I remember thinking Out of This World was one of the coolest things ever. So, since I didn't have anything to play (Fable and The Sims 2 weren't quite out yet), I borrowed Jason Bare's Sega CD and Heart of the Alien from him. (Although Treyarch has a library of games, Jason Bare's collection puts it to shame. He is a great resource for both modern and historical gaming.) Heart of the Alien being Out of This World parts one and two: not only would I get to trip into nostalgia, I'd finally get to play the sequel, something I'd seen teaser movies for many E3's ago (or was it CES?) which whet my appetite but never slaked it.
When looking for inspiration for games we frequently fall back on movies. Then, some of the more hardcore game designers among us might say, "You're just suffering from frustrated-director-syndrome!" Or, "You're just suffering from frustrated-screenwriter-syndrome!" These syndromes are real and dangerous. But there have been many games influenced by movies that were wildly successful: Max Payne - borrowing slow motion action from John Woo movies; Medal of Honor - Saving Private Ryan; Call of Duty - Enemy at the Gates; Spider-Man 2 - uh, well, Spider-Man.
Out of This World, like Prince of Persia was one of the first videogames to really push that cinematic experience. Out of This World borrows from movies like Star Wars the way Prince of Persia borrows from swashbucklers. One of my favorite moments in Out of This World is when you're running down a long corridor of Star Wars-like doors, chased by laserfire. There's no skill involved: as long as you press the D-Pad to the right and hold down the sprint button, the lasers will fly by either side of you, doors will open for you and close behind you, just in time to shield you from the plasma blasts that shatter them.
The important thing, in a cinematic game, is to avoid the cutscene: and that's the first temptation of those frustrated directors. "Let's have the main character kick the alien in the crotch, then run and grab his gun and shoot him!" "Uh, our engine doesn't support that." "Well, we'll do it in a cutscene." At which point it stops being an immersive experience and makes you wonder why you didn't just go to the movies instead.
The alternative is expensive: Out of This World does indeed have a sequence where you kick the alien in the crotch, run and grab your gun and shoot him, and it's in gameplay, and it's fairly intuitive, although the timing is tight and most of the time I was the one getting shot. I'm sure a great deal of resources were spent getting that sequence to work, and all the other cinematic sequences, which is probably why the testers at Interplay could actually play the entire game in thirteen minutes. (And there was also an exploit which let them complete it in 9, involving jumping to a screen where you'd die immediately but get a checkpoint in a new area.) And to make this thirteen minutes of gameplay stretch out to six hours, Out of This World is incredibly punishing. Make a mistake, you die. Go back several screens. Meaning you have to invest 30 minutes of your time for every minute of fresh experience. For some reason this didn't bother me at all ten years ago; nor did it bother Mark Nau; we remembered the game as not being that difficult or unpleasant. Now, I can't believe that I played it the whole way through without cheats or a walk-through...I must have had more patience back then.
So I'd like to coin a new game design guideline: if you have a few moments in your game that are awesome, players will forget that most of the game was a slog. A handful of Call of Duty levels really stand out - but most are straightforward infiltrations into hostile interiors. You can play "The Silent Cartographer" level of Halo over and over, and it makes it okay that there were those Flood-In-The-Library levels. Likewise, Out of This World is forgiven for its endless trial-and-error do-the-same-screens-over-and-over-again gameplay because almost every screen is a unique, fresh, dramatic experience. This would not be tolerated in a movie: ever since Raiders of the Lost Ark we want our action movies to be pretty much non-stop rollercoasters. But at this point in history, for a game, it works.
Now, although it's a win to have action-movie gameplay in your game, the big win is when you can make that action-movie gameplay a systemic, reusable element. The bullet time in Max Payne, the swinging from Spider-Man 2, shooting out a light or taking a hostage in Splinter Cell, running along a wall in Prince of Persia. This allows people to experience and re-experience those cinematic moments they love, over and over again in new contexts, like a wirehead rat frantically pressing a lever.
But there is a downside to that: eventually they will become satiated with respect to that element. My psych degree is talking there: what I mean is they get bored of any given element. Out of This World can be compared to Flashback, both developed by the same company (but different teams): Out of This World is very unsystemic, most screens have unique elements and gameplay (here's there worms, here's a jungle animal and a vine you can swing from, here's a rock you can collapse, here's a flood you can create, here's a strange vehicle you can try to control). Flashback is a more straight-ahead side-scroller: a handful of elements are reused mercilessly. Flashback is a longer game: it could afford to be. But Out of This World is the classic. So: systemic design isn't necessarily 100% good. As a game designer you have to balance systems with set-pieces, the repetitive and the unique, trying to make a game that is both long enough and good enough.
Another treat in Out of This World is that you have a sidekick; for the most part finding your own paths through the game, every now and then your paths cross and it is only by cooperation that you can advance. The wingman concept done absolutely perfectly: sometimes you need him, sometimes he needs you, there's never a time when you feel that he's playing the game for you, and never a time when he feels like dead weight.
So what about Heart of the Alien? Frankly, it's a disappointment. The cinematic set pieces that made Out of This World great have no match here; there are three long, action-heavy cutscenes where I can't help thinking, "I wish I was playing this instead of just watching it."
A final question: although the cinematic games garner great reviews (Out of This World got stellar reviews when it was first released) do they actually sell that well? Are they what the people want?
I don't have any TRST data on me but the cinematic games of today, but I'm pretty sure that the Prince of Persias and Max Paynes and Call of Dutys aren't in the same league as the not-terribly cinematic sports games, GTA clones, and whatnot. Maybe gamers really do want games rather than movies.