The Making Of Abe’s Oddysee
There are many, great videogame characters. Sonic is a blue hedgehog; Mario is a simple plumber; Lara Croft, a sophisticated explorer. Then there’s Abe, the Mudokon star of Lorne Lanning’s acclaimed Oddworld series of games. “Abe was largely inspired by the plight of Third World labourers who have no voice and are being swept up by the expansion of globalisation,” says Lanning. Instantly you realise this is something a little different.
Abe’s Oddysee was the first game of the long-running Oddworld series. It made its debut on PlayStation at the tail end of 1997, having begun production in January 1995. As a 2D platformer it came at a time when everything was going 3D. Tomb Raider and Resident Evil had set benchmarks, even Nintendo had switched cutesy Italian Mario to 3D. Yet not only was Oddworld firmly entrenched in the second dimension, it was retro in another sense. Deciding against creating a scroller, the programmers opted for flick-screen 8-bit-style action instead. Yup, something wasn’t quite right about this game.
“We felt 2D games had not been taken to their full potential,” explains Lanning, who co-founded American developer Oddworld Inhabitants along with fellow special effects and computer animation expert Shelly McKenna. “Everyone was excited about real-time 3D, but I had been doing it for over a decade already,” says Lanning. “So real-time 3D on PlayStation just looked crappy. We felt we couldn’t get the same degree of smooth animation and rich environments if we developed a 3D game back then so we decided to build all our assets in 3D and then pre-render the bitmaps for the game. The game was 2½D, but its image depth and detail gave it a richer look than we could have achieved in real-time 3D at that time. We cared too much about the animation and image quality to launch our world. We didn’t want to launch ‘low poly world’ to establish the first impression of the Oddworld Universe.”
Oddworld was originally to be called SoulStorm but there were a few other games coming out with ‘Soul’ in the title and it was felt it would lead to confusion. A lot of people liked the name Lanning had devised for the company: Oddworld. Although Lanning did not like the idea of having a company named after a property brand, he went along with it. “The publisher GT Interactive acquired the publishing rights on
12 September 1996 and they loved the name ‘Oddworld’, so we felt that maybe Oddworld would cut through more as the name of the game,” he said.
The story cast the player as a slave working for the vast Rupture Farms food-processing plant. Spending his days avoiding beatings from the Slig guards while scrubbing floors and carrying out menial tasks, Abe stumbled upon a restricted area of the factory. He realised the Mudokons were not only being used as slave labour, they were also being processed into food. There was only one option: get the hell out of there.
From this point on, the player guided Abe through a series of platforms, eventually discovering him to be the ‘chosen one’: the Mudokon who could free the people from slavery and overthrow dictator Mulluck the Glukkon’s regime. It was a game with a message, one which Lanning did not attempt to hide. “Disturbing human rights abuse by powerful corporations is taking place across the world – from the shipping docks of Bangladesh to the diamond or gold mines in South America and South Africa,” says Lanning, explaining his background for the creation of Abe’s Oddysee. “I’ve always been struck by the outlandish hypocrisy of the corporate kleptocracy and the means used to promote their goods to an ignorant public. In the First World, the PR and advertising for these companies is always wholesome and good while in reality their systematic genocide of indigenous cultures, and murderous practises escape public perception. It seemed appropriate for Oddworld’s corporate authority to be represented by happy-faced corporate logos and career-climbing, incompetent middle management,” reveals Lanning.
His desire for Abe’s plight to mirror that of people across the world meant the original backstory was changed. The game was initially going to start with Abe living off the land before being thrust into an industrialised slave environment. Instead, Lanning decided to place him straight in the factory. “We wanted to give the gamer a similar perception that Abe would experience, so we started Abe in the mundane life of the typical daily grind, something we could all relate to, then we have him discover a world that we too are far removed from: that of self-subsistence. Ideally, a story works best if it resonates with the listener or viewer or gamer. Starting Abe off in a familiar world would help us connect to his plight more quickly.”
The game itself was inspired by titles such as Out Of This World and Flashback, which drew players in with their stories and realistic characters. “They made us feel like we were playing living characters as opposed to moving pieces of digital art around the screen,” says Lanning. He was also impressed by Myth, which showed film-like production quality could be a draw in itself, and that led to Oddworld’s stunning landscape. Each of the hundreds of screens with their pre-rendered backgrounds felt slick and polished, having had a huge degree of care and attention lavished upon them. The beautifully animated characters also lent a charm all of their own. “We wanted to bring those lifelike characters, with relevant stories, into fully realised worlds that, if executed well, could sustain some degree of disbelief and wonder,” says Lanning. This enabled him to kick-start his five-part story – which he called The Oddworld Quintology – with absolute perfection.
One of the most innovative aspects of Oddworld was not the visuals however, it was the sound. Abe could communicate with other Mudokons. He could order: ‘Follow me’ or ‘Stay here.’ Run him into a wall at full speed and he got up with a ‘Harrumph.’ He could even fart and whistle. “Gamespeak was one of the features I was most proud of,” states Lanning. “We were creating audio from the very beginning because we needed to demo the game to continue to get a publishing deal and continue to keep investors excited. Gamespeak was a critical component of gameplay, and so were many hints and sound effects. We were looking for a tactile-sounding world that sounded more like an epic film soundtrack than a videogame. For me personally I always consider audio to be 50 per cent of the image.”
The cut-scenes blended in effortlessly, with many running in and out of the action. “I was very proud of the seamless transitions from linear narrative movies to gameplay and back again,” Lanning says. “And we also had incredible memory management taking place that reduced load times to almost nothing. We always wanted games to feel seamless as an experience and not be fractured by lazy engineering load times.” When creating the Oddworld games, the story came first. Lanning devised the plot, bouncing ideas off the crew and designer Paul O’Conner in order to work out what resonated or to see what could practically be changed in times of production crisis. “It was conceived as a film story first – as were all of our games,” Lanning explains, “because that’s the way I write the story before we finish a design doc. If it works well as a linear story, then there’s a good chance that the right ingredients are there for a good game story.”
After the plot was drawn up, the characters were designed by Steve Olds. Lanning says: “We went through much iteration, and continued to change the design until the look of the characters emoted the feelings we wanted to communicate. The opening movie and the first level of the game were the first to be designed because this game was going to need to be sold all the way through its production. So we needed to have a great demo that would communicate the special qualities of the game, but there were a number of new concepts in the play style so we needed to make sure that the play built up quickly for investors to understand and believe in.”
The decision to go with a flick-screen approach to the game was taken early in the development process. “Scrollers felt too gamey and bouncy for Abe,” explains Lanning. “They felt more like cartoons or Mario and not as serious as we wanted Abe to come across as. Flipping screens made the world feel more stable, and it focused more attention on the lead character. This gave it a very different feel from scrollers and made it seem more like locked-off shots from a film.”
By going for a serious message, Lanning understood the game was in danger of being perceived as too preachy or depressive. He had given birth to a character with more brain than brawn – whose main facet was ‘empathy over aggression’ – and he had wanted Abe to live in a world that would mirror the dilemmas of our own. “The story had to be more than just an excuse for gameplay, which is how I felt about many stories in games at that point in time,” Lanning says. And while that allowed for a story in which people could become engrossed not just for the challenge but for the story itself, Oddworld could not become too laden with politics; after all, Lanning and his crew had envisioned Abe to be someone that would appeal to young and old and male and female alike.
He says: “Considering that the nature of our stories would be quite dark, it seemed necessary to offset the dark themes with light-hearted humour that would continually remind the audience not to take us too seriously, and to have fun. We had developed the idea for Oddworld Universe before we even started the company, and the concept was to have a world that was a cracked mirror of the disturbing practices and lone-man plights of our increasingly corporately governed and non-democratic world. While the concepts were relevant to today’s global corporate theft of environmental resources and exploitation of indigenous peoples, nobody wants to hear a preachy or depressing story. So it had to be an endearing and captivating story regardless of the influences and the sensitivity that we were trying to bring to it.”
One of the least fun aspects of Oddworld, however, was the save feature, criticised for forcing players to redo difficult sections over and over again because whenever Abe died he was placed right back at the start of a level. “We blew the save feature on that one,” admits Lanning. “We were trying to fix it up till the very end, but we just didn’t have the time, and the save code was pretty lame. We did fix it perfectly for Abe’s Exoddus which was released one year later. So we did try to make up for it.”
Yet one thing that worked incredibly well was Aware Lifeforms in Virtual Environments system (ALIVE). This artificial intelligence routine cleverly controlled the actions of the creatures in the game according to the situation they were faced with and the type of character they were. It also meant Abe could decide to solve some puzzles and ignore others. The player could even trick Sligs into shooting each other. “ALIVE was really a philosophy about how we wanted characters in games to behave, and what we wanted gaming experiences to feel like,” says Lanning. “The achievements were largely in the creative solutions, while every step of the technology was an ongoing struggle.”
Abe’s Oddysee was released on 19 September 1997 for PlayStation and PC on what was called ‘Odd Friday.’ It went on to achieve huge critical acclaim and the sequel, Abe’s Exoddus followed a year later. It came as little surprise to Lanning, “When you invest so much time and money into a project, you better believe it’s going to do well or you’ll never get the funding in the first place.”
So, does Lanning, as some people believe, think Abe’s Oddysee is the best ever two-dimensional platformer? “It’s flattering to hear that some people think that. I don’t know how I would have felt about the game if I just played it without having built it with the team, but statements like that are ultimately for the audience to decide as it’s a claim we would never make. There have been some truly great 2D games.”