Next Generation: OddWorld Inhabitants: Episode I [1996]

Date: December, 1996

Source: Next Generation, Issue 24, pp. 218-219.

Even though it’s not 3D, a new reworking of the Flashback genre may turn out to be an innovative 32-bit gaming experience.

It was one of the most impressive console games shown behind closed doors at E3. It was reason alone to understand why over half of Acclaim’s former Public Relations staff were now demoing products as employees of GT Interactive. It was initially called “SoulStorm,” and if it lives up to half of its potential, PlayStation owners will spend next year asking, “Crash who?”

Oddworld Inhabitants was co-founded in 1994 by Lorne Lanning, President, and Sherry McKenna, C.E.O. Lanning’s father was an engineer for Colecovision, quite possibly making him the first “second-generation” game developer. He and McKenna were both enjoying lucrative careers as special effects/computer animators, until Lanning convinced McKenna that the new 32-bit machines had the potential to take gameplay and graphics to new depths. “Most important to us was creating new types of play mechanics with a conceptual story you get attached to,” Lanning says. “Our minimal specs are the Saturn and PlayStation.” And so work began on their first game, based on Lanning’s five-part story set on an alien planet. Episode I drops the player in an alien world in the role of Abe, a member of a slave-race who works in a meat-packing plant. Accidentally, Abe discovers his masters are using his race as foodstuff, and so his eight-level adventure begins.

The game’s design is primarily side-scrolling frames similar to FlashBack, with 110 screens in the first level. But don’t let the comparison mislead you. “The most important thing to us is gameplay. There are a lot of situations in this game that are lifelike, and that’s where it’s very different,” Lanning says. “You’re going to have to understand the characters’ personalities and behaviors, not just the deadly mechanics. Understanding the characters is how you’re going to get farther along in the world.” The characters are extremely lifelike, as Abe can tip-toe by sleeping enemies, and he has a “chant” power that enables him to take possession of the mind’s of enemy characters. The player’s control then actually shifts from Abe to the enemy, and the player can use that enemy to destroy others.

Another new feature Oddworld introduces is a language element Lanning calls “gamespeak,” which he says is partially inspired by the audio puzzles of Loom, a classic LucasArts PC title. During the course of the game, the player learns to interact with other characters by giving or responding to voice cues. Using the directional pad, Abe can issue one of eight simple commands like “Wait Here” and “Follow Me.” It’s hard to believe this innovative has been kept under wraps for so long, but as Lanning explains it, “There’s a reason no one’s read about Oddworld yet. We wanted to have something to show before we started talking, to prove what we’re playing with is real.”