Story of an Odd World [2003]

Date: December, 2003

Source: DeMaria, R.,& Wilson, J. L. High Score! The Illustrated History of Electronic Games. 2nd ed. McGraw-Hill Publishing Co.

When Lorne Lanning saw his first example of computer graphics, he knew. “I knew that was the future, and it was my future,” he tells us. Perhaps that recognition was due in part to the influence of his father, who was in the navy and worked on nuclear submarines. “We were still drooling in Pampers,” says Lanning. “When he’d come home with a transistor and tell us how this little thing used to take rooms full of vacuum tubes, and we’d say, ‘What?'” When Lanning was in his teens, his father went to work at Coleco. Meanwhile, Lanning was sneaking into bars and drinking in order to play arcade games like Asteroids and Missile Command.

Many years later, as a painter and student at the school of Visual Arts, he became dissatisfied with photo-realistic paintings and illustrations. “They were like Polaroids—no sound, no movement. I wanted to create living fantasy worlds that looked believable.” He packed his bags and moved from New York City to Los Angeles and enrolled at Cal Arts to study visual effects and traditional animation techniques.

In 1987, after completing his studies, he found that there was very little work for a computer graphics artist. He did, however, land a job at TRW, working on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program, sometimes referred to by the press as “Star Wars.” Lanning reveals. “Working on space visualization graphics allowed me to get a glimpse of what was happening on the super high end of simulations as well as real-time databases the military was using to simulate F-14s, for instance. It was mind-blowing. I was aware of how the military blazed the trail for technology, so I could see that these big expensive simulations were going to become your average consumer video game experience in time. I saw virtual reality, the ancestors of today’s multiplayer worlds—the military was doing that long ago with tanks, planes, ships, and submarines all in the same database.”

Lanning eventually went to work at Los Angeles-based effects house Rhythm & Hues (the creators of the famous Coca Cola Bears, among many other projects). At first, he was told he should play the role of art director, but he wanted to be a technical director. “Only computer programmers were in that role.” Ultimately breaking the mold, Lanning spent a couple of years honing his CG chops in animation, choreography, texture mapping, and other techniques that he would eventually employ in making games. He was learning while waiting for the right time. That time came with the advent of the CD-ROM and 32-bit graphics. Lanning finally started on what he really wanted to do, to make storytelling—Storydwelling®—worlds. He approached Sherry McKenna, an award-winning film, commercial, and location-based special effects producer, and proposed forming a game company. Her response? “Why do I care?” McKenna was not into computer games, which she considered incapable of producing the results she was used to in film and location-based entertainment. Lanning, however, is nothing if not impassioned. He presented a plan to McKenna that involved story, characters you care about, and graphics that were close to movie quality. It was 1994, and Oddworld Inhabitants was born. Lanning and McKenna have run a successful company, based in San Luis Obispo, California, ever since.

Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee® was the company’s first product, a highly imaginative story and game with, of all things, a character who didn’t fight or wield a weapon. It’s one thing to have a great technology and superior art and animation, which Abe did, but it’s another to have brilliant and original game design. And Abe had that, too. The game played like a series of logic puzzles that could only be solved by precise movements and appropriate use of Abe’s unusual abilities, which included sneaking in shadows and chanting to possess the minds of some enemies. Abe could also run, jump, and climb—much in the mold of Prince of Persia—and the game made greate use of his abilities.

Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus® was a worthy sequel to the first game, and added a few new wrinkles. It was much bigger and in some ways trickier, although the main character was more or less the same and the basic game play remained. Another feature, which began in the first game and has evolved in later products, was the concept of GameSpeak®, the ability of Oddworld’s characters to communicate with each other and to work cooperatively. Many of the puzzles in Abe’s Oddysee, and to an even greater extent in Oddworld’s later games, required the player to find ways to communicate with other characters in the game, and to control them purely by the use of cleverly designed word commands.

In Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee™, Oddworld introduced a new character, Munch, and their first fully 3D world for the Xbox. Munch is a far more ambitious project than the original Abe’s Oddysee, and still retains Lanning’s vision of storytelling and the highest production values.

But is Lanning content? No way. His standards are high, and he has yet to hit his own ultimate mark. More to come from Oddworld…