For a movie-maker in the mid-’90s, familiar with almost ten years of high-end 3D graphics, the response of gaming to Sega’s Virtua Racing was, in a word, odd. “It was grad-shop development still,” recalls Lorne Lanning, the movie-maker in question. “Sceptical of anyone who didn’t how to build videogames, especially Hollywood. But it didn’t know 3D – and suddenly it knew that it didn’t know. That was how we got in.”
It was a chaos familiar to any sea change in technology. ‘Siliwood’ companies like Rocket Science and Crystal Dynamics would hire 3D talent from Industrial Light & Magic, production designers from Hollywood and effects experts from Apple, and the result would be mayhem. “The film people dramatically underestimated games’ complexity. They made no intelligent connection that would result in something the audience would enjoy. Good business stories, perhaps, but bad production models.”
Lanning, on the other hand, together with long-time business partner Sherry McKenna, spoke a good rap, and for good reason. He knew high-end 3D, but more importantly he knew games, even if his experience was gleaned entirely from the joypad. For jaded executives, his passion and McKenna’s acumen were precious, if precarious, commodities. “We wouldn’t have got the money today,” he believes. “The industry is much more like the rest of entertainment, dominated by less than a handful while everyone else scrounges for pennies.”
Not many startups share a name with their first IP, and you have to wonder what Oddworld Inhabitants devised first. Was it Oddworld, the remarkable, ever-expanding universe of weird creatures, skewed satire and emotive plights? Or was it Abe’s Oddysee, the PlayStation platformer that put the art in fart? Lanning laughs. “What came first was a story we haven’t told yet. It was about a guy who lost his body to a credit card racket. I told it to Sherry in 1992, in the context of a larger epic, and it was basically Oddworld.”
The core theme of haves and have-nots, then, was there from the start, and has driven the series ever since. But Lanning’s vision was still to be shaped by the realities of videogame development. Abe was a city-dweller, rejected yet surrounded by society, fashion, hustle and bustle. Not, it emerged, an easy life for anyone. “Doing 3D with clothes was a royal pain in the ass, so I focused on the guy with the loincloth instead. And where does he work? The meat processing plant, of course. It’s silly how the most practical necessities can drive your biggest ideas.”
A sinister tale of globalisation told by one of its sorriest slaves, Abe’s Oddysee didn’t just start at the bottom, but on the outside. “If you thought of it like our world,” says Lanning, “there’d be some areas that were as primitive as possible, others as high-tech as Tokyo, New York or London. So we’d have the full gauntlet. What I wanted to do with the Oddworld Quintology [an ambition that, on and off, he still pursues] was start in the third world. Then you find yourself dead smack in the centre of trade and commerce, Gnarlybebb. That would be our Manhattan.”
Was it a tough pitch? “Tougher today, I think. Back then, Sherry’s philosophy was simple: we’re all people. So if you wanted to do a business deal, that’s what she was looking at. Who are they? What do they care about? And it was obvious to us that the executives, the ones making the business decisions, really weren’t proud of the games they were making.
“They felt they were largely for kids. And not just kids – boys. Boys who like to break and kill shit. Seeing how thick that perception was, we basically said: ‘Wouldn’t you like to feel better?’” Abe, then, in the age of Mortal Kombat and Doom, became a kind of talisman for the men in suits. Men who, in the eyes of the press, were seen increasingly as having blood on their hands.
Sauntering between puzzles, cutscenes and ethically sound combat, Abe’s Oddysee sits in the allowed company of games like Another World and Flashback, feeling thoroughly adventurous despite being, essentially, a platformer. And that, says Lanning, is no coincidence.
“Flashback engaged me more than any other game at the time. It just blew me away. While people were trying to get more of the screen moving, that game put its resources into animation. It did things that felt less like artwork moving about on the screen, which is what Mario was doing, and more like there’s this little guy living in this box, and you’re in control of him. Sherry got excited just by watching it. And she could play it – and she is not a gamer at all – because the pacing was up to her.
“Then it had this narrative that was really just the ambience of the environment. That was the feeling I wanted to capture. Funnily, we got the money for the first Abe based on our 3D expertise, but I knew we were really gonna make a 2D game. We never said that, of course. I wanted to slow the screen down, create some nice transitions, things that felt more like film, and leave the orientation of casual gamers intact.”