Monday, March 25, 2013

"Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus", 1998.

"Indie" in software development is a slippery sobriquet, not only making reference to material conditions, which change, but attitudes, which may be more idealistically resistant to a new situation. Scott "Adventureland" Adams was pretty much through his whole career; when Steves Jobs and Wozniak were assembling Apple Is in a garage from Atari's spare parts, they were indie; J. Ro was during Commander Keen but no longer during Daikatana. I like to think of it as essentially glossing "not sold in boxes on store shelves" (I give Scott Adams a free pass, as he had to visit the stores and convince their proprietors to allow him to essentially consign the games, as perhaps the first microcomputer game developer to sell games in stores.) That doesn't mean, however, that no games are being sold -- enough of a mint was made with voluntary payments for shareware Keen that iD's split was sufficient to fund the development of Wolfenstein 3D, whose shareware proceeds funded Doom, whose shareware proceeds funded Quake, whose shareware proceeds funded... being purchased outright by Bethseda (who enjoyed the honour of eating the development costs of Rage themselves, presumably.) But you get the idea.

Now, things are different -- in light of the leaps and strides achieved in the game industry's expansion, the A-level devteams of yesteryear's big-ticket hits can be seen in retrospect to more closely resemble today's indie teams... only today's teams have better tools and bigger iron to work with. This is yielding a curious phenomenon in the premiere indie publishing tool -- the Bundle -- where today's freshest indie hits are beginning to rub elbows with big sellers from a decade ago. (And why not? Starcraft Battle Chest excepted, it's not like these old games are being stocked on store shelves anymore, either!) Yesterday's titan + time = retroactive indie.

This is admittedly a significant digression for me to open on, but when I got the news this morning that this ad's game was part of the latest game bundle (which I'm talking about here foolishly without any sponsorship hooks -- just out of a foolish interest in being timely and relevant, something that's hard to achieve on this beat), it got bumped up in the queue. I gather the series had an ecological, anti-corporate message flying beneath the radar, obfuscated behind a smokescreen of gross body humour. I suppose I can get behind all of those things! It's probably a shame that the visionary iconoclasts at Oddworld Inhabitants only enjoyed as narrow a slice of the limelight as they did, but all things considered, we should probably be glad any of their games got funded at all.

Now You're Cooking With Gas.

Flesh-eating Fleeches! Undead Mudombies! Bone-grinding Greeters!
Tons of cool new power-ups! Invisibility! Healing powers! And more!
Abe gets all emotional! More panic! More talking! More pleading!
Save the Mudokons and save your game anywhere!

Other heroes have swords, chainsaws, and vaporizers to deal with their monstrous enemies. In Oddworld, all you've got is gas. Abe now has the ability to possess his own farts and blow his enemies away! It's a power he's going to need if he's going to stop the Glukkon Meat Barons from making Soulstorm Brew -- the only beverage made from real Mudokon tears and bones. Fart possession. No other game has it and frankly, we're not sure any other game would want it!

In odd we trust

This is a lavishly rendered fart joke. By the standards of its time, we're looking at dozens of man-hours worth of work for a schoolyard punchline. It's a compromise Marketing is making with parents: "Other heroes have swords, chainsaws, and vaporizers" but if you don't want to babysit your loving angels with murder simulators, the compelling option is the sophomoric "fart possession". You can't prevent them from growing up and losing their innocence, but you can at least keep them immature for a few more months.

There's a curious frankness in the developers' shame at resorting to such an underhanded hook: "No other game has it and frankly, we're not sure any other game would want it!" But it beats writing spreadsheets (or hm, still more profound humiliations), none of which ever implemented fart possession functionality. (Excel '97 contained a flight simulator easter egg, but despite the recycled air in the simulated cabin... OK, this gag will take more work to compelte than it's worth.) Abe sure doesn't look regretful, however. (I'm regretful that the camera angle and page gutter denies us a good look at even one of the robot-legged opponents his gas has flattened, as they're more intriguing to me than the two fists-with-teeth we get a good look at. Are robots even susceptible to farts? I suppose cyborgs sure are.)

Now to the screenshot captions, for the other selling points. At least three different kinds of opponents, with ridiculous names. "Tons" of cool new power-ups seems to indicate an unknown number greater than 2. I don't even known what to make of the next caption: is a panicked, emotional avatar a desirable thing? (On par with fart possession at least?) Does this indicate a kind of unreliable protagonist morale, like military units in wargames which may refuse their orders when shell-shocked? Talking and pleading are two attitudes of the same basic action, and my recollection is that this series uses utterances to invoke special powers and social skills. Which means... a reiteration of the previous point? The final point asserts a game goal and touts what should be basic game functionality, save-anywhere-ness. To me, it's not so much a reason to buy the game as a negation of a reason to not buy it, bringing us back to zero and putting it on the table.