If, like me, you are a desiccated old fossil of a human, limping from one day of bone-creaking agony to another, you’ll no doubt remember both the Commodore C64 and the Commodore Amiga. These were ostensibly some of the first widely available “personal computers” for the average human being, and as such they also inevitably spawned thriving gaming communities.
The Amiga in particular holds a special place in my heart. The games were relatively cheap, and I knew a lot of other kids who had Amigas. Not to mention the relative ease with which Amiga games could be copied, if you were so inclined. Ahem. Thus my friends and I found ourselves almost swallowed up by a tsunami of pixellated joy one summer. I think I may have gone without seeing natural light for a week at one point in that frenzied formative headrush of gaming.
After a while – and certainly in my head now – all the games tended to blur into one indistinguishable blob, punctuated by the occasional Guru Meditation Error and crash to Workbench. But there is one game in particular from that time that is nestled bullet-like in my hippocampus; one game that still makes me pause and savour the images flooding into my head, no matter what I’m doing.
That game was Another World. And it was designed by Eric Chahi.
Born in France, and thus making him French, Chahi started programming for software company Loriciels on the now totally forgotten Oric Atmos and Oric-1, which were made by Tangerine Computer Systems. Part of me likes to imagine that these two systems were excreted from the bowels of some terrible sentient mechanical fruit, and thrust still dripping into the hands of terrified gamers. Only a small part of me, though.
During that time, Chahi worked on games such as Frog, Doggy, Carnaval, Le Sceptre d’Anubis and other chilling reminders of gaming’s early history. Yet there were hints as to what was brewing in the mind of the teenage Frenchman.
The first true signs of Chahi’s signature style would be revealed with the release of Infernal Runner for the Amstrad CPC and C64 in 1985. Despite still only having rudimentary graphics by today’s standards, the game was a fairly intense affair epitomised in its dark visuals and tone, setting it aside from other platformers of the time.
Two years later, he had left Loriciels to take up a position at Chip, producing three titles in his time there: Danger Street, Voyage au Centre de la Terre and Jeanne d’Arc. However, it was his next place of employment that would allow Chahi to truly flex his creative muscles, though no one probably had any idea as to the extent of the flexing that would occur. In fact, had any more flexing taken place, it’s likely that Chahi would have snapped in two, like some kind of ghastly French man-pretzel.
Un Autre Monde
Joining Delphine Software International in 1989, the first game that Chahi would work on was Future Wars. The game told the story of a window cleaner, only identified throughout by the name “Hero” whenever the player moused-over the sprite. On a basic gameplay level, it was what we’d now call a point-and-click. You interacted with the game world by moving your mouse about, and squashing the buttons when you wanted to do stuff. It was also punishingly difficult and totally unforgiving of poor attention span on the part of the player. But it was the world in which the player existed that was the special part.
Future Wars was quite beautiful for its day. From the opening scenes where the player is suspended on a window cleaning platform on the side of a skyscraper with other buildings reflected in the glass, to the contrasting historical and future worlds that the player travels to, Chahi’s style was finally given the computing power it so desperately needed to express itself fully. Ultimately, the game was well received and Delphine started to garner some well-earned attention.
A year passed. In that time, Chahi had been beavering away in his chateau, consuming massive amounts of red wine, smoking pack after pack of Gitanes and shrugging constantly. Possibly. But what’s quite apparent with the benefit of hindsight is that Chahi had been possessed by an incredible vision that would end up having a truly lasting impact on video games to come.
Another World is Eric Chahi’s magnum opus. Created almost entirely on his own (“from the story to the box cover,” so states Wikipedia), the game was a breathtaking foray into uncharted territory for visual design in video games. Extremely minimalist, yet with incredibly lush colorisation and hand-crafted artwork, like all great art Another World had the power to completely change the atmosphere in a room. If you started playing it with your friends around, all chit chat would stop. Eyes would become locked on your monitor, ears pricked up to hear the sparse sounds emerging from the speakers.
Without wanting to bully the point too much, it was literally a game changer, influencing those who would later go on to become some of the most important people in the history of the industry. To name but a few, Fumito Ueda has cited it as an inspiration for his creation of Ico. Hideo Kojima has gone on record as saying that it was “one of the five games that influenced him the most.” Goichi Suda even went so far as to call it his “favourite game.”
Another World imprinted deeply upon my (fairly) young brain when I first played it. I can still remember the absolute nerve-shredding horror of realising that the giant, unknown beast in the background of the first scene had noticed me with its piercing red eyes, and then silently sidled off the side of the screen. I knew it was waiting for me somewhere, but I had no idea where.
The truly alien feel of the world that Chahi had created transported me right into the heart of the game, completely immersing me in protagonist Lester’s efforts to find out what had just happened and get himself to safety. It is a testament to the talent of Eric Chahi that players could relate to and be affected by such an abstract gaming world.
The rather excellent Wikipedia article on the game states that “Chahi worked at the game at a linear pace, developing each section of the game in the chronological order and influenced by his own personal feelings and attitude at the time. For example, as Chahi recognized he was trying to create a game on his own, the first portions of the game evoke loneliness and isolation, reflecting Chahi’s mood at the time.”
You can see the influence of Another World in games as varied as the Oddworld series and Half Life (specifically the Xen chapter), where bizarre worlds full of strange flora and fauna are brought to life using styles reminiscent of Chahi’s hallucinatory visuals. Parallels can of course be found with contemporary artists who were working at the same time as Chahi. Dan Seagrave in particular manages to produce the same feelings of creeping dread and fascination with his album art throughout the 1990s.
But no one allowed to you actually inhabit that world like Eric Chahi did with Another World.
De la Poussière
After Another World, no one could have blamed Chahi if he’d decided he wanted to call it a day, having achieved his vision so perfectly. Yet he continued making games, and still does – Heart of Darkness, the “spiritual successor” to Another World, was released in 1998, while his most recent work was From Dust, published by Ubisoft in 2011.
You can tell immediately that From Dust is an Eric Chahi game. The visuals simply drip with that signature style that enraptured gamers so completely over twenty years ago. Like Another World, it was well-received by critics upon its release.
Yet at the back of my mind, I can’t help but think of those haunting alien landscapes and still marvel at that first time, long ago, when video games and art were very briefly indistinguishable.
“A moins de faire un jeu vidéo totalement abstrait, la matière interactive qui le compose utilise des symboles, des codes, des comportements, des règles, des perspectives, des points de vue, des émotions, s’appuyant sur notre expérience hors du jeu vidéo.”
- Eric Chahi