Archive:An interview with Lorne Lanning

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  • Published: 23 October 1999
  • Host:
  • Interviewer: GT Marketing Slig
  • Interviewee: Lorne Lanning
  • Format: Published Online

The interview

When "Oddworld:Abe's Oddysee" first took gamers by storm last year, they were at first mesmerized by evolutionary gameplay features that Oddworld Inhabitants (the game's maker) toiled for many years to create. Things like GameSpeak and A.L.I.V.E. did much to finally realize the elusive 'suspension of disbelief' - the Holy Grail of gaming. After the 'wow factor' of the game finally wore off, and listening to Abe fart stopped being a knee slapper, some (actually, many) gamers began to see that there was really was a story going on behind all the gorgeous graphics, fart jokes, and campy bad guys. To be sure, Oddworld Inhabitants spent just as much time working on the back story - the whys and wherefors of their fictitious world - as they did on jaw-droppingly beautiful backgrounds.

Recently, our web monkey found himself on the West Coast (although he couldn't tell us how he got there) and decided to head up to San Luis Obispo to rap with Lorne Lanning, President of Oddworld Inhabitants and the creative mind behind Oddworld, about all things Oddworld. What follows is the fruit of his labor.

GT Marketing Slig: You've said in past interviews that you see Oddworld as a metaphor. That is, you see it paralleling the real world. Could you elaborate on this idea with specific examples? (i.e. Abe as Malaysian Coke bottling employee)

Lorne 'LL Cool Abe' Lanning: Our own modernized world is, at least within popular culture, largely refusing to confront the most important questions that have ever faced our species. The main question being, "what are we doing to the planet?", followed closely by the timeless question of "who and what are we?" If we have any real concern for the lives that our grandchildren will live, then we need to objectively look at the impact that our consumer lifestyles have created for the ecosystems and other peoples of the world. However, it's difficult to discuss deforestation, extinction, the annihilation of primitive cultures, or the over harvesting of the oceans, let alone the issues of pollution, without being offensive to those of us who have personal livelihoods at stake, lifestyles to be compromised, or have vested interests in any of the gargantuan multi-national corporations that just don't care about anything other than quarterly returns. As a blue-collar laborer it's difficult to whole-heartedly listen to the claims of a tree hugger. Especially if the only means you have of bringing home the bread to your family is by chopping down trees. As an investor it's hard to listen to someone that suggests you would be a better person if you would just boycott your best performing stock. This is the real world and there are a lot of things we just don't want to hear and don't want to pay the price for. The most difficult part is that we now live in a time when we can't ignore such issues without our children paying a severe price down the road. Within Oddworld, we have reduced and distilled the awareness issue and reshaped it into more of an archetypal modern myth.

The stage of Oddworld is used to symbolize and shine light on that which is happening on our own world. By wrapping the issues into an unworldly subject matter, we bypass the personal defense systems that we each live with, and hopefully open the mind to more symbolic interpretations. Interpretations that we believe have a chance of finding their way into one's consciousness to shine a glimmer of ironic truth onto our daily lives and lifestyles. If earth is the stage, it is just too disturbing and offensive to watch this type of information on the 6 o'clock news. Even if the limited soundbyte format of the news allowed for all the facts to be shown, which it doesn't, you would lose too many viewers (who would rather watch something feel good or mindless) and piss off the sponsors and commercial airtime buyers. So with Oddworld, we wrap the issues inside a seamless fantasy that has strikingly true ironies. Then we sprinkle lots of humorous additives on top so that the nasty substance packed within is easier to swallow.

GTMS: The characters in the Oddworld games thus far have been very unique. Where did the Mudokons, Glukkons, Sligs, etc. come from? Is there one central point of inspiration or are they the cumulative result of different influences?

LL: I would say that there are two major points of inspiration. The first is social. Who are these creatures socially and culturally? What do they care about, at what level of the food chain do they exist? What are their survival interests? What is their history? The second would be of an understanding inspired by evolution. What kinds of bone structures and dietary habits would produce these different types of minds. What were the threatening conditions for them?

Marketing and the press usually refer to the Glukkons and Sligs as evil. We've never seen them this way. Our perspective is that they all have a valid point of view; because they've all had extremely different evolutionary paths. Each of the different species has found a way to maintain its existence within a modernized and often times vicious food chain. Just because they're technological, does not mean they have all risen above the pecking order of the food chain. It's just that the food chain has gotten much more complicated. Many of their methods for sustaining themselves just happen to have brutal effects on other species that are not as fortunate. Such is life.

I have a research folder that I call "inspiration". I think if anyone looked at it they would find it extremely disturbing and depressing. It's basically a compilation of bits of information accumulated over the years. Mostly uncomfortable truths that have somehow slipped through the glossy demeanor of our market driven and often times intentionally misinforming world of mass media. You'll see lot's of things about animal testing, truly devious governmental experiments on unknowing populations, experimental surgeries on uninformed patients, doublespeak, and fabulous examples of 21st century greed at it's most glimmering moments.

GTMS: How, exactly, will the "save problem" from Oddysee be addressed in Exoddus?

LL: Simply put, it's a perfect save solution. The game has infinite lives, just as before. But now, when you save, it saves everything in the game exactly in the state it was when you chose to save. It's much more like how a PC games save feature usually works. But in addition, we have what we call a 'quicksave' feature. This allows the user to save to RAM and not have to wait for the memory card to load and then write. It's really fast and allows the user to save all the time with only a 1-second delay. No one has a 1-second save feature on the PlayStation, but we do. So each time you die, you just return to the location where you last quick saved. It works perfectly and everybody who's used it loves it.

GTMS: You've alluded to the fact that we "might see some other companies building games that use the Oddworld characters." What kind of details can you disclose about this?

LL: There are not many details at this point. But the best way to think about Oddworld is to think about Star Wars. You have a well thought out world and entertaining cast of characters that inhabit a rich universe of interesting conflicts. This basic chemistry takes a long time to flesh out. With the development of Munch's Oddysee, you will see an EXTREMELY fleshed out and strategically balanced relationship between a great deal of Oddworld's species and facilities. This enables the opportunities for RPG's, sims, and strategy games to feed off of the rich universe that we've created. There have been some discussions on other types of games, like racing games and RPG's, to be produced by other companies that would use the characters and environments of Oddworld. But to date, nothing has been put into motion. We've been slow to start other projects with other companies. The reason is that we want our own internal development to have laid more groundwork down. We want to have enough information established so that the other companies have a more well grounded understanding of the Oddworld universe and what it represents. It's difficult for us at the genesis of our company to communicate our sensibilities to the rest of the industry; an industry which largely has a very different idea of game development and storytelling.

GTMS: According to several past interviews, you came to the videogames biz from the high end graphics / effects biz. What kinds of similarities - from a development point of view - can be drawn between the two industries? For example, do the generational technology leaps take about the same time? (i.e. 2.5 - 3 years per platform)

LL: The visual effects industry moves just as fast as game development, maybe even faster. We would throw out millions of dollars in computers every two years just to stay competitive, and we do the same thing now in the game biz. With feature films and visual effects, there are no real platform issues like the game industry has. It's just film and it's just television. Both of these mediums have been around a very long time. It's just that the demand for image quality and creativity is a thousand times greater than it is in the game biz (with the exception of Saturday morning).

Both industries are extremely difficult, but I feel the game biz is even more difficult. The goal of making something that is interactive that must be bugproof means a mountain full of planning and programming. Overall we take a very film like production approach at Oddworld. It is largely based upon preproduction, producing, planning, and experimentation. I would say that in many ways, walking through our studio is not that unlike walking through a visual effects house.

GTMS: You've said that you want Oddworld games to be more than just mindless entertainment. You want them to inspire thought in gamers, as well. Do you think this happened in Oddysee? Will the potential to make people think grow proportionally with technology? And lastly, do you think the vast majority of gamers really WANT to be made to think?

LL: To answer your last question first. We really don't care if everyone thinks gamers don't want to think. The gamer is human, and humans want to think, even if they don't admit it. The human also wants to escape, and as a responsible designer you cannot ignore either of these characteristics of our species. The key is to infuse intellectually and spiritually nutritious storytelling into escapism experiences. Those who have achieved this historically have been the most successful at their mediums. In popular culture, it's all about entertainment and escapism, and the game medium is no different than the other mass media formats in this respect.

What's been all but completely forgotten today, is the actual purpose of storytelling. Stories where not originally created to simply entertain. Stories were created to communicate history, knowledge, and the need for a deeper understanding to help us to deal with the difficulties of life. They were created to try to communicate wisdom. The early stories became myths. These myths gave metaphorical examples of basic rights and wrongs. They gave basic guidance to the members of the tribe, bloodline, or faith. These stories were easier to understand because they dealt in overly simplified examples of extremely complex issues. Such is the purpose of religious texts. To oversimplify complicated realities in order to help the masses to understand a larger sense of purpose and become more responsible in their own lives. The idea that intellectual and spiritually nutritious storytelling could be insignificant in what I believe is the most powerful medium of tomorrow, would be to paint the picture for a truly terrifying future.

We know that some people appreciate the level of subtext that can be read into Abe's Oddysee because we receive significant amounts of mail telling us how excited they are that the work is 'smart'. There are a lot of people who play games because they want the challenge and escape of playing games, but they also know that they are missing an essential ingredient.

As for the future, you need to understand our perception of the game medium. This medium is without a doubt the most powerful medium to ever hit this planet. However, the world has yet to realize this. Just think, in an age when school children are readily being prescribed Ritalin (for Attention Deficit Disorder) because they can't focus in school - the same child can spend over a hundred hours engrossed in a singular gaming experience. And they do this with absolute concentration. Imagine, a hundred hours engrossed in one synthetic story'ish experience. Even if you saw Star Wars fifty times you still didn't spend a hundred hours with it. Even if you browse the web, it's varied experiences, not singular. But with electronic games people are spending hundreds of hours and we don't think it's unusual. Well, surprise! That's one of the most unusual phenomena to ever hit our species. The textbook did not have the power to captivate for that long a period of time, the feature film, the television show, the newspaper, nothing in our history has had the potential to captivate and demand undivided attention from a participant than the video game. The power of the video game to influence is completely underestimated. In time, this perception will change, and this is why we (the development community) need to take more responsibility in the content that we create. If we don't, the government will start doing it for us. In an age when airtime for a 30 second commercial can cost millions of dollars, just think of the value of a hundred hours.

GTMS: What is your favorite game and why?

LL: I have to admit that my favorite games are our own. But the reason for this is that our games are attaining a level of soul and integration that has not existed in electronic games before. As for other games, my favorites are from Blizzard. Warcraft and StarCraft have taken hundreds of hours out of my life. I think Blizzard has a tremendous understanding of interface, simplicity, challenge, art, and classic entertainment value. But I guess most importantly it's the god complex that comes from ordering around lots of peons that you get to have wasted at your own discretion. When one doesn't behave like you wanted, then you sick your own troops on him. It's sick, but it's great fun.

GTMS: Unfair question, but if you had to pick one person in the games biz as your biggest influence, who would it be? Outside the games biz?

LL: I don't think I can identify one single person. But if I could identify a couple, then I would say that Sid Meier would be the biggest influence in terms of economic strategy in gameplay. I think he has certainly given this medium much more credibility for the mature audience. In terms of interface, you cannot beat Shigeru Miyamoto (Nintendo uber-designer - gtms.). He has an understanding of keeping things simple that most companies lose in the production process.

Outside of the game biz I would have to say George Lucas. He is a living example of someone who did in the movie biz what we hope to achieve in the game biz. He has built an empire on quality fantasy content, and done it without losing the integrity of the property. I can't wait to see the next three movies. If I could name one other it would be Jim Henson.

GTMS: In your view, what is the most critical skill needed to be a game designer? Why?

LL: Outside of understanding technology and art, I guess the most critical skill would be the ability to design addicting experiences. This means that they need to have their finger on the pulse of what other people feel and how other people react. Lot's of people think that their ideas are great, but they are the only one's that think their ideas are great. When they actually get the chance to execute their ideas, the rest of the world throws up. It's having the ability to distinguish between what you like and what everyone else likes. If you can meld the two, then you have that critical skill.

GTMS: What's your favorite band / type of music? Do you ever think of trying to incorporate this music into your games?

LL: My all time favorite band is Pink Floyd. My current favorite type of music would be, for lack of a better description, 'alternative techno tribal'. We think all the time about incorporating this type of music. I guess to some degree we already do. But we would never just take music and lay it over the experience like most game companies do. We need to design the music from scratch so that it fits more precisely in order to create something that is more epic in proportion yet still retains the intensity.

GTMS: You've said that Abe (and all the Inhabitants) are essentially asexual. Does this serve a story telling purpose or is it a good way to get around an issue that could be construed as too controversial if it were addressed?

LL: The nature of our characters' sexuality has a tremendous amount to do with the storytelling. But this has yet to surface in our games as of yet. The beginnings of this will become revealed in Munch's Oddysee. The purpose is too complicated to describe just yet; in time it will make much more sense. With regard to controversy, I think that where we are going with sexual relations will be far more controversial than conventional sex could ever get. However, the classic boy meets girl story doesn't stand a chance on Oddworld. It just won't happen.

GTMS: What details (if any) can you disclose about the next game(s) in the Quintology?

LL: To give just a couple of hints... If Abe's Oddysee was really about deforestation for the sake of a 99 cent happy meal, and Abe's Exoddus is really about consumer food addictions and rehabilitation, then Munch's Oddysee will be about animal testing for the sake of a better fabric softener. It's also about the awakening of Munch, a character born out of a research facility called Vykkers Labs. Technologically speaking Munch's Oddysee will be unlike anything you have ever witnessed synthetic characters do. Their behaviors and dysfunctional dependencies will truly blow minds. We think Munch's Oddysee will almost be as disturbing as playing with a Ouija-board. You know, you have those moments when you're not sure that if what your dealing with might actually be alive, might actually have consciousness. But hey, everyone always says how great their stuff is and it's usually bullshit. So we don't want to spout off too much just yet. We believe that seeing is believing.

GTMS: If Abe is to be taken as a metaphor for consumerism, what kind of message should we be taking away from the gaming experience? Is the Quintology about pointing out our mindless, herd-like mentality or is it about the potential in all of us to break from the herd and do "the right thing" even if it means short term struggle?

LL: Abe would certainly be a metaphor for someone merrily existing at the bottom of the food chain. Though not for long as he finds out is that his livelihood will be the death of him. The message that people might walk away with, is that they need to access their own lives and witness what injustices they may in fact be supporting. The story of Abe's Oddysee is just a vehicle to imply that we should take a good look at what it is that we do and what it is that we think we live in. The more clearly we see, the more clearly we understand that, in the words of our marketing department, "in a carnivorous world, your a living snack!".

To break free of ignorance is a life shattering experience. Great movies like Silkwood, The China Syndrome, or Schindlers List, these are all Abe stories in one form or another. Going against the system for what you believe is a real bitch. And most often it has it's short term rewards, but also harsh long term personal penalties. So it takes a stronger character to pull it off and be willing to die rather than be a slave to the system. As one learns in the real world, you can't just do the right thing and not pay a price. The system is not set up to do the right thing, the system is set up to preserve itself. When you hurt the system, then the system will usually take you out.

In Abe's Exoddus, Abe finds that although he did the right thing by shutting down RuptureFarms, he created a situation that led to an even greater exploitation of his people. When he shut down RuptureFarms, he created a bone shortage. So the Glukkons started mining the Mudokon burial grounds to keep flowing the supply of bones. Business must go on.

GTMS: Do you think Abe's goofier aspects (i.e. farting) eclipse the obviously serious undertones of the Quintology? Or do you view these aspects as a necessary component of enjoying the game vis avis, "I have to laugh, otherwise I'd cry."

LL: I think that our serious undertones are quite subdued. The silliness of Abe actually helps to hide our more interesting content. It's also important that Abe's not an intellectual. He is just the common man. Maybe even a little uglier than the common man. Without this silliness, the experience might take itself too seriously. To do serious characters in a medium that is still very difficult to communicate ANY sort of character authenticity or personality, would probably be commercial suicide. But beyond this there is a timeless charm to a character that doesn't take himself too seriously. A character that is just getting by day by aching day, just like the rest of us. Abe's silliness, as well as the other characters', helps to keep Oddworld a dysfunctional light hearted and ironic place. Which is exactly where we want to be. We want Oddworld products to be served in a Twinkie wrapper, we want them to taste like a Twinkie, but they'll be loaded with vitamins on the inside.