Archive:Designers on the Ledge

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  • Published: 15 June 1998
  • Host:
  • Author: Paul O’Connor

The Designer Diary

Part 4: Designers on the Ledge

When last we met, two game designers (Chris Ulm and your humble narrator) were on the ledge, threatening to jump, because Lorne Lanning, the Big Glukkon here at Oddworld, had pronounced said designers’ concept for a sequel to Abe’s Oddysee a big, stinking pile of merde.

We would have jumped, except for one thing: Lorne was right.

I have a sledgehammer design style. I believe in the mass production of simple designs, which are then used in modular fashion to create multiple game situations. Lorne, on the other hand, believes in handcrafting each element, creating dozens of different models with significant functional overlap. It makes us a good team. I build the baseline, and Lorne creates the brilliant standout features.

The problem with our first design is that it was too base a baseline. It was a gray, unexciting mass that certainly could get done on time, but would almost as certainly sink the fledgling Abe franchise. Lorne recognized this and overturned many of the design assumptions that we’d come to consider inviolable. Lorne didn’t particularly care if we reused backgrounds, shoehorned Elum into the game, or went for the inevitable sequel hook by bringing Mollock back from the dead. All Lorne wanted was a stunning, original, exciting game, and he didn’t particularly care if his vision would fit into the scheduled time allotted.

There was an additional force at work in Lorne’s rejection. Ulm and I come from a writing background, so we tend to see game design and story creation through a certain filter. We’re students of the three-act structure, Joseph Campbell’s heroes’ journey, and the theory of character-driven action. Lorne is conversant with these traditions, but his background is in visual art, and he tends to think in terms of scenes and images rather than story structure. Again, this makes for a good team, and it also serves to explain how Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus owes its origin to a vision of Mudokons tracking through a wasteland as much as anything else. About the only thing Lorne really liked from our first pitch was the notion that Abe had to lead his people to a new homeland.

He was very excited about the visual possibilities of showing Abe and several Mudokons trudging through the desert. From a story point of view, it seemed OK. Neither Ulm nor I were especially excited about it. But Lorne knew he was onto something. He was in love with that vision in his mind’s eye and now, having seen our opening movie, I know that Lorne was right. It’s a simple vision, and it sounds too simple when you just describe it on paper, but when you see it, well, it blows you away.

So, how is the lightning of visual imagination translated from a quicksilver brain to the silver screen? It’s all in the art of art design, about which I’ll say more—?a lot more—?in my next installment.

— Paul O’Connor, Oddworld Inhabitants

NEXT: Show Me, Don’t Tell Me