Biography of Eric Chahi (Another World / Heart of Darkness / From Dust)

Biography of Eric Chahi (Another World / Heart of Darkness / From Dust)
Aug
07

Biography of Eric Chahi (Another World / Heart of Darkness / From Dust)

 

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I have such strong memories of first playing “Another World”, aka. “Out of this World.” A friend lent me a floppy disk with it on it, and I loaded it up my parent’s PC without any idea of what it was. The lack of introduction only amplified the mystique of starting a game with no instructions, no on-screen tutorial, and no explanation of what you were supposed to do. I had never played another game like it, nothing so beautiful, exciting, and mysterious.

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So I can safely say that Eric Chahi is one of my personal heros, and I was delighted to pick up this book about him. “Eric Chahi: Parcours d’un créateur de jeux vidéo français” is written in French by Daniel Ichbiah, in a light style with lots of pictures.

For some reason, I just imagined that Eric Chahi woke up one day and wrote “Another World” out of nowhere. But of course, the real story is a lot more complicated, and a lot more interesting.

In fact, Eric Chahi has been writing and publishing games since 1983, when was 15 years old. Back then, he programmed on the the “Oric 1” [TODO: picture] an 8-bit machine with 16 kilobytes of RAM and a link to a cassette deck for loading and saving. Like a lot of the old home computers, the components were all packed into the keyboard, and you would hook it up a TV instead of a monitor.

His first game was called “Frog”, and a friend of the family helped him sell it to a local computer importer in exchange for a printer and 2 joysticks. Unfortunately, the game never hit the shelves.

Even at this stage, technology and graphics played a huge role in selling games. Just a year after “Frog”, Eric Chahi had a new adventure game, called “Sceptre d’Anubis”, that he wrote in BASIC. But when he tried to sell it, the studio compared the graphics unfavorably to a game called “L’Aigle d’Or” that had fancier graphics.

For this reason, Eric Chahi wrote his next game, “Doggy”, in assembler. It was the only way he was able to get better performance, and thus higher quality graphics, out of the machine.

I’ll skip a few years (and a few games later), until 1987, when Chahi gets an Amiga 500. From all accounts, Amiga made incredible machines that raised the bar for both graphics and sound. Chahi learned how to make striking animations with Deluxe Paint, a drawing and animation programmed that was also used for Monkey Island. It’s through his work as a graphic artist, and not as a programmer, that he is hired by Delphine Software to work on “Les Voyageurs du Temps” (“Future Wars” in English) with Paul Cuisset, who did the programming and game design. Interestingly, Chahi and Cuisset work independently at their homes, and only met every 10 days or so to compare work. And the game was done in just 6 months!

The game was a point-and-click adventure that was infamously difficult, but received fantastic reviews and sold very well, even internationally. So well, in fact, that it gave Chahi enough money to live on for 2 years. He turned down a job as a full-time artist for Delphine Software and started out on his own to create “Another World”.

Graphically, Chahi was inspired by “Dragon’s Lair”, which had breathtaking graphics for the time. In fact, the arcade version used Laserdisc, and the Amiga port used special “streaming” techniques to load from diskettes, but Chahi imagined that it used polygons. And it was this idea, drawing polygons on the screen instead of bitmaps, that would give Another World its distinctive graphical style.

Amazingly, much of “Another World” was improvisation. Chahi started with the opening animation, and made up the story, and the world, as he went. Only when he got to the 2nd level did he have the idea of adding a laser gun. He kept the experience fresh by imagining the player’s expectations and then surprising them with something different. To get the pacing and camera angles right, he watched the opening sequence to “Return of the Jedi” over and over again. He did use rotoscoping to draw the moving car and the gun, but the rest was done by hand.

Programming-wise, he had to build his own game engine and editor in assembler. Another World was ported onto a good number of platforms, including Super Nintendo, Mega Drive, and 3DO. Since other programmers couldn’t figure out what Chahi was doing in his code, he had to make the ports himself. As playtest results came back, Chahi made a few changes that made the game easier and a bit longer. This led to some funny hacks, like the “Secret UFO Death”:

One detail that I love: Nintendo balked at the “bath house” scene, where you can the top of alien butts, and made him erase those offending pixels so that it looked like the women were wearing bathing suits.

There actually was a sequel to “Another World”, called “Heart of the Alien” that was made by Interplay for SEGA Mega-CD, without Chahi’s help. It didn’t have a lot going for it (it wasn’t even vectorial), and was a flop.

Pretty quickly after the release of “Another World”, in 1992, Chahi got sucked up into an ambitious project, “Heart of Darkness.” The story revolves around a young boy who is scared of the dark has to confront his fears to fetch his dog from another universe. Although they would assemble a talented team, the game would take 6 years to produce, and would be quite painful for everyone involved. As the author points out, the early 90s was a tumultuous time in the game industry, with games like “7th Guest”, “Doom”, and even “Super Mario 64” setting new expectations for graphics and gameplay. Console technology kept changing too, from the 3DO to the SEGA Saturn to the Playstation.

As the project dragged on, the team would have to change editors several times. At one point, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg invite the team to Dreamworks’ offices in California. They were so impressed by the opening sequence to “Heart of Darkness” that they want Chahi to abandon the game and turn it into a film instead. But Chahi and his team stick to their original vision, and eventually put the game out in 1998.

After that experience, Chahi disappears from the game scene for almost 10 years. He travels extensively, and becomes obsessed with climbing and photographing volcanoes. He shows up again in 2007, when he comes to Ubisoft with a new game concept based partly around his travels. The original concept of “From Dust” is that both people and geology are ephemeral: they are born, grow, and then die and return to dust. The characters would only live for 5 minutes, and would have to pass on their knowledge to the next generation in order for the tribe to survive.

Chahi decided to work with Ubisoft so that he could benefit from their workforce and project management. Things are a bit slow to start, but once the legal department signs off on the project in 200!, the team quickly grows to 10, and then 40 people. In late 2009, though, following a meeting with top Ubisoft management, Ubisoft apparently loses confidence in the project. The team has to review and change major parts of the game design. Soon after, the team is reduced drastically, from 40 to 16 people. It was quite a blow.

It was at this point that Chahi and his team made critical changes to the gameplay. They had a level editor in which they could manipulate the terrain in real time. It was so fun that they decided to give the player this ability. And so the project was transformed into a god-game. They also had to give up the ephemeral nature of the characters, which made the gameplay too difficult. The ecosystem of the game, which was meant to be quite rich in interaction, had to be heavily cut back. But they did add an excellent feature to the terrain simulation: water could carry sediment, which meant that steep valleys would gradually smoothen out and create attractive landscapes. The final major decision was to make From Dust available only as a downloadable game, on XBox Live and then the Playstation Network. This made the game much cheaper to market and distribute.

The book ends there, but I have a little epilogue to add: I recently had the enormous pleasure to meet Eric Chahi in person! He works in Montpellier, in a shared office with two indie studios: The Game Bakers and Swing Swing Submarine. He showed me a few screens of his current project: simulating volcanic eruptions for a museum exhibition. It looks beautiful…

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