Oddworld’s Immersive Design

The classic logo for Oddworld! (Photo: DeviantArt)
The classic logo for Oddworld! (Photo: DeviantArt)

Oddworld was a huge part of my childhood.  And sure, it’s easy to get attached to something you see a lot as a kid.  But my love for the series goes beyond the fact that I used to play it with my family.  It fascinated me, and that fascination held through the years.  The reason it’s on my mind now is because of the recent release of Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty.  It’s a head-to-toe remake of the first game in the series, on Wii U.

Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty! (Photo: DeviantArt)
Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty! (Photo: DeviantArt)

After so much time away from the series, I wondered if it would still have the same appeal.  It absolutely did.  So much so that I knew I had to talk about it.

But I don’t just want to talk about the game plainly.  I also want to touch on the things that the creators of Oddworld do so well to make it a unique experience.  The Oddworld series mixes up its design from entry to entry.  But any game designer stands to learn a lot from how Oddworld Inhabitants, the team behind the series, does things.

Oddworld Inhabitants, the company behind every Oddworld game to date! (Photo: DeviantArt)
Oddworld Inhabitants, the company behind every Oddworld game to date! (Photo: DeviantArt)

The most significant thing about Oddworld to me is that it redefined what it means for a game to be ‘cinematic.’  Nowadays, a lot of developers seek to make their games more realistic-looking.  It’s a common assumption that being cinematic means being a spectacle.  The error here is that movie-quality realism isn’t always necessary for an interactive medium.  The emphasis is supposed to be on the player’s relationship with the game.  The game’s relationship with real life is fairly unimportant.

The way I see it, the goal that these developers are trying to achieve is best accomplished by making their games immersive.  And I know ‘immersive’ is an overly broad term, it’s like ‘fun.’  But I think of it as  transporting a player’s senses in the way only a game can.  And this, my friends, is where Oddworld shines.

To talk about this, I reached out to my friend Everett Aldrich. He’s a talented artist working both in 2D design and 3D cinematics.  He’s also done a lot of projects involving fantasy (one of his self-stated fields of interest).  I decided to ask him about how he thought audio-visual aesthetics play into creating a unique game.  He and I agreed that such attention to design is crucial to putting a game over the top.  “If you only make a nice video or game, then that’s cool, but it’s most likely just going to sit there,” said Everett.  “If you create this dynamic, eye-catching piece of promotional art or character renders or something, then you have a better shot at reaching out to more people.”

In its first couple of games, the makers of Oddworld focused strongly on making smooth, realistic cutscenes.  These went a long way towards selling the world.  But more importantly, they also made the in-game environments feel real.

The game reaches out and touches the player instead of just looking realistic.  It delivers seamless, dynamic transitions from cutscenes to gameplay, as well as atmospheric music that compliments each environment perfectly.   On top of that, clever gameplay elements keep the game constantly fresh.  Whistling passwords to progress through the lands of Mudokon natives, or running through gauntlets of deadly traps on the back of an Elum (read it backwards) steed enrich the quirky, funny, mystical, unpredictable world of oddness that the player is adventuring through.

I could go on and on about how the early Oddworld games are brilliantly constructed.  But what also deserves mention is how the even more brilliant Oddworld Inhabitants managed to completely change the formula and story for the fourth installment in the series, Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, yet integrate the same tone perfectly to create a similarly amazing experience.  Although the gameplay was entirely different, with a cheesy Western theme and much more badass run-and-gun style, it lives up to its namesake.  So what is it that Oddworld does that lets it transcend genres like this?

Stranger, the Bounty hunting hero of Stranger's Wrath! (Photo: DeviantArt)
Stranger, the Bounty hunting hero of Stranger’s Wrath! (Photo: DeviantArt)

Oddworld offers what few games effectively offer in my experience: the feeling of being on a journey.  Despite being mostly linear with only a few branching paths here and there, the tone of most Oddworld games is consistent.  Through everything from sound to narrative, playing it feels like being part of a myth in action.  In fact, during an interview, series creator Lorne Lanning said of a canceled Oddworld title in development: “I wanted to play off of myths that lie deep in our history of civilization, one of those dynamic, eternal battles, like good versus evil, which forms the basis for Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.”

And truly, never while playing Oddworld have I been fully aware that I’m playing a video game.  The experience has always been so engrossing that it becomes more like a temporary way of life.  The visuals use color and light to create magnificent atmosphere.  The sound design is a paragon of its craft.  Its soundtrack is far from traditional, but excels in that it’s perfect in the context of the medium.  It blends different types of instruments and creates sounds that feel like part music and part background noise.

When I asked Everett about the importance of audio compared to visuals, he said from experience that audio has a lot to offer.  “It adds so much life to your video game or film,” he said.  “It may have more importance than visuals actually.  I mean, you have some really nice games that don’t require breathtaking visuals, but they do have an engaging musical score.”  And sure enough, the mechanical tones and sound effects that play when sneaking through a factory, or the simplistic natural beats laid over the perilous wilds of Oddworld suck the player in such a way that it’s hard not to be continually awe-stricken by the world you’re in.

I feel there’s a lot to be learned from games like Oddworld.  Its parts not only work together, but enhance each other to amount to an extraordinary whole.  The visuals drive home the gameplay, the gameplay compliments the music, and so on.  Its combination of smart design, relentless creativity, and a good sense of humor creates something timeless.  In any case, I’ve noticed it makes for an unforgettable game.

To wrap up this delightful ramble down memory lane, I encourage those with an interest in game design, graphic design, or even just in a magical experience, to give Oddworld a try.  More and more odd goodness is being created all the time, with a remake of Abe’s Exoddus entitled Oddworld: Soulstorm coming in late 2017, which will apparently deepen the lore even more than the original.  This has me insanely excited, and if it means more people get a taste of one of my favorite game series of all time, that gives me all the more reason to be.