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Dispatches: Another World, Part One; Or: The Discrete Charm of the Cinematic Platformer

Of all the genres I miss rather sorely in the years since 3D gaming’s advent pretty much rendered 2D sidescrollers obsolete in the habits of most of the mainstream public, I think I might be most nostalgic and genuinely wistful for the Cinematic Platformer, that particular little mechanical meme which brought us such classics as the original Prince of Persia and the early Oddworld games. One game I used to rent for the SNES, but never get very far in, was the 1991 French game Another World (Or, as it was released here, Out of this World) created by Eric Chahi. Mixing many of the same mechanics that Jordan Mechner used in his pioneering PoP, though in a science-fiction setting, Chahi created one of the most visually arresting and mechanically impressive games of the early 90′s, and it’s a shame that it’s more or less dropped out of sight since then. A while back I posted a link to Chahi’s website, where he made a new updated version of the game available for a relatively inexpensive download, and all this time I’ve been planning to do a write-up once I’d finally finished it. I haven’t quite done that yet, but I have made it considerably further than I used to when I rented it in my elementary school days. One thing I’ll say about this game, in relation to God of War– both have a lot of traps the player can fall into, but in the case of Another World, none of them seem cheap.

By traps, by the way, I’m not talking about the ordinary, garden-variety pitfalls we normally think of in the context of adventure games, where one-wrong step means instant death. True, death is usually one of the tools used in these traps, but it is by no means the actual consequence of the design itself. Instead, the real hazard in adventure-traps is lack of progress– reaching that point in a game you can never get past, no matter how hard you try to out think or outperform the game. What bothered me about so much of God of War was the frustration of knowing what I had to do, yet not always finding myself up to the task of actually doing it (curse you, David Jaffe, and your infernal jumping puzzles!) while here in Another World I discover the opposite to this dillema, being able to do pretty much anything the game asks of me but remaining completely baffled by what it is they are asking me to do in the first place. In other words, the challenge of GoW is in performance, while AW‘s lies in planning.

That’s not to say there aren’t frustrating moments in which the gameplay isn’t quite balanced enough– right now I’m finding myself at an impasse, blocked by a couple of strong-armed aliens in which the only way past, it seems, is incredibly quick timing at the keyboard, which isn’t what the majority of this game is geared for. Rather, almost all of this game knows what it’s doing and does it well– it presents you with opportunities for lateral thinking, applying imaginative solutions to oblique problems which can only be passed with the incredibly minimal tools the player has at their disposal. Just as in Prince of Persia it’s a good while before you find a weapon, but until that you have a remarkable range of physical motions with which to interact with your surroundings. Most of the game’s challenges can be breached by exploring the game’s environment and dying as many times as possible, discovering the capabilities of your avatar naturally and figuring out precisely how those capabilities can be used to get around different dangers.

A good example of this is in the opening gameplay, which can be downloaded for free in the demo. First, Chahi doesn’t give you any indication that gameplay has actually begun, and at first it’s sort of taken for granted that you’re going to die at least once before you learn to press ‘UP’ to start swimming and keep from drowning after you’ve been zapped from the comfy confines of your sports-car, underground bunker and experimental lair into an underwater pit in another dimension, far beyond the stars. After that there’s a number of deadly creatures both large and small, which you can only learn how to avoid after you’ve been killed a few times. Set-pieces are very satisfyingly crafted as well, as you’ll often run through surroundings, discovering little meaningless interactions along the way, only to have to run through them again and find those interactions the only thing saving you from certain destruction time and time again. Level design is very nicely polished, allowing each challenge to become more and more difficult when approached from different angles– the content of the map might stay the same, but the direction you come from can change everything. The fact that such open-ended lay-out works so well in a 2D environment is refreshing, though by no means surprising (Gunpei Yokoi proved himself quite adept at this with Metroid, after all).

At this moment, I’ve only just now figured out how to get past one of the areas that’d been troubling me for the better part of a few months, and even then I’m not quite sure it really leads anywhere else than a dead-end. That’s another refreshing thing about Chahi– he isn’t afraid to give you creative, meaningful design that takes you absolutely nowhere. Most of this game has been built on progress made through the oblique puzzles I’ve briefly described above, but there’s still so many directions in this game which demand attentive, creative play and don’t grant you any progress at all– Red Herring routes like these can be frustrating, but in their own way they’re rather fair. Finding dead-end wouldn’t really mean anything if it weren’t built with the same challenges along the way that actual paths were, after all. Most of the time you can kind of piece together which direction you’re supposed to head in based on which route offers the more interesting lead-in actions, but even then those lead-ins can easily sucker you into a lot of wasted time. Chahi’s found a nice way to work against the player, here, tricking them into assuming their creative intuition will naturally win the game. In comparatively linear titles like Ico and God of War, much of the puzzle-solving is based on trusting the maze, that every path will eventually lead somewhere meaningful. Another World shows that this isn’t always the case, and that the only thing the player can rely upon is themselves, especially the ability and willingness to discern when they’re wrong and correct themselves.

Someone once said that the coward dies a thousand deaths, while he hero dies but once– games like AW demonstrate the value of games in allowing us to be somewhat cowardly for a little while, gifting us with circumstances in which we may fail and fail again in order to learn how to succeed. In this and other cinematic platformers (a genre I plan to seriously return to, with a gusto), there’s more of an emphasis on this system of design which encourages multiple attempts which feels so much more helpful and tolerant than the current sticklerish approach of rather judgmentally rendered games– Chahi doesn’t ask you if you’d like to switch to easy mode, because there isn’t a distinction in his games. Granted, once I’ve finished Another World it won’t have nearly the same amount of replay value because its emphasis is on the planning rather than performance– once you’ve figured out what to do and how to do it, actually doing it isn’t always that much fun. I’ll keep slogging on through this, however, and hope that it retains the inviting atmosphere which keeps me coming back to Ueda’s work, seeing as his games, especially Shadow of the Colossus, appear to be greatly influenced by Chahi.

Until then, pleasant dreamers, keep your eyes peeled for beings from another world, and make sure to watch the skies…

4 Comments

  1. Charles wrote:

    Another world is part of this genre that I’m always really into while I’m playing it, and then quickly forget afterwards. Abe’s Oddysee is still one of my favorite games and I often describe Ico (which everyone knows my fondness for) as a 3D version of Prince of Persia. I’ve always wondered why they were called ‘cinematic platformers’. What, exactly, is so cinematic about them? Because they’re slow?

    Friday, June 1, 2007 at 8:04 pm | Permalink
  2. Bob wrote:

    I would assume it’s part of the hindsight which motivates critics aiming to descrive quality titles in a newer medium with estimations of pedigree modeled after older, more culturally accepted media. Think of how the terms “painterly,” “theatrical,” “operatic,” “literary,” “novelistic,” “poetic” and “sculpterly,” alongside “cinematic” and many others, have been used to describe works in media which have little or nothing to do with that they’re describing. Commentators apply these words to elevate the position of the piece they’re reviewing by describing it in terms more similar to works which belong to categories that are already, themselves, in an elevated position of societal appreciation– It’s not just a comic book– it’s a graphic novel! It’s not just a film with excellent acting and cinematography– it’s a motion picture with theatrical performances and painterly compositions! It’s not just a television show featuring melodramatic storylines and sentimentally constructed characters– it’s a soap-opera!

    Just in that same sense, one might argue that all of these games aren’t just side-scrollers– they’re cinematic platformers, whatever that means.

    So, yeah, the term is an incredibly shallow, phony name when you get right down to it. However, it’s the one that sticks, so if you want to talk about the genre which “Another World,” “Prince of Persia” and “Abe’s Oddysee” all belong to, then “cinematic platformer” is the best you can do. Still, even I’m not pretentious enough to consider that title, or any other, as anything other than bourgeois bullshit (though I do think the term “space-opera” is pretty cool…).

    Friday, June 1, 2007 at 8:32 pm | Permalink
  3. Charles wrote:

    How about ‘side-scrolling adventure’..?

    Friday, June 1, 2007 at 8:42 pm | Permalink
  4. Bob wrote:

    Okay, you do realize I was agreeing with you, right? It’s the snooty, video-game equivalent of describing something as an “art film.” If you want a bright side, think about this– we don’t have any special names to call “Ico” or “Shadow of the Colossus,” do we? We’ve moved past calling good games by pretentious monikers. At least that’s what I hope.

    Friday, June 1, 2007 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

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