Lorne Lanning needs his games to mean something. The creative director of Oddworld Inhabitants, Lanning is driven by a deep-rooted compulsion to embed games with empathy, subtext and hope. And in his latest game, Soulstorm, a "retake" of the 1998 hit Abe’s Exoddus — the second Oddworld title — he sees an opportunity to get back to the heart of his original vision for the Oddworld franchise.
From the beginning, Lanning intended Oddworld as a critique of capitalism and the evils done in the search for ever-greater profits. "In many ways Abe was an original 99 percenter," he says. "Because for me, my training came out of the art world. And my inspirations for filmmaking and entertainment making were people who really weren't just making summer blockbuster entertainment."
Lanning spent the first several years of his career outside of games. He started in photo retouching for advertising, to pay for art school, then worked in fine art until he discovered computer animation. He joined the aerospace industry and worked on animated weapon visualizations because it was the only way he could learn high-end computer graphics and get his hands on expensive hardware. When he finally made the switch to game development in 1994 with Oddworld Inhabitants co-founder Sherry McKenna, a pioneering Hollywood computer-graphics producer, he’d been working for a few years as a visual effects supervisor in the film industry.
"I got into film effects because I wanted to learn how to deal with the most potent type of imagery, to create the deepest impact in the shortest frame of time," Lanning says. Visual effects are spectacle; they're brief, but like great advertising they can have a lasting impact.
His dream was to tell stories with computer graphics, but there was no clear pathway for him to get there with movies. Toy Story wouldn't prove that feature-length CG-animated film could work until Nov. 1995, and in any case he lacked the connections to have any confidence he could eventually climb the ranks to be a director. Games were his ticket to realize his dream, but he quickly concluded that they were anything but a consolation prize. Owing mostly to their interactivity, Lanning believes that games are the most engaging entertainment medium.
He argues that games force us to access a problem solving part of the brain, and to make decisions, in a way that more passive mediums like film and TV do not. And this brain stimulation, he thinks, makes them an important vehicle for conveying empathy and subtext, which he sees as the mission of art in all its forms. "Oftentimes we emerge with something more valuable," Lanning says, "because we had some tormented artist or whatever giving us a painting of a twisted world, or a Scorsese movie or more to the point like a Coppola Apocalypse Now or a Stanley Kubrick film where they're just loaded with data about us."
Before he started work on the Oddworld universe, Lanning studied fan culture. "I was like, 'Why do people feel as passionately as they do about Star Trek?' If you talk to Trekkies it's like, 'man, they're really defensive about the property that they love,'" he says. "But what they love is the allegories. They love that there's always a meaning. There's always a greater story. There's always a greater sort of human condition unfolding."
So too with the original Star Wars trilogy, which resonated heavily with him as a teenager. "If you didn't get any of the subtext it still could have been a fabulous ride to watch the way that Transformers might be," Lanning says. "But if you started to understand what was driving it — the dark side of globalization, imperialism, consumerism, corruption and ultimately I refer to it as Samurai Monks in Space but [from] a more indigenous perspective ... All that depth is actually there. It's actually a really deep property."
Lanning believes that the best stories are rooted in allegory. "It adds depth that resonates with us [and] gives us a stronger connection to it," he says. "And I think maybe partially makes us feel not as lonely in the world." Not only that, he sees allegorical storytelling as a tool to help us to understand the world. That is Oddworld's purpose; Abe's Odyssey and its successors were made to inspire, to enlighten, "to peel off some of the layers of this world of bullshit that we're saturated in."
Now, as he revisits the original material, Lanning has plenty of frustration with the failings of politics and big-money business. "I think never has the modern world been more disillusioned with its matrix as today," he says. "They see all types of corruption and hijinks around them and the average person just feels that they can't do anything about it. Which is a bad place for us all to be. So for me I feel like I really don't have a choice [on whether to create games with deeper meaning]."
Lanning is driven to use the same tricks of allegorical storytelling that he loves in the likes of Star Wars, The Twilight Zone and The Matrix to simultaneously combat that feeling of helplessness and shine a light on the dark side of globalization and capitalism. In Oddworld, he's endeavored to craft a world dripping with meaning that's consistent and expands and builds upon story after story in much the same way that Dr. Seuss and Tolkien and George Lucas created their own long-lasting universes. But Lanning also cares about keeping his games accessible to audiences that don't want to engage on a deeper level, and making sure that the experience of an individual game doesn't get lost in the rigor of the worldbuilding (a criticism he levels at the Star Wars prequel trilogy). If someone just wants to play Oddworld's games as fun little platformers, that's fine, as long as there's a depth of choice and consequence and meaning reflected back on any player willing to poke beneath the surface.
In the original Abe games, as in the remakes, Lanning insisted on giving players the option to be the bad guy and then penalizing them, morally speaking, for their actions. He levels this as a criticism of Nintendo's classic titles: why can you hit or jump on only the characters deemed "bad" by the story? "They were morally saying who I could attack, who I couldn't attack, where I could do this, where I could do that, and I felt like that was very convenient," Lanning says. "I mean, these are great games — Miyamoto's games. But at a level of giving the player the ability, I felt like they were very narrow. And so you could only play [them] in a very nice way."
There were times during development of Abe's Oddyssey when Lanning's push to impart moral judgement on actions taken, rather than possibilities offered, met resistance from co-workers, who countered that beating a game should never lead to punishment. "They were like, 'This is bullshit. I would hate the game that I finished and then told me I was a jerk,'" he recalls. "And I was like, 'OK, but that's kind of why your games are boring.' Partly I was judgemental like that. I was like ‘Come on, man; open your blinders more. And let's look at this possibility.’ And ultimately I kind of won the battle."
Lanning's idea that winning "like an asshole" should result in suffering like an asshole got worked into the game. If the player rescued at least 50 Mudokon slaves along their journey, those freed Mudokons would in turn rescue Abe; otherwise Abe would die. And he saw it make a difference — some players wrote in to say they replayed the whole game because they felt terrible about what happened at the end when they didn't look out for Abe's buddies.
The Soulstorm development team is doubling down on the idea. Players will be able to go to one extreme or the other (kill everyone or kill no one), or somewhere in the middle, and to have that reflected in different ways throughout their experience. "It felt like more of a human thing to do," he says. "You can certainly 'win' in capitalism. You can certainly be ultra successful [and] wind up on the cover of Forbes. And you can also be simultaneously one of the biggest assholes on this planet."
Storytelling karma is important to Lanning, who says that Oddworld was originally inspired by the marketing spin and manipulation of the 1980s and '90s and the lack of concern he saw people have for the damage being done to the environment by many corporations.
Lanning wants people to care, to have hope that they can impart change on a broken system, even with the odds stacked against them. Perhaps more than anything else, Lanning is driven by this need to inspire hope. He sees it as "one of our greatest endangered resources," crucial in determining whether people make something of themselves or give up and let their life spiral out of control.
"I really shaped Abe around that," he says. "So I tried to shape a story and a character around the worst possible condition. Around a condition that was worse than yours — than you, the viewer, engaging in this. I was trying to say, 'what's the absolute bottom of the food chain in a globalist world?' And I was like, 'well, that must be a third-world factory slave worker.' And in particular, one in the future who doesn't even realize he's a slave."
But when Abe learned of his plight, he retained hope, against all odds, that he might better his station in life. And every Oddworld game — including the 2014 New 'n' Tasty! remake of Abe's Odyssey and the upcoming Soulstorm — has backed this up, with no limit to the number of lives players get. As hopeless a character as he seemed, Abe would always have hope and would always eventually succeed so long as the player kept trying.
"When we lose hope, we've really lost," Lanning says. "Because it brings out the worst in us. And I experienced this first hand in my own choices. My own stupid choices, my own better choices. I was like, 'What really is making a difference?'" I equated it to hope, and I felt that if we can do anything that encourages hope, then we're doing something really good. And why can't that be embedded in an entertainment product? And not just in a hokey way, but even with more depth and more subtext, and more allegory, but at the surface level let's just get a little guy who has no hope who never gives up. And if you never give up on him, then eventually he'll change the world."
"And that's Abe. And that's his quintology's plight; it's to change the world."