Interview: Lorne Lanning, co-founder and COO, Oddworld Inhabitants
Lorne Lanning is the co-founder of Oddworld Inhabitants and the creator of the long-running Oddworld series. As well as designing the games, he wrote their scripts and provided the voices. He’s now working with UK studio Just Add Water on updated versions of Oddworld games, with a view to creating brand-new entries in the series in time.
Were you surprised that people asked for an update of Abe’s Oddysee?
I really was. If I were in a vacuum, trying to anticipate what people are going to want, I wouldn’t have anticipated this. If you’ve been in the industry long enough, with the exception of Will Wright, you’ve gotten pretty beaten up at times. And each time you get beat up, which is basically a lesson in the marketplace, it’s kind of like a car crash – you drive a little more carefully afterwards. When you’re younger and naïve, you’re like, ‘We’re going to build the biggest hit. Let’s do it!’ And you just go after it like you’re going after a gold medal. And then every time you miss, you’re like, ‘Oh, shit, maybe we shouldn’t have gone so strong.’ [Laughs.] You get wiser, and with that you take fewer risks. And with the way the competitive landscape is today, I didn’t even think that Stranger’s Wrath HD would go over as well as it did.
Why did you decide to keep Abe’s controls more or less digital for New ’N’ Tasty?
In the original, we didn’t have [analogue] sticks [on the PlayStation controller], and it was a grid-based game, so Abe would always be standing in a box. That made it even more difficult and sluggish, because you had to hit those points right. If you missed a step, you always missed it by three feet! What we wanted to do in New
’N’ Tasty is make it more physics driven and let players nudge Abe. So instead of having walk, sneak and run as three different combos, you have it all on one stick now. I think people who approach it like an action game sometimes get disappointed because they’re forgetting that it’s a puzzle game, albeit a hilarious puzzle game where guys get horribly disfigured if you fail [laughs].
But Abe’s Oddysee and Exoddus also feel more like fleshed-out worlds than simply being abstract platformers or puzzlers.
As a genre, I always felt that the sidescrolling platformer genre was one of the best at being able to give us the impression that the characters are alive in that world, as silly as that may sound. We still have responsive controls, but it’s less like you’re controlling a piece of art, and more like you’re controlling a life form, so you have inertia that you’ve got to deal with.
“If I were in a vacuum, trying to anticipate what people are going to want, I wouldn’t have anticipated this”
We want to get that fidelity of animation, and the response to not just be popping all the time. That’s something that’s always bothered me about Miyamoto’s games: I turn the character in a different direction and he doesn’t do any in-betweens. He just pops and faces the other way. That reinforced to me that I’m not controlling a life form, but a game. And we were always searching for that next level of that. What if we spent time trying to build the lifelike believability between these characters through the way that they talk to each other and the way their emotions come out? Abe’s Oddysee was ahead of its time in that it was a platformer with a social conscience in the ’90s. Today, every platformer seems to have a deeper message. How do you feel about that? I think it’s awesome, personally. Limbo, in particular, and Braid. When I saw Limbo I felt, in a way, envious. It was so hauntingly beautiful. I remember I had designed a game when we first started Oddworld, and I was hoping it would become its own series. It’s something we’ve never even talked about. You were an assassin, having to go into the Soviet Union and blow up a premier’s speech, and I wanted to do it in this beautiful ’30s or ’40s film-noirish quality with a lot of shadows and just super-high-contrast black and white. And then I saw Limbo and I was just like, “Wow, that’s so gorgeous”. Many people don’t like to revisit their past work. How did it feel to so closely re-examine something you’d made so long ago? I’m no exception! Truthfully, I had this fantasy that I wouldn’t have to be involved. Because largely with Stranger HD, I really wasn’t involved – just at an executive creative producer level. Trying to let Just Add Water be autonomous, trying to give them feedback, but really hoping they could just do it. I think Stranger was a simpler case. For this project, at the beginning, I was hoping it would go the same way, but in reality it was just a much harder design and production to tackle. I think we got into a little trouble with it around halfway through, once we switched over from Bitsquid to Unity. We started overcoming some of the challenges we were having on Bitsquid; [we were] running more smoothly on Unity, but getting to the point where we were realising the impact of the design and going to a higher-speed sidescrolling setup rather than flipscreen. And that meant we really had to dive back in there; I had to dive back in there to work with the crew. I did that joyfully, but there’s certainly a part of me that would occasionally would remind people I did this 17 years ago [laughs].