Farzad Varahramyan worked as a production designer on Abe’s Oddysee, Abe’s Exoddus and Munch’s Oddysee. He was gracious enough to answer our questions.
Magog on the March: How much creative persuasion did Lorne Lanning have over your artworks? Did he have a strict aesthetic or were you allowed free reign with what you created?
Farzad Varahramyan: Once Lorne felt you had absorbed the “visual DNA” of Oddworld he was very generous, especially at the beginning of preproduction, so we could explore the craziest and coolest concepts that he was imagining. There was also a lot of times where Lorne had very specific visions and he knew where every nut and bolt needed to go. Whether it was specific or open exploration within the rules of Oddworld, it was always creatively fulfilling and Lorne was truly gifted at getting the best work out of any of us.
Magog on the March: Why did it take hundreds of iterations—as evidenced by “Oddworld: The Lost Archives“—before reaching to the final Munch design? Was it a painful process?
Farzad Varahramyan: Lorne had an epic story in mind with multiple key heroes, spanning 5 major games, before we had even finished Abe’s Oddysee. So any spare cycles we had, I or the master: Steven Olds, we’d sketch up the latest iteration of Munch. Lorne would come up with the craziest and newest premises for Munch all the time. I staid on Munch the longest so I had the privilege of discovering him with Lorne.
The process was definitely painful at times, but it was this “pain” that Lorne taught me would ultimately result in a great character. You had to put in the time and pain to explore as much as you could.
The important thing to remember was that each time, the process, saved a small but solid bit of the concept that would eventually make it, in one form or another, into the final. For example, about halfway thought when Munch became amphibian, the top fin on his head survived all the way through to the end, despite most other elements getting scrapped. The concept was the fin was functional but also a deterrent for above the water predators that may see it and think they were dealing with a more predatory sea creature. At the core of the character, Lorne always wanted an abused and lovable soul.
Magog on the March: Which unincluded creature do you think fits the most into the Oddworld universe?
Farzad Varahramyan: I think most of us that worked at Oddworld were very sorry to see Elum not come back after Abe’s Oddysee. I think it may have been a gameplay reason for it, but we all just loved the character and how Abe and it interacted.
Magog on the March: What is your favourite part of the entirety of the lore?
Farzad Varahramyan: I don’t think I was alone in this, especially those of us working on the games: it was the idea that this beautifully spun lore and story was a metaphor for our own real world and the conflict of the natural clean world Vs. the capitalistic and materialistic values that are still destroying our real world. This was pretty deep and unique stuff, especially at the time where most games were about the usual sequalized genres you see to this day. Lorne was really onto something worthwhile and as he and Sherry used to say “games with nutritional value”.
Magog on the March: Who is your favourite Oddworld character? Why?
Farzad Varahramyan: Easy: Abe! I think Steven Olds’ visual design DNA for the world that Lorne imagined was a game changer. Steven came up with the visual foundation of what Abe became and the world he lived in. It also required the back and forth with both Lorne and Steven to refine Abe into the beloved character he is to this day. Collaboration like that is the true genius.
I also think that’s one of the most admirable things about Lorne: collaboration. He is pretty much a “great concept” generating engine, but one of the great things about Lorne is that he knew a great idea no matter who it came from and immediately knew how to weave it into the larger scheme. I think that requires true creativity, and it needs to be divorced from ego.
Magog on the March: You were responsible for “Abe being able to drink a Brew, pass wind, control the gas and detonate it whenever it was positioned“. Are there other ideas of yours that you should get credit for?
Farzad Varahramyan: I think the credit you give me on the exploding gas, goes to illustrate what I just said about Lorne’s ability and detachment from ego, to take an idea he thinks is good and turn it into something that actually works. It’s one thing to have a fun idea, the real work is when the whole team agrees this is a worthwhile idea to pursue and actually figures out how to make it feel good and look fun for the player experience. The real credit goes to everyone that made that idea actually a fun game feature.
Magog on the March: You produced many artworks for the Oddworld universe. Roughly how much of the Quintology was put to paper before you departed the company?
Farzad Varahramyan: I left when my last responsibility on Munch was done. I had created some open ended explorations of environments and locations for Oddworld/Mudos, but that was about it for me.
Magog on the March: You didn’t work on Stranger’s Wrath. What is your opinion on some of the character designs, such as the Clakkerz and Grubbs? Do they feel Oddworld to you?
Farzad Varahramyan: At the time I was at Oddworld working directly under Steven and then Lorne, I’d say the most successful designs, or the one’s that felt Oddworld, were the one’s that had something very familiar that drew indirect lines of reference to real world animals or creatures. If you look at Steven’s Scrabs, Paramites, or one of my favorites: Sligs, they all have varying degrees of familiarity and you draw indirect lines to what they may remind you of: arachnids but not quite, squids but not really. I hope this make sense.
Magog on the March: Why did you choose to leave Oddworld Inhabitants after Munch’s Oddysee was released in 2001?
Farzad Varahramyan: The honest answer is I was looking for greater responsibility as a creator but at the time there was no opportunities at Oddworld. Lorne was very magnanimous as always and understood my reasons. He had mentored and trained me well, instilling in me his drive to create and direct. I’ll be forever thankful to Lorne. He helped me grow into the creative visual director I am today.
Magog on the March: What are you working on next in your professional life?
Farzad Varahramyan: After a fruitful 23+ years as a studio art director, I’ve decided to launch my own business as a freelance creative visual director.
I decided to go back to what I love doing professionally the most: and that is to be brought in at the pre-production of new concepts or re-imagined properties and help visually develop them. It’s what I enjoy doing the most professionally.
Personally, I’m developing original art/design projects that I hope to start making available to the public starting in 2019.