II) to do two very important things with the concept. First is that it uses polygons to draw its rotoscoped characters, which is why there’s such an abundance of straight lines in the Another World; this trades off looking a little less lifelike than straight rotoscoping in favour of giving the whole game a uniform visual style by making the rotoscoped characters look like they belong in the conventionally animated world. The second thing is making that animated world seem strange and, well, alien, with a colour scheme and level of detail that lends the entire place a weird kind of otherness. It looks utterly bleak and unforgiving, and not the sort of place you’d want to be suddenly teleported to when running experiments on your unlicensed particle accelerator.
Another World’s gameplay is the sort of thing that would make modern game designers scream in horror. It breaks so many rules, some of which exist for very good reasons. That intro you watched earlier is all the information the game gives you about what the hell is going on. Otherwise it doesn’t tell you what to do, doesn’t give you any hints, has no control feedback and a single mistake will kill the red-haired scientist (Lester) in a variety of amusing ways. Once the intro ends the game doesn’t do a thing to inform you you’re now in control and many people’s first games of Another World – including mine – ended about four seconds after they started as Lester gets eaten by the tentacle monster. Two screens later there are some harmless-looking slugs. I would be prepared to bet money that literally everyone who has played Another World has been killed by these slugs, since despite their appearance walking past them means instant death. There is no way to know this in advance and the only way to find out is to be killed by them.
That’s Another World’s gameplay in a nutshell – trial and error, trial and error and desperately trying to find a way past the next obstacle that won’t kill you. And there are a lot of obstacles. If it’s not the slugs it’ll be the alien big cat. If not him, then the alien guards. If not them, then falling to your death in the vents. If not that, then the ceiling monsters in the caves. If not them, then being crushed by falling rocks. You will die hundreds of times while playing Another World, and I think that if you stripped it out of its atmospheric packaging and viewed it objectively Another World is actually a very bad game since this is completely intentional. It’s a game which builds player death into its core structure. Some puzzles are so obtuse that you cannot possibly solve them without the information you gain from doing them wrong and then subsequently dying, and I’m not a big fan of forcing a player to fail repeatedly in order to eventually progress. Yet without this incredibly unforgiving – in fact, downright sadistic – game design I don’t think Another World would work. Not having any information about where you are or what you’re supposed to be doing is core to the game’s unique nature. No other game has nailed the feeling of being trapped in a lethal alien environment in the way that Another World does, and it wouldn’t be lethal or alien if the game spoon-fed you exposition and told you how to avoid monsters in advance.
The game does find ways to non-verbally communicate some information, though. When Lester is captured by the guards at the start of the game he is stuck in a cage with another alien prisoner. When Lester escapes the prisoner comes with him, and Lester and the prisoner helping each other out becomes a central feature of the game. When they get separated the prisoner’s progress is visible in the background, both as a hint as to what you should be doing next and also as the game’s sole reassuring element. When they meet back up they work together to escape, saving each other several times. It’s an important game feature, as otherwise I think Another World would be a little too bleak and oppressive, and I think it’s also a fairly elegant way of providing suspense (Lester is trapped by guards with no way out!), escape (Lester is suddenly pulled through a ceiling hatch to safety), and camaraderie (Lester and the prisoner take a moment, and then climb into a giant alien battle tank to kill some fools) in one neat package. Lester might be stuck on an alien planet where nearly everything wants him dead and no way home, but at least he’s made a friend, for all that they can’t actually understand one another.
(Another World also makes excellent use of its graphical capabilities to break up the exploring and dying with the odd action scene packed full of detail. Occasionally you’ll be thrust from gloomy corridors or dank caves into brightly-lit, beautiful spaces like the alien harem – but as ever in Another World, dallying to look around will invariably prove fatal. Still, these glimpses of colour do much to give some sense of life to a world that otherwise seems by turns ossified and incredibly hostile.)
At the end of the day I think Another World is an interesting argument for player agency in games. The game is difficult because it doesn’t tell you anything, but by equal measure anything the player achieves they’ve managed through their own efforts and not by travelling to a waypoint and running through a bullet-pointed checklist of quest conditions. In a modern game you’re supposed to get to the end. It’s an inevitable result of playing the thing. In Another World that’ll only come through much expenditure of blood, sweat and tears. It’s a genuine challenge. Yes, it can be immensely frustrating to die repeatedly, but what’s the point in doing something where success is guaranteed? The more a player feels like they’re in control and that the game is responding to them, the more rewarding finishing it will be. By removing the crutches we’ve become so used to in the way that Another World does, the player’s actions become the sole determinant as to the outcome of the game — and so when you complete Another World you get a tremendous feeling of accomplishment that I feel is absent from games these days. Some of the puzzles are genuinely awful – watching them today they remind me of LIMBO in the way they’re structured, and I hated that game1 – but I wouldn’t change Another World’s unforgiving nature for the world. It’s what makes the thing so memorable in the first place.
- Thinking about it LIMBO is similarly unforgiving, but it’s far more dickish than Another World. In Another World the puzzles are challenges to be overcome. In LIMBO they felt like obstacles deliberately placed in the player’s path by the developer for no other reason than that they hate you and want to see you die. ↩