Sunday, July 15, 2012

Stranger in a Strange Land

 Video games, more so than other forms of entertainment media, tend to take place in outlandish places with wholly fictional characters and creatures.  While this is part of the appeal it can also be a weakness.  At the start of any given fantasy/sci-fi/steampunk alternate reality what do you do to bring the players into the universe?  Well, there are some obvious techniques such as a text crawl, introductory cut-scene or expository narration.  All of which have become a bit tedious.  So, what other options are there?  In media res works, but it can be very difficult to pull off if the setting is complex.  Another way offering less risk with regards to an audience disconnect is the main character transporting from our world to a realm far removed from our own.  Several prominent titles that make use of this plot device are Half-Life, The Dig and Mario Brothers.  However, there is one game that really stands out as the pinnacle of this trope, Another World (also known as Out of this World).

This game is the product of one mind, Eric Chahi and it shows.  The singular vision of the designer is pervasive in a way that is rarely seen in this modern age of 100+ member design teams.  It's also incredibly hard.  You can literally start the game and die within seconds provided you don't react to what's happening on screen.  Actually, chances are you'll die many times in the opening area even if you do try to react to what is happening.  A lion-creature, poison-fanged slugs and some kind of underwater horror with long black tentacles are all out to kill you.  Even if you manage to avoid falling prey to all those threats your poor character still gets knocked out by a blast from a energy rifle.

 All this brings us to an interesting question.  Where the hell is this? Our main character was brought here by a particle physics experiment gone wrong, but looking at the two nearby orbital bodies in the sky this definitely isn't Earth.  The city where all but the first level takes place appears to be nestled in a claw shaped basin.  What kind of geological event could have created such a place?  Vaguely Persian looking towers aside could this entire place be an artificial construct?  The terrain surrounding the city looks very mountainous an inhospitable.  How do the inhabitants of this place get the basic supplies they need to survive?  There doesn't seem to be any agriculture or even plants.  In fact volcanic rock seems to be the only thing in abundance in this place.

And what of the pale humanoid aliens that live here?  Their culture conjures up images of Imperial Rome with it's single piece garments, slave labor, bloody gladiatorial games and opulent bath houses.  Incidentally, this picture to the right is the first thing we see when entering the final level and also gives us a glimpse of the only females present in the entire game.  Considering a swift kick to the groin is quite painful to one of the guards I guess we can assume certain parts of their anatomy is similar, if not identical to our own.  At the very least they have eyes, ears, mouth and a very flat nose.  Language barriers in the game prevent the player from learning much from his "buddy" who aids him throughout the game.  In fact the main character makes no attempt to communicate with anyone after a failed hand gesture of peace at the conclusion of the first level.

Technology is equally baffling.  The guards encountered throughout the game use energy pistols which vaporize all the skin off a living target once shot.  Worse yet the skeletal remains burst into fragments moments later even if left undisturbed.  A secondary function of the weapon is the ability to create a temporary protective force field by partially charging a gunshot.  Although a kind of rolling light-bomb weapon used by certain guards seems to be able to circumvent this.  There's also a tank with several kinds of weapons and countermeasures along with a rather impressive ejection system.  The alien race as a whole though seems too barbaric to have created all this.  Was it made before they fell into a state of harsh decline or were all these devices (which are far in advance of what we can make on Earth) in fact created by someone/something else? 

Lastly, we have some brief encounters with systems of transportation.  At the very least it appears that the aliens employ some kind of fast elevator device which can be quite deadly if not used correctly.  That said the final escape takes place on the back of a huge lizard with translucent wings.  If there is some kind of symbolism here it is lost on me.  Although the clouds (which are previously only seem in the first level ) seem to imply a sense of freedom or escape.  Then again they may only be serving as beginning and ending bookmarks for the story.  Even the main character's fate is never revealed.  A sequel entitled Heart of the Alien was made exclusively for the 3DO but since the original creator took no part in the design process it is difficult to say whether or not it can be consider canonical.

One thing is certain though.  Another World is a masterpiece of design.  An incredible amount of detail is left for the player to notice, analyze and extrapolate from, but none of it feels intrusive or forced.  The fact that I've written a huge post on this game is proof of this and what an obsessed freak I am.  Additionally, the game has been ported to fifteen different platforms over a period of 21 years!  If that isn't proof of a classic I don't know what is.  At the very least I hope to see more video game creativity of this caliber in my lifetime.  So, designers take note you could learn a lot from a trip to Another World.

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