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Editorial: Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus

This time Lorne Lanning speaks about the pressure of creating a sequel to the well-received Abe's Oddysee and reveals the message he hopes all Oddworld players take from his games.

Regardless of positive reviews and multiple awards (...) a sequel to Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee was inevitable. To Creative Director Lorne Lanning and CEO Sherry McKenna, co-founders of Oddworld Inhabitants, Abe's tale had always been envisioned as a quintology. Each of the five planned installments would have to be a careful balance between the attention to detail that had made Abe's Oddysee a critical and commercial success, and the seamless insertion of new features that would make each game stand out from its predecessors and successors.

by David Craddock



Regardless of positive reviews and multiple awards including a Nobel Prize from PC Computing Magazine and Best Director from the World Animation Festival, a sequel to Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee was inevitable. To Creative Director Lorne Lanning and CEO Sherry McKenna, co-founders of Oddworld Inhabitants, Abe's tale had always been envisioned as a quintology. Each of the five planned installments would have to be a careful balance between the attention to detail that had made Abe's Oddysee a critical and commercial success, and the seamless insertion of new features that would make each game stand out from its predecessors and successors.



But the very machinations of the corporate machine that fictional protagonist Abe had fought so valiantly against almost prevented the ambitions of Oddworld Inhabitants from coming to fruition.




We killed ourselves getting Abe’s Exoddus done in nine months. It was brutal.


"Abe's Oddysee did so well that we were pressured by our publisher [GT Interactive] to get a second game done for Christmas [1998]," explains Lanning. "They owned half of our company and it would have been extremely difficult for us not to do it. I refused to do [the second entry] of the quintology on the PlayStation just because we needed a game for our publisher for Christmas. So, we used the same engine and told more of the story we originally thought we were going to tell in Abe’s Oddysee. We killed ourselves getting Abe’s Exoddus done in nine months. It was brutal."



Munch's Oddysee, the intended sequel to Abe's Oddysee, was intended as a 3D platformer, but Oddworld Inhabitants didn't feel the PSX hardware was up to the task of realizing their vision. In order to meet GT Interactive's tight deadline for Abe's Exoddus, the developer used the same technology that had made their original title such a hit, which allowed them to easily integrate the same beautiful art design and animation that made Oddysee so visually stunning.



"We had to define a look for the universe," says Lanning. "We wanted something distinctively unique that would retain a color theory and character design quality. I was a big fan of the graphic novels from out of the UK and Europe. Stuff like Simon Bisley’s work on Slaine for 2000 AD, material that was rich in color, volume, intensity, and environmental atmosphere."



Although Abe's Exoddus wasn't the sequel that Lanning had originally intended it to produce, he believes it fits perfectly into the massive, open-ended Oddworld universe. "Our idea for Oddworld was to birth a rich universe of relevant material with endearing characters, one that we could reflect those issues that we felt most deeply about ... [and then] convert them into interactive entertainment. If we did it right, there was no reason why the universe we had created couldn’t tell infinite stories. Much like Star Wars, back when it still had a glimmer of integrity... it was just such a major inspiration for me."



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In Abe's Exoddus, Abe once again uncovers a Glukkon scheme to use Mudokons as the primary ingredient in an edible item. Because Exoddus was built on Oddysee's foundation, it was logical for Oddworld Inhabitants to bring back many of Abe's abilities. Possessing characters was still a powerful means of environment manipulation. Added to the equation was the ability to possess Abe's own flatulence. Given the seriousness of Oddworld's themes, such an ability was created by the designers as a way to occasionally bring themselves back down to Earth.



"We believe in laughs," says Lanning. "They are good for us and they make for good entertainment. We also just wanted to do some really off the wall stuff and it made sense with our super dark themes to give them a lighter heart with more dysfunctional things to do."



For one struggling against servitude and helplessness, some might wonder if Abe's ability to unwillingly possess a foe and bend him to Abe's will is hypocritical. To Lanning, fighting for your life, the only life you're ever going to have, is anything but hypocritical.




Sometimes good people need to do bad things so the rest of us can have a chance.


"I’m a big Gandhi fan, but I always thought he took the pacifism thing too far. He didn’t believe we should pick up arms against the Nazis, but I could never subscribe to that. I believe people like the Nazis gave up their right to live as soon as they started selfishly taking the lives of others. Sometimes good people need to do bad things so the rest of us can have a chance. Abe was born a natural pacifist and lover of all things alive, he marveled at the smallest things in life, but he finally realized when it was time to stand up and put up a fight.



"Frankly, I think its what we all need to do in the world today: Stop taking the shit being handed to us by blatant (albeit powerful) liars and thieves, including those in the White House, those on Wall Street, and those running or supporting oppressive regimes."



The increased presence of the Glukkons necessitated Abe making greater use of the Shrykull, a being of phenomenal power that players first earned in Abe's Oddysee by completing a complex series of tests.



"We needed a super weapon that would be synergistic with [Abe's] training and heritage," says Lanning. Capable of decimating an entire room full of enemies, the Shrykull certainly fit that bill; but it was not a power to be used lightly. The Shrykull had to be charged before it could be used, and even then it offered only a single powerful burst before it required re-charging. Giving forethought to how, when, and where the Shrykull should be used was the virtual manifestation of the timeless "look before you leap" adage, one that was perpetuated throughout Abe's Oddysee and Exoddus due to each title's steep difficulty curve.



Lanning doesn't dodge claims that Abe's first two adventures are overly difficult at times. "It’s tough when you’re making a 2D puzzle action adventure game. It was a challenge to get the tuning right with the limitations we had at the time. The thing about this game was, you didn’t have to do it in a race. We liked you being able to stop, think, and take some time to figure things out. Add mental challenges to the twitch challenges. We tried to make virtually every challenge one that could first be studied visually, then thought about, then go for it in gameplay."




We wanted a charming experience that had brutal moments of more realistic danger.


Because Oddworld games didn't make use of on-screen meters, keeping track of health was simple: one hit, one mistake, and Abe dies. Tough? Yes. Realistic? Absolutely. "We felt one hit kills felt more like real life. Shooting something over and over again didn’t feel real to us at the time and we were going more for a realistic type of play. We wanted a charming experience that had brutal moments of more realistic danger."



Alleviating the cries of woe from gamers still smarting from Abe's first outing was the QuikSave feature, a way to save progress in the midst of an adventure, and one not available in Abe's Oddysee due to programming conflicts. "I always thought limited lives were bullshit, but we also had very challenging games that would take awhile to beat," says Lanning. "So we introduced QuikSave to encourage people not to give up on challenges."



To further engross players, Lanning sought the aid of a good friend and expert composer to provide a musical backdrop that would convey the nobility and peril of Abe's quest. "Josh Gabriel, one of my oldest and closest friends, had always blown me away with his audio and compositional prowess. We definitely wanted a more film experience type of score, and I insisted my friend do it, even though he wasn't doing audio for video games. It was a challenge as the hardware was primitive, but I think he did an amazing job."



Ten years after the release of Abe's Exoddus, the ability to transcend entertainment and reach the coveted label of 'art' is still unattainable for many video games. And that's fine. Not all video games need be anything more than simple entertainment. But those who experienced Oddysee and Exoddus in their respective heydays, as well as those who are able to experience them for the first time as the world's clock ticks toward 2009, know that they have done more than play a game. They have played a statement, one that Lorne Lanning, Sherry McKenna, and all of the talented designers at Oddworld Inhabitants hope that they keep with them long after either title screen has faded.



"'Start paying attention before you wind up some selfish bastard's meal'," says Lanning. "That's something that many Americans are now realizing like never before in our history. As history repeatedly proves, ignorance is not strength, no matter how intently and relentlessly our media and governments stay committed to convincing us otherwise. Follow an ignorant consumer path and there’s no one to blame when you wind up oblivious -- in oblivion."



If you want to get to know the whole story behind the Oddworld series, be sure to check out the first part of the retrospective, where Lorne Lanning speaks how it all started.


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