Interview | Lorne Lanning on Oddworld

Interview | Lorne Lanning on Oddworld [Hosted by Resolution Magazine]

Date: 22/04/2010

Author: Daniel Lipscombe


Strangers in the night…

Interview: Lorne Lanning on Oddworld

The Oddworld series became a 1990s cult classic. Now, Daniel Lipscombe catches up with creator Lorne Lanning to discuss his aims for the series.

A high-pitched and warbled voice speaks only one word: “Hello.” A bizarre and almost spooky looking creature peers through a hole in the menu screen and looks at you affectionately with wide eyes. Despite his alien appearance, Abe is lovely to look at, not only for being a well-designed lead character but because he genuinely looks inviting. He’s a welcome change from many other successful gaming characters.

That voice was supplied by Lorne Lanning, the creator of Abe and, in fact, the world that surrounds him. The environment of Oddworld is a captivating one; this is a place full of creatures much stranger than Abe – and, in fact, a lot scarier.

It’s no coincidence that Abe, Munch and even Stranger to an extent look kind and humble: they have to be a polar opposite to their enemy. The Oddworld games have a sense of the fairytale about them, with a downtrodden protagonist who wants nothing more than to be happy, and standing in his way a hideous creature whose nefarious plans would destroy everything sacred and pure. Oddworld heightens that edge by making the sinister characters look unappealing and shrewd.

I had the pleasure to ask creator Lorne Lanning about his characters and the world that surrounded them. As someone who is drawn to Oddworld, I wanted to know what he thought drew gamers in to his creation. “I’ve heard most often that it was their connection to Abe,” Lanning says. “I think the ultra-innocence of his character set against the diabolical backdrop of the corporately dominated world he lived in was something that gave the experience a light heart, but with relevant content that people could relate to. Something they weren’t, and maybe still aren’t, getting a lot of out there.

“Each of the species on Oddworld, at least the sentient ones, is reflecting a certain trait of humanity, a certain behaviour that we can relate to and know from our own world,” Lanning continues. “We wanted to take these human behaviours and break them into unique species. The idea was that the general moral behaviour of say, the banking class, should be represented as a unique species.”

Above and beyond

It’s obvious that those who played Lanning’s creations were experiencing much more than a puzzle platformer or an action game. There was heart and soul in every being and every moment in the franchise. “The character design was a good place to start looking at what we were going to create,” Lanning postulates. “It set some deep thinking into the core make-up of these rather silly characters- giving us a rich soil out of which a lot of creative exploration, both in design and character depth, could grow.”

And so the fairytale comparison moves onwards. We have archetypal characters with big dreams and a rich environment for them to thrive. But just like the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, Lanning and his production team wove a wonderful plot into each game, full of morals and humanity. As Cinderella stepped from an oppressive shadow, so too did Abe. And who can forget the moment when Stranger revealed his secret and became the saviour of his people?

As a younger version of myself, I never really saw that moral standing clearly – perhaps the fart jokes got in the way. After revisiting the franchise as an adult, Abe’s story became a beautiful tale that inspired me, and after talking to Lanning it’s clear that the morality of the Oddworld tales was a large part of its creation. “I think these issues, morals and ethics, are a core human challenge, particularly in our modern times,” he says. “It was in the ‘80s that I began to learn just how dirty many things were when looked at from behind the scenes. That’s when Abe’s character development began. I wanted Abe to balance against the extremely morally corrupt that I also wanted to portray in his adversaries.”

After playing Abe’s Odyssee more recently it’s clear that the titular character was meant to inspire players. But he wasn’t a superhero. He was someone that we could emulate. “We wanted to create a hero that was more innocent than you, that embodied the need for protection,” Lanning explains. “If he could have such innocence, could we feel compassion for him? Could he be someone that you would want to protect, like a kid brother, or the butt ugly child that only a mother would love? If he was someone that didn’t deserve what was coming to him, could players feel engaged to not just ’beat the game,’ but actually help the little guy out? Give him a break and set him off on a better life? He’s a pretty helpless schmuck doomed to a horrible destiny, a terribly dangerous world full of greedy, soulless pursuers.” And that, says Lanning, was the soup from which the story emerged.

But people wouldn’t respect this game, this standout game, if all it did was take the moral high ground and preached to its players throughout. The teachings from the Oddworld games were softened with humour and friendly imagery. Gamespeak was a system implemented from the start: if you wanted someone to follow you to safety, you could tell them. You want them to stay? Well, you get the picture. There was an element of forward thinking here, and many players would take a break from Abe’s plight and simply mess around, luring fellow Mudokons into traps or simply pressing the fart button followed by a giggle.

“In the Oddworld games, we always felt humour was critical,” recalls Lanning. “The subject matter is dark. It’s a broken mirror reflecting back our dark side of earthly globalism. This, for anyone who is informed on what’s going on, is some pretty dark shit. So if we were going to play off of that backdrop, then we had to be funny, or the whole thing would be terribly bleak and probably end up preachy, which always stinks. Instead, we’re taking bleak subject matter and putting it into an ironic and humorously charged world, so it takes away one edge that can be overly negative, and adds back another edge that hopefully gives it more appeal. I remember we often called it ’Muppets meets the X-files’.”

A risky business?

Despite the game being wholly accessible via the characters and narrative, this was a game that shunned the current gaming world and tried something different – it could have easily failed. Abe ventured into people’s homes with quite a population of heroes around him. Lara Croft was backflipping over a T-Rex, while somebody called Cloud Strife arrived on a speeding train. So, surely, it must have been hard for Abe to find his home? Not so, according to Lanning.

“At the time, there were a lot of games being pushed that had big-breasted, gun-toting women and muscle-bound male killers, but Abe was something quite different. While a lot of the landscape was heading for more violence, Abe was about empathy. He was not aligned with current trends and I think that helped him to stand out as something a publisher could get behind and feel good about.”

Abe won over gamers and critics alike, and Oddworld Inhabitants found themselves with a thriving fanbase that yearned for more from the world of odd. Many members of the gaming community believed that Munch’s Odyssee, a launch title for the Xbox, failed to recapture the essence of Oddworld. This title was a shift in style from Abe’s adventures, and many fans didn’t feel ready for the switch.

While Munch maintained the fantasy theme of previous iterations, it wasn’t until Stranger waltzed in and won over even the most fickle of gamers that the Oddworld series resurged to its former glory. But if the world never really change,d and the characters retained the same charm, was it the change of genre emphasis that put off gamers? Stranger’s Wrath was certainly the biggest jump for the series, as it incorporated a first-person shooter vibe.

“I think there was a time and place for different formats, so they each have their moments,” says Lanning. “There’s a nostalgia to a classic side-scroller that went with the times that retains a certain memory for us. I’d say that Stranger’s format was my personal favourite. I’d love to see Abe’s Odyssey redone in Stranger’s basic format of play style and controls. There’s room for improvement, but it was on to something that could be pushed a lot further still.”

Stranger arrived on our consoles in 2005; this was the last we saw of Oddworld Inhabitants. Looking back at his titles, I asked Lanning if there was anything he regretted from his games, and if he would change anything.

“Oh, man,” he exclaims. “Each of those games represents a world of learning experience for me, and probably for a lot of the team members that worked on them. If I knew then what I know now, I could have saved myself, and so many other people, so many headaches. So really I’m grateful, even though I know I made a lot of mistakes along the way. Learning from them is a lifelong process.

Fortunately, I have no regrets, though I do wish some things had gone differently.” What exactly? “That’s probably best left unsaid.”

Many people feel a pang of sadness that five years have passed since the last trip to Oddworld. It’s an environment that many of us grew up with. We watched as Abe overthrew his oppressors, and as Stranger admitted his heritage and became a hero. But our world has changed and moved on greatly since the HD revolution in gaming. Is there still a place for Oddworld in our high definition world?

As Lanning had created many of his stories and characters some time ago, I wanted to know what he thought of the industry at present. “It’s pretty predictable in terms of content,” he says, ”but, overall, great opportunities are emerging as a result of all the disruption. We’re no longer interested in the box product game. We think it’s a walking zombie that’s yet to keel over. Conditions are drying it up. It’s the changes in the digital distributed landscape that are far more interesting. This is where new and potentially exciting things are going to come out of.”

Plans for the future

So does this mean we may see Oddworld hit our consoles and PCs via digital means? The Oddbox collection – all four games in one package, distributed via Steam – is still on target for 2010, according to Lanning. But will we ever see a brand new adventure in Oddworld? Despite this being a question that Lanning often answers, he retorts with pride.

“Oddworld is dear to us. There are a lot of things we want to do with it. But it all comes to financing, and a lot of it we hope to finance ourselves. So we’ll see how well some other efforts do – and we’ll keep our fingers crossed.”

Oddworld holds a special place in so many hearts. It will forever be a world that whisks you away from reality and drops you into a fairytale environment in which you can experience wonderful narratives unfold. Its uniqueness still holds the attention of gamers so many years on, and this generation of consoles and PCs could only heighten the majesty of the characters and areas of Oddworld itself. Here’s to hoping for one more resurgence.