Oddworld Inhabitants has been hard at work on their newest, devious creation, Oddworld: Soulstorm. Lorne Lanning, Oddworld co-founder, presented a hands off demo at E3 and I was able to check out the game and ask a few questions. What I found was a creator with an infectious joy and a game that is a clever evolution of a wonderful franchise.
Oddworld Inhabitants, founded in 1994, gently weaves the themes of exploitation, corporate greed, nature, and empathy through their games. Abe’s Oddysee (1997), Abe’s Exoddus (1998), Munch’s Oddysee (2001), and Stranger’s Wrath (2005) all poke and prod at these themes in interesting ways, and Oddysee kicked it off.
A game based around empathy and pulling yourself and your people out of slavery was a revolution in 1997. I remember it as much. I was 12 at the time, freshly introduced to the graphical fidelity of the Sony Playstation, and Oddysee was a revelation. It was smart, funny, and tightly designed. The story was inspiring. It’s this inspiration and hope that has carried this franchise with people throughout their lives. So much so, that Oddworld Inhabitants delivered quite the gift in 2014, a ground up reimagining, Oddworld: New n Tasty!!. This went on to sell 3.5 million copies, and the response from the audience was, “Redo Abe’s Exoddus!”
Walking into Oddworld’s meeting room, Lorne Lanning is already in the midst of a playthrough of his latest build. He has an infectious enthusiasm to him, like a scientist who knows he’s got something special and wants you to see it too. Soulstorm is going to be special. It’s a smart, ambitious, beautiful evolution of Abe. The original Oddworld games (Oddysee and Exoddus) were 2D puzzle platformers. You controlled Abe (controlled is very intentional wording, as developing empathy between the player and the player’s character is a goal of Lanning), and were tasked with escaping a factory which enslaved you and your fellow Mudokons. The player followed Abe through a classic hero’s journey, named by Joseph Campbell and catapulted into popularity by George Lucas with “A New Hope.” Abe could sneak, hide, possess enemies, set traps, and issue commands to his fellow Mudokons to achieve his goal. Oddworld Inhabitants gave us a fully formed hero the player could empathize with through his hero’s journey.
New and Tasty!!, the 2014 remake, stayed true to Abe’s roots, offering a tightly designed puzzle-platformer. Still possessing all that Oddworld charm, New and Tasty!! provided a facelift, re-tuned controls, and a familiar sprawling world with non-linear paths to explore. There was GameSpeak, the system for communicating with the followers you amass (where much of the fun puzzling really gets interesting) and plenty of Sligs (the armed guards) to possess, humiliate, and annihilate. All of these systems working in tandem offered a sandbox of delights in 1997, picking up the 2014 remake showed me the focus and thoughtfulness that’s always been at the heart of Oddworld.
When I stepped into Oddworld’s meeting room, and I saw Soulstorm for the first time in action, my eyes lit up. Here was the same lovable Abe, only brought to life in a way I hadn’t seen before. The additions to Soulstorm are plenty. Abe has always been able to gather items (rocks or grenades) for combat, but now there is a full crafting system. Take rubber bands for example, these can be wrapped around projectiles (Jawbreakers for examples) to give them bounce (more bands equal more bounce). There is a physics system on display with destructible environments. All of this is very dynamic. Throwing combustibles will create flames; adding to it will enlarge the flames. Dousing yourself in a flame retardants will give you protection for a time. Crafting wouldn’t be possible without gathering supplies, which can be purchased at vending machines or scavenged. Enemies may hold supplies, money, or both. Money comes in two types, paper and coin. A really neat detail: burning enemies will also burn their paper money (don’t worry, the coins can still be collected)!
Moving on from the crafting and physics engine, Lanning showed off the follower system. Just as in New and Tasty!!, Abe is able to save any Mudokon he comes across. This leads to tricky little puzzles that soon turn into mind bending escape attempts. Adding ripples to this is the addition of meters which measure factory performance that are located in the departments you rescue Mudokons. The more you rescue, the more factory performance slips. The more performance slips, the more alarms raise. This adds a hefty bit of tension to the once quiet puzzle solving of past games. Lanning mentioned that they intentionally found particular coloring and sounds for alarms so as to invoke tension and panic in the player. From what I saw and heard, they nailed it.
Followers can now be given items to aid in combat as well as put into certain states, aggressive and passive, in addition to the established GameSpeak. Followers increase Abe’s possession abilities as well. More followers equal longer possession time, giving a bigger incentive for interacting with all these layered systems.
Seeing so many layered systems begs to be experienced, and something that impressed me on top of this was the possibility of a pacifist run. Lanning said that “in a perfect playthrough, no one dies,” being very clear that a pacifist run would be one hell of a feat. A karma meter is being employed that tracks every action Abe does, whether good or bad. The full ramifications of this remain to be seen, but the complexity of the systems, the inventive combat possibilities, and the potential for a pacifist run sounds like Soulstorm is going to stay fresh for a long time. The options for different plays every time look to be stacking up nicely. Lanning mentioned that a standard playthrough will be about 12 hours with 100 hours if you really want to poke and prod at all these systems.
Watching Lanning play with characters he has given life to, I sensed a real joy as he walked me through his latest creation. I couldn’t help but catch that joy, as I was watching the evolution of a character I have loved since I was a boy. I wanted to know, specifically, how Oddworld Inhabitants retained so much of this character and play style that has defined him, while bringing him forward in such momentous ways. To Lanning, as well as Oddworld Inhabitants, what makes Abe Abe is empathy. Of all the defining characteristics, I didn’t expect that at the top of the list. It’s not exactly an easy thing to evoke. It takes real skill on an artistic level as well as understanding on a human/psychological level to weave these themes consistently through your work.
Lanning shared stories of people that Abe had a lasting impact on. People Abe inspired through life’s difficulties. Lanning went on to say, “Abe is in a shitty place that he has hope within,” explaining that this character represents hope to so many people. I think as a creator who has interacted with players that spend their time in his worlds, he has seen the beauty that hope instills. Lanning knows what his creation means to people and is doing what it takes to give an experience that inspires.
In Soulstorm specifically, and Oddworld as a whole, Lanning has created a different kind of system. So often in videogames, aggression equals reward. In Oddworld, empathy equals reward. He wants there to be a clear line that the player can draw between actions and consequences. As our time was coming to a close, Lanning mentioned what he wants to represent through gameplay, “how you do things, lives with you – it either blesses you or curses you.”
Look for Oddworld: Soulstorm in 2020.