Oddworld: Soulstorm is bringing its freedom train to the PC and consoles in 2020. It is a re-imagining of Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus, which debuted in 1998, picking up Abe’s anti-consumerist, anti-industrial tale with modern gameplay.
Benny Terry, executive producer at Oddworld Inhabitants, has worked with cofounder Lorne Lanning for a long time, and I interviewed Terry about the game at a recent preview event.
In advance of the demo for the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), I got to play a level where Abe liberates workers inside a nightmarish industrial facility. The level features what Oddworld calls “2.9D perspective,” where the action takes place on 2D, but you can see some parts of the landscape in 3D.
The game is an attempt to remake Exxodus in the way it should have been made, had the original title been given enough time and resources. The game is the latest attempt to spur a rebirth in a franchise that has sold 15 million games to date.
Soulstorm is the second in a new Pentology that takes place in the Oddworld universe, where Abe is a meek slave among the Mudokon. He discovers that his people will be slaughtered for food in a meat factory at RuptureFarms, and he escapes. Then he leads a revolution to rescue the slaves. In Abe’s Exoddus, Abe leads his starving Mudokons on further adventures in a search for the secrets of the Soulstorm brew.
The E3 level takes place about 60% of the way into the game, and I had the ability to craft jawbreakers with rubber bands so they could bounce into guards in protected compartments. The level shows visually a lot of Oddworld’s favorite themes about environmentalism, capitalism, consumerism, and addiction that have been the hallmark of the Oddworld franchise.
Oddworld Inhabitants is working with Frima Studio in Canada, as well as Fat Kraken Studios in England. This new game has a bigger budget because the previous title, New ‘n’ Tasty, sold more than 3.5 million copies.
Here’s an edited transcript of my interview with Terry.
GamesBeat: How long have you been working on this game?
Bennie Terry: Since the beginning, and before that on New and Tasty. Lorne and I go decently far back. I was at Rhythm and Hues for a little while, many moons ago. We crossed paths there. But I’ve been on Soulstorm the whole time as the executive producer.
GamesBeat: This is the E3 demo, then?
Terry: I’d say it’s leading up to that. This is a good opportunity to have some learnings come out of this and figure out where we can tighten things up a little bit. Then we can move on to the next thing.
GamesBeat: Why did you choose this section? What part of the game is this?
Terry: This is about 60 percent of the way into the game. Part of the reason why is it’s a good example of 2.9D. It shows off the depth of the space, as well as a lot of the different mechanics that we built in as a vertical slice to test them out. This is really our first vertical slice and test level to see if everything is working in harmony.
As we ramp in we have levels that are vastly more expansive, both interiors and exteriors. But this was a good playground for all of our different chemistry sets.
GamesBeat: 2.9D wasn’t in the previous game at all, right?
Terry: No. It’s surprising how hard it is to get to those extra .4Ds. It’s a curved path technology, so we can wind through the world and it works with all of our other systems. It’s a big challenge. We invested a lot of time in it, but I think it shows well. You’re not just playing a side-scroller like New and Tasty, where you can see pretty things in the distance, but you can never really get to the castle on top of the hill. This allows you to really explore in Z all the way to the end. Everything you see, you can play.
GamesBeat: How do you build something like that? Do you build out a 3D world and take a camera through it to find your path?
Terry: Our process starts with — we coined the term, but we call it an “epic path.” We first lay out what we believe the epic path should be in scale and scope. Then we have our concept artists come in and paint over that to imagine the space, figure out what we want to have. We want to have trains. We want to bring things alive. We want to do all the layering of the world, from atmosphere to dynamic objects. All of that gets mapped in a kind of thumbnail sketch.
Then we layer that back into the epic path, so the player can play through it. We place those cards, two-dimensional cards showing concept art. You’re going to go through here and here and here. We define the beats. Then from there we start layering in all the game design ingredients, whether it’s crafting or exploration or stealth or whatever the particular goals are for that path. Once that’s locked in and we find the fun elements, the sticky elements, we start layering in the art.
GamesBeat: It almost sounds like tower defense in a way.
Terry: It has some of those elements. Our process is very much that. It’s extremely organic. We don’t really map it all out on paper first. We almost never do. As Lorne would say, we kind of dowse it. We feel where it’s going and then we start to rough in, detail in, and then give a very detailed scope of what we’re doing.
GamesBeat: This industrial nightmare world, that seems to convey a lot of feeling about things like capitalism and the exploitation of workers.
Terry: Absolutely. That’s core to Oddworld’s DNA. If you look at any of our products, it’s always been this small guy who really has the world against him. Somehow he’s able to crack the power structures, the capitalist systems and other things, and explore his own ability to effect change in that world. We feel connected. We feel empathetic. That’s core to Oddworld’s DNA.
GamesBeat: The character design, the big eyes, seems to be part of that too, giving something you can relate to.
Terry: That would probably be more of a Lorne question. But it was to make him to not feel like the typical character you see out there, to give him a unique signature. The eyes are definitely part of it. From what we had in New and Tasty and previous products, I’d say now we’ve revitalized Abe’s design, and all of the cast. They feel more human, more connectable.
GamesBeat: The crafting makes it a little more complex, but I suppose you work up to this level of complexity?
Terry: Yeah, you’re 60 percent in with basically everything that is accessible at that point. We’ll stagger it and dose those things out in digestible chunks, so you’ll ramp into the experience. In the earlier levels you’ll have already crafted the simpler items. Then, you’ll move on to more complex ones. By the time you get to 60 percent in, it’ll be old hat. You’ll be very comfortable with the system.
GamesBeat: You’re not really trying to take on the enemies head-on unless you have a flamethrower. It’s more about outwitting them.
Terry: Totally. We tuned the enemies so you couldn’t really fight them head-on. If you do it’s pretty much certain death. I can’t reveal any little secrets, but there may be items Abe has that allow him to soak up more damage or do other things throughout the experience. But they’re tough to take head-on. You have to be clever. You have to use stealth. You have to use everything in Abe’s tool bag.
Right now, because you have all of the inventory, most people don’t really explore those other sides of classic Oddworld — sneaking, being stealthy, those kinds of things — because you have so much at your disposal in this demo. But as we pace out the ingredients you use in the game, you have to use stealth more. You have to be more clever. You’ll have to figure out how to solve those puzzles. All of that is still there, but now we’ve layered in Abe’s ability to engage enemies at range, to enhance his possession ability, and other things.
GamesBeat: The 2.9D comes alive when you’re using the binoculars and moving forward on the gauntlets. You have to target the enemies there. That seems to be a pretty good use of the perspective.
Terry: I’d say it gets better in the exterior spaces. We have constraints in the interiors. We have to make sure that whatever paths we’re carving, they align well with the vocabulary of that design. We don’t go too extreme. But in open spaces, we have vastly more capability to explore other regions and really open up on 2.9D. The depth you see in an interior is always gated by the walls. The depth in the exteriors is infinite out to the horizon.
GamesBeat: Where else would you say you’ve been a lot more ambitious compared to New and Tasty?
Terry: Because I’m so intimate with all of the systems, the amount of code that’s been written for this — Unity has been an incredible partner. They’ve supported us a lot. But the amount of code that’s been written to do all the custom work, everything you see, it’s an extremely ambitious endeavor.
Where we started wasn’t this. We started with, how can we take something like New and Tasty and improve on some of the elements that the fans and the community thought could be improved? Really focusing our energy there. But as we did that, we realized that we wanted to go further. That push to go further is what you see there today.
The fire systems are immensely complex to make them performant, so they run at whatever targeted framerate we want. To fill the whole screen with fire is tough in any game, anywhere. To have hundreds of followers — in New and Tasty we had a limit. I think it was around 20 to 30 followers at most. Now we can have up to 300.