Creating Munch: An Odd Experience [Hosted by Team Xbox] Date: 13/11/2001 Author: TeamXbox
To say the very least, Munch is not your typical video game hero. He/She/It is not a finely sculpted buxom female with a faintly British accent. Munch isn’t a muscular Rambo-wannabe with a mullet. Munch isn’t an anime-inspired, big-eyed, pointy blonde-haired angst-ridden teenage prodigy who has to save the world all by his lonesome while wearing asymmetrical clothing that simultaneously defy the laws of physics and fashion. No, Munch isn’t any of that. And the genesis of the character, from a mere embryonic twinkling in the twisted mind of Lorne Lanning, Oddworld’s President/Creative Director, to a fully designed and playable, completely voiced and animated character full of personality, was not an easy road.
To begin, Munch needed a name and a story. According to Assistant Director, Chris Ulm, Munch began his woeful existence as Latamire Munch (thankfully, he dropped the Latamire to join the ranks of one-named celebrities such as Madonna, Cher, and…Abe). And while the name changed, the inspiration for Munch never altered. As stated by Senior Production Designer Farzad Varahramyan , “At the core of Munch’s design was Lorne’s conviction to address the issue of animal testing and the atrocities towards animals that occur in the name of science.” Design for Munch began in early 1996 and mostly was based on photos from animal testing laboratories, such as photos of rabbits “with all sorts of surgical grafts, pins and amputations.”
These experimental designs led to a basic blueprint: a helpless creature who has been subjected to experimentation and inspires great sympathy. But that’s a rather basic blueprint and as such, Munch when through a number of permutations: “hundred of legs to no legs, arms, no arms, legs no arms, arms no legs, flying, floating, gas propelled, land locked, amphibian, water only, carnivore, omnivore, vegetarian, thin, fat, short, tall, etc.” And inspiration came from all over the animal kingdom (and even outside) – designs were based on “rabbits, apes, mice, rats, cats, dogs, birds, lizards, dinosaurs, frogs,reptiles, sharks, fish, alligators, even totally alien creatures.”
In time, certain elements kept repeating – large, childlike eyes, a large mouth (as the name Munch is evocative of a large, ‘munching’ mouth), an interface socket on the top of his head (the legacy of his days in the lab), amphibious and one leg/flipper. The design kept evolving until one day, Munch was born. And that was just the beginning.
Once designed, Munch had to be colored and texture mapped. Production Designer Raymond Swanland was faced with a multitude of options – “Do we want to give Munch the vibrancy of a tropical fish, the slimy harmlessness of a frog, the friendliness of a dolphin, or the mystique of a little dinosaur?” The color and texture of a creature can be very suggestive of personality traits so the decisions at hand were quite monumental. Just imagine if Munch were rainbow-colored or a healthy shade of pink or jet black. Ultimately, the right resources were decided upon to give Munch the colors and textures he has today.
Now that Munch was gaily decked out in his finest…finery, he had to be 3D modeled and animated. Immediately, Matt Aldridge, our Computer Graphics Technical Director, noticed a problem. According to Matt, “his arms were way too short so [that] he couldn’t even push the wheels in his chair or reach his mouth to play his tongue. So after some surgery in my computer Munch’s arms had grown a touch longer.” Now physically ready, Munch had to be animated.
Mauricio Hoffman, CG Animator, was faced with a critter “like nothing we have seen before, nothing that exists in our world, nothing we can directly refer to for research.” So, like the production designers before him, Mo turned to the animal kingdom for inspiration, this time for locomotion. In Mo’s words, “every different action we would like to animate we were researching a creature that would perform that action.” Kangaroos, frogs and dolphins are just a few of the species whose motions were studied to bring Munch to life
At this stage, Munch was designed, colored and textured, and animated. Only the greatest hurdle was left: giving the little bugger good gameplay attributes. Remember that interface socket headport mentioned above? Well, according to the Assistant Director, “at one point, the headport was a radio, then it was a boom box, then it was just used to hotwire machinery…Then in a flash of inspiration, Lorne came up with the idea of the implant being a sonar device that allows Munch to find other critters.” And what of the cooperative gameplay of Abe and Munch? For a while, it was considered having Munch “ride around in a backpack, commenting on Abe’s every move.” Another idea was to have Munch always hungry, “and if Abe didn’t keep him fed, he’d start complaining in a loud voice, alerting all those around him.” Obviously, we decided against that. What did determine Munch’s gameplay attributes were our own technical limitations, what was true to the character, what characteristics complemented Abe’s gameplay and what was just plain fun.
Munch was almost done – he was visually complete and gameplay-ready. There was just one crucial element left: sound. Up to the very bitter end, we recorded more and more comments to give Munch the endearing, trusting, and slightly offbeat personality originally envisioned for him.
In the end, I think we accomplished what we set out to do – create an atypical videogame protagonist that is fun to play, evokes a reaction from the player and inspires a sense of sympathy for the guy. You can’t help but play this game and feel a little bit sorry for Munch, to want to help him reclaim his dignity, his sense of self while he tries to save his race from extinction. He’s not cuddly like a puppy, he’s not voluptuous like video game heroines (well, maybe he is, but we’re not gabbits, so who are we to judge?), he’s not brawny and intense, and he’s definitely not spunky, and that’s what makes Munch…Munch – he’s one of a kind (quite literally in Munch’s Oddysee – he’s the last of his kind) yet he embodies characteristics and a plight that we all can identify with: hope, preservation, and strength in the face of great adversity.