Edge (Australia Edition): Oddworld’s Odyssey [2004]

Date: December, 2004

Source: Edge (Australia Edition), Issue 3, pp. 38-43.

Six months ago Oddworld: Stranger had no publisher. Now it’s EA’s most promising title. Little wonder it’s a game with a different kind of tale to tell.

Lorne Lanning, co-founder of Oddworld Inhabitants, is leaning forward, a small heap of crisps forgotten in his palm. What he says is this: “Bad companies are the most fucking dangerous thing in the world today. Look at the United States – human interest is completely secondary to corporate interest. Everything post 9/11, post the Bush administration, all everything’s about is screw the environmental issues, screw the public health issues, let’s allow MORE mercury in the water. Why? Is it good for the people? No. It’s WORSE for the people. Who’s it better for? It’s better for their friends who are running those corporations. And that is the biggest threat, in my opinion, facing the world today. It’s not China, it’s not North Korea – they might be serious threats – but the real danger is the big smiley face logo that pretends to be your friend and it’s SCREWING the entire population.” He sits back and smiles: “So, yeah, that’s a pet peeve. I have a lot of angst.” Not much is known about Oddworld Inhabitants’ new game, and there are two reasons for that.

The first is that the company has made a sound decision to protect its story and its secrets from the hungry eyes of journalists. The second is that when you get hold of Lanning, asking him ‘how-many-levels’ and ‘is-there-a-chaingun’ questions seems like a waste of potentially extraordinary conversation. As the co-founder of the company and the original visionary behind the odd world of Oddworld, Lanning has steered the company from oddysee to oddysee, from Abe’s guffs to Munch’s gurgles. Ten years on, few companies have survived so well on such a focused an peculiar vision. With Stranger, Lanning has a chance to take his mixed message of ugly beauty and comical politics to a new and ferociously sceptical audience: Xbox FPS fans.

In the absence of reams of press-release factoids, speculation has thrown up a few scraps of concrete information. Stranger, the fourth game from Oddworld Inhabitants, isn’t stricly part of the Oddworld ‘quintology’. Instead it’s a side-story, taking place on the other side of planet Oddworld, miles from the factories of the Glukkons and the Vykkers. Its hero – Stranger – is a man of mystery, the mystery being that he’s definitely not quite a man. His hybrid appearance may be part of his mysterious past, since there were indications very early in the game’s development that Stranger’s appearance could be a disguise for (or even a mutation to) something much more alien. A bounty hunter by profession, he plies his trade in a dusty western town, bringing various species of lowlife to justice with his double-barrelled crossbow. This shoots not inert bolts, but live animals – rapid-fire wasps and knockout skunk bombs, sticky spider traps and bat-propelled rockets – which must be hunted and herded when running low on ammo. Improvising combinations of double-barelled destruction is at the core of the game’s appeal.

It’s this ‘live ammo’ which has caused much of the buzz surrounding the game, but it seems a little gimmicky compared to the game’s real innovations. Stranger slips seamlessly between the perspectives, limiting you to slower speeds and ranged attacks in firstperson, allowing you breakneck acceleration and melee attacks in third. The range of views also allows exploration, platforming, puzzling and stealth to be closely integrated into the game without damaging the pure satisfaction of the gunplay. So why focus on the critters? “Is live ammo really the main point?” echoes Lanning. “I think if you asked people who really know the game, they’d say: ‘Only for marketing.’ People have to have something to grasp on to, so when EA were looking at the game and saying: ‘So, what is our ‘X’? What is the thing we’re going to build our marketing campaign around?’, they – and rightfully so – identified live ammo as being the thing that people could grasp. And we said: ‘Oh, but we’ve got this, this, this, this, this and this’ and they said: ‘And now they’re confused’. So I think that if live ammo is interesting enough to draw people in in the first place, then that’s what it needs to achieve. Because there’s so much more there than you can cover in a soundbite.” It was this awareness of the need to capture the public’s imagination in seconds which has shaped much of Stranger. “In the world of modern media, if people don’t understand your game in two seconds then you can’t get through to them,” Lanning claims. “So you can have the greatest game in the world, but if people have to have their hands on it for 20 minutes before they ‘get’ it, you’re in deep trouble. So we wanted to have something that was a little more familiar, which is part of why we chose the western theme – because people get that: it’s bounty hunting, it’s outlaws, it’s gunfights. And we liked the whole concept of Sergio Leone shootouts – that’s something we really wanted to get into.”

Oddworld just got rarer

Stranger, originally known as Steef’s Oddysee, has had a rocky path towards release. Earlier this year, Microsoft pulled out from publishing the game. Lanning explains: “It’s the kind of game where you have to see the vision and buy into it before you can support it – I don’t think Microsoft believed we could pull it off.” The irony is that this hesitancy was already evident in the game’s first public airing – a 2003 Discovery Channel special about the Xbox which featured Ed Fries lamenting that Lanning never knew when to stop adding new ideas. The move to EA Partners was one which the company was very positive about, not least because it brought with it access to the PS2 demographic, a crucial component in Oddworld’s biggest market – Europe. Speaking earlier this year, Sherry McKenna (Oddworld Inhabitants’ CEO) described EA’s confidence: “We didn’t think it could be done. But EA absolutely said: ‘No, this game can be converted,’ and that’s why we went with them.” Now, the suspicions of everyone who’s seen this resource-hungry game running have been confirmed: EA has cancelled the PS2 version. It’s not clear exactly what lay behind that decision, but there’s no question that the conversion was lagging far behind the Xbox version and would have had to be released months later.

The result of Oddworld meeting the spaghetti western is a Frankenstein setting which doesn’t have any business working as well as it does – caricatured chickens pretending to be men in the same way that Italian extras pretended to be American and the Spanish desert pretended to be Mexico. Instantly recognisable and continually surprising, it’s a luxurious and solid setting – everything Microsoft’s Xbox was supposed to deliver. Once Stranger’s bounties take him beyond the local dust-bowls, the terrain will give way to pine forests, granite cliffs and snow-capped mountains.

So, if commercial appeal lay behind the game’s setting, what lay behind the decision to mix thirdperson exploration with firstperson gunplay? Earlier Oddworld games had entirely refreshed the platforming genre – integrating spatial puzzles into a mechanic which had traditionally tested only dexterity. Is Stranger a similar attempt to rejuvenate the thirdperson adventure? “The answer to that is yes, except it was the FPS we were looking at and asking how that could evolve, how we could get more thirdperson action play into it.” For Lanning, game design urgently needs to move beyond a point where perspective matters: “You don’t say; ‘Oh, I’m going to go and see a handheld movie, or I’m going to go and see a longshot movie.’ You just go to see a movie. That’s a medium which has matured, but at one point it was really just a peep show, and you would watch and a train would go by. That was it. Games are still at that stage.”

Oddworld Inhabitants also thought that the firstperson perspective was a potential barrier for gamers. “A huge aspect for us is orientation, and an awful lot of people don’t have a good response to a firstperson perspective – they get headaches – and I’m one of them. I’ll get a headache after playing for two hours,” confesses Lanning. “So we want to break from that, to have a smooth choreography between perspectives so you’re not always in that mode. Halo was an AWESOME game, but I could still only play it for two hours at a stretch, because I’d get disoriented, especially when it got into smaller rooms – you know when you’re going through the tunnels? So we’re trying to remedy those things. We’re thinking how we get more people interested in games, and shooters, for example, don’t interest a large number of females. But I do think they’ll be interested in this, and early focus testing says that’s true. And that’s because it’s not what experience has taught them shooters are all about – it’s not all in firstperson and it’s not all about killing. It offers a lot more, and it’s not like women didn’t like Sergio Leone movies, they LOVED Sergio Leone movies. You can’t just ask: ‘Oh, how do we make games for girls?’ – that’s insulting, right? You end up with Barbie games. Come ON. Girls have a brain, more of a brain in fact, and that’s why they’re not interested in most games.”

Indeed, people with brains (regardless of their reproductive identity) are exactly the people Oddworld Inhabitants was conceived to attract: “Sure, you can make entertainment that doesn’t have some kind of nutritional value but we aren’t in the junk-food business. WE aren’t – other people can be and that’s fine, and I’ll eat some of it and like it. Look at Sherry [McKenna, Oddworld Inhabitants’ other co-founder] – she would not be interested in running this company at ALL if it wasn’t for the characters and the stories, because she couldn’t care less about the gameplay. She just says: ‘Make sure it’s good. Is it good? Are you promising me it’s good?’ because she just has no interest in playing. And if those stories and characters weren’t there and if she didn’t care about them then she’d just go off and do something else. She definitely doesn’t need to be running a games company.”

There’s no detailed information yet on where Stranger‘s story will take players. A point will come when the individual bounties Stranger accepts give way to reveal a main, central goal. In keeping with Lanning’s passionate feelings about corporate greed and public health, Stranger’s ultimate nemesis is a water baron, ruthless in his control over the flow of water to those living downstream. Lanning relishes the chance to be able to integrate his social concerns into the games he makes: “There are not many other media that let you make characters you care about and stories that mean something to you, so you can feel like you’re doing something a little bit virtuous, like you’re not just making Twinkies.”

Creating characters and telling stories are not things games have traditionally excelled at, however, although Oddworld’s games have always stood out. How does Lanning’s approach differ from other game makers’? “With a lot of games, I feel like they have stories pasted on top of them, because the gameplay itself has nothing to do with the story. So what we try and do at the concept stage is design a story so that it’s part of the character. With Stranger, when you find out more about him, it makes a lot more sense about why he uses live ammo, about why he doesn’t like guns. It all ties in to the weapons that he uses and the speed he runs in the game. The mechanics of what he does in the world are totally related to his character and the story. And that’s a lot more challenging than saying: ‘OK, here’s a guy with a gun, and you’ve seen 50,000 guys with guns, but this one’s different because he got fucked over by his wife and now he wants revenge on the mob.’ And you go: ‘Well, maybe that’s an interesting story and maybe it isn’t, but it’s still just a guy with a gun who does the same shit he does in every other game.'”

While he doesn’t make it sound easy, Lanning at least makes designing ‘nutritious’ games sound feasible. Yet the number of games released each year with such lofty ambitions can usually be counted on the thumb of one hand. What needs to be done to encourage more people to make more nourishing game?” One of the first things we’ve got to do is stop doing shows like E3 and Game Stars Live. Because they’re so loud, the only thing that gets noticed is the fastest cut, the most explosive demo. Things like E3 – look, we need E3, I know – but these events are starting to shape the product. It’s like going to Cannes or Sundance and going into one huge room with a hundred screens and every screen is playing a movie and everybody is turning it up trying to be louder than the other guy. And if someone’s showing a beautiful love you go: ‘Well, that sucks, because the cool one over here has MTV-style editing and cool explosions with people’s head getting blown off.'”

The movie analogy doesn’t end with Cannes. For Lanning, film represents a benchmark that games are yet to reach: “With a game you sit down, often alone, for hours at a time. And you’re focusing on it for more time than you spend with a film and yet it has less depth to it that your average film. That’s less than an average film, not less than a good film. Games aren’t even close to the depth a POOR film has yet. In time we’ll see that all the things that make a film great are all the things that make a game great. If I look back on the history of this company, back to the SNES and the Genesis, games and films might as well have been the sun and the moon they were so completely different. And even a game of a film, well, maybe you were the Terminator and you shot at robots, but that was the only thing the film and the game had in common. “But today, it’s much closer – gtaphically it’s closer, you see the characters, you have voice delivery, you have soundtracks. Take The Sims, right? And look at that, at what they’ve added for the new one. It’s love stories, it’s dating. It’s all the things that have come from traditional entertainment in the last hundred years.”

But, we point out, those aren’t things that came from films. Those are things that came from life. Lanning chuckles. “Well,” he declares, “we’re ALL emulating life.” Oddworld, with its parps and its burps, its social inequalities and political satires, its characters as clumsy as they are kind and as cruel as they are witless, has always done a better job of emulating life than most. Stranger still has to prove how well it can bear the weight of its ambitious story and the risk of its social sermons, but there’s no doubt that its basic structure – the world, the weapons, the controls – are robust enough to handle almost anything Lanning piles on them. And that might be quite a lot. He leans forward again, remembering something he read in that morning’s paper: “Those guys who’ve stolen money from pension plans, they should be going to prison for life. They should get a longer term than a violent criminal, because how many people are they screwing over? Even the very worst serial killer, how many people did they take out? How many people’s retirements did they ruin? Thousands of people, they just DECIMATED their whole financial existence. And for what? For a nice house in Aspen or somewhere. Those guys are PIGS…” So, yeah. He has a lot of angst. And for that Stranger – and videogames in general – should perhaps be grateful.