Some games tempt you to play them with loud marketing campaigns, sexualized album covers, or the promise of ridiculously overblown violence. But then there are games like Lorne Lanning’s Strange world series games that don’t lead with muscle- or bikini-clad heroes and defy easy categorization. Games like Strange world tempt you to play by promising a different kind of experience. There are guns and violence, sure, but the setting is strange, the plot is filled with grey, and the hero – well, Abe isn’t exactly sexy, or even, you know, human†
But players who gave the original Strange world An Opportunity in 1997 found them stumbling through a unique and fascinating world that was both surprising and subversive, and the series has gained a legitimate cult following. With the impending release of Oddworld: Soulstorm In 2020 we thought it was a good time to visit Lorne Lanning and his team at Oddworld Inhabitants, and talk about our favorite meat-packing factory worker and his long journey from design notebook to screen.
“Write what you know”, they say…
We interviewed Lanning at the Emeryville, CA headquarters of Oddworld Inhabitants, the studio he co-founded with Sherry McKenna in 1994. Strange world fans, the office was a magical place, crammed with the kind of memorabilia that more than two decades of game design have amassed. Lanning guided us on his journey to become a game maker, starting from his bad beginnings in what sounds like an unstable family. He started playing video games because his father had a job at Coleco, and Lanning thought gaming would be a good way to meet girls.
Lanning’s ambitions weren’t focused on the small screen – he had his eyes set on making movies. To pay the bills, he took a job at TRW Aerospace, working on anti-missile systems (it was the 1980s and Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative boondoggle was in full swing). His exposure to crushing bureaucracy and supplier management formed the basis for much of the Brazil-follow-up ideas presented later in the Strange world spell.
But it’s the time Lanning spent at Rhythm and Hues Studios that had the greatest effect on Strange world— at least the collective look and feel of the series. Working on visual effects led him to the path of visualizing game design in terms of cinema – not just how things were framed on screen, but also the discipline and budgeting style of the film industry. When Lanning and McKenna (a fellow Rhythm and Hues alum) finally started their own studio in the 1990s, they approached their game and their character designs the way Hollywood does. This is clear de rigeur in 2019, but in 1995 when work is underway on Strange world started, it certainly wasn’t the industry standard.
When designing the first Strange world In the game, Lanning and his team had to deal with a tedious reality of game design: there are only so many ways to interact with the world in a side-scrolling action game, and many of those ways include shooting things. And one of the real design goals of Strange world was that protagonist Abe would go through the entire game without being armed – not because of any kind of political stance against guns, but because Abe unarmed increases the character’s vulnerability in a world that is already overwhelmingly hostile. A gun would be an easy fix to many of the game’s problems, and what’s the fun in that?
It took some time to find a solution, but Lanning’s other designers decided that characters like Yoda don’t need weapons to solve problems. Instead, they infused the game with a pastiche of mysticism drawn from a number of different sources, which gave Abe his secret weapon: the ability to possess other characters, including bad guys with guns. This allowed them to design some puzzles with shooting, which the player can solve by finding a bad guy, taking over his body and letting the bad guy shoot his way through the puzzle. To prevent the player from picking up the villain’s weapon after the puzzle is solved, NPCs violently explode upon possession.
A strange (world) legacy
This video ended up getting extremely long in the raw cut because Lanning gave us so much great interview material† We’ve had to trim quite a bit, but we’ll make an extended version if there’s enough interest in this video. There are several rabid Strange world fans here at Ars Orbiting HQ, and this video, like several others in the War Stories series, was a passion project that had a lot of emotion invested (not to mention some custom voiceover lines Lanning performed just for us! ). We hope you enjoy it as much as we had making it.