Another World‘s opening cut scene shows an experiment gone awry, with my character being transported to another world, where I got dropped into a pool of water.

At which point I died.

On my next attempt, I moved out of the water; after a bit of trial and error, I killed the slugs on the next screen, but the lion on the screen after that killed me. Repeatedly, in fact. Eventually, I decided that fighting wasn’t going to work, and moving forward wasn’t going to work; a process of elimination suggested that I should try moving back, which allowed me to get away from the lion using a handy vine.

Another World looks like an action game; it may be more of a puzzle game (in the text adventure tradition) than anything else, however. You have a limited set of options at any given moment; if you choose from them appropriately, you will advance, but doing so may require consciously avoiding the standard gameplay choices at any given moment.

Soon, I got captured, and escaped with a fellow prisoner. My combat options increased when I acquired a gun, as did the range of environmental possibilities; in particular, I soon ended up in a cage with a few branching possibilities. Going up didn’t seem right just yet; releasing the water looked promising, but shut off the possibility of going further down. So I went further down, destroyed a wall that, I assumed, would be relevant later, then backtracked, released the water, and headed up top. The changing checkpoint codes as I died along the way reinforced my belief that this was the right sequence of action.

Another World and Abe’s Oddysee have a lot in common. Both are platformers built up out of distinct screens; both use large sprites to further constrain the range of options; in both, you die a lot, but the puzzles are generally fair and frequently checkpointed.

My reactions to the two games are quite different, however. Abe’s got me actively angry; Another World was quietly wonderful. I think this is largely due to the tone: to me, Another World felt melancholy, while Abe’s had a certain offhand cruelty, a cruelty that extended out of the in-game scenario to the way that the game treated the player.

As I moved on, the game continued to discard tactics that I had mastered, and wove together new possibilities out of the same set of ingredients. I was proud of myself for noticing, in the palace, that one of the guards will raise his hands and hit a switch, lowering a door which enables you to change the outcome of a subsequent battle. But I was unhappy that, after I mastered that subsequent battle, I was apparently completely stuck.

Eventually, I resorted to a walkthrough, which told me that had to let a grenade (or, apparently, four grenades?) go through to blast a hole in the floor. I felt that two new ideas in the same checkpoint was a bit unfair, and several other VGC participants also got stuck there; still, if that’s the most unfair the game gets in terms of puzzle solving, then it’s a very fair game overall.

Jesse Schell defines a puzzle as “a game with a dominant strategy”, with the implication that “puzzles are just games that aren’t fun to replay”. Which Another World takes to its heart to a remarkable extent; I’m so used to games that are filled with repetitive combat for its own sake that it’s very refreshing to see a game that refines or discards mechanics as soon as you’ve proven that you’ve mastered them. This results in a quite short game, but I don’t mind that at all; instead, I wish more game designers had the courage to strip out padding, had the vision to be able to see padding in the first place.

By this point, I was almost done with the game. It threw a completely new mechanic in at the Arena, then had one last firefight; that firefight turned into a capstone experience, where the skills that I had developed earlier (especially in the area where I got stuck, ironically), after a bit of further polish, allowed me to reliably finish the firefight first slowly then quickly. Which led to a final confrontation where, instead of a traditional boss fight, you crawl painfully across the floor, with legs apparently broken. And then you and your companion escape, perhaps to freedom.

One of the arguments we had (well, I had!) on the VGC forums was to what extent the game was minimalist. I eventually decided that I didn’t know what the term “minimalist” meant, so I don’t have an opinion on that subject, but there are some related concepts that the game does touch on.

In terms of its gameplay construction, it is spare with the concepts that it allows, while being systematic with the ways in which it combines those concepts. And the gameplay itself carries the story forward, with very few cut scenes after the game gives you control initially.

Its visual style is rough and sparse, but with a strong aesthetic that still holds up well in today’s high-polygon-count world. It gives me a certain wabi-sabi feel (if I understand that term right, which I probably don’t!), with its transience and roughness.

But the game also fights against that wabi-sabi feel in one important way: while you are lonely in that you are stranded on a strange world, with only one companion whom you can’t talk to and who isn’t with you for much of the game, you’re never actually alone. Instead, the game moves you directly from struggle to struggle, sometimes environmental but usually struggling against actual living enemies.

Looking at that tension through the lens of my favorite analytical categories, some properties that might be relevant are Positive Space, Roughness, The Void, and Simplicity and Inner Calm. The game does well in terms of Roughness and Simplicity. (I’ll have to think more about the Inner Calm half of that last one.) And, on a geometric level design sense, there is quite a bit of Positive Space.

But on a more conceptual level, the Positive Space is missing, and there’s no sense of The Void. You’re constantly forced to interact with the game, and usually with living enemies within the game: it throws one puzzle after another at you, you’re never actively invited to rest, and the spaces between puzzles rarely invite contemplation.

Ueda is frequently cited as a designer who is influenced by Another World. And if my memories serve me well, Ico has somewhat of the same problem: the game world is wonderful, but far too often in it, if you stop to drink in the world, you’ll find yourself getting attacked. It wasn’t until Shadow of the Colossus that Ueda really broke away from this, with a recognition that this combination of exquisitely crafted puzzles together with magnificently desolate environments is best served by leaving huge amounts of space between those puzzles, letting the player disengage from the puzzles and letting the nature of the environments seep into the gameplay.

I haven’t done my usual gathering of links for Another World, but I certainly recommend the discussion of the game at the Vintage Game Club.

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