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.

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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.

interview

MOM Interview: Michael Bross

Michael Bross, a veteran composer in the video game industry, is best known amongst Oddworld fans for being the musical mastermind behind Munch’s Oddysee and Stranger’s Wrath. More recently, he did the soundtrack for New ‘n’ Tasty and was involved at the beginning of Soulstorm‘s development. We want to thank him for taking time out to answer our questions.

bross

Magog on the March: You were the musical mastermind behind Munch’s Oddysee and Stranger’s Wrath, and you also returned to compose the New ‘n’ Tasty soundtrack. Did you contribute to the Oddworld franchise in any other way, such as helping to develop characters, locations, ideas or concepts? I ask because you’ve stated previously that you write short stories.

Michael Bross: I also contributed to sound design along with vocalizations of the some of the characters. The vocalizations really helped shape the characters themselves and who they are, so this was really a fun part of development. We had a lot of laughs.

When recording voices, I sometimes would wrote some of the scripts for the game characters at some of the locations in Stranger’s Wrath, though the design team handled most of that work. Really, most of my contributions are on the music and sound side of those games.

Magog on the March: You have said that Oddworld Inhabitants picked you out of 150 applicants. What were Oddworld Inhabitants looking for in a composer? What made you the right candidate?

Michael Bross: Actually, I was picked out of approximately 500 applicants. They were looking for someone who could conjure the right emotions through the music while also creating something unique. For me, luckily, I had a lot of experience working on games already, so that made it easier for me to hit the ground running there.

Magog on the March: Apparently, you weren’t familiar with the first two Oddworld games during the production of Munch’s Oddysee. What was Lorne Lanning’s expectations for the Munch’s Oddysee soundtrack?

Michael Bross: I did have some familiarity with the earlier games but I didn’t necessarily always follow the musical formula that was chiseled out before. Munch and Stranger, both being in 3D worlds, allowed me to think about how to approach music differently for those games. I did get some inspiration from the earlier soundtracks but Lorne also encouraged me to do something that was my own.

Magog on the March: Were you ever in contact with Ellen Meijers or Josh Gabriel? Did they influence your direction with the Oddworld soundtracks at all?

Michael Bross: I met Josh when I initially interviewed at Oddworld. With Ellen, I did talk to her a few months later but we didn’t have any discussions related to the projects. Josh and I still keep in touch here and there. Really, both Ellen and Josh contributed so much to Oddworld in the early days.

Magog on the March: You have described Lorne Lanning as a “friend” and “brother”. What is it like to work with him?

Michael Bross: He is inspiring to work with, and I have also found he challenges how I think about the work I do. There’s so much I’ve learned from working with him. He can also be tough and demanding, but I am grateful for the time I’ve gotten to work with him.

Magog on the March: What is your favourite game in the Oddworld franchise?

Michael Bross: For me, it would be Stranger’s Wrath. Not sure I can really be objective here, though. In working on the games, I form a different relationship to them as compared to fans of the games.

Magog on the March: Who is your favourite Oddworld character? Why?

Michael Bross: Probably Stranger. I like how he transforms from being a loner to a hero. Also, I really enjoy the Clakkerz. There’s so much humor around them.

Magog on the March: What was your approach to re-creating the soundtrack for the Abe’s Oddysee remake?

Michael Bross: There was a balancing act between respecting the original material while also doing the new. Really, creating the new elements was partially driven by the fact that the original source assets didn’t exist anymore for parts of the game, so instead of trying to re-create, we decided to do something fresh.

Magog on the March: Providing it doesn’t go against your NDA, could you tell us anything about your involvement in the upcoming Soulstorm? How does your work compare to your previous Oddworld compositions?

Michael Bross: I worked on the first phase of the project and created what I hope will be some exciting material for Oddworld’s fans. From that point, though, I left the project to pursue some other endeavors I was interested in.

Magog on the March: What is next for Michael Bross?

Michael Bross: I’m doing a lot of work on VR experiences these days, all revolving around Oculus. Also, I recently produced some work on Tencent’s Honor of Kings, which from what I understand is the biggest game in China with over 200 million players per month. And there is some new work of my own I’ve been in the studio and working on. Not ready to talk about that yet but soon.

soulstorm

EGX 2017: Lorne Lanning Interview with Caddicarus [Transcript]

Lorne Lanning’s recent interview with YouTuber Caddicarus proved to be most fruitful, as, for the first time in many years, we are offered a taste of the wider Oddworld lore. We have decided to transcribe the interview for archival purposes, and for the sake of legibility, as the presentation of the video itself lends itself to some confusion, due to the editing style and the impromptu nature of the interviewer.

Concerning Abe’s Exoddus: The ‘Bonus Game’ [5:45]

Exoddus was something that time, relationships, the marketplace, partners—it was something we did in 9 months. Abe’s Oddysee took us three and a half years. Exoddus was intended to be the second game of the Quintology. You know, time and circumstances shaped into something that wasn’t, which is why we called it a ‘bonus game’.

With the success of New ‘n’ Tasty, we asked the audience before that what game would you like us to do next if we were doing this. We didn’t think New ‘n’ Tasty would be as successful as it was [6:56] and we didn’t necessarily … But it did great. And it allowed us to up the budget so the audience came back and said: “We want to see Exoddus remade.” And we were like “if we’re going to do that what if we did the way it was originally intended”.

So the idea of Brew, the idea of what was happening around the brew, that wind up in Exoddus, except it got way watered-down. It was supposed to be something much more, we were planning to build a new engine and all this stuff. So that’s why we called it a ‘bonus game’ because it wasn’t what we intended it to be but the team did an amazing job by delivering it.

 

Concerning the Oddworld Quintology [7:52]

We said: “What if we could get back to what the original intent was with the Oddworld Quintology; really Abe’s primary story?” So Abe was this character who’s gonna drive [the story], he was the primary hero through the Quintology, but then we were like “oh, as we’re gonna add on his sidekicks, we’re going to feature them.” And that’s not necessarily the most wise thing to do.

We started this twenty-three years ago, we launched Abe twenty years ago. We’re gonna approach this in a more technologically agile way. We have some ideas; brew was at the core of it; brew was always supposed to be highly-flammable. I thought we could do it in 1998—thank god we didn’t try. I designed how it works back then, I just never had the chance to implement it. So it really felt like a highly volatile, flammable liquid.

So we said: “Okay, let’s start here, building on top of Unity, and we get to start where New ‘n’ Tasty left off, but we’re going to re-do a lot of the technology.” We didn’t have a whole staff who was trying to make art, or trying to do level designs ahead of where the code is. We said: “We really need to find the synergy of this and stay true to Abe, right?” Abe is really about followers, empathy, puzzles. So how do we do that but really turn the volume up to eleven on the genre? So I call it a platformer game and then push that dynamic too.

It’s a reset button on the story, but the story of Abe in Abe’s Oddysee and New ’n’ Tasty, that fable—it was really like a fable, a slave begins toppling a major system of oppression. We said: “Let’s keep the fable, but let’s get it running with 21st Century technology,” because that was on with where the [partner relationships were] for that point in time. Then we go forward and we go: “The rest was not.” So let’s use that opportunity to get back to what [the Quintology] was. And if we do it right, hopefully, the audience was with us.

 

Concerning Hand of Odd [11:06]

First, RTS was largely the same model as I perceived it as a genre, which was two opposing sides depleting an environment until there’s nothing left and whoever uses that environment in a weaponized way to beat the other wins in an apocalyptic landscape. “You won! … in an apocalyptic landscape.”

But I was like: “What if one side was harnessing the forces of nature the way Yoda would and the other side was doing the industrial model.” So one is growing, one is raping and harvesting. And the idea of Hand of Odd was that balance. So one was empowered not by chopping down trees but would use the power of the spiritual energy in trees [which would become] something you could harness, a power, and the other tribe is trying to chop it down. So you had this different dichotomy of conflict, introducing more opposing approaches to a single RTS playing field. So that was Hand of Odd.

One of the reasons it never happened, I remember because I was in a men’s room at LAX. And standing next to me was Bobby Kotick, the CEO of Activision. And I was like: “Oh, hey Bobby, long time no see”. He was like: “Oh hey, hey, what are you guys doing?” And I said: “You know, we’re about to do an RTS game”. He goes: “Don’t do it, there’s no market there anymore”. When he said that I just totally got terrified, because Bobby Kotick is no dummy, like that was before he was multi-billionaire. We started to get a little cold-feet about that idea if the head of a major publisher was going: “Look the genre is dying.” So it was really the men’s room visit that killed it for me.

 

Concerning Wildlife [13:27]

In the Oddworld universe, [there is more diversity in the breeds of wildlife just like the Glukkons and Mudokons]. In this title, you’re more focused on the conflict with the Industrials. You’re going to find more of the old world, of the real secrets of Oddworld in this game. But there will be fewer encounters with wildlife and stuff. This is more the birth of a revolution that finds a lost history.

 

Concerning Mudomo & Mudanchee Trials in Abe’s Exoddus [14:17}

We only had nine months to get [Abe’s Exoddus] done. [Mudomo and Mudanchee weren’t] in the original plan. It was like: “What do we do? We don’t have time to create new NPCs! Well, re-use Scrabs, re-use Paramites!” It’s practical stuff, man. Someone’s like: “That was a great idea!” And you’re like: “Not really, it was kind of, you know, we needed to fix the flat tyre and that was the only pump we had.” Really practical choices.

 

Concerning Soulstorm Plot [15:00]

We’re picking up not with the 301 possibilities of how many guys every different player saved. We’re assuming that you did a perfect run.

 

Concerning Soulstorm’s New Gameplay Mechanics [15:23]

Let’s say, in the past, the puzzles, even in New ‘n’ Tasty, Abe didn’t have an inventory system. So the puzzles were more like, you need this, to solve this, now. So you need to get this, to achieve that power now, because you’re going to use it here. But what that did is it made it very fixed and limited in your options.

All of those powers and all those abilities is something that should be available to the player: a) When they achieved it, and; b) When they choose to expend it. So the value of a certain power like the Shrykull is something that you can accumulate. It’s your choice when to use it. But we’ve created so many more abilities that there are just very few things where one solution is the way. As far as I’m aware, so far, there’s none of them.

We really wanted that flexibility of the player in more of what you would have expect in—this is not an RPG—but it’s more of what you would expect in an RPG, where you go through, you accumulate usages of power, potions, whatever it is, and then you execute them when you want. Maybe you make some bad choices, but it was all the player’s agency to make that decision. That’s where we wanted to get to: It’s all the player’s choice.

 

Concerning Abe’s Pony Tale [16:52]

It’s really technological resolution and budget, right? So when we did New ‘n’ Tasty, we didn’t really have the budget to go in and re-change all the databases, so we had the ability to take them up to a certain level where it made sense. So if you look at the cover of New ‘n’ Tasty, Abe’s ponytail was still like: “What is that? Kind of like a dirty sock.”

But Abe was always imagined as—it was talked about, you know, [Munch’s Oddysee] had Labor Eggs—[Mudokons] were descended from birds. We descended from monkeys, right; they descended from birds, so they still hatch. [The pony tail is made up of] feathers. It was always intended to be feathers because … feathers were tough. I mean we could have had a feather object instead, but it just ended up being like a limp sock and we stayed with it.

 

Concerning Mudokon Feathers [17:55]

If you keep a fish in a tank, he will only grow a certain size. But if you get him out of the tank back into the wild then, all of a sudden, he can become twenty-five-foot shark. The environment shapes your natural ability to bloom.

So the idea with the Mudokons was that they’ve been so, basically, enslaved and misinformed as to who they really are. And that’s part of the Soulstorm story, it’s re-learning who they really are. To me this is a parallel with humanity.

 

Concerning Abe’s Stitches & his Ability to Chant [18:22]

Abe has something special about him, which leads to why he has stitches, which leads to how empathetic he is. And in that empathy, he’s able to sort of embrace something that is part of their natural heritage and become something that the other guys aren’t necessarily encountering. And that empathy, in the beginning, is what led to him getting these stitches in the first place. They were put there to save his life, which is different from all the others because it seemed like a different problem. So the stitches are at the heart at Abe.

 

Concerning the Depth of the Oddworld Universe [19:10]

If you want to try and build a property that’s going to resonate with people as deeply as Game of Thrones does, then it has to have this depth that the audience has to feel like they can continually uncover it. But if they start pealing a few levels of the onion and that there’s nothing there, then it’s really hard to have it lasting; it’s really hard to get that really passionate fanbase. I knew that in the beginning.

I was really into population control, propaganda, misinformation, disinformation, how populations are controlled, how people are ignorant of that. And how the news and the television shows and the newspapers, they’re not telling you anything. I was interested in taking that, and I was like: “This is a deep passion of mine for many levels.” And I think it resonates with where the world is at today, not necessarily that it’s aware of it, but I’m trying to be a bit predictive. Like Abe was kind of like an original 99 percenter, right? When we released New ‘n’ Tasty, people are going “Whoa, twenty-years ago, the steam still holds up, more relevant today.” It wasn’t psychic; this is just well-researched.

If I’m going to engage in a property, I want to feel the richness to know that the creator put a lot more in it than I’m able to uncover. And if it’s in themes of what I’m interested in or get provoked by, then I’m going to have a deeper connection to it. That’s what I was trying to nail, people having a deeper connection to it.

You can tell when a creator gets bored. We see it in sequels and movies all the time. So if you don’t have a deep passion for doing it, you’re not going to be very glad in five years. The DNA nucleus of what it is has an infinite possibility to stretch out from because it’s actually deep and rich and based on something real.

 

Concerning Abe & Playstation [20:25]

It’s funny that people have this strong association with Abe and PlayStation. They often thought that Sony was really involved and the fact is Sony wasn’t. They were very generous, they put us on a disk for free in the beginning, a lot of people saw that, cause it went out to PlayStation owners. Some things like that happened, a demo went out. Things like that happened and so they were really generous but they weren’t giving us money. We didn’t have a real deal besides a license to do it.

 

Concerning the Humor in Soulstorm [22:38]

We said it will be a little dark. There has to be [some dark humor, too], and even light humor.

 

Concerning the Soulstorm Teaser Trailer [22:55]

You’ll learn later in the game [that] what you’ve seen in that trailer [are] snippets of an original business plan of the brew solution being marketed to get financing from upper-higher finance groups in the shadowy world of the pyramid [23:09]. It’s embedded with the ton of information to be decrypted.

 

Concerning Quarma in Soulstorm [23:12]

So what we always wanted to do, which was very difficult to try to achieve, is that Abe is aware of the presence of you, the guiding force over his life. Now, in this game—I mean, time and energy will shape what the final product it—but it was important to us that he reflected more of: “What is that force that’s guiding me? It’s like letting me get there, but is really doing with what’s in-sync with who I am? Or is it doing something opposite?” And then it would have some cascading effects, I would think, as that proceeds.

When we first made Abe get chopped up in the bad ending, there was so much opposition internally, in the company. Because they were like: “I played this whole game and if I play the game I want to win, I don’t want to be told that I killed the guy because I won!” And I was like: “It was how you won. You were an asshole, you deserved to have that happened, why don’t you try playing as a better person.” And they were like: “That’s ridiculous! People are going to hate that!” So there was all kinds of vehemence against that idea.

We were like: “Well, we want to enable that, but we want to have a greater sense of consequence, a greater impact on the psychology of the character.”

 

Concerning Abe and the Oddworld Social Pyramid [24:24]

So when people’s food prices change because of what Abe did, that’s where Abe is going to start being branded as a bad guy. And the propaganda will be shaped [against him].

 

Concerning the Guardian Angel [24:54]

Right now it’s [just a Playstation] theme.

What the Guardian originally was is something we never got to do, cause we never so much got into the Mudokon lifestyle. So that was who a Mudokon would be sent to see if they started to have moral problems at work. It was like a robot face analyzing psychologically what you need to get productive. Sometimes [saws and syringes are] motivating. He’d say: “Get an ‘A’ on your test or we’re going to pull some teeth.”

 

Concerning JAW [25:45]

It was a great relationship. Everyone on that team did a great job. But it was hell on me. It was strictly UK-based. It was very difficult. I got Bell’s Palsy at the end of New ‘n’ Tasty. First, my face on this side got paralyzed, a hundred percent. And, fortunately, I got that resolved, then this side went paralyzed. So, fortunately, I’ve regained some of my facial control, but that was because I ran myself too low, too hard, too long, and I’m not getting any younger, in case you didn’t notice.

We had to bring most of the development close to home. Health was a major concern. We felt great about JAW for this title, and that’s a nice thing to take away.

 

Concerning Unity [26:56]

Everything [has been updated] because this is physics-based rendering. The fire, even smoke trails, they’re dynamically lit.

I have to give Unity a lot of credit. I think it’s really robust, really well-engineered software at the core of it. That doesn’t mean you can buy it out of the box and make what we made, you have to put millions of dollars of code on top of it. But it doesn’t crash with what we’re pumping through it.

soulstorm

Soulstorm: Picking up the Dropped Threads

We at Magog on the March have been thinking about Soulstorm a lot over the past few days and have noticed a number of parallels and homages to pieces of lore that were dropped from finished games—notably Munch’s Oddysee—or tidbits offered in interviews by Lorne Lanning over the years. We decided to whip up a curt image depicting all of the elements that we’ve come across.

Have we missed any?