PC Zone: At Home With… Oddworld Inhabitants [1997]

Date: February 1997

Source: PC Zone, Issue 47, pp. 30-32.

Platform games are usually stricly passé on the PC, but newly formed US-based developers OddWorld Inhabitants have come up with an innovative new slant on the kiddy console genre. Jeremy Wells went ton San Luis Obispo, California, courtesy of GT Interactive, to buy some new trainers, drink lots of light beer and sneer unimpressed at yet another bunch of film-makers turned gaming ‘experts’. Dumb ass liney!

You probably haven’t heard of Oddworld Inhabitants., but you’ve probably experienced some of their work if, that is, you’ve been to EuroDisney, Universal Studios in Florida or seen “The Last StarFighter’, ‘Blade Runner’, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ or more recently ‘Babe’. Formed in 1994 by special effects and computer animation veterans Sherry McKenna and Lorne Lanning, OddWorld Inhabitants is the brainchild of two like-minded people dedicated to producing a new kind of gaming experience that will appeal to a much wider audience than ever before. One’s a die-hard gamer who still revels in the playability of such classics as Asteroids and Defender (Lorne), the other is a perfectionist in search of photo-realistic graphics and total immersion who rather bizarrely, just happens to think that all games are crap (Sherry). So how did this unlikely pairing come together, and what the hell are they doing working on a series of games together? “It’s really down to a collective vision to create a new breed of interactive entertainment,” maintains Sherry. Oh dear, says I, where have I heard that before? “Lorne and I met through working on high-end computer generated special effects and graphics for movies. My background is in this area, as is Lorne’s, and he basically convinced me that we could bring what w’ve learnt doing movies, sims, rides and stuff to produce a fantastic new game genre.”

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking Rocket Science. So am I. I’ve written the words ‘Doh’ and ‘Oops’ in my notepad and my head has gone down in the same way a Man City fan’s does after they’re three-nil down. I decide to bite the bullet and show Lorne my note pad. Call it good ol’ honesty. It’s a British thing. It’s probably a bad idea. He gives a wry smile. I put on my coat. He’s a big bloke and I’m a stranger in a strange town somewhere in the back end of California. They probably have guns in their desk drawers. The poxy airline company have lost my luggage and I want a cup of real coffee with caffeine in it and I want my clothes back. I want to go home. Arsenal are playing the Scum on Sunday and I’m going to miss it. I’ve put my foot in it big time. Somebody get me outta here. Please…? “I’m glad you think that,” says Lorne, not looking in the least bit surprised. “Most people do when they hear our backgrounds. But it’s not the case with OddWorld, let me explain…”

The story so far…

Before he can, Sherry chips in: “We’re not that stupid. We know what we’re doing. We’re used to working against resistance and proving people wrong. When I worked on ‘The Last Star Fighter’, it was the first feature-length movie to use computer-generated special effects. It met with huge resistance from the film industry because they were used to working with models and all that stuff. Even then I just knew it was the way forward, and now look what’s happened – we’ve got ‘Jurassic Park’, ‘Babe’ – almost every major movie release uses computers in some way – the whole thing’s huge.” I take my coat off.
“It was the same with the motion rides when we first worked on them. People just weren’t sure what the technology could do. We spent two years making a motion film ride called ‘Seafari’ for a theme park in Japan. When people saw what we’ve created they were just blown away, but it was just a new way of doing things. It’s all first-person POV [point of view], there’s no cutting, if you want to move the camera, you have to move the audience. A lot of that is applicable to games.”
Lorne dims the lights and shows me the video. “You can’t even begin to appreciate how much better the actual ‘Seafari’ ride in Japan is. You’re not only thrown around in your seat by the motion-linked hydraulics, but it’s all on 70MM film, so a lot of what you’re seeing is just lost on video. You just lose so much detail. That’s why it took us two years to complete. There’s so much in there.”
The lights come back on and Sherry picks up the thread: “People saw that film and just wanted to throw money at us. There was this big buzz about Siliwood at the time and we got made a lot of offers. Suddenly, big money people thought they could make a lot of money out of games. It was easy to get finance. A lot of people thought it would be easy to create games and cash in. We knew that it took more than a background in Hollywood to make a good game. We didn’t want to use FMV because we felt it was too restrictive.” Unlike some developers you could no doubt mention.
“People didn’t take games seriously,” adds Lorne. “To me it was obvious that games developers were performing miracles with very basic hardware and we should look to emulate that expertise. Just look at Flashback or Prince Of Persia. These were the first gaming movies because they offered a realistic player environment and real interactivity. People were saying that games like Myst were the way forward, and now with the PlayStation being so popular, everyone’s going crazy about 3D. The imagery is creating the pull. But, hey – it looked neat, but I couldn’t play Myst – I want to try and bridge that gap. Make it more alive and yet still have that same kind of twitch control. Prince Of Persia was funny and cinematic. People could watch you play and enjoy it, just like they can with Mario 64. Games should be fun, you should be able to have fun with characters in a game. And they shouldn’t be aimed just at kids. I’m 31 years old and I like playing games. I grew up with games like Asteroids and Defender. I’ve always had an SNES and now I’ve got a PC and a PlayStation. I play games all the time. I want games to be aimed at my age group, not just kids. They should be funny, witty and amusing – that’s the kind of game I want to create.”

Abe’s Oddysee… the first of many?

And so to Abe’s Oddysee, the first of what will be a series of five games starring (among others) Abe, a kind of endearing Pepperami bloke with buck teeth and a weird line in funny chants. “We’re very keen to create a character that is going to stand the test of time,” remarks Lorne. “All the characters who appear in the first game have been rendered in 3D Studio at a very hi-res, much higher than is necessary. The reason behind this is that we want to build a data format that we can use at a later date. If we do everything really hi-res now, we won’t have to re-do it when we start the next game. The same goes for the environments. We want consistency throughout the series, so we can build on the same universe. This time round, all the characters are pre-rendered. For the next game it’ll be all real-time. We’ve given a lot of thought and time towards working it all out, making the gaming universe stand up. Hopefully, this will save time later.”

It certainly looks awesome, and a quick shufty through the reams and reams of sketches, drawings and renderings of all the characters and scenarios is enough to confirm that the past 18 months creating the OddWorld universe haven’t involved lounging in the California sun, sipping an ice cold (and under-strength) Bud. But what of the game?

Abe’s Oddysee is going to be about content,” confirms Lorne. “There aren’t any puzzles in the game as such, rather circumstances and situations that the player must work out. We’re trying to dissolve the boundaries that normally put people off games. For instance, there are no status screens, score bars, time limits or game lives. Instead, if Abe is feeling weak, he’ll move slower and his voice will change. Similarly, the music will try and dictate the pace when there’s danger. It will all be suggestive rather than on the screen in a series of menus and pop-up windows. We don’t want anything to detract from the interactivity. It will be completely immersive. Ultimately, we’re aiming for the same kind of experience as the Holo-deck from ‘Stark Trek: The Next Generation’, but it’s gameplay first and then realism.” Maybe in a couple of hundred years?

Play the game

After this kind of build-up, I just wanna play the damn thing. Usually, at this point, you’re led out of the building, taken for a very pleasant meal, plied with drink and then put on a plan home. Consequently, it’s a nice surprise when Lorne loads up an early version of the game and starts to play it, pointing out all the gaps in the code as he goes. It looks smart. “This is very early,” he admits, “Pre-alpha. The game won’t be out until May/June time.” It’s a platform game; it’s flick-screen. The graphics are gorgeous and I want to take Abe home with me. My Dad would laugh at his voice. I just like the farty noise he makes to annoy the Scrabs (just one of the races of baddies). After playing it for half an hour, I soon realise that it’s not as simple as it first looked. First of all you have to master ‘Gamespeak’ – a simple but no doubt sophisticated feature that lets you communicate with other characters in the game via basic control combos. Then you’ve got to learn how to control Abe. He can walk, run, roll, crouch, leap, sneak, chant, throw objects and even possess other characters. Everything he does is beautifully animated and quite seamless, as are all the other characters (there are seven types in all). Playing through just the first level (and it’s still very incomplete) should be enough to convince anyone that there’s going to be a lot to this game. You really have to think about what you’re doing. There’s a lot of baiting the other characters and tricking them into doing your dirty work (Abe’s essentially a good-natured soul) – there’s obviously a lot of AI going on somewhere. All the characters can hear as well as see (the game features intelligent sound) and if the player can’t see Abe on screen, the neither can the other characters, so there’s a lot of sneaking about, setting traps and acting the little bugger. Most importantly, it’s fun to play and somehow at the same time very unassiming and yet clever. Sherry and Lorne have set themselves very high standards, and their background in movies will no doubt prompt more scoffs and wry smiles than if they were a British developer working out of some shed in the Midlands. Hopefully, this will just make them even more determined to succeed. So far, the future’s looking bright for Abe and his friends.

Elum Trap