Lorne’s Oddysee – Oddworld’s Lorne Lanning on the Art of Storytelling in Games [2003]

Lorne's Oddysee - Oddworld's Lorne Lanning on the Art of Storytelling in Games [Hosted by Game Developer Magazine]

Date: October 2003

Interviewer: Game Developer Magazine

Interviewee: Lorne Lanning

Source: Game Developer Magazine(p.14). October 2003.

Lorne Lanning spent two and a half years fine-tuning what would become Oddworld before being given the opportunity in 1997 to actually develop the game’s first adventure, ODDWORLD: ABE’S ODDYSEE. Since then Lanning has kept giving players bigger and bigger glimpses of his own private world. One of the characteristics that have set Lanning’s games apart is his almost obsessive focus on the importance of storytelling; narration and character development are central to his games, with action skills receiving secondary attention. With a renewed interest in the art of storytelling in game development, Game Developer visited with one its apostles.

Game Developer: What are some of the bigger challenges in implementing good storytelling within a game?

Lorne Lanning: I think the primary obstacle is that games are built upon a limited chemistry of repeatable mechanics. Successful gameplay is the reasonable ramping of frequency and balance from these repeatable mechanics to create an additively progressing challenge. Great stories are built upon a very different structure. Stories do not repeat their subject matter; they continue to pull us forward via the pacing as dictated by a director and/or writer per the changing circumstances of an engaging character. By nature, the two mediums are in conflict. One is based upon repeated functions and the other is based upon continued change.

GD: So how does Oddworld try to implement these two sides of a game development coin into a cohesive playing experience?

Lorne Lanning: We try to create compelling heroes that are able to manage an interesting plight via the process of ongoing repeatable mechanics. For us, as the hero performs his repeatable actions the actions need to be related to the narrative motivation and the character’s development; the process of our mechanic creation is typically one that is directly distilled from who the character is and what his plight is. This means the mechanics need to be innovative. This aspect is critical if you want to create characters that people feel for, yet they feel for them while in the gaming experience. Our artistic dreams definately include motion pictures. These ideas began as motion pictures for us. When the films can be done the way we want to do them … only then we will move forward with production.

GD: What key factors can be used to check a story line’s effectiveness in a game?

Lorne Lanning: As far as universe development is concerned, a great interactive story must be built upon four critical components: unique characters, unique settings and environments, unique actions, and unique dilemmas. However, these components only form the soil from which you might grow an interesting character plight; you need compelling circumstances. Would this character’s plight be interesting if it were not within a game’s context? If not, then it’s probably not going to be that interesting in a game either. The plot needs to stand on its own regardless of the medium. Intrigue and character development are mediumindependent; we are emotional and intellectual beings. We want to be taken for a ride that engages our mind and stimulates our senses. If this can be achieved while also providing us with a challenging experience that stimulates our competitive or cooperative natures … then we might have a winner.

GD: When is style more important than substance?

Lorne Lanning: I don’t think it ever is, though I suspect that at times some of our work has had more style than substance. When this has happened, it was the result of overly ambitious design that was beyond our realistic capabilities. You then fall into what I call “reactionary design.” You’re trying to find Bandaids for work efforts that didn’t quite fully manifest, so you’re left with a bunch of partial assets that need still need to deliver at a certain time and for a certain budget.

GD: What are some of the biggest changes in game development industry you’ve seen since Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee first launched?

Lorne Lanning: Innovation in game design has become more difficult due to a publishing climate that is growing more afraid of creative risktaking. You can’t really blame them, as the stakes are getting higher as production costs increase while the number of retail winners continually decreases.

GD: How do you keep Oddworld fresh for ongoing fans while tantalizing for newcomers?

Lorne Lanning: I think it’s important that you keep a certain consistency for the brand while hopefully surprising the audience; as soon as the audience thinks they’ve got your number, you’re dead. Innovation is the key, yet innovation compounded atop a unique universe that you’ve already put out there and that’s already been received well. You need to convince the audience that they aren’t going to know exactly what to expect, except that it will be different and it will be the product of a team that really cared to deliver something special. It’s very difficult to achieve sustained interest if you don’t deliver products frequently enough. This is something that we’ve always been trying to rise above.