Lester's Legacy

Wiley Wiggins shares the news, learned at last week’s GDC, that Eric Chahi plans to bring his groundbreaking 1991 work Another World (known as Out of This World to us Yanks) to the iPad.

What moved me to mention it here, though, is the YouTube embedded in his post, the first half of a speedrun through the game by YouTube user ghost1215. (I’ve embedded both halves to this post as well, after the jump. Edit: Oops, it looks like they deleted their account the day after I posted this! Here’s the first part of someone else’s speedrun, though without the opening cinematic, alas.) I played a fair amount of this game in college, never getting far beyond the bit with the wobbly cage, so found fascinating the chance to watch a full playthrough.

A couple of minutes in, I thought: Hey… it’s Limbo! The similarity struck me not just in the subject matter and play style, but in the overall user experience: both works are rare examples of great games that never present any messages directly to the player, circumventing the display of “in-world” information. There is no HUD displaying health or inventory, nor do any tutorial prompts to press buttons ever appear. The games offer no subtitles for in-game dialog, because there isn’t any. You learn through a moment of initial experimentation how to make the defenseless little guy on the screen jog around and jump, and do your best from there. When the control scheme is simple enough to avoid frustration, this can be an elegant way to add a layer of unsettling, even alienating mystery to a game.

Both games also gleefully murder the protagonist in dozens of creative ways before the player sees the ending screen. Something these YouTubes don’t make obvious is Another World’s absurd difficultly level. Whoever’s playing it in this video seems to possess a very practiced hand at it (to the tune of Wiggins’ “billions of times” playing it as a kid). In reality, every time poor Lester, the ginger-haired and extremely fragile hero, gets eaten or dissolved or ray-gunned — an inevitability, several times over, with each new screen he explores — the checkpoint he reappears at is often located some distance in the past, requiring replay of several challenges. This being one of the classic ways to make a game you can speedrun through in 20 minutes (i.e. two YouTube videos) feel like a weeks-long epic to a new player.

Limbo, as I’ve written about, had its release long after cruel games have fallen from vogue. So even though (judging by the lengths of its YouTube collections) a Limbo speedrun takes more than twice as long as Another World, its vastly kinder distribution of respawn points (as well as, it seems to me, its much better-clued puzzles) means that you can traverse the work from end to end in an evening or two. By crafting a highly polished and deeply evocative experience, the makers of Limbo number among contemporary designers who stake that their games should aim to have longevity in their players’ memories, not necessarily on their game consoles.

I’ll be interested to learn how newcomers react to this 20-year-old design on the iPad — or if certain tweaks have been made to it, to better suit modern players’ palates.

Note that the following two videos spoil the entirety of Another World. Proceed with caution.

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