When developers at Valve make a game, from the moment a single room has been crafted in their Hammer editor, they playtest it. Outsiders come in once a week, with no previous experience of the game, and play with whatever's been created. The developers must watch without comment, and observe how the player encounters the game.
This is not how Another World was developed. Released in 1991, Another World was the one-man project from Eric Chahi, a visually striking 2D platform game about a man transported to an alien world after a disaster with his particle acceleration experiment. (Which oddly enough is the very same premise as Outcast.)
It's minimalist in many senses - you have two action buttons (run and fire on one, jump on the other), and movement. With this, you and a friendly alien must escape an enemy complex, a series of caves, and a tower.
Valve's process is designed to ensure that its games are as intuitive, as user-friendly, as is possible. If someone gets stuck at a certain point, and is unsure where to go next, Valve redesigns that area so that subtle, ambient clues give suggestions to the player almost unconsciously.
The reason you thought to look up and spot a potential route in Half-Life 2: Episode 2? That's because the broken fizzing wires that caught your eye were put there after someone else never thought to look up.
Another World does not provide broken ladders. Possible to finish in under an hour - although it's impossible to do so on your first playthrough - Another World only lasts longer because for the most part you really don't know what to do, nor how to do it.
Mostly your goal is to reach the right side of the screen, but just how or why that can't be done is not flagged up to you. What is blocking your buddy's progress through a tunnel? Why, it's the dangling lampshade five screens away that in no visible way changes anything above it when you shoot it down.
Games have unquestionably changed. From first-person shooters to point-and-click adventures, third-person action to platform, what is understood as "difficulty" has changed. Difficulty is a setting, a lever we pull to decide how many bullets the enemies should be able to absorb, the density of monsters, or the rarity of med packs and ammo. Back then, difficulty was how incredibly bloody hard it was to play something successfully.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Another World is that it will quite happily let you charge off in completely the wrong direction to your absolutely certain death, because you hadn't completed a task that would have been found if you'd chosen a different, equally unmarked exit than the one that initially appealed to you. But your death seems to be your fault, so you attempt that route again. And again. And again.
Trial and error could not be more out of fashion. In fact, the necessity of trial and error can now be considered a failing in a game. Were I reviewing an FPS that repeatedly required me to make blind guesses about which of three corridors would render me helpless to an instant death, I would criticise it for this. Dead ends are one thing, death ends are another. We want a game, more than anything, to be fair.
Another World certainly isn't fair. One screen sums this up perfectly. You're in a series of tunnels, but you can only see about a metre either side of your character, the rest of the screen enveloped in darkness. You can roll left or right, dropping into blank spaces. Some of them have spikes at the bottom! So the only way to get through the level is to fail until you don't.
A restart at the top of the screen prevents this from becoming too infuriating, but it very much removes any element of skill from the process. It's a process of elimination.
While that stands as a good, simple example of what I'm discussing, it's not true of the game as a whole. You're still forced to use trial and error, but mostly during long distances across complex screens of tough fights and tricky jumps. Failing means going back to the previous checkpoint and starting the whole process over again.
This all sounds rather negative, doesn't it? I think Another World is completely lovely. In fact, I'm beginning to wonder if we've lost something in not having games that work this way any more.
Unquestionably a vast amount of Another World's charm comes from the art style. It's just fantastic. Chahi's design is exquisitely simple and enormously evocative. Built from spare polygons, its paper-craft-like animation conjures the world, the creatures and the threat wonderfully. And never more wonderfully than Chahi's own 15th anniversary remake.
After reacquiring the rights to the game after the original publisher, Delphine, closed in 2004, Chahi ported it to mobile phones, and then in 2006 remade the PC version to work on modern machines. The resolution went up from 320x200 to 1280x800, with repainted backgrounds, and the polygonal characters resized to fit. The result is something far lovelier, and yet completely true to the original design.
The other big difference with the remake is the checkpoint system. There are twice as many of them. Which to a cack-handed buffoon like me makes the game something I like to describe as, "playable". Hardcore fans of the original, or its console ports, will sneer their most wretched sneers at this, but then this is a compromise I demand in return for being required to fail in order to know how to proceed.
However, even the checkpointing is a little trial-and-error. If you choose to go in one of two available directions, in an order other than is required to be successful, it won't recognise this as a time to trigger checkpoints. If I had known this as I played through, I'd have known something was up. Instead I repeated the same godforsaken section in the caves approximately 90,184 times, sobbing blood onto my keyboard.
It sounds negative again, doesn't it?
There's definitely a reason we moved on from trial and error. There's definitely a reason why we demand fairness from games. Failing in order to succeed is a strange attitude, a mindset into which one must insert oneself. You have to pop into the right department of your brain and make a note on a whiteboard saying, "It's okay that I keep dying - don't fling PC through window."
But once your brain is there, and also perhaps once you've found a friendly man showing you how to get through the game on YouTube, it becomes okay to die.
The direction in which Valve is taking games is tremendously exciting. Intuitive design, barely consciously recognised prompting, and behind-the-scenes difficulty rebalancing if you're struggling.
It's creating a single-player standard where it just isn't okay to die. The player is having fun when he's succeeding, winning, overcoming. He isn't having fun when he's being killed by the same boss creature a dozen times in a row. And when a game lasts six to 12 hours, you want to be progressing, seeing what comes next.
But there's room for Another World. Under an hour of start-to-finish content (I imagine it could be completed in a lot less), it's okay in such circumstances to repeat sections again and again. It's about refining technique, practicing before achieving. It's about learning what will get you killed in order to learn what to avoid.
But then it's not just games who've changed. It's players too. I can remember playing this game as a kid, and almost certainly not getting further than the fifth screen. Just getting past the first charging bull-creature is tough enough.
And I was okay with that. I never got past the fifth screen of Chuckie Egg 2, but I must have played it a hundred times. Maybe we had more patience? Perhaps I, perhaps we, were idiots back then. That might well be it. We certainly had different expectations.
Another World, especially in its 15th Anniversary form, is still utterly beautiful. There's something compelling not just about the graphics, but the simplicity of the story. The relationship with your cellmate and friend, the sense of progression against the odds, is calmly and cleverly told.
It's utterly bloody ridiculously hard in places, but then, as it turns out, it's meant to be.
Another World is available on GOG.com, with its previous ghastly DRM removed.