Is Another World the Video Game's Answer to Silent Film?

By Rich Shivener in Unraveling Yarns
Tuesday, October 11, 2011 at 11:00 am
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Take me to Another World.
Another World (a.k.a. Out of This World) is celebrating its 20-year anniversary, and rightly so. A 2-D, platformer game that by today's standards seems outdated, it's seeing another revival as an iOS app, offering highly defined graphics, touch controls and enhanced sound effects, which are minimal at best. The game centers on Dr. Lester Knight Chaykin, a physicist stumbling through a unforgiving world, one riddled with laser-wielding ogres, faulty environments, man-eating cave dwellers and one dopey partner, Buddy. It's certainly an adventure worth remembering, mainly because of its difficulty. Little instruction or tutorials are given; as Dr. Chaykin, you're simply dropped into a foreign land and expected to fend for yourself. Dialogue is almost nonexistent.

But Another World's silence is the engaging facet of the game. To me, that facet allows me to imagine the details of the narrative arc. Though it's clear that Dr. Chaykin enters Another World (conflict) and exits it (resolution), the actions betwixt the two will be narrated by my imagination, thanks to the aforementioned silence. The game is freeing, and it's mysterious, just like a good silent film. (If this was a proper review, I'd slap a 4 out of 5 on it.)


Commenting on the silence of Another World and the indie hit Limbo, Nadia Oxford of Game Theory Online explains:

"In Limbo and Out of This World (not to mention other titles like the once-popular Flashback) you're dropped into a nameless land that aims to kill you ASAP. No specifics are given. Presumably, the wildlife is hungry, and you are soft and fleshy. Whatever the reason, both games isolate you and gnaw slowly on your nerves. The bare bones storytelling leaves you with only one objective that screams at the fore of your brain: Survive."

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A whole new Another World.

Considering Oxford's comments, I deem Dr. Chaykin a scientist who wants to survive the mess he started. The Ferrari in which he rolls up to the lab tells me he's cocky and super-successful, but, when zapped to a deadly world, he becomes little more than a wuss. He has zero experience in combat, but he has the aptitude to learn and adapt. He simply wants to go home and re-examine the experiment gone awry.

My views are shaped by the occasional cutscenes and Dr. Chaykin's silent actions. Sound effects are present in the game, but they don't inform the narrative, and thus, they reveal little about Dr. Chaykin. They're much like what Melinda Szaloky calls "extrafilmic sources" (music, noise effects, etc.) associated with silent films. Szaloky's piece "Sounding Images in Silent Film: Visual Acoustics in Murnau's Sunrise" is a thorough meditation on "visualization".



As she explains:
"What I will called visualized sound is the pictorial rendering of narrative significant acoustic phenomena, a kind of acoustic close-up that, like the close-up in general, serves to guide and organize spectorial attention and to help the viewer comprehend the story. Thus, the image of a flock of birds rising prompted by the report of a gun can emphasize a gunshot with specific narrative or metaphorical significance, whereas a simple image of a gun might convey only visible 'inessential' sound."

Szaloky also meditates on "listening to unheard sounds," regarding synaesthesia, which, from a metaphorical stance, "implies an inner hearing that, independent of immediate physical stimuli, relies on memory, imagination, and inference-making on the basis of lived experiences."

Indeed, my "memory, imagination and inference-making" help me flesh out the narrative of Another World. The narrator or characters rely on visuals to reveal what's happening. As a gamer with experiences in sci-fi and adventure games, I have my own ideas of what they're saying ... what sounds are being conveyed. I enjoy those ideas. The replay value, thanks to the freedom of imagination, is tremendous. Again and again, I can imagine the dialogue between Buddy and Dr. Chaykin.   

Again, I turn to Oxford for elaboration:

 "'Show, don't tell' is an expression every writer hears often (repeatedly, in our case). If a giant black spider crawls at your heroes from its sheath of trees, there's no need for characters to exchange exclamations about "Oh my God, someone grab a can of Raid." In Limbo, that danged arachnid let its creepy, purposeful movements speak for it. And we all heard it loud and clear."

And I turn to Szaloky for a final comparison:

"In the 'middle world' that is ruled by concrete objects (elementary and superficial but powerful), knowledge is firmly tied to vision, and because many sounds are identified by the sight of their source, 'silent' movies are able to tell pictorial stories that will be understood by the spectator."

Unraveling Yarns is a weekly column that explores video games as narrative delivery devices. James Hawkins and Rich Shivener rotate week-to-week to discuss their opinions on some of gaming's most challenging and nuanced stories from all generations. Follow James on Twitter @JamesHawk1ns. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichShiv. 

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