Retro Gamer: The History of Oddworld [2013]

The History of Oddworld [Hosted by Retro Gamer]

Date: September 2013

Interviewer: David Crookes

Interviewees: Lorne Lanning & Stewart Gilray

Source: David Crookes, "The History of Oddworld", Retro Gamer, issue 120, pp.66-71.

With a remake on the way, David Crookes talks to Lorne Lanning about the impact of Abe’s Oddysee and the rest of a series that just fell short of its planned quintology.

A character who can break wind is always a winner. Even if that character is an alien with bulbous, bloodshot eyes, a high ponytail of hair made from feathers and a skinny, almost malnourished torso; the ability to let one go, while undoubtedly disgusting, is yet all too endearing to ignore.

It may not be a tool employed by many other gaming characters, but perphaps Sonic, Mario and even Laura could give it a go. Then again they have not quite endured the life of Abe, star of the Oddworld games, whose backstory would make noises emit from all but the toughest of bottoms.
Abe’s Days are spent scrubbing floors and suffering heartless beatings from Sligs, the backbone of a repressive society’s industrial security team. Things take a rather sinister turn when Abe accidentally discovers that he and his fellow Mudokon workers are not merely slaves, but fodder for the machines used at the vast Rupture Farms food processing plant where they toil each day.
Lucky then that Abe emerges as the ‘chosen one” and is able to pursue the ousting of dictator Mulluck the Glukkon and his evil regime, thereby freeing the downtrodden from their horrific plight.
Today, such determination to stick one to ‘The Man’ and spark an uprising would undoubtedly involve Twitter. Technology-free Abe treads a rather more conventional path, stomping around on foot, meeting other slaves in person and cheerly urging them to “follow me” – but not too closely, you would hope.

“From a story perspective, all of the Oddworld stories were inspired from the dirty deeds of the dark side of globalisation,” explains Lorne Lanning, who co-founded American developer Oddworld Inhabitants with fellow special effects and computer animation expert Sherry McKenna. “And it was the stories that convinced Sherry to get involved and do this whole thing with me.”
Work began on the plot in January 1995. “We took big inspiration from Flashback, Out Of This World and Myst, and it worked well,” Lorne continues. “We started to create an intriguing world.” Ideas were bounced off designer Paul O’Connor and the crew to work out what would work and what could be altered should production hit any issues.
Originally, the idea was to call the game SoulStorm, but other games at the time had the word ‘Soul’ in them so a new moniker was found to avoid confusion. There were also initial thoughts over making the game 3D, but this was scrapped in favour of 2D, even though the advert of the 32-bit consoles showed a market going the other way.
The game drew on the gaming styles of old – right down to an 8-bit flick-screen mechanic – and that was due to Lorne’s belief that there was still mileage left in 2D gaming. Lorne had also been working with 3D for the previous decade and didn’t believe the crop of 3D games on the PlayStation were outstanding enough to prompt a switch.
Still, the assets were built in 3D. The bitmaps for the game were pre-rendered and this, in a sense, produced 2.5D with rich image depth and detail. “We didn’t want to launch ‘low poly world’ to establish the first impression of the Oddworld Universe,” Lorne says, revealing that the plan to build a five-part story – the Oddworld Quintology – was foremost in his mind.
As well as beautiful visuals and slick cut-scenes that blended into the gameplay, a major part of Oddworld was the feature Gamespeak. It allowed Abe to talk, whistle and, yes, fart, and it was crucial for gameplay and for humour. Seldom failing to raise a smile, it was seen as so important that it was included in the demo Lorne hawked around to publishers to whip up interest and investment in the game.

The debut title also had an artificial intelligence routine called Aware Lifeforms in Virtual environments (or ALIVE for short). This controlled the actions of the game’s creatures according to the situation they were faced with and the type of character they were. Abe could therefore decide to solve some puzzles and ignore others, and the player could even trick Sligs into shooting each other.
Abe could also chant and possess other characters, using them to solve puzzles or carry out a killing. Although Lorne wanted shooting in the game he didn’t want Abe to have a twitchy trigger finger himself, and this was a way around such a situation (keen watchers will also note, incidentally, that Abe had four fingers in the debut game but only three thereafter – this was to avoid causing offence in Japan where four-fingered characters are banned out of respect for meat-packing workers who often lost fingers in work-related accidents). Abe’s Oddysee progressed well and was earmarked for a PlayStation and PC release.

Abe’s Oddysee was a huge success and it sold well in the lead up to Christmas, prompting a Game Boy version called Oddworld Adventures to be released in 1998. If there was a complaint, it was the lack of a quick-save facility – “it was maddening that we delivered without getting it in the first time,” muses Lorne. “Chalk it up to lessons learned.” – but the team made sure it was implemented in the sequel.
“We had just nine months to release Abe’s Exoddus for Christmas following Oddysee’s release,” recalls Lorne. “It was a super crunch all the way through the entire development, and this was less than half the time that Abe’s Oddysee took us to develop. But it was more complicated as we also believed we needed ‘twice the game’ in sheer poundage.”
The second game in the series, which was released in November 1998, picked up where the debut game left off. Abe had become a celebrity but was told that the Glukkons, a leading, ruthless, capitalist, industrial race with a disregard for worker rights, was grabbing blind Mudokons and enslaving them to excavate a Mudokon burial site. With a poison being created from the bones of the dead, Abe had to find a cure for the illness and prevent the creation of SoulStorm’s brew. This time out, the characters became more emotionally engaging and the pace picked up. Gamespeak instructions were used to command multiple Mudokons at the same time, and Mudokons found it harder to follow Abe because many of them were blind. For Lanning, it was about giving the game a further level of polish, depth and challenge. “Our approach to the game was pretty much compatible with how you would approach a film,” says Lorne. “With both you start with a script, but we then used an additional layer of game mechanics that we knew we wanted to implement or evolve upon. “So starting with these two key high-level components we worked them up simultaneously. We integreated the script tightly against the ramping of mechanics in gameplay. Our target was continually working to try to find a tighter fusion of narrative that was not only engaging as a story, but was also informative and foreshadowing of new play mechanics that would be coming up next for the gamer.”

The first game had a heads-up display, but this was dropped for the sequel. “It was a goal of mine to try to eliminate any menu elements that broke the reality horizon,” Lorne explains. “Roating GUI elements reinforce for you ‘this is a game’ and for the original Abe games we wanted to get away from that impression and instead try to instil the sensation of the player being responsible for these people living in this world.”
In trying to remove all traces of the traditional heads-up display, Oddworld Inhabitants attempted to find more clever, subtle methods of communicating necessary information, and tried to do it more logical ways so that it felt more like a film. “We wanted the elements to feel like they were within the world rather than a HUD layened over the world.” Lorne continues. “It was attempting to accompling a deeper impression of a ‘living creature adventure’, rather than just a ‘gaming adventure’.”
The emotions helped bring the creatures to life. “The second game had more entertainment value as well as a stronger emotional relationship to these silly little characters,” says Lorne. “We always want you to laugh when you’re playing our games, regardless of how dark their subject matter is.”
And dark is a good description. Much of that is down to Lorne himself. He is a deep thinker who, with the Oddworld series of games, was aiming to craft a gameplay and story experience that drew on a sense of injustice. Festering in the back of Lorne’s mind was a concern for disturbing human rights abuses by powerful corporations from the shipping docks of Bangladesh to the diamond or gold mines in South America and South Africa. He wanted Oddworld to have a dark premise but follow the lead set by The Simpsons and The Daily Show, both of which refrain from getting up on a soap box. Like them, he did not want to lose sight of Oddworld as entertainment and believed that humour and narrative would combine to raise important issues.
He denies that the series is political. “Personally, I think politics is for chumps,” he says. “It’s for suckers who still believe they have people fighting for their interests in the greater halls of power and often willingly refuse to see that their would be heroes have been completely compromised.” But he talks of an “insane elite class of globalists actively ruining the planet for the rest of us and for their own short-term power gains”.
“It was always these practises that inspired the content of Oddworld, as these stories started taking shape 20 years ago.” Lorne continues. “So for me, I look deep into the darkest practises of the kleptoclass in a constant search of vehicles to inspire fiction from these practises in an effort to transform that darkness into a launch point for some seriously relevant and deeply ironic modern myth humour.”
Lorne’s outlook had an effect on the types of enemies in the game that were always designed around how they would play. The Glukkons were inspired by the kleptoclass. “Big shots bossing people around while ultimately being pretty useless parasites like bankers.” he says. New enemies were also introduced including Flying Sligs, Slugs, Mine Cars and Greeters. “They were all first designed as challenges within our code reach, then we interpreted the mechanics into themed characters.” Lorne says.
Following yet further acclaim, Lorne and his team pushed on with the third of the planned five games. The loyalty to PlayStation had gone and Munch’s Oddysee was being slated for an exclusive November 2001 release on the Xbox.
As with the other games, there were two endings. “We did this because we always wanted empathy to be a major factor in the game, but if you played the game without empathy, we wanted you to get an ending that reflected your personal character,” says Lorne. “If you went through our journey as a heartless douche, we wanted to remind you what a schmuck you were being and how it would run the fate of those you were supposed to be helping.”
But this instalment was the first time Oddworld was rendered in three dimensions. “At the time, everyone was enamoured with 3D and the gaming press was speaking of 3D as the only viable way,” Lorne recalls. “It was sad to see all the genres being left behind because they weren’t using new chipsets. Regardless, if you wanted to keep getting funded, you needed to stay with the chipsets and where the audience interests were heading, and by the time we got to the Xbox it was all about 3D otherwise you probably weren’t getting funded.”
The added dimension was a challenge to capture what made Abe special in his awkwardness and abilities, yet have that embedded in a free roaming space. There was also a huge real-time 3D learning curve that all of the team was going through. But they made the most of the situation and, with players not only playing Abe but Munch too, the game could enter fresh waters.
“We needed the ability to swap between characters while also dealing with targeting in possession,” says Lorne. “In the Abe games, they were 2D and so possession was proximity auto-targeting. It was easy for the user to understand who they would be possessing. Once we entered 3D, the auto nature of it needed to change as depth and dimension added new dynamics and required new accuracies to offer the player.”
He said it was a case of the player wanting to possess “that Slig over there, not; hopefully that one over there but we’ll see what Slig the game chooses for us. That wasn’t going to work,” he explains, “so we needed possession to be targetable and, being in a 3D world, targeting was as easy as character navigation, so we used the same navigation abilities to control your possession orb. You could then navigate to nail your target.”

The review were not as favourable for Munch’s Oddysee, with some believing the puzzles lacked variation. Lorne has no complaints. “I always felt all of our puzzles were not varied enough, but these are challenges with puzzle games and the amount of code we were writing for each puzzle,” he confesses. “Puzzle games are not very economical with code. Combine that with development environments that were unpredictable in terms of budgeting, an you found yourself in tight spots making lots of compromises.”
The fourth game, Stranger’s Wrath, however, was a a superb return to form. Released in January 2005 in America, it was critically acclaimed. It had first and third-person perspectives and was also faster. The team wanted speed to be a factor in the third-person in particular, due to the character’s nature and ability to run faster. Stranger could become a ramming melee fighter at higher speeds and, by increasing in speed, his motion ability morphed into a motorcycle mode. He didn’t, as Lorne explains, “pivot on a dime with speed”. He steered and leaned into turns it allowed for him to run much faster and feel more like a vehicle when controlled.
“This allowed us to have more ‘retreat for higher ground’ ability if you were getting overwhelmed in a combat situation,” says Lorne. “Now you could retreat, and with enough speed to get past getting shot in the back – something I felt was very much missing out there for character-driven combat games.”
Stranger’s Wrath had an element of stealth, too. It remained true to the character’s nature but also compounded the chemistry of choices that players were able to have at their disposal. It offered the gamer more choices in how to solve any combat situation. But another decision was made: Stranger’s Wrath contained role-playing elements.
“Action-adventure games seemed inevitably heading toward a role-playing model, at least an accouting level,” says Lorne. “If the game was going to have a persistent economy, and one that your character needed to pursue in the narrative, then it needed to incorporate more modification and purchasability for the main character. Having this inherent in a system gives you many more things that you can make the gamer do for various reasons at various times, all of which are added tools available to the designers that help overall ramping while helping to decrease a potential monotony that can come with a game.”
The fourth game became the last Oddworld title and the fifth game did not appear, cutting short the original quintology. Stranger’s Wrath Had been published by Electronic Arts and, while Lorne doesn’t go too deep, he says, “Our experience working with the last publisher pretty much annihilated any desire we might have had left in continuing to work with big publishers,” which points to a potential issue. Plans for other games came and went. Names such as Oddworld: The Hand Of Odd, SligStorm, The Brutal Ballad Of Fangus Klot, Oddworld: Squeek’s Oddysee, Oddworld: Munch’s Exoddus and Oddworld: Slave Circus were put forward over the years. And while a game may well have surfaced around 2008, the Western financial crisis and work on a new project called Citizen Siege caused a distraction. Remakes and digital content appear to be the way forward for now, and the Oddworld franchise is being built organically and without financing. But it means that the team cannot spend in the way it did, and it will take a while before triple-A contemporary content is released. “We’ve talked about a number of games but that was probably a mistake,” says Lorne. “It’s something I won’t be doing until I know they are paid for.”
It seems the appetite is still there, however. “We’re very grateful for the way things have worked out but, like a lot of artists, we’re always wanting to do better,” he says, and we pray to hear Abe’s farts in a new game sooner rather than later.


THE NEW KEEPER OF ODDWORLD

Five years after Stranger’s Wrath, the series was given a dust down by developer Just Add Water. We talk to founder and CEO Stewart Gilray about the HD remakes.

Q: You Began working on the Oddworld franchise in May 2010. Were you a fan of the series and how did you get involved?

Stewart Gilray: I’d met Lorne briefly at GDC 2009. He was one of my industry icon legends and someone I’d always wanted to meet. Over the years I’d been asking a mutual friend to persuade Lorne to go back to doing a 2D-type game but with 3D assets – a remake of Abe’s Oddysee or a game of a similar nature – but in June 2009, Lorne and I started exchanging emails. We spent the next nine months talking about various things and then he asked if Just Add Water could help them out as they’d been let down by another developer. He wanted us to look at Stranger’s Wrath for the PC and I said yes, as long as we could do a PS3 version. We began to work on Stranger HD for PS3 in late September 2009 while still working on the initial PC release of Stranger, which was a straight port from Xbox.

Q: By the time of your involvement, the series had been stagnant for four years. Were there discussions about moving the series on?

Stewart Gilray: There were no real discussions. It was a case of ‘let’s do this project, and see where it leads to’, and we’ve now released the initial PC release of Stranger’s Wrath, three versions of Stranger’s Wrath HD, two versions of Munch’s Oddysee HD and we’re working on the multi-platform remake of Abe’s Oddysee, Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty. We only had two staff when began the initial version but we have 16 now. The plan is we will continue and work on some proper new projects. We’re going through a re-structure at the moment that will help that become a reality.

Q: There were promises of SligStorm, Fangus Klot, Squeek’s Oddysee and some other games. What was happening and why were these games not getting off the ground?

Stewart Gilray: When the original studio was closed in April 2006, it was because Lorne and Sherry McKenna had decided enough was enough working with publishers. The primary reason was the difficulty of working on a triple-A title with budgets worth of $15m, especially if you’re only seeing a small return rate due to publisher / developer agreements the way they were back then. Fangus Klot was in development when that happened, so that was the main victim of what happened then. Lorne had been working on the story and design for Squeek’s Oddysee as well, but couldn’t solve a problem he had with it so it kept getting put on the back burner until that thing was solved. And Sligstorm just didn’t happen mainly due to working on Munch’s Oddysee.

Q: What makes Oddworld such a special series of games?

Stewart Gilray: This is pretty easy actually: character, story, the world craziness but most importantly the humour.

Q: Is there still a place for 2D gaming in the modern era?

Stewart Gilray: Why not? I think both pure 2D art and 3D art with 2D gameplay can still work very well, and we’re showing that with Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty. I think this need for everything to be in 3D isn’t always the right thing to do; there are better solutions if the design requires it.