Abe's Oddysee came out sixteen years ago, but in some ways, it's never been more relevant. The original PlayStation classic, a platform puzzler set in the bizarre universe of Oddworld, saw you breaking out of a soylent green-style factory owned by an evil elite - one that draws some surprising parallels with the Occupy movements of the past few years.
At least, that's the way Stewart Gilray, founder and CEO at Just Add Water, the studio overseeing the game's return in HD on the Sony PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PS Vita, Nintendo Wii U and PC at the end of the year.
"In some way, unless we’re part of the one percent, we’re all the little guy. Corporatism, exploitation, pollution, consumerism and loss of individual spirituality to The Man are all explored throughout the game," he says.
"What started out as a pastiche of impending change has now become a statement of the difficult life of young adults in the twenty-first century."
With farts, of course. Remote controlled farts that explode. You see, Abe's Oddysee, and sequel Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus, are packed with black humour. Get anything wrong, push the wrong button or miss a jump and you'd be instantly ground into green mincemeat.
If anything, the story has been a bit too ahead of the curve. “Just before the release of [2001 sequel] Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee, cutscenes with newsreel referred to Munch and Abe as terrorists." This was before world events completely divorced the term from 'freedom fighter'. "Then 9/11 happened, and it meant having to call them fugitives. We were using the word ‘terrorist’ before it became what it is today."
Abe's Oddysee was the first in a planned quintology - five, count 'em - of games set in the same twisted universe of Oddworld, but despite much critical acclaim, the original studio, Oddworld Inhabitants, suffered almost as torturous a fate as one of the unlucky mudokons in the RuptureFarms factory meat grinders.
After Oddysee came Exoddus, which the team, led by creator Lorne Lanning, turned around in a staggering nine months. Then they got to work bringing the third game in the saga, Munch’s Oddysee, about a frog-like gabbit trying to avoid being whizzed into snozzcumbers-style fizzy drink, to Sony's upcoming PlayStation 2 - and that's when the troubles began.
Oddworld Inhabitants were "working on PS2 to make the proper sequel, and at the time Sony weren’t giving them the support needed,” says Gilray. “Switching to Xbox made perfect sense. At the time, Microsoft wanted Xbox to be the for-all-the-family console, and Oddworld fitted that perfectly. But in the rush to meet the 2000 launch deadline, the ambitious ideas for Munch had to be scaled back dramatically." Munch’s Oddysee met with middling reviews, with many critics complaining about repetition in the puzzles.
"It’s still loved by fans all over, but at the time it left the team heartbroken" says Gilray.
The studio's next Oddworld game, a western shooter called Stranger’s Wrath, followed to stronger reviews, but when Electronic Arts failed to market the game, the team parted ways with their publisher and set to work on a "more intense, dark, gritty Oddworld game." The Brutal Ballad of Fangus Klot was planned as an ambitious shooter, but "the team were still working with an Xbox-exclusive engine, and Microsoft was only supporting developers for the Xbox 360."
Oddworld Inhabitants was shuttered. Or rather, it went into hibernation. Lanning kept dreaming big, and hoped to revive the franchise by switching to a Hollywood movie production model: find the funds, plan the game, then freelance the work out.
It took a while, to say the least. Lanning and business partner Sherry McKenna spent years reacquiring the rights to Inhabitants' IP, "but the gap meant basically starting again, financially," says Gilray.
It wasn't until Lanning and Gilray met at Game Developers Conference 2009 that the gears started turning again. A year later, Lanning asked Gilray to port Stranger's Wrath to PC. "They said they’d been let down by someone, and would we like to try and port Stranger’s Wrath on Xbox to PC? We gave it a try, and that’s when Just Add Water really took off."
The team rapidly expanded from just two to 16, and a HD remake of Munch’s Oddysee for the PlayStation Network followed. But why dig back further into the archives and rehash the original Oddysee, we ask? Because the side scroller genre has never been stronger, Gilray explains. And well, because the idea was one of the first he ever pitched Lanning.
“The side-scrolling platform game market is still very healthy. There have been so many great titles in the genre in the last few years, from Fez to Gunpoint and Thomas Was Alone. What sets New ‘n’ Tasty apart is both the pedigree and that we make use of Unity’s engine to bring the scenery alive in a way that we couldn’t in 1997.”
This isn’t a mere port of the original. The power of Sony’s third and fourth generation PlayStation consoles has allowed the team at Just Add Water, based in Otley in Yorkshire, to completely reinvent the game for the modern age, though that presents its own problems.
“The shift to a 3D engine has stripped away a lot of the limitations set by the [original] PlayStation hardware,” says Gilray. “We were limited to giving the player single screens to move around. This is called flip-screening. Now, we can stream the level in real-time, which changes the gameplay. For example, some of the enemy AI needed to be tweaked as before you could just run to another screen to reset some of the behaviours.”
Regardless, realising the game all over again has been a dream come true for Gilray.
“I’ve always been a fan of the franchise, and I always wanted to see a version running with realtime 3D art. Bringing the environments to life, much like the tracks in Ridge Racer, with planes flying overhead, or trucks on the road near you, which is what we’re doing with New ‘n’ Tasty. We have clouds moving in realtime, we have critters running around, we have living factories, we have flocks of birds flying around - it just brings life to THAT world,” he says.
The Just Add Water team have already proved their ability to resurrect the twisted charms of the Oddworld universe on new platforms, so we have to ask: can we expect to see Abe’s Oddysee hit mobile platforms any time soon?
Don’t rule it out, he says. “We’ve already tackled the Vita with Stranger’s Wrath HD - it’s a great handheld that we all love in the studio.” He also points to Square One Games, a Vancouver mobile development studio who are bringing Stranger’s Wrath to iPhone and other mobiles. “Still early days on that one though!” he adds.
Oddworld Inhabitants has been burnt by Sony and Microsoft before, but it’s banking on the former this time round - Sony has openly embraced indie developers for the PS4, and Lanning has stated that he won’t make games for the Xbox One or Xbox 360 until Microsoft drops its requirement for all developers to partner with a publisher. Microsoft’s since made a swift U-turn on the policy, potentially opening the doors for indie developers once more, but Gilray still isn’t convinced that’ll be enough.
“Microsoft hasn’t announced the details of what’s involved, so until it does we simply don’t know if it’s for us. To us, we should be looking at ‘Self Publishing’ to encompass everyone, from [huge developer/publisher] Ubisoft down to the one or two man teams, with zero differences, in the same way that Sony do. So until we know the exact details of what’s going to happen, we’re not moving forward.”
With any luck though, this to and fro will come to an end with the next generation of consoles, and Oddworld Inhabitants and JAW can finally get on with the next game in the saga, Oddworld: Squeek’s Oddysee.
And after that?
“That would be telling! I can say that we ran a poll on the site asking what fans thought with some interesting results. We really want to work on all the games we had planned, pre-closedown. Obviously the market has shifted since then, so what we see in the finished games may not be what people expect. It wouldn’t be Oddworld, otherwise.”