Graphics by themselves never impressed me as much as style. Style is like a cheat; maximum impact with minimal effort. And it’s hard to fake. I can competently draw but I lack style. I need to place every brushstroke. When I see a true artist convey an entire character with a few squiggly lines I’m overcome with admiration and envy.
Darkest Dungeon is the most recent example I can remember of powerful style. Never has a game wrung more atmosphere and impact from nearly static images and comic book special effects.
Prince of Persia was probably the first game to blow me away with its style and to this day I contend it had one of the purest fighting systems ever made. Every frame of animation was rotoscoped (hand traced) from film of the designer’s brother running around doing Prince of Persia moves. The resulting silky smooth animation was mind blowing at the time and kept me playing that infernally difficult game for years (I never did finish it).
Out of this World, made by Eric Chahi, has that same Prince of Persia style. He is of course French. Raw storage was an issue in the pre-CD-Rom late 80’s. Animating every frame took up a tremendous amount of space and computers were far too slow to do anything in 3D. Upon seeing the gorgeous Dragon’s Lair, with it’s crisp, flat hand-drawn animation Eric thought he could achieve the same effect by using vectors and started making a game in 1989 for the Amiga.
I didn’t know any of this when I discovered the game in 1992. I only downloaded it because at 1MB it was the largest game I had ever seen on any of the pirate BBSs I used to “afford” all the games I played. This took many attempts at 2400baud speeds as the entire 2-hour download had to be accomplished without anyone calling the house or picking up the receiver. The BBSs only had a few open lines so once you crashed out someone else invariably took your place and you had to leave the modem on redial and beat everyone else also redialing like mad. I finally managed it by staying awake until 2AM and sneaking upstairs to initiate download, a towel pressed down firmly on the speaker to muffle that horrendous connection screech, while my parents slept in the next room.
PC displays topped out at 256 colors which made even well drawn graphics look rough and grainy. By using vectors and a perfectly flat color pallette Eric created the cleanest looking game at the time and also managed to cram it full of lifelike, fluid animation. Like Prince of Persia it all somehow worked to completely captivate and suck me in despite my disdain for side-scrollers in general.
In typical Frenchy fashion, the game had no HUD or dialogue of any kind. There were no abstractions like HPs or XP or even a menu to take you out of the experience. The slightest damage or contact from an environmental hazard caused death. Accompanying it all was an eerily perfect and haunting score by Jean-Francois Freitas, the only component of the game not made by Eric himself. There is a story that amongst the changes demanded by the publisher, Interplay, the opening cinematic track had to be changed. Eric responded by sending an “infinite fax” – a looped piece of paper reading “keep the original intro music”.
Part way through the story of a young physicist who gets transported to an alien world you gain a laser pistol and are joined by a resident alien. While Eric had prototyped and tested his vector engine he had spent less time on the actual story, making it up as he went along coding the game. Inspite or maybe because of this the game felt like a true exploration of an alien world and my bond with my alien companion truer than what I shared with countless other NPC’s who could speak my language but did not communicate in the same special way.
I never got to play the game again. There were 15th and 20th anniversary re-releases for a variety of platforms other than the PC. Eric remade some new backgrounds and was able to scale up the vector graphics to 2560×1600 with only minor cleanup.
There was a sequel titled Heart of the Alien, an entirely new story told from the Alien’s point of view. The only connection to Eric was his suggestion of the Alien perspective, however he meant using the original story, not an entirely new one, but was misunderstood.
Out of This World sold well, over a million copies across many systems and Delphine Software went on to create the successful but only dimly remembered Flashback. Out of This World’s opening cinematic, music, the gun’s three settings which you used to solve a variety of puzzles – they’re all distinct memories almost 30-years later. It ended far too quickly, the only real complaint echoed by reviewers at the time. While I’m sure this will send any Mario or Simon Belmont fans into an eye-rolling fit, Out of this World was probably the last time I loved a side-scroller.