Cheese talks to: Éric Chahi (about Another World)

Earlier this year, hot on the heels of my first Another World article, I had the opportunity to speak with the game's creator Éric Chahi about Another World, its inception, and its legacy.

As with any notable work that has been around for a quarter of a century, there is already a huge amount of discourse surrounding Another World. I hope that by covering a mix of technical, personal and trivia topics, this interview will contribute something new and interesting.

To begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background in game development?

I started to create computer games in 1983 on the Oric 1, an 8bit computer with 48k of RAM. I had been impassioned by arcade games for a long time. I was fifteen. The discovery of personal computers was a revelation - that it was possible to create game at home, and also the discovery that there were many other kinds of games than pure arcade. So I was still at school, when my first game was published in 1983. After creating 5 games, in 1987 I decided to become a professional and live from it.

How would you describe Another World to someone who has never heard of it?

A paced SF action-adventure game about friendship, solitude and surviving on an alien hostile world.

How would you compare the reception that Another World had in the 90s to the reception that it has had within the past 10 years?

In the 90's Another World was a big departure from contemporary games - no score, no lives, a cinematographic style, story with no dialog. Now it is seen as classic because of this and but especially because of the overall narrative experience that left a lot space for player imagination.

How well do you feel Another World has aged over the past two decades? Which aspects do you feel stand up well against modern games and which aspects do you feel are dated?

I've always been frustrated by players being stuck in the game, and then giving up. It happens to many games, and Another World is a difficult one. On that point it has aged. It demands a lot of effort. But where the game really shines is in rhythm and pacing. It is a rare game where there is this fluent rhythm, with flow and rupture[1] in the gameplay. Like music. It plays with narrative punctuation, parallel narration with no obstruction of player activity.

What were your motivations to revisit Another World for the anniversary editions?

With time I realized how much Another World has been something special for me and for some players. I thought it was interesting to make the game available for new platforms in pure respect of the original game. Increase the resolution and keep the original ambiance and almost no change to the gameplay.

What influences did you draw upon for the game's distinctive visual style, and how did you find the experience of returning to that for the anniversary editions?

Mainly science fiction or fantasy art. Illustrator, like Michael Whelan, Frazetta, Chris Foss. Comics from Richard Corben like Den, I really love the raw force of his universe. The polish painter Beksinski had a strong impact on me too. Flemish painter like Vermeer or Rembrandt.

Revisiting Another World was very introspective because I used the original Amiga tools to enhance it. I used the WinUAE emulator so I can use all code and programs I backed up years ago. I run the same GFA basic code and the same game engine developed in assembly 68000 in 1989. With my homemade scripting tool I changed the original script to tweak the game, add checkpoints, add difficulty settings, and add calls for enhanced bitmap backgrounds that were drawn with Photoshop. That was not always easy to change because some obvious functionality was lacking. That sounds crazy but for example there were no comments in the scripts, but each line can have a named label and I used it widely to give clues about what the code is for. The worst were variables, they were named from 0 to 255. Hopefully I described on paper these variables during the initial development, so for example I can know that variable 2 was vertical coordinate for Lester. Aside from this, the game system was very minimalist, having a small block of logic that allows a lot of possibility, and its simplicity can be still inspiring.

Did Another World's plot have any influences, or was it entirely emergent from your "improvisational" approach to development?

I have been strongly influenced by movies, but it was more about some elements like laser guns in Star Wars, or in Akira Toryama's Dragon Ball manga, the kamehameha energy ball and the fast motion suggested by thin lines. At the time, I was also influenced by reading Dune and Hyperion. But for the plot I don't see a specific influence, except maybe the lion creature in Den 2 from Richard Corben, and also some life experience. For example, walking hours under the rain with 15kg bag on my back to find a place to sleep and deciding to go in an hotel instead of sleeping outdoors. A dry and warm place. Contrast, learning about pacing and rhythm.

You have spoken[2] of parallels between your own journey through development and Lester's journey through the game. From that perspective, if you made Another World today, in what ways do you think it would be different?

This question is very hard to answer. If I were to do "Another World" today, it would be more based on simulation. Exotic life simulation with rules that the player has to discover and learn to survive, interaction between species. Mainly because emergent system are fascinating.

In the Amiga and Atari versions of the game, the third screen included a non-aggressive crab-like creature. What purpose did this animal serve and do you feel that its removal from subsequent versions of the game enhances or detracts from them?

Initially this animal was suppose to fly and attack the player once kicked. But I was not happy of the death cut scene showing this bug. Finally because it was unfinished and was lacking of interaction, I removed it for the console version. Since then it has stayed like this.

In the arena, there is an alien character in the background who holds a sword aloft throughout that entire scene[3]. What is the story behind this character's presence in the game?

That is for the ambiance to show the barbarism of the place. To make clear it is an arena where people's death is a show for others.

Lester's companion's line when escaping is often quoted by fans[4]. What is its correct spelling and pronunciation?

"Matsuba" is the way I write it. The funny thing is that in Japanese it has a meaning: Pine needle!

Another World is now on over 25 platforms, most recently Linux. When you wrote the game's engine, did you imagine that it would spread to so many?

The engine was designed to be easily portable to other platforms. On my previous 8bit games I realized it was very limiting to create a game for a computer's native CPU language or OS. So for my return to programming, I changed philosophy. The idea was to minimizing dependency with all the gameplay done in simple script language. I planned this for 3 platforms at the time, Amiga, Atari and PC. But I didn't think it would be used on so many platforms.

Alongside the engine, you wrote your own polygon editor and animation tools. What challenges did you face in coming up with a usable utility to create a style of art that was not common in games at the time?

The chance was GFA Basic. This allowed me to avoid using the C language. I had very bad experience with C in the 80's because of the compiling poorness on Atari ST. No way to know what makes a crash, need to reboot the all system... So with GFA basic that was paradise. No compilation, a well structured code with functions and local variables, and the ability to call assembly code. Without GFA I couldn't have made the editor. In only 3 month the editor was finished. Crazy isn't it?

If the opportunity arose to make a sequel to Another World in your own vision, whether that be your original vision for Heart of the Alien or some other plot, would you take that opportunity?

Not until I have the desire. Today I prefer explore new fields.

Do you think we will be likely to see another Éric Chahi designed game in the future?

Sure! That is my next goal. Earlier this year, I finished a highly realistic realtime volcano simulation, working with François Sahy. It has been a one year project working with GPU computation to achieve this procedural simulation. It can be seen at the Volcanic Museum of piton de la fournaise, on Reunion Island.

And finally, What is your favourite game?

I don't know, it is always changing with time. Creating interactive stuff is a challenging game by itself indeed!

Thank you so much your time Éric, and best of luck with your future projects!

If you found this interview interesting, you may also appreciate my previous article on Another World, or be interested in the currently running crowdfunding campaign to publish an English translation of Éric Chahi's biography, Welcome To Another World.

A note from cheese

A note from Cheese

Thanks for reading!

The bulk of this interview was conducted at the beginning of 2015, with the expectation that I would publish it as part of my upcoming article on the impact Another World has had on players. It was my hope that publishing players' thoughts alongside Éric's own would would be a pleasant surprise/reward for contributors. However, research has taken longer than I had anticipated, and publishing this interview now feels more appropriate.

[1] In French, "rupture" also carries a meaning of an "interruption" or "break", in this context, speaking to the game's use of consciously placed gameplay shifts to help accentuate a sense of pacing.

[2] In the 15th anniversary "Making of" documentary, Éric speaks about his own experiences with development being reflected in the game: "It's true that there is a parallel with Lester's adventure, this character who is left on his own. He's on his own in a universe that is entirely unknown to him. There's a bit of a parallel with the creation of the game. Somewhere inside of me I had a feeling of loneliness. I unconsciously put it into the game. The extraterrestrial friend only increases this loneliness."

[3] I had a very different interpretation of this moment in the game, which inspired this piece of fan art.

[4] The comparatively low fidelity audio sampling and rendering hardware of the early 90s allowed a lot of room for interpretation. In particular, "mycaruba" (or "Mike Aruba") has been popularised by Game Grumps' 4 episode playthrough of Another World, which prompted a video response from Eric recorded at the Toulouse Game Show in 2013.

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This interview was first published on the 11th of November 2015.