Date: February 2016 Source: Play, Issue 266, pp. 76-79.
The Making Off… Abe’s Oddysee
The oddest protagonist in gaming was designed in an endeavour to make us care about pixels in a way no other game had. In making Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, creator Lorne Lanning looked to the past to carve out a future…
Oddworld Inhabitants’ first game was a strange concoction. A game that was, in turns: base, childish, immature, nostalgic, meaningful, clever and stunning. Much like its protagonist, it was an unlikely hero for the people and the ideas it represented, and yet it managed this feat flawlessly. It was released in 1997 rather quietly (not by design) and though its presence lingers on, like many revered games from yesteryear (Contra, Super Mario 64, et al), it is more surprising than not to discover a fellow fan. And yet the game and the name of its creators still command huge levels of respect and adoration: in Rolling Stone magazine’s ‘A-Z of Cult’ the Oddworld universe was its ‘Letter O’: the only videogame franchise on the list. It’s somewhat of a double-edged sword, admitting that Abe’s Oddysee has a fanatic, if smaller, fanbase, but it proves that while Abe is a rare sight among gaming’s greats, he thoroughly deserves to be there. The game began in the mind of Oddworld Inhabitants founder Lorne Lanning as a means to connect with a character in a videogame. “Early game designers will tell you story was never their goal, it’s how you got to that goal that was important. I started by thinking about it more as a living life form, so I started with a script,” he says. From there, he explains he began to think about how best to tell this story, in what format and in what presentational style. “I had been thinking about Abe for a long time. I had lots of notes and stories about him and I knew that I wanted to make a side-scrolling platforming game because those were the ones that made me feel connected to the character.”
He explained his reasoning further, citing Flashback and the original Prince Of Persia as progenitors to the feeling he describes as being the protagonist’s “guardian angel”, rather than playing as them from a first-person viewpoint or watching over their shoulder in third-person. The side-on view tasked the player with the responsibility of knowing what dangers were lurking around Abe and figuring out how best to tackle them. Lanning highlights that this kind of responsibility made an impact on you, the player, when the character died in a way that could never be reproduced in any other format. But Lanning is also keen to point out that connection didn’t just come from the character’s death. Abe was colourful and idiotic, endearingly so. When you tried to throw something when you’d run out of projectiles Abe would look to the screen and shrug, making a noise that suggests, ‘No can do, buddy’. He could fart, and then laugh at his own flatulence and when Abe hit a wall he tumbled over and snarled as he rose, angry that you allowed it to happen. Then, of course, there was Gamespeak, a mechanic that allowed you to interact with the residents of Oddworld. Enabling you to talk to your fellow Mudokons and guide them to safety produced the dual benefit of creating a simple yet deep game mechanic while also helping you to connect with those poor souls – your guardian angel role extended to Abe’s burdened brothers, since their fate was also in your hands.
This is all well and good, but connections to characters are fine only if you have the gameplay to back it up, which brings us back to the origins of the game as a platformer. Every screen could potentially be broken down into grids, where the player knew exactly where Abe would be standing after taking a single step forward, or how far he’d jump when you pressed the ‘hop’ button. Shadows, an important aspect of the sneaking mechanic, had clearly defined edges so you would never be caught out. Pebbles would fall from the screen above, highlighting where you could jump up to another ledge. Sligs, the game’s main enemies, could see across the screen and a single shot from their guns would slay poor Abe. Over time, you learned these rules to build up a picture of what the game expected of you, upping the ante and mixing previously isolated mechanics. Eventually you would experience chase sequences where you would have to run, roll, jump and roll again – all the while your heart would be pounding, but, throughout it all, you knew exactly when every button needed to be pressed, so if you failed, you had only yourself to blame. But that was all standard platforming, just done to a very high standard. The other thing that set Abe’s Oddysee apart from its peers was the ‘possession’ system, whereby chanting for a short period of time (holding L2 and R2) enabled you to take control of a nearby Slig, giving you access to a whole host of new challenges and solutions. Shooting other Sligs, for instance, became problematic when other Mudokons were in the way, but by using Gamespeak to shout ‘Look out!’, the Mudokons would cower, allowing you to fire freely over their heads.
And what of the world of Oddworld? The surroundings gave off as much character as the characters themselves, existing as pre-rendered backgrounds behind animated sprites. RuptureFarms, the industrial abattoir and the game’s main setting, was grimy, bloody and gritty. The Mudokon temple felt ancient and wild, the sound of your feet grinding dirt and dry leaves selling it. Even the incidental details on a silo in the background spattered by blood from the caracasses falling past it testified to the keen eye of the artists. In respect to the game’s longevity and the people who still sing its praises today, Lanning says, “[The game] being hard gave them something to sink their teeth into, but I think it was the world and its characters that drew them in and kept them there.” But Lanning admits that he didn’t like how difficult the final game was. He explains that the hand-drawn sprites, while practical with the technology they had available, made adjustments difficult to the point of frustration. “If you make an animation quicker to give the player more time to react then it looks awkward, so you have to balance what looks good versus what plays good.” In the end he was pleased that Just Add Water remade the game because it meant Lanning could see the difficulty curve that he had always wanted for the game so people who wanted to play out the story wouldn’t be turned off by the harsh difficulty. That remake, New ‘N’ Tasty, was born out of adoration for the original by a team that loved Oddworld enough to convince Lanning to let Abe come out of retirement. CEO and founder Stewart Gilray says that the essential ingredient of Abe’s Oddysee is the humour, without which it just wouldn’t be an Abe game. There were a few caveats, though. “There were a few things we needed to [change], the biggest of which was probably the ability to control multiple Mudokons as you couldn’t in Abe’s Exoddus. We pulled that mechanic into New ‘N’ Tasty because one of the biggest criticisms I think was that you had to speak to and control each slave one at a time.” As fans, making quality of life changes occasionally proves to be painful, but at least in this instance they were perfectly justified. But underneath the clever mechanics and subtle design is a very serious message, one that Lanning is only too pleased to discuss. He points out the negative portrayal of corporate greed in the game. “For me, as an artistic spirit, I wanted to reflect those things but I didn’t want to make a documentary,” he says. “If you get into it on a superficial level then you’re more likely to go deeper by yourself.” Hence the game, and he continues to bemoan governments and civil cotnrol and hopes that the efforts of he and his peers in the videogame industry don’t go unappreciated. It’s a game of layers, then, as all the best ones are: solid mechanics built on top of a solid design built on top of solid desire and passion. It’s a game that wanted to communicate a message and had a great time doing it, and arguably succeeded. The recent years have not been kind to Oddworld Inhabitants and it is very unlikely that we’ll ever see the studio put out another game quite as defining as Abe’s Oddysee, owing in part to Lorne Lanning’s public dissatisfaction with the videogame industry. But if it is to be the studio’s pinnacle then it is quite a pinnacle indeed.
THE BUTT OF ALL JOKES
Bum gasses are universally hilarious, aren’t they?
By simply pressing X, Abe could be made to pop one off, causing him and the player endless amusement. But Stewart Gilray says that when making changes to the original design during development of New ‘N’ Tasty, the issue wrinkled a few noses. “One thing that was discussed was the farts,” he tells us. “Someone on the team, who shall remain nameless, always felt the farts were moronic, but the rest of us were like, ‘Are you crazy!? That is part of Abe!'”