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Meeting with Eric Chahi, a handyman amazed by French video games

When Eric Chahi receives us in the premises of his studio, Pixel Reef, it is not he who welcomes us, but a big, threatening black lion. A beast that everyone who played in the 1990s will remember Another World, the French creator's masterpiece. This engraving hung in front of the door of this large Montpellier apartment is the only trace of pride that we will find here.

No sign of posters of Chahi's past works, or of promotional material for his next game, Paper Beast planned for 2020. An ecological title in virtual reality which projects us into an oasis nestled in the heart of a desert of computer data, where paper creatures with fascinating behaviors progress.

Read also We tried … “Paper Beast”, the new video game from the creator of “Another World”

Aged 52 (including thirty-six in his career), behind his youthful allure, Chahi is a veteran of video games. One of the last in an industry that tends to wash out its creators. He takes his time, spares breaks. His last title, from Dust, dated 2011. The previous one, Heart of Darkness, from 1998. “I am not” videocentric games, he told us in 2015. “If I feel that I have nothing to contribute, or that it will swell me up, I explore other tracks, only to come back to them later … Like a comet that returns to the Sun every hundred years! “

The click

Curious, Eric Chahi, born in 1967 in Essonne, has always been. Curious about the anthills at the bottom of the garden, curious about what is moving. “The palpitation of the living fascinates me”, he explains in Montpellier, in July 2019, during a meeting of more than two hours. Previously, we were among the first to test Paper Beast. Eric Chahi had assailed us with questions, had noted the moments which posed us difficulty, was astonished by those where we progressed too easily.

Eric Chahi, founder of the video game creation studio Pixel Reef, in Montpellier in July 2019. SANDRA MEHL FOR “THE WORLD”

In his younger years, after locking himself in the arcades before Pac-Man, Defenders or Battlezone, Chahi goes astray in a technical course, convinced that video games are programmed with soldering iron. Then he waited for the click by tinkering with small animated films, or by rummaging in his father’s workshop, a hardware store. “There were always lots of things lying around, buckets with putty, batteries, bulbs I loved it! “

He discovers computers with a neighbor “Precursor” which programs language teaching software. It is at home that he tries his hand at the Oric, a small British computer: “The click was made there! In 1983, he paid for his computer, programmed his first games and contacted the importer of the Oric, the future Loriciel. Eric was only 16 when he signed a contract for his first commercial title, doggy.

We control a dog who avoids obstacles to reach his kennel. A “beast” arcade game, and yet. “There was already a goal, environments, a narrative thread”, defends Eric Chahi today.

Fantastic universes

Ambitions which he confirmed in 1986 at Loriciel with The pact, a story of a haunted house with an innovative staging. “For the first time, I gave priority to the atmosphere and what the player would feel. But, distributed in a black box on which appears only the name of the game in letters of blood, The pact flopped.

There follow other more or less happy essays, which convince Eric Chahi to reinvent himself as a graphic designer. Within the Chip company, he works on Jeanne D'Arc and Journey to the Center of the Earth. But this Jules Verne fan, Frank Herbert, HP Lovecraft, Dan Simmons and Stephen King realizes that he wants to stage original universes rather than those of others.

He applied to the gleaming Delphine Software. To convince its creative director, Paul Cuisset, Chahi is developing an animated film, inspired by Star Wars and of Space 1999. He also drew among the pioneers of illustration, discovered in Comic Masterpieces, a pavement from 1967, or in theEncyclopedia of science fiction.

Cuisset is convinced. The two men give birth, in 1989, to the game Travelers of time, which ended up being distributed, a rare thing at the time, to the United States.

His great work

The paths of Paul Cuisset and Eric Chahi then separate, each going to mark the coming decade with its own imprint. For Eric Chahi, it will be with Another World, his great work, where we lead a scientist lost among aliens. We find a bit of the leak in front of doggy, a lot of SF from Time travelers, and a lot of the cocktail of actions, puzzles and platform that will make the success of tomb Raider and others Uncharted.

Eric Chahi returned to the code for this game. Working with “real” programmers gave him a hint of independence and ideas. “In particular an animation system, based on polygons”, which gives a unique graphic touch to 2D.

Contrary to the handling of the time, the ensemble, which became cult, has aged rather well since its release in 1991. In 2012, Another World was one of the first fourteen video games to enter the New York Museum of Modern Art, alongside Tetris and Pac-Man.

“George Lucas has come”

The spiritual sequel toAnother World will be Heart of Darkness. The project, where we follow a kid immersed in monsters, is crazy. Made in 3D, it includes animation sequences that announce Toy Story.

Amazed, the boss of Virgin wants to make a film of it and brings the team to meet Spielberg. “He watched all the cutscenes, and he was impressed, recalls Eric Chahi. We presented the game at E3, George Lucas came, it was pretty amazing. “

The film Heart of Darkness will not happen. “I wanted to finish the game first. Except that the production will last six years, until the release in 1998. An eternity, especially at the time. The team ends up on the kneecaps, not necessarily on good terms. It's time to breathe.

Then comes the crossing of the desert. Very literal. That of the Sahara, which Chahi surveys from Morocco to Libya. By learning about the treks, he discovers that it is possible to attack volcanoes. Direction Vanuatu. On the island of Ambrym, he discovers raging seas of lava; on the Lopevi, he sees death up close. “There was a bit stronger than the others, it started to fall here and there. I had a mixture of stress and fascination “, he remembers.

Back to earth

The powerful publisher Ubisoft seeks at the same time to renew its offer. “There was an opening on somewhat atypical projects, in quotes India“. This is great: Chahi pitche from Dust, a game that puts the player in the shoes of a god, responsible for guiding his flock through an archipelago of volcanic islands. Ubisoft is seduced, Chahi joins their teams in Montpellier.

At the height of development, there are forty of them working on from Dust. The ambition is crazy: besides the possibility for the “God-player” to shape the landscape by moving water, lava or sand. It is also planned to simulate the flora and fauna, and to make humans real “living” characters, growing, reproducing and dying.

“At one point we were told this is too much, we will have to go down to sixteen, recalls Chahi, forced to put a cross on “The whole ecosystem part. It was like a mass extinction. “. It remains finally ” Super happy “ of the result. After years in the service of SF, from Dust, released in the summer of 2011, is a return to the earth.

Life Movement

For Chahi there remains a certainty: that he will never work again with such big teams. He distances himself again and co-develops on behalf of the Cité du volcan, in La Réunion, a version of from Dust pushing the lava simulation even further. It also brings a virtual reality game to life to witness a volcanic eruption.

In the Pixel Reef video game creation studio, in Montpellier, in July 2019.
In the Pixel Reef video game creation studio, in Montpellier, in July 2019. SANDRA MEHL FOR “THE WORLD”

Then out of its drawers comes a prototype that is close to its heart: a bit of a program allowing characters to progress naturally, whether the terrain is flat, uneven … or in perpetual motion. The movement of sand dunes and rivers flowing from from Dust, he wants, this time, to add that of life. Paper Beast was born. And for the rest, Eric Chahi already has a little idea. To geology and living things, he would like to add a third layer: evolution.

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