Date: September 2019 Source: Official Xbox Magazine, Issue 182 (November 2019), pp. 67-73
THE BIG INTERVIEW
Before creating Oddworld Inhabitants, Lorne Lanning was asked by James Cameron to work for him, but he turned the director down
LORNE LANNING INHABITING ODDWORLDS
ODDWORLD INHABITANTS HAS BEEN CREATING GAMES FOR OVER TWO DECADES, AND ON THE STUDIO’S 25TH ANNIVERSARY OXM SITS DOWN WITH COFOUNDER LORNE LANNING TO TALK ABE, POLITICS AND THE IMPACT OF VIDEOGAMES ADAM BRYANT
When Abe’s Oddysee was released by Oddworld Inhabitants in September 1997 the gaming world discovered Oddworld, and with it a fascinating universe that managed to capture the imagination of a generation and set a new standard for cinematic adventures. What began as a vision for an Oddworld ‘quintology’ soon veered off course in a different direction due to demands for an immediate sequel to Oddysee, along with big changes within the industry. The studio ended up leaving videogames, seemingly for good, without realising that initial vision. Then, thanks to the booming market of digital distribution, Oddworld Inhabitants stepped back into the spotlight with a remake of its first game in 2014, the success of which put the quintology back on the agenda. Now, on the 25th anniversary of the studio’s founding, a new game, Oddworld: Soulstorm, a reimagining of Abe’s Exoddus, is on the horizon, and OXM was lucky enough to sit down with Oddworld creator Lorne Lanning to talk about his time within the games industry.
OXM: You had an early interest in videogames because of your father and his job, right?
Lorne Lanning: Well, actually, before that I was a paperboy getting paid in quarters. This was in New England, Connecticut, delivering papers at 5am through the winter, so it was extremely cold. All the paperboys used to duck into truck stops and cafes, anywhere that had coin-op videogame machines, just to get warm. So that was the real beginning. My arcade experience was delivering papers and trying to stay warm in the winter. As long as you kept on feeding those quarters, you could stay inside. After that, yes, my father was a package designer at Coleco [creator of the ColecoVision console].
OXM: How did that early interest lead you into making videogames as an adult?
Lorne Lanning: Initially, I didn’t make any association between myself and making videogames because, as a kid, I just thought I was going to be an artist. I didn’t really know what that meant or how you survived that way, I just knew that if I had something going for me it would be my artistic talent. So at first I set off to become an illustrator. Leaping into games just didn’t occur to me because the graphics quality was still primitive. For context, the Nintendo Entertainment System came out when I was already in the film business. But then I started experiencing a lot more of the high-end simulation technology that the military and the military contractors were using, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is incredible,’ because it was actually multimillion dollar flight simulators. At the time, that was the most impressive real-time 3D graphics you would ever see, and I was like, ‘How long is it until the power of that military simulator is in a home video console machine?’ That’s when all the bells and whistles started going off for me about the possibility of videogames. I then realised that videogames were going to be delivering great quality animation and worlds and art, and that was really interesting. That was when I made the association that I might actually make videogames, but it didn’t occur to me until 1990.
OXM: When did you first come up with the idea for Abe and Oddworld?
Lorne Lanning: I was developing a series of characters and short stories, playing off of these themes of how I was seeing the world and the challenges of the modern human condition, and out of those I started taking lots of notes and making lots of little treatments to different stories, different characters and different circumstances. I didn’t know where a lot of these things were going to go, I just wanted to get them down creatively. I then started to identify that there were a lot of common threads running through it all. That’s when I started to come back to this character, Abraham Lure, who was destined for the meat grinders, and in working with that character, and all these other different stories that I’d been blocking out and making notes on, I realised that this was one universe. I thought it was many different things but it was one thing with many stories within a big world. That helped solidify the world. Then, through the course of production on Abe’s Oddysee, there was what we originally thought we were going to do and what we found through discovery. Like, what is it? Is Abe battling consumerism, or is he battling religion? That was an early decision for us and we decided consumerism was much more appropriate. Religion seemed appropriate for a distant past, whereas now it seemed consumerism was the real challenge that was going to take Abe on. A lot of that fleshed out itself in production as we were developing and had the money to go for it and deliver that first game. But the ideas were sort of percolating for five years before that, and they were always around these conditions of the dark side of globalism and the failings of certain technologies, what that meant for the working class, things like that.
OXM: You’ve always injected interesting themes in your games, like capitalism, extinction and conservationism to name a few. Are these subjects that you think about a lot?
Lorne Lanning: I do, yes. A lot of my childhood was shaped by seeing environmental destruction. Growing up in New England, I saw a lot of things: acid rain killing the lakes, salmon ceasing to be in certain rivers, the algae growth of freshwater happening on all the lakes due to climate change, and that was really sad to me. It was terrible when you looked at it in terms of planetary economics, projecting forward food and distribution of food. I had a job working in the South Bronx for the fruit and produce terminal, that I used to pay for college. I’d worked in restaurants, too, but I got an insight into the magnificent waste and the challenges of perishable goods. Just watching people in the South Bronx, where you saw lot of homeless people, there were people starving and families without food. And then you saw this tremendous amount of waste that was happening due to the complications of our food systems — FDA regulations, things like that. It was tragic to behold. Tons of perfectly good food getting wasted every day and people right outside the fences that couldn’t get access to it. These things were challenges, and the more I understood about the food companies and the distribution companies that were there, the more I understood that the problem was really complicated. I didn’t have the answers and thought to myself, ‘Wow, these are the types of problems that sink civilisations eventually.’ I found that, a) sort of overwhelming in what the solutions might be, and, b) stimulating in the challenges that face us and are more relevant to us today.
OXM: It’s interesting to think those early experiences made their way into your games.
Lorne Lanning: I thought that young people in particular would be getting more concerned about environmentalism and what the future of the planet looked like for them, and I thought those themes would resonate. Entertainment can be extremely superficial at times, which is fine, and you can sometimes make money with that, and that’s good, but if you’re looking at intellectual properties that have fan bases that can stand the test of time, they usually have deeper threads that have more relevancy to people’s lives. If we look at X-Files as a TV series, for example, people were really interested in the eternal questions of, ‘Who shot JFK?’ and, ‘What are these UFO things about?’ And by playing off of the mythos that was popular in the world, like conspiracy theories and stuff, you had this amazingly successful TV series come out of it. Likewise, if you look at the people that love Twilight Zone, it wasn’t just a show that occupied your time and had a nice message at the end, like a sitcom. Instead, it was always the sort of morality plays that challenged your thinking on certain topics. I was looking at IPs to see how much depth you go to while not being preachy about it so that it’s just interesting content. It’s not like you’re trying to take a position to convince people of, you’re just trying to shed light on our challenges. If we do that, we can make characters that have a larger mission in life and are more empathetically to us. I think that was a big part of what drove the subtext of our games, or the themes of our games. I thought it was relative and relevant to the world. And I think we were kind of right. If we look at the people concerned about environmental issues today, I think it outnumbers the people that were concerned 20 years ago, and it’s particularly young people. But right now we also have people that just don’t care about anything in larger numbers then we’ve ever seen before. I don’t know how to address that market, but the people that are contemplating how difficult the world is, I think that’s a market that makes sense to us.
OXM: Videogames are influential in terms of the impact they have on people. Do you think that they can be a force for good? And if so, do you think that they have a duty to be?
Lorne Lanning: I’d say duty all comes down to the momentum of individuals creating the content, or financing the content. I feel, as a medium that has this much penetration power into the global public mind, it would be good if we spent more time trying to make nutritious media rather than just profitable media. I feel we have the opportunity to take advantage of that and make more meaningful games, and I think the future is ripe with that stuff. I just don’t know which sectors it comes out of because distribution, visibility, audience reach, cost and how many units it can sell, are all relevant factors that are joined at the hip. You can’t make a game that’s more expensive than there are people willing to buy it, and that becomes a challenge for serious games or socially conscious games. The more tht people play off of socially conscious themes, I think that they have to also try and keep their costs lower. Because if you’re just saying, ‘Look, this is the latest Doom and it’s going to be awesome and here’s what you’re gonna do, and you kill everybody,’ we understant that, it’s easy to grasp. It’s probably exciting, and it’s easy to jump on board with. If you say, ‘This is a game that’s exploring the difficulties of the life of being an Inuit,’ like in the game Never Alone, you’re going to have a smaller audience. That game was really kind of amazing, and fortunately, it was successful, too. But I think if the developers had spent a triple-A budget on the game it probably would have been suicide. The more you venture out there, the more risky it gets, you run the risk of isolating or polarising your audience around political positions. To me, political positions will always come and go, they’re hot air of the moment. When people say my games are really political I don’t see them that way, I see them as challenges of the human condition. We always try to create characters that don’t have political positions, that are largely ignorant of political positions and just come from a different space of being ‘human’, just trying to survive, just trying to do the right thing without aligning to any way of doing something that happens to have any political alignments. So in essence we try to make our games nonpolitical at their core, but very fun in a philosophical nature.
OXM: What’s it been like staying with a franchise for as long as you have?
Lorne Lanning: [Laughs]. Some of it is you want to explore new territory, some of it is you feel like anything you do is at the expense of something else. The thought goes through my mind about all the other things I could have done. There were other things that I tried to do, some of which I just didn’t succeed at. But the thing with Abe was, in the original creation of it when we were putting together the company, all the business discussions with lawyers and investment partners were about, ‘When do I get my exit, and how do I really sell this? At what point can you sell it?’ That was foreign to me as a creator because I was thinking if you can make something profitable, why would you want to sell it? Why wouldn’t you just keep doing it like Jim Henson did with The Muppets, or Hanna and Barbera did with Fred and Barney, or Disney did with the animated films? Why wouldn’t you stay with them? It was natural for me to think about staying with it for life. It wasn’t natural for me to think about it as a business venture that I would do a quick exit from.
OXM: How do you continue to make the franchise creatively stimulating for you?
Lorne Lanning: If the Oddworld series wasn’t rich in the depth that could reflect issues that we see as challenges for the human condition today, and relevant with deep research, then it would get boring for me, but it’s the opposite because the characters are able to evolve with our understanding of the crises that we try to tackle in the games’ themes. The overall singular soundbite or story for Abe is that he’s a pacifist who’s going to have to lead a revolution. That in and of itself is a kernel for who Abe is, and it dictates so much of the conflicts he’ll encounter.All of the things he’s really not going to want to do, but because no one elese will he has to raise his own bar and grow up and tackle these problems himself. That keeps it kind of fresh for me, because it can keep it relevant to themes that are more relevant to the audience today.
OXM: What is it in your eyes that makes your latest game, Oddworld: Soulstorm, so special?
Lorne Lanning: I think one thing is when the elements of the story, the character and the gameplay all start to synergise, where you’re experiencing it as one cohesive whole. When you’re building it you’re not experiencing it that way. There’s a certain magic that happens when that first animated sequence turns into the seamless gameplay, and then you’re off and you get it. You get where you’re at, you get the context and everything. There’s also the effects. I love the visual outcome of — and how it plays is really interesting, too — the dynamic fire. I think we’ve pushed that in ways that we haven’t seen pushed. The liquid flammability and the way fire can stick to things, and the way things that are flammable can burn down and alter the playing field, that’s really interesting. We’re always faced with the challenges of budget, so there’s always what you want to do and then there’s what you figure out you can do. You want to focus on all the details and make your characters really come to life in a film-like way, and you want the writing to be more subtle and mysterious, but then you’re making a game and it’s got to be very clear. The storytelling aspect, as it mixes with the dynamic lifelike behaviours and the emergence of what happens on the playing field based on the way you’re playing it, those things are much more prevalent now in Soulstorm. You start to get into these tragic moments that just feel like chaos is unfolding, or you did something wrong and you’ve got to remedy it right away. It’s like a comedy of errors. Those are just really enjoyable. The story is at the heart of Soulstorm, and is a big part of what drives me, but you’ve got to be careful not to let that become more important than the game.
OXM: You work incredibly hard. Have you allowed yourself to calm down a bit over the years?
Lorne Lanning: I wish, but the stakes change. This past year is up there with the hardest years I’ve ever had, and I’m not alone in that. What happens when you’re financing yourself is that you really have no one else to blame if things go wrong. So the stakes are much higher in that regard, because you can blow it.
OXM: It seems like a lot of pressure to put on yourself, and you must sometime worry if this way of working is sustainable…
Lorne Lanning: It’s not. Every time you step up to the plate you’re hoping for home runs and sometimes it’s just enough success to keep you on the treadmill, but it’s not enough to take some major time off and re-evaluate life. That would be nice. But [at Oddworld] we do work hard.
OXM: You’ve claimed there are infinite stories to be told within the Oddworld universe. Would you ever let anyone continue making the games if you decide to move away from the franchise?
Lorne Lanning: That would be a dream come true. It really would. I think one of the things that is challenging about the Oddworld IP is that it has relied so much on me as a creative. I think that helps with some of the consistency of story and stuff, but it hasn’t necessarily helped the franchise grow to the capabilities it’s capable of because then I become a gating factor slowing things down. That’s part of what I’m trying to do with setting it up so that we have more chemistries of play that can continue to evolve, and are easier for other teams to take on and wouldn’t require me as a director, and still hold up. I would love to see that. And, ultimately, it makes your IP more valuable if it can be that way.
OXM: Do you have any ambitions to make games outside of the Oddworld universe?
Lorne Lanning: I would love to. I look at certain things — I see the Alien games and I’m like, ‘Man, I would love to do an Alien game…’ like an Alien or Predator game. I think I would have a lot of fun trying to tackle a game like that. There’s lots of stuff out there that I really see [myself] getting into but then it’s all about time availability, and, like I said before, anything you do is at the expense of doing something else. Then, how hard is it to launch a new IP? Would you rather be working for yourself or working for somebody elese? There’s been some interesting opportunities come up but my availability just hasn’t been there. I think what’s happened partly in the industry is that people think that I’m someone who is just focused on his own IP, but in reality I would love to do other stuff. It’s just figuring out how to not drop the overall investment of the 25 years I’ve put into the Oddworld IP. It’s kind of like having kids… you’ve still got to get them through college.
Oddworld: Soulstorm is due for release on Xbox One in early 2020.