Discussing the Enduring Appeal of Abe with Oddworld Creator Lorne Lanning
We meet up with the designer and director to discuss the series’ 20th anniversary, and the reboot of an old favorite.
In 2017, the original PlayStation's Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee will celebrate its 20th anniversary. The game, released at a time when console and home computer power was pushing virtual worlds into three dimensions like never before (step forward GoldenEye 007, Final Fantasy VII, and the Quake and Tomb Raider sequels) looked like a step backwards for what these creations could be.
A side-on, 2D platformer, Abe's Oddysee didn't ostensibly seem like a progression from the 16-bit Marios and Sonics. But look deeper than a few screenshots, and that basic "platformer" pigeonhole, and Abe's Oddysee was quite clearly something else.
Abe, the game's player-controlled hero, was anything but an all-conquering, stereotypical power-fantasy protagonist bristling. He had some tricks up his (entirely non-existent) sleeve: He could telepathically control enemies, and was light-footed enough to tiptoe past many a spot of potential bother. But while he finds himself, entirely accidentally, freeing the slaves of a fantastical food-manufacturing multinational corporation—RuptureFarms—he's an everyman, unremarkable and inconspicuous in a crowd.
Or, rather, he's an every-Mukodon, to stick with the game's fictional universe of humanoid creatures separated into distinct classes. The Mukodons are the lowest of the low, the servants of the Glukkons, the game world's elite reptilian race. Abe rescues his "co-workers" across the course of Oddysee, using innovative "gamespeak" commands to direct them away from danger, and to their salvation.
Abe's Oddysee received several sequels, and was remade in 2014 as Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty, for modern consoles. The company that made the original, Oddworld Inhabitants, is still involved, and the success of New 'n' Tasty—the game received fantastic reviews and reconnected Abe with his old audience, while also attracting gamers too young to remember the 1990s—has led the studio to pursue further titles in the Oddworld franchise.
2017 will see the release of a remake, of sorts, of 1998's Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus, a title that, as Oddworld Inhabitants co-founder Lorne Lanning explains, was never quite what it should have been back in the day.
Above: The 'Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty' trailer from E3 2014
Waypoint: New 'n' Tasty was quite the comeback for Oddworld. I know that you've been teasing what's next, and it makes sense for it to be Abe's Exoddus, done over. Yet what you're talking about for 2017 is called Soulstorm. What's that all about?
Lorne Lanning: We actually started Oddworld Inhabitants through wanting to bring more Hollywood-style production values to games. And I think the original Abe's Oddysee had that, and then came the 3D games, Munch's Oddysee and Stranger's Wrath, later down the road. But it was surprising to me, actually, that people want more of that 2D platforming, side-scrolling style stuff, nowadays.
So we tested the waters with New 'n' Tasty, and the response was great. We polled the audience: What do you want to see next? And they replied with, "Do Abe's Exoddus!" I groaned, but then I looked at that: Exoddus was a game that we only had nine months on, a game I was never expecting to make. But I've looked at that game, for the next one, for Soulstorm – I've looked at what the old story was, and rewritten the whole thing. The drink, Soulstorm Brew, is still at the center of things, but that's where the similarities end.
Abe really resonates with the inner chump within us all who feels vulnerable, who feels like we might not make it. — Lorne Lanning
What we really want to do with Soulstorm is make it devious, highly volatile. And also, we're working with these ideas: In the first game, it's about Abe awaking from being a slave. He's the catalyst for more following his lead—they all realize they're not employees, they're slaves. No allegories to our world there, of course.
And in the next one, the original intent for part two was that the slaves wake up to the fact they're also slaves to their own habits, and addictions. So that's where this Brew, this drink, comes in—it's enslaving people around the world.
But Brew is sticky, and highly flammable. A long time ago, we designed mechanics for liquid fire, like napalm, but with the ability to splash surfaces and coat things, and then ignite it. We've got that going now. And what falls out of that is actually extreme comedy.
People were asking: is the next game going to be darker? And it is, because Abe's going through a heavier trip, and realizing it's not all fun and games, and realizing the scope of his task. He never signed up for this, to save the world; he just sort of stumbled into it. So we're getting more into what I wanted Abe's Exoddus to originally be. It's an all-new game; a reboot, I suppose, rather than a remake. But it definitely still has that Oddworld humor, it's honestly more hilarious than it ever was.
We have to get the game out in 2017. I suffer every time I provide a specific date, because people will take that as gospel, that it will be out then—when what we mean is we'd like to have it out by then. But, we feel it has to be in 2017, and so I'm on this night and day, until it delivers, and that's just how it is.
Abe was never an obvious hero, beside more stereotypical avatars that crush all before them. And yet here we are, almost 20 years after the first game, and he's an incredibly loved character. Tell me a little about how he came to be, and why you think he's endured.
I'm of the belief that if you can make characters more emotional, and empathetic, then you're going to have a greater connection to them, and you'd feel for them in ways that I never felt for the guy with the big gun and the big biceps. Who gives a shit that he can kick ass better? Those kind of characters—I'm gonna be the ace pilot and save the day—they're a little done. I'm more into people who work in the pizza place, who are also going to save the world. He's going to do it in a really interesting way.
Microsoft did some focus testing and basically told us, "Abe and Munch came back as two characters most likely to be in the corner at the party, with lamp shades on their heads." They certainly were never the embodiment of cool. But the reason I did that is because I felt that's where we were all at, what we were all in. We were in that position of being small, and helpless against a world of a lot of forces, and a lot of assholes, running things and fucking it up for the rest of us. And, gee, I feel like I'm getting validated now: you've got to be a dipshit to not recognize that's what's going on in the world today, that the assholes are winning.
Abe really resonates with the inner chump within us all who feels vulnerable, who feels like we might not make it, and that all of this stuff in the real world is overwhelming. And I know he's connected with people, because I've seen a lot of Abe tattoos. I met one dude, a big dude, like 300 pounds, and he had Abe on one ass cheek, and (Abe's sort of sidekick) Elum on the other. Like, how did they wind up there? The things those characters have seen, in that location.
I'd never encourage anyone to get a tattoo, but I was really surprised when I started seeing them. I always wanted characters that people would feel strongly about; but also that the characters mean something else to them, personally. I felt like people were small victims in the world, and as a result I wanted to make characters that were closer to them—not the best looking guy, not the strongest. But then, they could still overcome obstacles. Out of that, I felt we could build more empathy into the play pattern, even if we were being sarcastic, and dark at times. All of that helped build this connection between Abe and the player.
Where do you think you fit, in the gaming landscape of the 21st century? Here we have these kind of throwback games, and I know you're not into the power-trip adventures that do the big numbers, commercially.
There are things that are exciting today. I do look at the amazing graphics, and I'm wowed. I respect that the world's a violent place, but I see all these games about killing, and that doesn't rock my house. We kill things in our games, too, but there's a difference between what we do and just being gratuitous. I'm not into the war games, the games that celebrate war, when people are losing their lives right now in the real world, and being totally disrupted as a result of conflict. We're turning that into entertainment products, so billionaires can make more money. I'm not excited about that shit, and I'd never do that kind of stuff.
If you have the luxury of having a choice in what you do for a job, try to make the world better. — Lorne Lanning
You seem pretty pissed off at the world, Lorne. I'm getting that vibe.
Well, let's just look at who's winning in the world, right now. Hedge fund managers. Bankers. Corporate CEOs taking thousands of times the pay of those working under them. I mean, it's ridiculous. And it's been like this for ages—it was the disappointments of the real world that really inspired the Oddworld characters, originally. And I feel like, when I was a kid growing up, the hardest commodity for me to get in touch with was hope.
When I think back to when I was growing up, at times I just wanted to go jump off the bridge. There were all of these really intimidating barriers in the way. And it's worse today, for young people—far worse than when I was growing up. And what iconic characters do kids today have to hold onto? For me, when I was a kid, it was Yoda. And now Yoda is trying to sell me fucking soft drinks.
When I saw Star Wars, it filled a gap for me, and I think it did this for a lot of people, because there was a sort of spiritual deficit out there at the time. You had two schools: religion, or spirituality if you like, or atheism. But I always thought there was more. I grew up in the woods. My best friends were animals. My dog had more empathy when stuff was going wrong for me than any human I knew. So Yoda spoke to me: The Force connects all living things. It was a very Buddhist approach, and I sort of see Star Wars as Shaolin Monks in Space.
Then I realized: Kermit the Frog, and Ernie and Bert, and the Count on Sesame Street, they taught me to read. Not school. I learned from entertainment characters. I felt more connected to what Yoda was saying than any other traditional deities.
So to me, characters can mean a lot more. The songs I used to listen to, perhaps they prevented me from jumping off that bridge. You get empowered by this stuff. You see tattoos of lyrics, and that's the deeper meaning for the people that have them, on their life. And when I'm designing characters, I'm trying to come from that place where, if it registers with people, can they identify with it in regard to their own plight in life. And if they can, they'll embrace it deeper.
When we find something we really love, let's say it's a band, and someone else is trashing them? "Listen, motherfucker…" We're going to stand up for them. "That's my family!" We get passionate. And that's the best fan cultures. Go talk to Trekkies about how much you hate Star Trek, and see how you go. That conversation—well, that screaming match—is going to go on all night.
So, I hope to always focus on characters that mean more to people than just what the surface story is. And I think that resonated, with Abe. And the challenges of business get in the way, and you stumble over them; but with Abe, the reason I gave him infinite lives is because I wanted you to never give up. No matter how fucking sucky you were, if you stuck with it, you'd get there. And that's life, man.
It's nice when that happens, when you make that connection. But of course you need sales, too. But, I believe, if you're going to make entertainment, don't just do it to make a buck. Do what you have to do to pay the rent, of course; but if you have the luxury of having a choice in what you do for a job, try to make the world better. I'm not saying what that is, as our situations are all different, but I think that's what we all need to do, now.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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Find more information on 2017's Soulstorm and other Oddworld projects and games at the studio's official website.