Video games have a long history of feeling embarrassed about being video games and attempting to cannibalize other entertainment genres in the hope of seeming like the kind of entertainment product that gets its own BBC 2 mini-series. Usually the thing they try and cannibalize most is cinema, and over the long tedious years a whole host of games have attempted to claim the moniker of interactive movie. This tends to be strictly a one-way process, whilst any number of movies have been adapted from videogames, so far they have eschewed any attempt to make going to the cinema more interactive. This is a shame since the one thing that might have saved Transformers 3 would be the ability to shoot Shia LaBeouf with a high pressure piss cannon every time he tried to make out that his life of super models, fast cars and giant robots was anything other than completely awesome.
The biggest problem with attempting to borrow the conventions of cinema for videogames is simply that it doesn’t make any sense. Despite superficial visual similarities these are completely different things. Combining cinema with videogames is like combining football with ballet on the basis that they both involve highly physically skilled people running about the place and therefore a combination of the two would lend football the artistic credibility it obviously needs. For the analogy to be truly accurate of course the ballet elements would have to be overseen by Sir Alex Ferguson and Wayne Rooney since most games resolutely fail to contract out the artistic sides of their vision to actual people in the fields they are aiming to imitate. This is not to say that narrative and videogames are irreconcilable but rather that good videogames embed their narrative in the act of playing the bloody game in much the same that the narrative of a football match emerges from the game itself rather than being imposed by an external controller.
Another World (or Out of this World if you weren’t European enough to play the proper version) was one of those Amiga games that tried to be as much about imagery and imersive experience as it was about being a game. What this means in practice is that it looks very pretty but the game element is badly broken. The graphics and the feel have aged astonishingly well, the minimalist polygons infusing character through meticulously detailed motion and the clever use of a limited colour palette. The game effectively tells the simple story of a man sucked through a portal to an alien planet which then tries to kill him in enough different ways to start a new horror movie franchise and see it through the first three or four films.
There are actually very few cut scenes in Another World and those that there are tend to be extremely short, meaning that most of the time the story is driven by the players actions. This is obviously good. Unfortunately, thanks to the linear nature of the story the actions are intensely prescriptive. Get it wrong and you’ll die, immediately, and have to start the sequence of actions again. What you are ultimately presented with is a cross between a platform game and Groundhog Day. You’ll spend what feels like days kicking leeches, what feels like months running from one side of the screen to the other and possibility a subjective eternity trying to find the on switch for an alien tank before the bad guys blow the shit out of it. Along the way you’ll probably forget the overarching structure of the narrative because nothing helps eliminate the link between plot points A and C like spending forty five minutes repeatedly going over plot point B as if you’re getting rehearsing for some terrifyingly perfectionist school panto. Alternatively, if you’re some kind of video game ninja then you’ll be left with the impression that Another World finishes before it really gets going since, divested of all the repetition, the whole game doesn’t take that long to play through.
There are some nice puzzles along the way which demonstrate that narrative can be a cool framing device for puzzles, especially since the narrative so far can also help suggest solutions. There’s some pretty impressive action sequences too but crucially I can’t help feeling like I’d have enjoyed the game more if they’d spent more time on the puzzles and the action sequences. There seems to be an inescapable trade off between gameplay and narrative and its extremely rare to find a game that manages to hit any sort of sweet spot. The games that I recall really managing to do both have either been roleplaying games (which don’t count because all the hard work was done by the designers of Dungeons and Dragons) or games which stick to an already established gameplay style and then use narrative to provide a fun twist and differentiate themselves (games like Def Jam Vendetta, Metroid and Mario Golf Advance).
Another World remains an interesting curio, especially now its been released for iOS. Its worth a look simply to see a serious, albeit badly flawed attempt, to marry up cinematic techniques and actual gameplay using hardware that wasn’t really up to the task. Despite its manifold shortcomings, it’s still a beautiful game and manages to convey a real sense of being trapped in an alien and hostile world that is trying to kill you, and will frequent succeed in this aim. As a piece of gaming history it is fascinating, as a game you can still enjoy in 2011 it’s much less successful, like one of those people you meet at a party who tries just a bit to hard to impress you and ends up drunkenly dry humping your leg at 3 a.m. and demanding that you love them.