abe's oddysee

Finding the Source: A Brief History of Oddworld’s “Lost Code”

Earlier this week, Oddworld Inhabitants made a groundbreaking announcement that a huge cache of archived Oddworld material had been found, which included the source code for Abe’s Oddysee, something that was believed to be lost—or, rather, unworkable—for many years. Today I thought we would take a moment to talk about the bewildering history of Oddworld’s source code, what it means, and the implications of this announcement.

ssae0006
This “HD Screenshot” of Abe’s Exoddus, which was used for promotional purposes, is believed to utilise the original, uncompressed, high-quality assets.

When Oddworld Inhabitants partnered with JAW, rumour quickly spread around the internet concerning a polished, HD upgrade of the two original Oddworld titles. Upon shaking hands with Stewart Gilray, Lorne Lanning handed the entire Oddworld archive over to JAW, which included thousands of discs worth of footage—at least 15 TB of data were collected by the team, all of which was preserved by Lanning et al during the closure of Oddworld Inhabitants in 2005. On those discs were models, assets, audio, and documents, ranging from Abe’s Oddysee to the unreleased Brutal Ballad of Fangus Klot.[1] Gilray also declared that JAW had access to the source code from the first two games:

We’ve got the source code to both Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus. However, we don’t have final PSone code for Oddysee, and no PC code, but we have final PC code for Exoddus, and no PSone code. So we’ve got a mix.[2]

Of course, one must then beg the question that if JAW had access to the source code all along, why would they opt to build a remake from the ground up when a polished version of Oddysee and Exoddus would have performed with equal eminence, if not more? The answer is one of practicality and accessibility. In simple terms, the software used to create Oddysee and Exoddus is so archaic when compared to modern technology that the team could not find a way to work with the archived source. [3][4] JAW even reached out to some members of the original design team to try and understand how the old builds operated, yet even these high-profile veterans were stumped with the state of the source code.

One of the guys now works at Google in Munich, one works with Rad Game Tools, and another has just done some work with Lorne Lanning on his non-game related project.[5]

We must remember that the original Oddworld games were a helter-skelter mess from a design perspective. While the final products embody the spirit of two of the greatest digital experiences of all time, the men and women who were building these games were not seasoned game designers, and would do whatever they needed to do to achieve a result. As such, the code that is left behind was not tailored for posterity’s sake and appears to be quite unorthodox.

The abysmal state of the source code was further confirmed earlier this year when Truant Pixel re-created The Shrink for a new PS4 theme, and discovered challenges in transferring the original build of the geometrically complex character to new software. In layman’s terms, the team had to “selectively isolate and rebuild the model components”, and in some cases had to cover up missing pieces with clever replicas. In the end, it took “a couple of weeks” to update the single model of the Shrink into something that could be manipulated and used in modern software.[6] How long then would it take to update the entire game?

 

boardroom-feat
New ‘n’ Tasty was made because the original source code could not be easily manipulated for modern engines.

 

According to Alex Carroll of Oddworld Inhabitants, Square One is the company responsible for finally cracking the code that might allow the source to be manipulated in a more convenient manner. Carroll claimed that the narrative of the discovery was quite fascinating, saying further that:

We’re working closely with Square One who are technical wizards at this sort of stuff. Some of the source was actually missing but they’ve done an amazing job at getting it all recompiled, given the age of the tools and the code.[7]

Beyond the complexity of the source code, however, there is also the issue of the raw assets themselves. While there a couple of exceptions, such as the large matte painting of RuptureFarms, which was a digital construction produced by Steven Olds and used for the FMV sequences of Abe’s Oddysee, the majority of the assets from the original two games lack the quality to be updated into anything acceptable by modern standards. For this reason, not a single code of the original game was inherited by New ’n’ Tasty’s updated engine.

The old backgrounds are 640 × 240. We really can’t go backwards in quality.[8]

What does it mean, therefore, that Oddworld Inhabitants now has open access to the original source code of Abe’s Oddysee? Even if the code can now be manipulated, would it even be worthwhile to attempt a polished version of the two original games when the quality can only be improved so much. It has certainly been proved—take a look at the Happy Hol-ODD Days Christmas Card for proof—that the old sprites and animations can potentially be used to create a familiar, if limited, experience, but what is the extent of these ancient assets? How far can they be feasibly stretched? Is it really possible to bring a venerable version of Abe HD to the next generation of consoles and appease those who were disheartened with New ’n’ Tasty? I’m not sure it will be so easy, but time will tell.

One thing is for sure, we can now finally stop quipping about how the source code fell out of Lanning’s back pocket during brunch.

References

[1] Stewart Gilray, The Making of Oddworld Stranger's Wrath HD (https://magogonthemarch.com/the-making-of-oddworld-strangers-wrath-hd/)
[2] Stewart Gilray, Oddworld Forums — Oddbox: AO & AE at higher resolution (http://www.oddworldforums.net/showpost.php?p=473849&postcount=20)
[3] "Glitch", Oddworld Forums — Happy Hol-ODD Days 2011! (http://www.oddworldforums.net/showpost.php?p=523883&postcount=51)
[4] Lorne Lanning, Reddit AMA with Lorne Lanning & Stewart Gilray  (https://magogonthemarch.com/qa/reddit-ama-2012/)
[5] Stewart Gilray, A glimpse into the future of Oddworld  (https://www.destructoid.com/a-glimpse-into-the-future-of-oddworld-248708.phtml)
[6] Unknown Truant Pixel Employee, Oddworld: Rebuilding "The Shrink" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jwSdzKcJBM&feature=youtu.be)
[7] Alex Carroll, The Official Oddworld Inhabitants Discord (Posted by OWI_Alex on 5/12/17 at 2:10 PM)
[8] William Bunce-Edwards, Oddworld Forums — Abe HD (http://www.oddworldforums.net/showpost.php?p=527739&postcount=154)