You may remember awhile back, when we recorded our first "Revival Club Podcast", we had conducted an email interview (questions courteous of Brad) with Lorne Lanning, founder of "Oddworld Inhabitants", about his involvement in "Oddworld: Strangers Wrath". We said we would post the interview on the site but were at a loss as to the best way to go about posting it. We simply couldn't do it efficiently on our old site. Well, the new and improved 4playerpodcast.com has made it possible. Without further delay, click the link below to be taken to the full interview. Once again, we would like to send our deepest thanks to Mr. Lanning for taking the time to answer our questions and making our first "Revival Club Podcast" special!
4PP: What outside influences inspired the creation of the Oddworld Universe? And more specifically, Stranger's Wrath. (i.e. Books, movies, other games, etc…)?
LL: Profound influences in my life shaped and continue to shape my storytelling and media interests. Once I discovered that art could be more than just craft and commerce, I sought a path were conditions of media, environment, and public trust would become my primary areas of inspiration.
I think the core essence of the Oddworldic themes were zapped into me at a very young age. I remember being mesmerized as a little kid listening to my grandfather, a Latvian immigrant, who would tell us stories about his father and other members of the family that had disappeared back in Latvia before WWII.
His father had been running something of a spy network out of his barber shop in resistance to the soviet forces that were occupying and “enslaving” Lativa. That’s how my grandfather saw it, his people being enslaved. He was still quite young when one night his father was taken away by secret police. That was it. They never saw him again, but it was rumored that it was turncoat Latvians that had turned him in. You can imagine how my grandfather despised traitors. I think because of this, being honorable meant a great deal to him. It stuck with me to this day as I look at political, business, and religious frauds that world over. Traitors to human decency and values everywhere we look, and in to be found in no greater numbers than in seats of power at center stage.
The question of what happened to the relatives that went missing had always stuck with me. The idea of dark forces stealing souls in the night, and the imaginative mind of an artistic child… while these were dark themes, they were also exciting in the possibilities of a creative youngster’s imagination. What happened to them, what did they go thru? These questions are haunting.
Then I remember my father telling me, after serving for years on US nuclear submarines through the Vietnam era and the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Never trust what you read in the papers or see on the news. These things are not there to inform you. They are here to shape our opinions in favor of someone else’s objectives. Read and watch but only with caution.“ I loved that man.
Obviously, both father and grandfather (though different bloodlines) each held fairly blatant distrust of news media based on events they each had personally witnessed. Whether the interests be governmental or private, it was these men’s belief that forces in power were shaping agendas thru the influence of popular opinion – via news outlets.
The insights these men shared never left me and I will be eternally grateful for their influences. They left me wondering what the truth was when I’d read or watch something, while around me I’d watch the sheeple eat up the increasingly clear propoganda with hook, line, and sinker. Uninformed people just bought right into it. Scary actually.
As the years went on and as I lived in more places, saw more things, met more people with fascinating stories, and did a lot more research (Noam Chomsky, Paul Virilio, Nicoli Tesla, etc)… it became increasingly obvious that a great deal of what the family was saying was proving more true than not.
I became passionate about the greater injustices that I saw being hidden from the public eye. The dark side of globalization was something that most Americans were paying little attention to in the eighties. While happy faced animated characters pimped products on the TV, the plight of third world workers and and consequences of our consumerism was conveniently being overlooked. Conscious and well-informed people who would bring attention to such things were systematically demonized by the press. Global warming is the perfect example. Media outlets launched highly financed campaigns (oil and related industries) to slander anyone and any evidence that conflicted with the status quo of US business interests. So the dark side of Globalization became a central theme in my personal creative process as it was such an obvious threat to democracy and rational thinking to anyone who was paying attention.
Specifically for Stranger’s Wrath, my father told us back in the 70’s that future wars would be waged over water. He was insistent that water was the most valuable thing on our planet. This stuck with me as it seemed so abundant everywhere around us, it was just hard to believe and at times he seemed a bit irrational about it. But as time went on, and I personally saw lakes die from acid rain and rivers grow polluted and spawning cycles of various species completely wiped out… I began to see that he was probably right.
The fight for water on earth today is one being waged between the basic needs of poor peoples and the largest corporate giants with the relentless appetite to dominate, monopolize, and monetize… by any means they can get away with. Stories of Monsanto trying to make it illegal for local indigenous cultures to capture rain water… are not only mind blowing, but truly diabolical and largely unbelievable by much of the population.
It was such callous and inhuman behavior that was central to the inspirational theme of Stranger and his plight to free the water and return it to those who needed it most, but had little means to resist profit minded occupation – at any expense.
4PP: Your company has a history of producing innovative platformers with heavy puzzle elements. Why did your team decide to move in the direction of a first-person shooter with "Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath"? And what decisions were made to ensure that the game maintained its unique "Oddworld feel" in a genre dominated by World War 2 and space marines?
LL: It was time to push the bar and jar us around a bit. Shake things up, if you will. A creative crew needs to stay engaged and excited and passionate. To stay stimulated you should be innovative and keep taking some risks and attempt challenging new ideas.
The industry at the time was also quickly moving toward action as what publishers were looking to finance. So by going astray from the action puzzle platformer we were able to delve into an entirely different degree of fighting systems, while inheriting from previous systems we had developed in the platforming genre. Our new challenge would be to innovate in a more entertaining way something to the shooting genre and mix it up into something fresh, new and a hopefully engaging experience. I don’t think we did so bad. It was a great team.
4PP: Who came up with the idea for "live ammo"? Was there something specific that inspired this?
LL: Live Ammo was a core innovative concept I wanted to push shooting into a new possibility with a potentially deeper play chemistry – that being the ability to use ammo to manipulate your enemies to greater degrees than we had previously seen. But, the design team had to flush it out to make it a valid system, which was not easy. There’s the old saying that came from Thomas Edison, I believe, “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” The team not only had to help with the 1% inspiration, but needed to deliver thru on the other 99%. In short, it was a solid team effort to pull it off.
4pp: Is there any info you can give us on the big twist in the game? The big story reveal for Stranger was not only a major change for the story, but also a dramatic shift in terms of game play. The open world mission based "bounty" game turned into a more traditional, linear adventure. Whose decision was this, and was this something you had planned from the beginning?
LL: The big twist in the narrative and play style came about in our attempt to get the gamer to feel the changes within the hero. Once we discovered who Stranger really was, and once he could no longer hide who he was, then we wanted his path in life to change, which meant his play pattern should also change.
By this point in the story, which is the beginning of the 3rd act. It became clear who was good and who was bad, so now that the audience had a clear grasp of this framework, we wanted the intensity of action and wanted the sense of epic scale to ramp up and not be impeded by the bounties and quests any longer. We wanted you to feel more of the warrior within Stranger and the heritage he was inheriting. We wanted that transformational feel to not only be a story plot, but a substanative change in game play that would make sense.
When we change in life, we shed old behaviors. We wanted that feeling in Stranger’s play progression. We wanted to leave his old life behind and only look forward… with vital cause.
4PP: Looking back, if you or your team could have handled something differently with the game, what would it have been? Was there anything about the game you were unhappy with?
LL: I have to admit that my personal shortcoming in game design is a tendency to aim for too many features and not have a firm enough grasp of the more simple core basics. Charles Bloom was probably the first person to honestly point this out to me. He’s brilliant and was the lead programmer for Stranger and Munch. Anyway, I was trying very hard to meld the ideas and feelings we get from film into great narrative driven gaming experiences in all of the first four games. It was my personal primary ambition. But inevitably, this complicated the production of our games. They were all very, very hard to build. I’ve learned a lot since then. Now I actually have an inverted focus from the way I looked at things before. Which is, to put the most emphasis on the very basic core of playability, and then the rest is icing on the cake but not essential to creating an enjoyable session of play. Especially in an age where the average play span is trending toward smaller chunks of time.
I wish I could talk more about this, but at this time I’m unable to. Regardless of my excitement for what we’re currently working on.
4PP: Chickens are horrible. They have beady, soulless eyes, and I'm not sad that people eat them. What were the challenges in making the chicken people so damn funny and likable?
LL: That’s funny, and I don’t disagree. Here’s the story…
I was in this nature store one day and came upon a postcard with an angry as hell looking bald eagle photo on it. This bird was so condescending looking. I mean, it really gave that impression that it was far better than you and I and didn’t give a damn about what we thought of it. It’s face said everything. This bird was a real prick, it knew it, and it didn’t care. It had this elitist air that looked grumpy and tenacious, and a bit of a conservative thinker. I just loved it. To me, it perfectly represented early American settlers. <laughs> That’s what the townsfolk were about and were inspired by, American and Australian settlers that didn’t give a shit about who’s land they stole, so long as it served their own purpose. So…
I brought this eagle image into Silvio’s office and said, “These are what our townsfolk should feel like, but they need to retain absurdity and goofball qualities.” That picture spoke a million words, and really that’s what we’re always trying to achieve in character design. Designs that communicate much more than just character designs, but embrace communicate attitude, irony, and audaciousness. If you can get that right, you can get some engaging characters that have the potential to be fun to flay with, but also fun to mess around with. “Mess with their minds” was a theme throughout the production of the game amoungst the game design team. Personally, I suspect I’m a cruel game player. I want characters that I can bat around and abuse for some good laughs. I admit, its messed up, but we’re a messed up species and I’ve never claimed to be an exception.
4PP: A topic that is brought up often by our listeners is the way that "plot" and "storytelling" is integrated into video games. I noticed Stranger Wrath contains both story sequences via cut scenes, but also does a great job of integrating story into real time, in-game monologues and conversations between Stranger and town members. Is there one method you prefer over the other, or is a mix of both styles the way to go? Also, how do you feel about the current state of video game stories in the industry? Do you have a current favorite?
LL: For quality there is no beating pre-rendered CG. You can use higher res models, you can get more deformations and targets for facial, you can have far greater freedoms in general as these don’t need to run in real time with the memory and processing power limited by a console. But they are more expensive, so we choose which scenes will be pre-rendered and which will be real time… based on their need for emotional communication to the audience.
For efficiency and seamless integration, real time cut scenes are the way to go. They are far faster to produce, for the most part you are only using the databases from the actual gameplay, and they can fulfill a lot of purposes that need to be communicated to the player without having to break the budget or the believability of the world.
However, pre-rendered sequences will be a thing of the past for our games… as the tools and processing power is getting closer to matching our goals on new fangled works in progress. There are some serious real time tools becoming available that are enabling more real time potential than ever before. Tools and techniques are evolving rapidly for real time and its silly not to embrace it more fully and push it more to greater extremes.
4PP: An up and coming trend in the industry is the growth of downloadable game platforms such as Xbox Live Arcade, Wii Ware, and PSN. After seeing the success retro revivals such as Mega Man 9 and Bionic Commando, would your company ever consider bringing back the Oddworld universe on a smaller scale, specifically the old school 2d Oddworld style games?
LL: Deals are currently in the works, but we’re skeptical of console makers based on our experiences. This past year we put the original Abe games up on Steam and later in the year they went up on GOG. We’re looking at converting Stranger and Munch to PC and also distribute on Steam and others. Steam is extremely interesting to us now. We see Steam and Valve’s Source as the smartest platform available today… and growing stronger as the years pass on. Valve is, without a doubt in our minds, the smartest guys in the games business.
4PP: What is your team currently working on, and what's next for Oddworld Inhabitants?
We’re working, but we can’t reveal on what. Still a ways to go. We know its taking awhile, but we want to do things right, smart, and for the long term. We also want to learn from the lessons our past has taught us. If it takes us longer to get there, then so be it. We’re not in a race, but we do care about breaking new ground. The economic global condition isn’t making things any easier (gee, amazing what 8 years of an idiot in office can do to the world), but it is validating the reason why we’re doing this shit in the first place. Which is… shining light on the dark side of human practices. Today, there is no shortage of inspirational material as the Wall Street Gangsters and the Global Elitists seem to be ripping the rest of us off more blatantly than ever before. But alas, it’s all fodder for relevant storytelling and modern mythmaking. Just our cup of tea ;-)