Another World creator on improvisational design

GDC 2011: Designer Eric Chahi recaps the off-the-cuff development of his classic platforming puzzle game (Out of This World in the US), confirms iPad adaptation on the way.

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Who was there: Ubisoft designer Eric Chahi, creator of the PC platformer puzzle game Another World (released in North America as Out of This World).

What they talked about: The GDC series of classic game postmortems continued Thursday with a lineup of talks scheduled to recap development of a number of influential greats, including Doom, Marble Madness, and Bejeweled. Chahi kicked the lineup off bright and early with a 9 a.m. dissection of his own classic game, the rotoscoped platformer Another World.

Another World used background elements to assist in storytelling.
Another World used background elements to assist in storytelling.

Chahi opened his talk explaining what an honor it was for him to be able to speak at the show, saying he never expected when the game was released 20 years ago that it would still be remembered and respected today. Chahi said that in the intervening years he has realized a few things about the development of Another World, drawing parallels between it and improvisational theater, where actors express themselves openly, but still within a set of guidelines and restraints.

In July of 1989, Chahi was a 22-year-old caught up in the Amiga era and still living at his parents' house. He'd been creating games since 1983, with development time ranging from three weeks to six months. However, none of his previous titles had been particularly successful. Dragon's Lair had just been released on the Amiga, and Chahi was inspired by the game's visuals. Rather than making a full motion video game, he decided to try to make a game with polygons, which could cover large swaths of the screen with relatively little memory usage, unlike the traditional bitmaps used in previous titles.

The idea was nice, but Chahi said there was a crucial question as to whether or not it was possible to draw polygons at a fast enough speed. He hadn't coded anything for two years, he said, and his last experience was "a disaster." Undaunted, he jumped into the coding in August of 1989 with the constraint that the game's visuals would be polygons, and only polygons.

"It was like a dogma," Chahi said. "I was sure polygons were the greatest thing in the world. I was obsessed."

Next Chahi talked about "pixigons," polygons the size of a pixel. When he first started on the graphics, he started using tiny polygons to detail background instead of pixels, but found the process too time-consuming. Eventually, he said he was forced to include about 10 bitmap backgrounds in the game for time's sake.

The goal for Another World was to create a game with a cinematic, science fiction feeling, Chahi said, but not so much of a story. It wasn't the story side of a cinematic experience he was interested in so much as the rhythm and feeling.

To give the game its distinctive look, Chahi wrote his own programming language with elements of BASIC and assembly language. There were limitations to his work, however. It didn't support commenting, so he had to take extensive notes on paper about every variable in the code as a reference tool. While it wasn't elegant, Chahi said it worked well enough, adding he still has the notes to this day.

By December of 1989, the tools were finished. Unfortunately, Chahi quickly realized there was a problem with his design. There was no common data between levels, so if he made a change to the model of the main character Lester, he would have to do it five different times for the game's five different levels.

Although much was made of the game's rotoscoped graphics--polygonal animations based on live-action video--Chahi said only six scenes in the game used the technique. While those scenes worked well, Chahi said the best results usually came from hand-drawn animations.

When creating the game, Chahi said his focus was on surprising the player and tinkering with the game's pacing. While players wanted to play with the game, Chahi said he wanted to play with their expectations instead. For example, when Lester is first transported to the strange world of the game, Chahi thought it would be surprising if the player materialized underwater instead of on ground. That thought led to one of the game's iconic moments, with Lester climbing out of a pool as a shadowy beast observes from atop a cliff in the background.

The game's color palette was another challenge, as Chahi said he could use only 16 colors. That meant every color needed to have multiple uses. The color of Lester's skin was the same as sunlight reflected on a rock. And while it would have been easy to give Lester black hair, Chahi said he didn't want the character to appear too much like himself. It was too disturbing to see someone that looked like himself fall prey to the dangers of the world, Chahi joked.

While a 2D game limits gameplay to a single plane, Chahi said it makes it easier to use "parallel action," with bits in the background becoming real for the player. As an example, he pointed again to the shadowy beast in the background of the first level. As players move from left to right in the level through a number of screens, the pacing is fairly slow. However, when the beast appears in front of them in the foreground, the game instantly becomes a frantic chase away from the beast.

The first level ends with a mysterious figure killing the beast and knocking out Lester. Chahi said he made the appearance a cliff-hanger for players, but also for himself. He didn't know who the character was when he designed the level. It was only later that Chahi considered giving Lester a friend to break out of jail.

The player also gets a weapon in the second level, a laser pistol that can be used not just as an offensive weapon, but also to create barriers as protection against enemy shots. That also led to the plasma ball, which was an extra bit of weaponry that lets the player use charged-up shots that could destroy enemy shields, doors, or thin walls. In retrospect, Chahi said it was a nice way to give the player multiple strategies to deal with enemies.

Chahi also talked about the teleporter, a machine that had the player blur through ceilings to get from one floor to another. Beyond the science-fiction aspect, Chahi said he used the mechanic because it was too difficult to animate Lester going up or down stairs.

One of Another World's key themes came about as a result of Chahi's improvisational approach to the story and design. He never intended to make a game about the friendship between two outsiders, but it evolved naturally into just that. His focus on puzzles, specifically sequences built around Lester and the friend helping each other around obstacles, organically led to the theme emerging from the gameplay.

With the game shaping up, Chahi said it was time to find a publisher. He spoke with Virgin Games, who told him the game had to be less difficult. Specifically, they suggested making it a point-and-click game. Chahi said he was almost convinced, but eventually decided to stick with his original vision, and found Delphine Software to partner with him.

"I like point-and-click," Chahi said. "However, I don't like doing things twice. To convert it would have been too huge."

Chahi also talked about the game's cover art. Throughout his career, Chahi said the cover art of his games had been a major issue, and often a disappointment. Previously, publishers had forced particularly bad cover art on his games. For Another World, he didn't want to miss the opportunity to do it himself. And while Delphine was fine with allowing him that leeway, Chahi said it was difficult because he was already under severe time constraints just to finish the game.

One of the big problems leading up to release was a lack of play-testing. Delphine didn't do much play-testing at the time, and while Chahi said he fixed some major issues, there were parts that were severely unbalanced. Later, the game's US publisher Interplay would help smooth out those spikes, but they also asked Chahi to create new content that he said ultimately made the game more difficult. There was also an issue with the music for the console ports, as Chahi said Interplay wanted to swap out the music.

The two fired faxes back and forth arguing the issue to no progress, until Chahi tried a different tactic: the infinite fax. The "infinite fax" was a long sheet of paper with the bottom taped to the top to form a loop through the fax machine. On the paper was written, "Keep the original music." Chahi sent the infinite fax in the middle of the night (Interplay's time), so they arrived in the morning to an unmistakable message.

"This didn't help," Chahi said.

There was also an issue with a scene showing three naked aliens sitting down from behind, with a slightly pixilated backside crack causing consternation at Interplay. Although Chahi considered sending another infinite fax, he relented, removing the three pixels at issue to suggest a bathing suit of sorts.

As a surprise for the game's 20th anniversary, Chahi announced that it would be ported to the iPad, and he briefly showed a prototype to the crowd.

Chahi was asked by a member of the audience about the game's sequel, Heart of the Alien. He said he had a very brief involvement in the title, but was busy with Heart of Darkness at the time, so he remained distant from the sequel's development.

The question of whether or not games are art was also raised, which caused Chahi to smirk.

"I don't have the impression that it's that important," Chahi said. "I'm more focused on creation. I don't have that much to say about it."

Quote: "The flourishing of ideas is as important as the ideas themselves."

Takeaway: Chahi started making Another World before he knew how it would end. While that approach has its problems, he said it's important for designers to be able to keep experimenting. It's actually more dangerous to set things in stone from the outset and be inflexible in one's game design.

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