One of the gaming visionaries from Oddworld Inhabitants, Lorne Lanning, is taking us behind the scenes of the development process of Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee, in the retrospective by David Craddock.
Every day, millions of people trudge into work and dream about sticking it to The Man. Slaving away in unsafe conditions, unwillingly bending to the will of corporate suits, and eating copious amounts of crow are all things that must be endured to earn a few bucks for a day's worth of grueling, often unrewarding work. But sometimes, The Man goes too far. (...) Sometimes you have to stand up and fight for yourself, your crew mates, and the millions of other working stiffs you'll never meet -- or die trying.
by David Craddock
Every day, millions of people trudge into work and dream about sticking it to The Man. Slaving away in unsafe conditions, unwillingly bending to the will of corporate suits, and eating copious amounts of crow are all things that must be endured to earn a few bucks for a day's worth of grueling, often unrewarding work. But sometimes, The Man goes too far. Sometimes it's not enough to fantasize about standing up to your executive overseers and marching triumphantly from the doldrums of your job toward greener pastures. Sometimes you have to stand up and fight for yourself, your crew mates, and the millions of other working stiffs you'll never meet -- or die trying.
Abe, the gangly titular protagonist of Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee, is a soldier in such a fight. A slave to the diabolical owners of RuptureFarms1029, the largest meat processing plant on the planet Oddworld, Abe blissfully goes about his duties until he overhears a plot to grind his fellow Mudokons, a race of creatures enslaved by the corporate Glukkons, into meat products. Terrified, Abe resolves to rescue his fellow Mudokons and escape his tyrannical employers.
The mature premise of slavery and oppression was a theme not often explored in 1997's era of action-oriented video games, but one that Lorne Lanning, Creative Director at Oddworld Inhabitants, had long wanted to employ. According to Lanning, the game's plot came about "from witnessing the abominable behavior of the worlds most greedy multi-national corporations." Telling the story was a critical objective to Lanning. "I believe it’s the artist’s role to create new myths that are relevant to the changing times of our world, [and] to bring some shining direction to our more troubling challenges."
Thus was born Oddworld Inhabitants, the development studio that would give life to Abe's plight. "We saw the opportunity to create properties [using] 3D computer graphics with the gaming medium," recalls Lanning of himself and his co-founder and CEO Sherry McKenna. "I wanted to tell stories and I loved great games. It was a natural evolution."
Though their intent was to tell interactive stories using 3D technology, Abe's Oddysee would not be developed as a pure 3D game. "The funny thing is that we actually got the money for the company because of our 3D expertise, but then we made a 2.5D game," says Lanning with a laugh. "The real time 3D of the current gen was, at best, still pretty crappy. But its bit map ability was better than anything before it. So we pre-rendered everything and then used the pre-renders as sprites. It gave us a game that looked 3D, was lit and textured in 3D, but played in 2.5D."
Developing Abe's Oddysee as a 3D platformer was never Oddworld Inhabitants' intent. "I loved some of the rich side scroller platform games like Flashback, Out of this World, and the original Prince of Persia," explains Lanning. "Games like these were the first to really show me that game characters could feel more lifelike. We were going for characters that would engage you emotionally. We wanted you to engage in their plight and feel a responsibility toward helping them out through ... tough times. We just didn’t care about 3D. We knew pre-rendered like the back of our hands; Sherry was queen of this medium in L.A. and I had been doing it for nearly a decade."
Oddworld Inhabitants knew early on that Abe's story couldn't be properly conveyed if the main star was a rippling mound of muscled flesh able to crush all opposition with little effort. "For our heroes we wanted faces only a mother could love," says Lanning of Abe and his fellow Mudokons. As the hero, Abe would have to be the embodiment of the common man. "[That's] definitely how I felt," admits Lanning, "like I was just some little chump living with the fallout of disinterested corporations and governments who could give a shit about little people, or about anything beyond their own self-serving interests."
Incorporating such risque themes into his work has often caused Lanning to be labeled an anti-capitalist, but he points out that Oddworld's themes are quite relevant and truthful, especially in today's world. "Look at ... who’s calling most of the shots that affect the rest of us. Fortunately, the world is waking up to the fact that these power players are not decent people. They, to a large degree, are intensely ambitious criminals who have proven to be above the law that the rest of us believe in abiding by."
Despite the Glukkons being the "ambitious criminals" in Abe's Oddysee, the executive big-wigs are only shown during cinematics and the game's fiery climax. It is actually the RuptureFarms1029 factory that is emphasized as the primary antagonist. "The corporation is above and beyond any of its executives or employees -- or slaves," says Lanning. "So by making [players] defeat RuptureFarms as the end boss... we thought it would add a bigger sense of climax."
Compared to the factory's supply of guns and explosives carried by its more willing employees, Abe's arsenal of rocks and chunks of meat pales in comparison. His great equalizer: the ability to possess his enemies. "The biggest problem was, if Abe could carry a gun, then general gaming behavior means that he’s going to start solving all his problems with a gun, and that was not the Abe we wanted to create and it wasn’t the game we wanted people to experience," explains Lanning. "We never wanted to see him on bus posters or in magazines with a gun. No way. Still, it was an action/adventure game that had guns. So we ultimately figured out that possession would enable the gamer to get a gun briefly, then dispose of it without feeling ripped off."
Sneaking around, possessing bad guys and temporarily commandeering their weapons was useful in helping Abe escape, but to successfully rescue his fellow Mudokons, the freedom fighter would need to exert more subtle tactics. Enter GameSpeak, a dialogue system with limited options that Abe used to coerce Mudokons to follow his bold lead. "GameSpeak was a way to try to have meaningful verbal action that would also create a closer connection ... to our characters," says Lanning. "It was a necessary ingredient designed to make you care more for the Mudokons you were supposed to rescue."
It was important that GameSpeak not include too few options that made interaction seem limited, yet not so many as to make the options overwhelming. "We thought of GameSpeak as taking RTS controls from say, Warcraft II, and keeping the functionality but replacing the mouse with verbal commands on a controller. 'Hello' was really 'select [units]', 'Follow Me' was really 'move', [and so on]. The whistling was something that gave us an opportunity to work with musical notes, but original versions of this were way too complicated. So ultimately we dumbed that down quite a bit."
Whether taking control of enemies or ushering Mudokons to safety, Abe's adventure was experienced without a traditional HUD. The lack of onscreen meters was instrumental to Lanning, but was thought of as radical by many others within the company. "I was under the fierce belief that we could give the user all the information they needed without making the screen look like a game. I heard every opposition there could be. My response was always, 'Then get more creative. You want me to solve it?' We didn’t get in this business to do the same thing everyone else was doing. It was a chance to be different and we needed to maximize it. Health bars and score counters were not a viable option."
Sacrifice opportunities to escape in order to save other Mudokons, or look out for number one? The choice was in the hands of the player, but caught up to them in one of Abe's Oddysee's two endings: one selfless, the other selfish. Lanning would have liked to devise a middle-of-the-road ending, but typical development cycle bottlenecks prevented the dream from becoming a reality. "We always wanted to do more endings, but if we got two polar endings with the amount of time, money, and resources we had available to us… well, then at least we had a game to ship. It’s amazing how those pesky realities tend to shape the worlds we create," he finishes with a laugh.
In the second installment of GOG's Oddworld retrospective, Lorne Lanning speaks about the pressure of creating a sequel to the well-received Abe's Oddysee, reveals more about the series' beautiful art direction, and the message Lanning hopes all Oddworld players take from his games.