interview

MOM Interview: Farzad Varahramyan

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.

lcad_farzad

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”.

Almighty
This photo was kindly sent to us by Farzad Varahramyan. Here is the description provided by him: “It’s a photo of the original sculpt I did for the Almighty Raisin. It was laser scanned for accuracy and re-built in engine.”

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.

Oddworld: Story Stones

Introducing “Oddworld: Story Stones”

Today we have the privilege of unveiling the next stage of Magog on the March! For almost a year, we’ve been working hard to compile everything Oddworld in one convenient location. From dozen upon dozens of interviews, magazine articles, forum posts, and ancient, forgotten references excavated from the WayBack Machine. Our archives are growing every day. While we still have a long way to go, the Magog on the March is pushing forward, as strong as ever. And with the range of Oddworld content at our disposal, we now have the liberty to do something with it that’s worthwhile.

“Oddworld: Story Stones” is an effort to create compendious and completely sourced video dossiers of Oddworld’s varied inhabitants, culture and locales. They will be derived entirely from facts and collect everything that is currently known about each topic. Our debut instalment takes a comprehensive look at the frightening, yet enigmatic Guardian Angel character who made a brief appearance in the unaired commercial for Abe’s Oddysee. Although the Shrink was played primarily for scares—as well as a tidal swell of raw oddness—as with all the inhabitants of Oddworld, there exists an extensive history that we’ve excavated from various interviews, websites and literary sources.

Prepare to be blown away by the amazing depths of THE ODD.

For a transcript of this video, check out the drop-down box under the new “Rumor Kontrol” tab overhead, or just click here.

soulstorm

A Personal Take on Soulstorm’s Alternate Reality Game

The Magog on the March! News to cure your ARG blues!

Today our special guest, Sliglet, s’got a few words to say about this Alternate—whats-a-yer-call-it—Reality Game? The one being churned out by those chumps at Oddworld Inhabitants. Y’all know the one I mean.

Remember, neither Magog on the March or Rumor Kontrol endorse or really care too much one way or the other about Sliglet’s informed viewpoint. If you don’t like it, GET OVER IT!

Sliglet?

— N.C. Slig


DISCLAIMER: While this critique is built on facts, it portrays my own subjective opinion.

When I first heard about Soulstorm and joined the related communities, the ARG’s first phase had already started, so I only joined later, if I remember correctly, at the Message box[1] puzzle or maybe a bit later. For a long time, namely until the third phase, I had no big problems with the ARG, sure it was a bit slow sometimes, but one can bear with that. It was compensated by being dark, mysterious, vague, but not too vague and its puzzles were challenging but fair. And let’s be honest, an ARG, done by OWI? It was very exciting to see what kind of dark secrets will surface while we play this game.

I have to commend OWI for starting this project because a proper ARG takes tons of preparation and extra work from the developers and yet they decided to do it. However, sadly, there is hardly anything I can praise except these efforts.

 

spirit1
In an attempt to fill the gap between New ‘n’ Tasty and the upcoming Soulstorm, Oddworld Inhabitants has been tinkering with an ARG, which depicts the struggle of a renegade terrorist organisation fighting back against the evil Magog Cartel.

 

In my opinion, the ARG took a huge nosedive starting with its third phase and I’d like to explain the details of why I’m saying this:

– Ed, and nearly every other of OWI’s in-universe characters, are all very one-dimensional. Most of them are based on one “emotion” or goal only, which leads to them to become very repetitive and boring. There is no “character development”, as such. Ed was a cowardly whistleblower at the very beginning and he still is. If one compares his first few tweets[2] and his newest ones, there is hardly any difference between them. I can forgive that he doesn’t have much personality because that’s the point of his character, a nobody who does a lot. But there is nothing that connects us to Ed, that makes us care for him. He has episodes of anxiety and depression, but that’s about it. Another character, the revolutionary group Spirit of 1029 has stated many times how they are against propaganda, yet their tweets[3] are almost solely composed of these kinds of messages. “We will rise”, “A storm is brewing”, “Join us”, just to name a few. The only exception to this is ironically the Magog Cartel Twitter[4]. Their tweets are full of snarky and dark humor, reminiscent of the tone of the original two Oddworld games. If the aforementioned two characters were this well-executed, then while the ARG still wouldn’t be perfect, it would be much more fun to play.

– The newer puzzle rewards are abysmal compared to the work one has to do to solve them. Many of these contain vague, filler sentences that just frustrate the solver rather than provide enjoyment. As an example, it has been established early that the new SoulStorm Brew is not only flammable, but after ingestion the consumer develops a very strong addiction to it. Two days without the brew causes the addict to suffer lethal cardiac arrest. This information has been hinted at since March of 2017 and it has been confirmed in September. Yet puzzles following this revelation still tried to sell us this as new and shocking information[5]. But this is not even the most irritating example. Throughout the whole ARG we have seen the “We will rise” and “A storm is brewing” messages so many times, that the community became desensitized to them. They were no longer hype-inducing, instead they just made people sigh and immediately disregard them.

– OWI seemingly haphazardly/randomly/arbitrarily changes the ARG before our very eyes. I would have no problems with them modifying things up in the background, those puzzles and information which we haven’t discovered yet, but if something has already been revealed, then it should be left untouched or at the very least the change should be explained in-universe. A very prominent example is the second phase of the ARG. Over the course of months, we were supposed to uncover five pictures[6], which – as we later found out – were part of the game’s teaser trailer. However, one day the placeholder for the fifth picture just disappeared without any reason. To the community’s inquiries, OWI replied with “the initial phase of the ARG ended when [they] wanted to”[7]. Not only is this dishonest practice, it shows that the company was not prepared properly for this occasion.

– There have been multiple long pauses in the ARG. These were the following:

* July – December 2016 (with some minor activity in September)
* May – August 2017
* September 2017 – May 2018

 

gin6gii
The Soulstorm ARG started very strong and had a lot of support from the community. The exhaustive length of the experience, however, has created a lulling effect, and many players have since abandoned the hunt for more clues.

 

While it is indisputable that an ARG has to pause at times so development and real-life events can catch up, but in this case, neither of these pauses were communicated properly to the community. The characters just stopped posting as if they had dropped dead in their places. The lack of communication caused confusion multiple times, especially at the time of the third and longest pause. This could have been mitigated by simply having an in-universe event that causes the characters to go into hiding. For example, before the almost ten-month pause, Magog could have announced that it found the current hiding place of the Spirit of 1029, who could have released a frantic tweet explaining that they had to escape and erect a new base of operations, which will probably take a very long time. To add insult to injury, OWI had multiple times purposefully dodged questions related to the ARG’s status and one time even openly mocked a concerned ARG solver[8]. While this was done from the MagogCartel Twitter account, it still feels unnecessarily rude and unprofessional.

However, the problem that I think drove the last nail into the ARG’s coffin is the lack of direction. There is no official source from where one could comfortably start their solving career. It took the valiant efforts of multiple members of the community to make summaries, trying to give a helping hand to anyone who would like to participate. And, of course, total documentation isn’t and shouldn’t be expected to be provided, but a pointer, a nudge in the right direction or a quick recap would help the community greatly. At the time this article is written, we received “the ARG is still going on and there are older clues left unsolved” as a status report from OWI. This simply doesn’t work. The first part of the sentence is almost useless without any kind of extra information and the second part falls apart because of the previous problem. Even if people took the time to solve them, they would probably get some vague message about the oncoming revolution which equals to a laugh in their faces. This kind of vagueness is especially appalling, because in the older phases of the ARG OWI did create a recap[9]. It wasn’t perfect per se, but it was magnitudes better than the one-liner answers we get in the Official Discord.

 

pkbh4iu
Will Ed and the Spirit of 1029 achieve victory over the malicious Magog Cartel? Unless the most dedicated ARG players can find something to help motivate them forward, it looks unlikely!

 

All in all, the ARG had a lot of potential, but most of it went to waste because of completely avoidable problems. The continuous mismanagement and miscommunication made the majority of the ARG solving communities pull out their forces and because of this, only the most loyal fans remained. However, this is not the point of an ARG. An ARG should bring new people into the series, incite hype, and provide new information to the fans. In its current state, it provides neither of these. It is not exciting enough to pull in new people, it provides disappointingly few details to the loyal solvers and it lacks the distinct “Oddworld-feel”. If we would remove Brew and the Oddworldian creatures from this ARG, the remaining skeleton could fit almost any dark themed game.


References

[1] http://oddworldlibrary.net/wiki/Soulstorm_ARG_Summary#20160323
[2] https://twitter.com/edmudokon
[3] https://twitter.com/SPIRITOF1029
[4] https://twitter.com/MagogCartel
[5] http://oddworldlibrary.net/wiki/Soulstorm_ARG_Summary#20180530 - "This thing is lethal"
[6] http://web.archive.org/web/20170222211607/http://www.oddworld.com/soulstorm/
[7] https://imgur.com/fJbaXPc
[8] https://twitter.com/MagogCartel/status/968903190010847237
[9] https://us3.campaign-archive.com/?u=2b6dca21053bc375cbdad7077&id=b08e7b2d60&e=6a2b5665ee