Abe’s Incredible Oddysee
I love Abe’s Oddysee. Perhaps it’s not exactly a unique sentiment, but nonetheless it’s true. There are very few if any games that come close to the joy Oddysee gives me. In this post I would like to provide a perspective on why this is and I hope that it might give a few of you a new angle of appreciation for the game.
This is my second long-form game review. The previous one was about Munch’s Oddysee.
- The First Impressions
- A Short Narrated Walkthrough of Oddysee
- Gameplay Mechanics
- The Sound Design
- The Art
- The Level Design
- The Story
- The William Anderson Controversy
The year is 2006 or perhaps 2007… or maybe 2005, it’s a blur really. I’m still in kindergarten and my only experience with gaming is whatever my older cousins played on their PlayStation 1 and it just so happens that Abe’s Oddysee is one of these games. I was immediately captivated and also creeped out by the dark atmosphere, “violent” deaths and menacing sounds of the game. To my 6-7 years old self Oddysee was horror, but not the kind of horror that makes you want to never look at it again, rather the one that makes you wanna peek even though it scares you. Long story short, I was in love with the game, despite the fact that until several years later I never even got farther than the Monsaic Lines. It simply didn’t matter, those three early areas cemented the game in my mind.
Then came Exoddus and while I wouldn’t say that my love for Oddysee was lost, I was simply able to progress much more further in the former at the time because of things like QuikSave, also since I played it on the PC, I also had access to DDCheat and the level skip cheats, so I had a lot more tools to goof around. However, as the years passed and I rejoined the fandom, rubbed shoulders with more and more people and also read far more about the circumstances under which these games were made, I started to gain a newfound appreciation for Oddysee, that finally made me reconsider which game I consider my favorite.
The First Impressions
Abe: This… is RuptureFarms. They say it’s the biggest meat-processing plant on Oddworld.
Even from the very first second you start the game, it is made clear to you that Abe - and by extension you, the player - are a speck in the machine, as the camera pans over the metal labyrinth that is RuptureFarms. There is nothing welcoming about this place, everything is dilapidated, dirty and oozes with a sense of uncaring coldness. No one would hear you scream if you died in this place, nor would anyone care if they did. The feeling is reinforced by the ever-present Security Orbs which watch over every part of the facility, along with our first short sighting of the numerous Slig guards. Maybe your death means nothing, but it is obvious that your discontent would swiftly be dealt with.
Then we arrive at the only unintentionally humorous part of the cutscene, where Mudokons are pulling levers for absolutely no obvious reason. Perhaps the original intention was to be more or less a metaphor, showing how little their work is worth, but sadly whether this was the case or not, it just looks silly in hindsight. Still, such a mistake is minuscule compared to how great of a moodsetter this intro is, so lets leave it at that.
Even the products this plant makes look disgusting. From the endless lines of carcasses and huge circular saws, to the dirty barrels and the chutes whose method of filling them reminds one of vomiting – or worse, defecation; the crapsack nature of this world starts forming in the players mind as they realize someone probably eats this stuff.
Finally we are introduced to our main protagonist and main antagonist. The game makes sure we understand just how different these characters are just from how they are showcased. Abe is shown hung up in a cell, with only a loincloth on him as he’s awaiting his punishment in distress. In stark contrast Molluck appears almost gigantic as he condescendingly looks us down in his fancy clothes, smoking his comically large cigar. From this moment you start rooting for Abe and hope that whatever situation he’s in, won’t be his end.
The cutscene then takes a step back and changes gears for a second, introducing us to Abe’s recent past, his role in RuptureFarms and how he became an enemy of the establishment. Unlike some kick-ass heroes of this era’s videogames, Abe’s no fighter, he isn’t even an important figure, he is a janitor. A janitor, who’s at the worst place at the worst time possible.
G-Man, Half Life 2: The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world.
After a quick reminiscing from Abe about the extinct Meeches and the other products RuptureFarms still produces; we are shown a room full of creatures like Molluck and it is quickly obvious from both Abe’s narration and their grimaces that they are not happy. Indeed, they are rather scared as the company is facing financial hardships. Every eye is on Molluck, who despite the tension does not buckle and quickly convinces the board that everything is going to be fine if they go through with his plan. This plan being the systemic genocide of the factory’s Mudokon workforce. Abe who accidentally eavesdropped on the meeting decides to abandon his post and try to save his life. Moments later a camera descends from the ceiling, capturing the event and unleashing the numerous security forces of RuptureFarms on him.
I hate to mention this, but for correctness’ sake I kind of have to: as Abe is running away, a Slig quickly appears behind him presumably to neutralize him. Yet, he never even tries using his weapon that he wags almost like a tail as he’s chasing Abe. I understand that OWI was probably in a tight spot when designing this scene as they both had to make it tense enough, while also figuring out how to give Abe a logical reason for surviving his initial disobedience, but still, this scene could have been handled better.
A Short Narrated Walkthrough of Oddysee
In this section I’ll go through the game quickly, naming some important things players can figure out just by playing the game, before diving into some more in-depth topics.
Putting the bombastic intro behind us, we are finally thrust into the game. There is no ceremony, no tutorial, aside from a few scrolling LCD screens, but those are hardly comparable to what the word tutorial evokes in most people’s minds. We are simply told that we should run as enemies are sure to arrive quickly. The game employs here a bit of scripting as we are actually in complete safety until Abe grabs the first ledge and hoists himself up, and even then the Slig is unable to reach us, unless one is foolish enough to go back. We are steadily introduced to some of the basic gameplay elements of Oddysee: Sligs shoot you on sight, bombs are deadly, Abe’s no fighter, and so on. All of this is done in an organic fashion and experienced players aren’t forced to play “by the rules:” if you already know that Abe is capable of possessing enemies, you can simply possess the Slig on the screen which is supposed to teach you sneaking and then shoot the one sleeping next to the elevator.
Speaking of possession, it is an exemption to the organic tutorial described above. The game never directly tells you about it until you reach the Monsaic Lines. Even the manual keeps a tight lip about this. This is in fact a lucky byproduct of the game’s original plot-progression that ultimately didn’t make the cut. Basically the idea was that since Abe’s mouth is stitched shut, he’s not capable of talking nor chanting and thus only when he reached the native areas - and lost his stitches - could he start retaliating, peacefully and otherwise.
Moving on, even if these areas are only here to teach you, the art does not take a backseat. We are shown parts of the production line and just how wasteful RuptureFarms really is. There are tons upon tons of barrels and yet they are supposedly losing profits? Nothing points these things out, the player is expected to draw the conclusions themselves, which I consider a strong side of this game. There is a certain wonder to realizing things, that simply isn’t there if you’re told.
After being given the chance the rescue your first Mudokons and have survived the encounters with the somewhat lazy Sligs of Zulag 1; the player will reach the end of the line. However, their triumph is short lived as you’re unexpectedly hit with one of the biggest sucker punches of the game:
I imagine most people are shocked upon reading this sign, albeit for very different reasons: some because they didn’t even bother to save Mudokons until now and the consequences of their lack of actions suddenly manifested. Others might be shocked about the number, knowing that they tried to save everyone, yet the numbers don’t add up. This is of course due to secret areas, which are admittedly not easy to spot unless you really pay attention. And I suppose there will be those who simply won’t care despite the fact that the game isn’t warning you as a joke.
So, you finally left that hellhole behind. Or so you thought, as it isn’t Mother Nature who greets you at the other end of Abe’s comical escape. Before you can leave, you still have to dare the outskirts of RuptureFarms, the Stockyards. This area uses the game’s screen-based layout greatly. As you move further and further away from the factory which is perpetually illuminated by sickly lamp-light so does it dawn on you that it is in fact the middle of the night. This is a nice example of subtle continuity, as in the intro Abe said that he “was working late one night at RuptureFarms.”
The level can be divided into two sections, the Stockyards itself which is where the influence of the factory is still very strong. This is signaled by the presence of bright lights, floating mines, guard towers, the captive Scrabs, and the general appearance of the platforms Abe is walking on. The other, far longer section is the escape in the Free-Fire Zone where Abe moves in almost complete darkness and the only Industrialist influence he encounters are the occasional Slig and Slog patrols and some mines.
It easy to zone out and get lost in the beautifully painted night skies or lose focus due to being chased around by enemies, however, the real kicker shows itself once one pays more attention to the environment. The silhouettes of lynched Mudokons are almost everywhere, underlining the feeling of overwhelming odds and hopelessness Abe is facing against.
Still, he perseveres and finally encounters one of the most uplifting moments of the game, the Mudokon Moon. As revealed later by Lanning, this holy celestial body caused the disagreement the at the time allied Mudokons and Glukkons, leading to the former’s eventual enslavement. However, Abe knows nothing of this, he just stands there, fascinated. That is until the ground under him gives way and he falls…and dies. Yeah, in about one hour of gameplay we are bombarded with experiences such as an oppressive and dangerous factory, trigger happy guards, the moral weight of not saving your kin, seeing the lynched remains of said kin and now the main character’s death.
However, this isn’t the time and place for Abe to die, so a new character enters to save the day, BigFace. He is a mysterious shaman, who resurrects Abe and tasks him with completing two sacred trials to receive a power strong enough to bring down RuptureFarms. I really like this. It presents a pretty clear route Abe has to take, while leaving enough wiggle room to use this otherwise simple plot to show us different areas of the world. Both trials could have easily happened in one of the areas easily, but that’d only be half the fun.
The Monsaic Line
And so Abe given life again continues his journey into the heart of a remaining, albeit greatly diminished, free Mudokon civilization. While I love the looks of this place, I have to admit, I don’t really understand how a place like this could exist. Mudokons reproduce similarly to bees, meaning they are dependent on a queen to produce new offspring. Now from what we know, Mudokons have long been in the servitude of the Glukkons and the only queen we know of is in captivity at an unspecified Industrialist location. One has to wonder how did they even survive until now without getting overrun by the Sligs and taken into the workforce. Sadly the game otherwise establishes things very well, so it’s impossible to not consider this a plot-hole. For instance, one could stipulate that these are Mudokons who similarly to Abe also escaped RuptureFarms and returned to nature. But this surely isn’t the case as they are very aggressive against him and as the manual says “they don’t take kindly to city-folk.” Similarly one could say that they simply survived as long, but this is extremely unlikely as the average Mudokon lifespan is 45 years, much less than the “eons” that the story about the Schism is talking about.
Grumbling aside, the Monsaic Lines is a gorgeous area and a great momentary pause to the action. This area provides relatively few challenges aside from the initial “mini-trial” Abe has to complete to be let into the more inner areas of the place. This is mostly in the form of slingshot-wielding guardians, whose somewhat questionable way of authenticating others is to whistle a tune which the other party has to mimic perfectly. Step too close and you’ll soon find yourself with a pebble between your eyes. Other obstacles include falling rocks, swarms of angry bees and the oh-so-familiar bottomless pits.
This is where Abe/player is first taught to use possession against enemies. This is a huge moment of empowerment as the Sligs who you could only outwit or perhaps sneakily take down using a grenade suddenly become tools too that you can use and abuse for your own purposes. Also this is where you’re introduced to the Flintlocks which serve as sort of special “switches” that you have to activate in later areas to proceed.
Once the player is equipped to face the dangers ahead, they are given a choice of how to proceed. They’re free to choose whether they want to dare Paramonia or Scrabania first, though once they made their choice, there are no backsies. There is also a third “choice” albeit that one is basically just going one screen further to see an envoy of Sligs patrolling the road back to RuptureFarms. This serves as a bit of environmental storytelling as it is made obvious that even with his magical powers, Abe in his current state isn’t enough to surmount this blockade.
I’ll first discuss Paramonia and then Scrabania as the wells leading to them come in that order.
And so we arrive to one of my favorite locations of the game; the lush, green forests of Paramonia. It is just such joy to experience this place, it’s beautiful, full of great setpieces and the framing of the Temple always looming in the background is simply superb. We are also almost immediately treated to Elum, our trusty traveling companion.
Paramonia is really about spectacle as the area doesn’t really provide any new gameplay features (other than Elum of course), rather it focuses on providing scenic sights. These include the gigantic spiderweb that spans several screens, the ancient wooden structures Abe and Elum threads on and of course the temple itself. The whole area reaches its peak on its last screen, where we see Abe being nothing more than a tiny ant in front of the door of the gigantic wooden fortress that is the Paramonian temple.
The Paramonian Temple
In stark contrast to the welcoming, bright forest, the temple is a cold, ancient structure which immediately forebodes a change. The huge suspended stone tablet bearing the mark of the Paramite further punctuates the feel that you’re on someone’s else’s home court. And indeed, after you evaded the Slig patrol that guards the entrances, you are introduced to a wholly new enemy that hasn’t appeared before, the Paramite. They are spider-like beings, whose face looks similar to hands. Their gimmick is that alone they won’t bother you until cornered, however, the moment two are on the same platform, their anxiety evaporates and they immediately attempt to turn you into a snack.
This is where the Flintlocks come up again as you have to complete several smaller puzzles to proceed to a final trial. This sort of layout is called a “Hub” in the community and there are several of these in the game. I’ll talk about them in more detail later, for now just keep them in mind.
It is interesting to note that this temple contains two gameplay features that don’t appear anywhere else in the game: swinging rocks that can kill Abe if he jumps at the wrong time and an Indiana Jones-esque rolling boulder that you have to run away from.
Unlike Paramonia, which is a lush forest, Scrabania is a sweltering desert, full of sand, huge rocks and cacti. Elum joins us once more on the journey to the temple, as the duo dares the bomb-ridden desert. Interestingly Slig patrols are far rarer in this area, their place taken by floating mines. Perhaps the design intention behind this is the fact that Sligs are bog-dwelling creatures and thus they can’t tolerate the heat. The game never details this, so this is just me seeing things into where there might not even be anything.
This area also features the so-called bladders. These are inflated balloons of animal-bladders hanged onto poles with what appears to be antennas sticking out of them. The game never acknowledges them, but it is pretty obviously part of ancient Mudokon tech, (concept art released later further confirms this.)
The Scrabanian Temple
After a stressful and narrow escape from Slogs, you finally arrive to the nesting place of Scrabs. These are quadrupedal carnivores with surprisingly Mudokon-like chests. Similarly to the Paramonian Temple, this area too presents you with an intro section and then later a hub, then finally culminates in one long trial. I really like how the colors contrast in this level compared to the desert outside. While Scrabania operates with very bright red and orange lights to show just how hot and arid this location is, inside the temple it’s much more toned down, which to me sort of conveys that the inside of the temple is a much more cooler area. Think going inside a thick-walled clay building at Summer. The drastic drop in temperature is immediately obvious.
This temple is less about introducing new mechanics as it rather tests your abilities to abuse the Scrabs’ hyper-territorial behavior. Still it’s a nice area and definitely just as challenging as the other.
So, you just completed two huge treks and received the magical tattoos. It’s time to put the power you got to use…on that unfortunate Slig patrol that doesn’t even suspect what’s going to hit them. The Shrykull is a brilliant moment of empowerment for the player, as you’re both invulnerable and all-destructing at the same time. The fact that you only receive this power extremely rarely further helps make these moments memorable.
Things have changed since you left in the Stockyards and the area surrounding it. The place is filled with landmines and bloodthirsty Slogs. This doesn’t only serve as a natural way of increasing the difficulty as the game progresses, but is also as a piece of environmental storytelling, showing how Molluck really can’t afford to have a rogue agent like Abe on the loose.
Of course you can’t return to RuptureFarms on the way you left, but luckily someone just so happened to leave a bird portal in the right place…
RuptureFarms - Zulag 1
We’re back in the factory at last! Things are quite similar, however, there are more Sligs around this time and also there is a wholly new batch of Mudokons to save. I didn’t realize this when I first finished the game, so I completely missed them, even though you can save quite many of your peers by being a bit perceptive.
Once you feel like you’re done, you can take the ballcar and leave for Zulag 2.
RuptureFarms - Zulag 2-4
I decided to group these Zulags together as most of them are quite similar. I have to admit, I’m not the biggest fan of these areas. Perhaps OWI was running out of ideas or they just figured this is the right way to test the player before the climax of the story, but the last three levels of the game are made up of hubs upon hubs. The sight of yet another hub after you just completed one is annoying to say at least.
However, they have a few memorable scenes. Who could forget the stand-off against the Slogs from both sides? Or the environmental joke of shutting down the whole factory using a single button?
Molluck’s not happy about Abe’s progress as he’s practically breathing down his and his board’s necks. Figuring RuptureFarms is a lost ship, he orders the complete gassing of the entire area, intending to kill off every Mudokon left in the facility, including Abe. The Boardroom is a short, nerve-wrecking gauntlet of rescuing a single Mudokon to in turn receive the power of the Shrykull one last time. Despite the fact that there is a time limit, it’s not really there to really screw you over, it’s really just a ploy along with the blaring sirens and flashing lights to try to get the player riled up and cause them to make mistakes.
But once you successfully faced the challenge, you are presented with an extremely satisfying ending as you fry the Glukkon directors and shut down the gas…only to be promptly knocked out.
The story loops back into itself and Abe is right back in his cell, having finished his tale. Now it falls on the player whether Abe is rescued by the BigFace or is left to die in the hands of one very angry Glukkon.
Now that we are up to speed, we can finally focus on the most obvious part of the game, the gameplay. It serves as one of the three columns that makes Abe’s Oddysee great. A lot of these can be thanked to Paul O’Connor, one of the major game designers working on Oddysee.
Grid-based movement isn’t exactly a novel concept, but it is nonetheless a great way of making things more predictable in chaotic situations. The distances Abe can hop, jump and survive falling eventually become a sort of muscle-memory as you progress through the game. This lets you abstract away the the scenery and focus on the puzzles as pure logical riddles.
On the other hand, sadly the system isn’t perfect. The game is a bit iffy about how many inputs it is willing to accept at the same time, so it happened to me multiple times that the game simply forgot that I pressed a key in the heat of the action and Abe just fell to his death or ran right into the enemy. Deaths like this are frustrating and can easily cause a loss of enjoyment for the player.
Empowerment / Disempowerment
A very prevalent part of the gameplay is the repeated switches between giving power to the player and taking it away from them. Abe is no fighter and he dies in one hit, so by default the player is severely disempowered and has to rely on their stealth to get by. This is then broken by moments of power, where the tables are turned and the player becomes the one to dish out some long-awaited revenge.
The Security Orbs present further disempowerment atop what’s already affecting Abe, since now he can’t even use his possession ability. Thus being able to destroy these with grenades can be considered a way of empowering the player.
It might sound funny at face value, but the items Abe can pick up is one of the most basic examples of empowerment utilized by the game. Rocks let him set off bombs, meat can be used to distract enemies and grenades provide a weapon to a character that doesn’t wield guns. It also plays into the whole idea that Abe is just some lowly janitor, who has to use whatever means necessary to even the absolutely brutal odds.
Possession is empowerment in two ways: obviously it gives a weapon to the player who is almost defenseless otherwise, but it also gives them a “second life” as getting your Slig killed is not a game-over (except in some sections where it is mandatory to keep your Slig alive or else you simply can’t complete the puzzle.)
However, while their primary purpose is to empower the player once possessed, they also disempower them in a perhaps unexpected way. Because of their mechanical legs, Sligs can’t jump, so players have to find different routes that were otherwise simple to navigate with Abe.
Also, by possessing Sligs, you also gain the ability to command some of the Slogs, turning one of the most vicious enemies Abe has to face into a satisfying tool to murder other Sligs.
These rings that Abe can receive from other Mudokons presents the penultimate method of empowerment in the game. They destroy all explosives, however, they leave everything else intact (unless said things stood right next to the explosives.) There is honestly not much to say about them, they’re a pretty straightforward and simple mechanic, that gets the job done without much fanfare.
I believe the Shrykull practically speaks for itself as for why it’s the strongest tool of empowerment the game utilizes. Both in gameplay (as Abe becomes invincible and capable of destroying every enemy) and in the story (being a Mudokon demigod whose power is only granted to the worthiest) the Shrykull is presented as the ultimate power-fantasy.
Because of this the game has to be prudent enough with giving the player a tool this strong, as a very important part of empowerment is that it is relative to the average power level a character has. If Abe could turn into the Shrykull anytime then all tension of the game would suddenly be lost, because you’d just obliterate all the levels…and promptly forget about the game probably.
GameSpeak is honestly nothing jaw-dropping. It’s a nice system sure, but talking to other characters is basically a norm in video-games; so it being given a fancy name is pretty much just a marketing thing. Sadly on the PC version of the game (this doesn’t happen on the PSX as far as I know), you need to hold down the button for an unexpectedly long time to talk or else Abe simply does a weird wiggle and doesn’t say anything. This peculiarity caused many people to have immediate bad impressions about the game and I can’t entirely blame them. It feels awkward and unintuitive.
Still, the system serves its purpose well and there isn’t really any voice lines that don’t have their proper purpose. Many like to criticize the fact that Abe can only command a single Mudokon at the same time. I’m both sympathetic towards and in disagreement with this sentiment. Yes, it makes very little sense and it is also frustrating that you need to solve puzzles multiple times to rescue everyone. On the other hand the game is balanced around this fact and just giving Abe AE’s “All o’ ya” wouldn’t have solved the issue in my opinion as it would have trivialized the puzzles too much.
The solutions I can quickly think of to this problem are to either have every Mudokon behind a different puzzle or to have one “major” puzzle, that hides a group of Mudokons and then for every single one the player would need to solve a “minor” puzzle along the lines of a simple skill-check to rescue the individual Mudokons. I’m not claiming these are ideal or anything, I’m largely just spitballing.
The Save System
Oddysee’s save system received both harsh criticism and praise from the fandom because of its less than forgiving nature towards mistakes. I personally used to believe that AO would heavily benefit from the later games’ QuikSave system, but I have since reconsidered. I think AO’s system fits the game well and such a vastly more forgiving system would “demystify” it. Fair difficulty adds to the experience, this is in part why games like Dark Souls and Metroidvanias are so popular.
However, I believe the main reason why people criticize the saving system isn’t actually because there aren’t enough checkpoints. After all the game provides plenty of them and you’re rarely being thrown further away than 3-4 screens. What really annoys people, I believe, is rather the fact that the game almost never provides a checkpoint before (and after) secret areas. There are very few more frustrating things than nailing a secret area, daringly saving 5-6 Mudokons, then falling into a completely unrelated hole. If the game provided a checkpoint before every secret and also as a way of awarding you provided another one if you ace the secret, I think the complaints would plummet.
Now, this idea probably ruffles a few purist feathers, who probably think this putting way too many training wheels on the game, but I can’t help but consider it a fair compromise between providing a quick-save system and leaving things as they are now.
The Sound Design
The sound design serves as the second column of the three columns that creates the uniqueness of this game. From the atmospheric musics of each area, to the noises the characters make everything feels unique and crisp and powerful. Who could forget that otherworldly sound that the game emitted while loading on the PlayStation? :)
As mentioned above, the sound effects, created by Josh Gabriel, provide a lot to the atmosphere. An example I simply can’t leave without mention is the possession sound. It is hands down the single best video game sound effect that I know of. It is a perfect little story in itself: it starts out modestly as Abe starts chanting, then the sounds starts swelling as the music cooperates with the graphics until finally the crescendo peaks and the whole thing is punctuated with a moment of silence. It is almost like an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence and it practically screams: the gameplay has changed, Abe is now in control.
As for what the characters say, if there is one thing no one could dispute about Lorne Lanning, it’s that he’s an excellent voice actor. Fans of the series all around the world know the famous “Hi. Hello. Follow me. Okay.” mantra by heart.
The voices also greatly help to emphasize qualities of the characters. The shrill, authoritarian voice of the Sligs reinforces their role as corporate bullies. The unassumingly innocent voice of Mudokons underlines their naivety. The shrieks and growls of the Paramites and Scrabs sell them as believable wild animals.
The music - done by Ellen Meijers - is a topic I’ve got sort of a controversial opinion about: while I absolutely believe it fits the game and serves its purpose well, I don’t think it is good enough to stand on its own legs. Once you take the music out of the game, the repetitiveness that you never otherwise notice due to all the myriad of other noises the game makes suddenly becomes obvious. I’ve spoken with people who said they like to listen to the OST outside the game, but I frankly couldn’t really bear to do it when I tried myself.
Putting this aside, I love how the game uses leitmotifs. “Slig Action” is an obvious example that comes to mind as a leitmotif that doesn’t exist as an individual piece of music, rather it is a techno beat that gets layered over the basic theme of the level when Abe possesses a Slig. Similarly there is a leitmotif for when there is an enemy on the screen who you have to sneak by to further add to the tension of such screens.
I strive to keep this site mostly clean from swears, not because I shun them or anything, but because I find them undignified for the topics I talk about, yet here I can’t avoid it: Oddysee’s art is fucking amazing! I mean, seriously, look at that art! Sure it might be sort of pixelated due to its age, but if you look past that veil and into what’s actually being conveyed; you can’t help but be pulled into a living, breathing world, full of organic and logical - if exaggerated - objects.
Obviously the art serves as the third column of what makes AO brilliant. This is of course due to the methods and principles OWI used to create the game’s looks. There is a set of rules that the fanbase sometimes refers to as the “ALIVE principles,” which dictate what each screen in the game must look like. These can be read below:
All images must:
- Be realistic.
- Have solidity.
- Be original.
- Be cool.
- Evoke emotion.
- Look ALIVE!
Upon cursory glance these rules might sound somewhat vague, but they lay down some very important requirements. Realism for instance, practically everything in the game makes sense and with some suspension of disbelief could be imagined to exist in our world. Similarly solidity is one that catches my attention, you practically feel the weight of the boulders and trees around you. The rule about evoking emotion probably doesn’t require much explaining at all. Whether it’s lynched Mudokons, imposing temples or a factory that’s smeared in blood, close to every screen in Oddysee evokes some emotion.
I’d like to mention three names whom are in large part responsible for the amazing visuals we see in the game: Steven Olds, Farzad Varahramyan and Raymond Swanland.
Olds was responsible for creating most of the characters we know and love. He had a huge hand in creating Abe’s design, along with planning out other memorable characters like Sligs, Glukkons, etc. Varahramyan was part of the Production Design team, his job was in-part to keep everything consistent and fitting to the world. However, he also created creature designs, one of his contributions being the design of Munch. Finally Swanland was responsible for the art of the world, the matte paintings and large scope images of locations are all done by him. It’s safe to say that these three men had a huge impact on what Oddworld became and their names should be etched in every fan’s memory.
As it becomes obvious from the story the Mudokons weren’t always slaves, rather they used to be pretty powerful species, capable of building magnificent structures along with devices, like the bladders, that one can’t even really guess the usage of. I felt like this is worth pointing out as the locations would have looked great without them and yet they went that extra mile to convey a bit of history without words.
So what makes these screens appear so life-like? Well, it turns out they are actually paintings that have been digitalized and the further drawn over by artists to give everything a realistic and consistent look. This allowed artists to create environments that 3D models couldn’t have replicated at the time and also let them use the several boons conventional art brings to the table. Examples include the gradient in the Stockyards escape and the decals (like blood-splatters, moss, etc.) that fit realistically on objects.
If you pay a bit of attention, it becomes obvious that every single area in Oddysee has a dominating color that defines every screen in it. RuptureFarms is brownish-red, the Stockyards escape is dark-blue, Paramonia is green, Scrabania is reddish-brown and so on.
Why is this a good thing? Three reasons: one, it provides consistency through constrains. If every screen has to be largely green or largely brown, then the artist immediately has a pointer to fall back to if they feel out of ideas. The end result is consistent, believable progressions between levels. Two, it helps the players remember the levels. The human mind is a really complex thing and it can use very menial-sounding things to its advantage. Just remembering “uhh, yeah so the level was brown” already makes the job much easier. Three, it gives everything a base “feeling.” The reds and browns of RuptureFarms evoke the idea that the factory is soaked in blood. The greens of Paramonia are soothing and practically scream “you’re in a very natural place now.” The oranges and burgundy of Scrabania evokes a sense of heat, the temple on the other hand “feels” cooler because of its colors.
Another thing the game does well with colors is removing them. What I mean is that in certain sections the objects in the foreground become black silhouettes in front of the background. This serves as a dramatic effect that underlines the tension of these areas. It is used to great effect in the final trials in the temples and in the escape and subsequent return in the Stockyards.
The Level Design
This section is strictly about how the levels work, not what they look like. Oddysee’s levels can more or less be divided into two general layouts, “Corridors” and “Hubs.”
These are levels like the very first one, basically one long line of rooms, usually featuring some setpieces (the Grinding Area in RuptureFarms, the Elum-run in Paramonia or the final trials in both temples). These are mostly longer areas, sometimes spanning over multiple loading screens and usually appear in the beginning or at the very end of chapters. They are great at breaking up the Hubs’ monotony, while also test the player to be able to complete larger sections of the game without checkpoints.
Hubs are levels where there is one main screen where you can choose from several shorter challenges, each of which you have to complete before you can move on. The most prominent examples of these are in the temples and the Zulags of RuptureFarms. They serve as walls in front of the player’s progress, who has to spend quite some time to finish every mini-challenge. On the other hand, due to the shortness of these sub-levels, failure is less punishing and players are free to choose some any other sub-level if they feel frustrated. This is further encouraged by the maps placed in the main area of these levels that clearly display how many Mudokons does each sub-level have and also their general layout. AO is strict enough not to let you pass without first proving yourself, however, it is also kind enough to give you the tools to let you progress at your own pace.
Every hub features special switches (flintlocks in the Native areas, piston-locks in RuptureFarms) that present a tangible way of conveying progress to the player. There is not much fanfare to entering a level, trudging through, then leaving on the end; so putting in a special level provides at least some ceremony to the whole ordeal.
Here I’ll discuss some objects that you can find on levels.
Gameplay-wise I have no problem with these as they present a pretty clear and clean way of empowering the player as discussed above. However, in-universe they hardly make any sense. I get that RuptureFarms is a very dangerous workplace, but that is due to the ruthless Sligs and the machines that’d make any OSHA agent cry. Why is the place littered with free-to-take explosives? It’s practically screaming for workers to use it to rebel.
They’re dumb simpletons…but that’s alright. I think it’s a great story element that the Mudokons have so long endured servitude that they’re basically incapable of fighting back. Being wholly happy about fighting back and doing stunts at the first word from Abe would be quite unbelievable.
I also really like that they’re for the most part silent. It adds a lot to the oppressive atmosphere to see them work without a single word aside from the occasional grunt after being beaten by the Sligs. Similarly, I don’t mind that they don’t say anything after being saved (except in the case of the good ending), it is pretty obvious from the context that the player did the right thing, a pat on the back is pretty superfluous.
Sligs are extremely versatile tools in terms of level design. They’re enemies, tools and environmental storytelling in one nicely-knit package. Their presence alone can easily make a less experienced player uneasy unlike in later installations, AO’s Sligs shoot immediately and never miss. The whirring of their mechanical pants also provide to the atmosphere, giving them a both menacing and unnatural aura.
Slogs, Paramites and Scrabs
While there are obviously some differences between the three, the basic purpose of them is the same: chase the player in one direction until they find a way to neutralize / distract the enemy for long enough to slip by. They also serve as soft-scares, especially the Slogs, when the player enters a new screen and suddenly there is an enemy breathing down their neck.
Levers are a pretty staple gameplay feature, so gushing about them wouldn’t make much sense. Rather what I’d like to mention is the fact that since AO’s engine is incapable of switching the camera’s location without entering a door or using a story-stone, levels had to be designed to accommodate this fact. To make it clear what exactly levers do there is always either a visual clue (like cracked rocks next to levers that bring down deadly rocks) or there is only one object that it can activate.
Bell-locks, piston-locks and Flintlocks
Despite the fact that the game presents these as different things, they are pretty much the same. All of them are there to force the player to go out of their way to open the path forward. I don’t see anything inherently wrong with this, but I don’t really like how the puzzles in the temples have both bell-locks and flintlocks. Having two extremely similar goals to work towards just detracts from the sense of accomplishment from both.
UXBs are those small bombs that either blink red or green. They present perhaps the simplest skill-check in the game as you have to time your button press well or you’re propelled back to the start. I like them, the only thing I could note is that perhaps there could have been a few more puzzles where the solution is to re-enable the bomb as it’s a nice subversion of expectations.
The Elum is an absolute delight to use…when the grid based system doesn’t work against you of course. Abe isn’t slow by any means, however, the way the Elum effortlessly dashes through screens provides a really memorable experience in the game. I also like how bees and honey were incorporated into temporarily trapping the animal. It feels really natural unlike what one can see in a screenshot of an older version of the game in which a sort of machine captured Elum and you’d presumably have to find a way to turn it off.
As you might have noticed I didn’t include the story into the three pillars that make AO great. Before you close the page in anger, please let me explain myself. I appreciate AO’s story for what it is, but I don’t find it one of its strongest suits. It is a simple but sweet story, that is easy trumped by plenty of moderately famous books and even other videogames.
The characters aren’t particularly deep either; they’re basically the equivalents of folk tale characters. Abe goes through the Hero’s Journey, more or less point-by-point. Molluck too is almost satirically evil, plus he basically doesn’t really appear until the very end of the story. He’s an effective villain, but he’s not really a fleshed out character. Which is somewhat understandable, knowing how he was supposed come back in Munch’s Oddysee, but still. There is only really one more character in the story, the BigFace. He serves his purpose well and I find the fact that he uses very few words quite elegant, but he is practically the deus-ex-machina in the plot.
The cutscenes do their jobs well, everything looks beautiful considering we’re talking PS1-era graphics. I also really like the fact that both endings are so extreme. The bad ending shows how ungrateful the average Mudokon is, them letting Abe die despite him risking his life again and again. The good ending on the other hand provides a cathartic end to RuptureFarms and Molluck (or so we are led to believe.) It also gives us another look into the capabilities of Mudokons, namely their weapon of mass-destruction, the Rainmaker. This is the magical circle that Mudokons are chanting around, which causes the storm above RuptureFarms and knocks Molluck out.
There is also a subtle notion towards the supernatural in the game, aside from the obvious things like chanting and the Mudokon-moon just so happening to present itself to Abe. For instance, the door to the board-meeting at RuptureFarms opens up right the moment Abe passes by. The BigFace knows where to find Abe. The fireflies too relay messages to Abe that someone or something must have left there. The Shrykull itself provides some extra credibility to this, considering it is called a Mudokon demigod. However, I have to make it clear that I don’t really think there is a Mudokon God, as in one supreme being, rather as Dear Alf also makes it clear, several spirits that affect the real world.
Question: dear alf i wanted to know this qutie a time now are there other gods except for shrykull? lke glukons deities or somthing?? There is any other gods besides Shrykull?
Alf: Depends who you ask. Ain’t no shortage of different faiths on Oddworld! You got your theistic ones, but talk to us Mudokons or the Grubbs and you’ll find we’re more interested in the spirit world that intersects our own. Everything’s got its own spirit if ya know how to see it (a loada Spooce never won’t help): the creatures, the plants, the rivers and mountains. Gods like Shrykull are more like aspects of this than they are individuals sitting in the clouds. The Glukkons don’t worship gods or spirits, they worship Moolah… at least these days.
While I don’t consider the story and the characters outstanding, the implied world is one of the best I’ve experienced in gaming. What I mean by “implied world” are things that aren’t mentioned in-game, but rather left open as things that the player can ponder about. For instance, how did the Mudokons fall from a species that can build megastructures like the Paramonian and Scrabanian temples to a dumb cattle-race of slave?? Or how the Native and Industrial societies work? Or if RuptureFarms is only a factory, how does the rest of the “civilized” world look like?
This, however, is a double-edged sword. While it is true that leaving just enough things vague to make the world more mysterious is an art on its own; one can nonetheless really easily fall into the trap of attributing their own creativity as something that was “always intended as such.” I’ve spoken with many people who talk about how great this and that in Oddworld is and then use their own head-canon as evidence, which speaks way more about their creativity than about the series.
The William Anderson Controversy
William Anderson: Lorne started telling people I never worked for his company and to this date doesn’t list me on the credits for the game.
Sadly even a game as great as AO has its darker side. William Anderson was a game designer employed by OWI to create the basic systems of the game along with some level designs. He was never credited for his work and to this day OWI refuses to recognize him for his work. Instead of paraphrasing or copy pasting, I’ll leave a link to the story here. It worth knowing as it’s one of the major blemishes on OWI’s image.
I hope you found this writing insightful, I had a blast writing it and I hope it’ll start a discussion just like my previous review. Is Abe’s Oddysee a perfect game? No, obviously not. It has several shortcomings, some even quite severe and still, to date I think it is the most distilled version of the Oddworld-experience that none of the later games could capture quite as well.
To this date AO is consistently one of the favorites of the fandom, depending on who you ask it is the best or the second best game of the series. Too bad OWI doesn’t capitalize on this and release a proper remaster of the game, but I guess that’s a story for another time.
Finally, I’d like to ask you to watch this video and really pay attention. All these people worked on delivering this amazing game to us. Knowing only Lanning’s and McKenna’s names really doesn’t do them justice.
Thanks for sticking by.