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25 Years Ago, A Wildly Ambitious Puzzle Platformer Changed Gaming Forever

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In the eyes of some people, video games are brainless entertainment at best.

It is, of course, BS. And while the question of whether games are art is painfully dull today, few have even thought to raise it in the age of the PS1. But even then, there were games whose very existence was such an emphatic “yes”! that they did even ask the question seems silly.

“It’s Rupture Farms”

Although its decor is pure fantasy, the universe of Abe’s Odyssey is just a coat of paint away from ours. The Rupture Farms junk food factory, where the game begins, resembles a colossal oil refinery: a mass of twisting steel pipes under chimneys perpetually belching smoke. It’s run by a bunch of Glukkons, cigar-biting executives straight out of a corny political cartoon.

Our hero is Abe, a Mudokon who works at Rupture Farms with seemingly his entire species. As he explains in the intro cinematic of Abe’s Odyssey, he’s actually a slave like the rest of the “workers” there, but given the blurry line between work and servitude, there’s a hint of pride as he explains that he was once the employee of the year. Abe even muses on the delicious flavor of his favorite Rupture Farms snack products, despite the fact that they’re made from endangered species from his planet. There’s a touch of sadness in his voice as he mourns the abandoned Meech Munchies, not because the Meeches have been hunted to extinction, but because he misses his favorite snack foods.

The introduction to Abe’s Odyssey sets the tone for the dark adventure to come.

Abe is the perfect replacement for the audience trapped in a post-capitalist dystopia. He knows he has a terrible job. He knows his bosses are destroying the very planet he is on. But he doesn’t know if he can do anything about it yet, so he just enjoys what little pleasure he can. Then he discovers the name of a new product from Rupture Farms called Mudokon Pops. Its key ingredient? You guessed it. Abe’s whole species. (“It was us!”).

That’s when Abe’s Odyssey gives you the controls and your first job is to escape Rupture Farms with your life. As the game progresses, you and Abe discover that some Mudokons have escaped the clutches of Rupture Farms to keep their culture alive. It turns out that the animals currently being made into cupcakes have deeper ties to the Mudokons than Abe ever imagined, and they could be the key to dismantling the oligarchy once and for all.

throw stones

Oddworld originated in the late 90s, at a time when critiques of consumerism and capitalism were making their way into mainstream media.

fight club and office space were released two years later Abe’s Odyssey. So was The matrix, which took the same direction by turning the real-world horrors of capitalism into sci-fi villains, so even people who aren’t attuned to its message could join in. Even the path The matrix depicts the nightmarish “real world” is quite similar to the smog-spewing metallic hellscape of Rupture Farms.

At that time, however, the revolution had just happened in video games. Whereas Final Fantasy VII let’s play as a group of anti-capitalist eco-terrorists and To fall embodied large-scale social criticism, the greatest titles of 1997 were mostly enjoyable escapist fare like Super Mario 64. The very idea of ​​a mainstream video game with a political point of view was something that most gamers weren’t ready to take seriously. Despite, FF7, To falland Abe’s Odyssey were among the highest-rated games of the year, according to Metacritic.

To look closer

The strong and subversive narrative of Abe’s Odyssey was partly responsible for that praise, but that’s not the only reason he stood out. Critics at the time were captivated by its graphics and art style, which remain a creative achievement today, despite having aged. Likewise, its gameplay feels clunky by today’s standards, but is still as engaging as it is unique.

Oddworld’s environmental message stood out in 1997, and it still stands out today.Inhabitants of Oddworld

Back in 1997, most platformers were side-scrolling, allowing you to cycle through levels on a continuous screen like in Super Mario Bros. However, Abe’s Odyssey is a single-screen platformer, where each screen is like its own mini level to beat before moving on to the next one.

The very first screen of Abe’s Odyssey contains a secret: your vantage point stays at a fixed angle and distance, and from your vantage point there’s a bit of machinery blocking a section of terrain from view. If you stop right at its edge and crouch down just as Abe disappears from view, you’ll discover a drop in a hidden part of the level with its own puzzle to solve. How would you know it’s there in the first playthrough of the game? You wouldn’t. Only by scanning each screen for details like this can you be sure to see 100% of Abe’s Odyssey.

Finding these secrets isn’t just about being a finalist. The story of Abe’s Odyssey is of Abe destroying Rupture Farms, but your real goal is to save the rest of the Mudokons. While you run and jump through OSHA-violating factory meat grinders and laser grates, the Mudokon slaves remain at work. Armed guards prevent them from escaping, but you can free them! And it’s only if you save at least half that Abe fully triumphs in the ending cutscene. It’s a gameplay conceit that encourages exploration, but it’s also a key theme of Abe’s Odyssey: You can fight the man all you want, but only solidarity with your fellow workers can truly defeat him.

more real than real

Whereas Abe’s Odyssey rode the rising tide of consumerist criticism, it was also part of a wave of relatively advanced AI in games. Some games were content and content to give NPCs fixed patterns to follow, but the late 90s saw games entirely focused on building more realistic AI, such as virtual pet simulation. creatures. Oddworld games have used AI to make their worlds more alive and create a stronger bond between you and the characters on screen.

To guide your fellow Mudokons to safety, you had to call them and guide them either “Follow me!” or wait!” with different phrases mapped to different buttons. There was even a fart command, which only served to make Abe and the other Mudokons laugh. Oddworld developer Inhabitants called this system Gamespeak, and although it simple enough, it was incredibly effective.

Oddworld is still there, but the magic of Abe’s Odyssey is difficult to resume.Inhabitants of Oddworld

Granted, I was an impressionable 10-year-old back then, but I was thrilled every time I released a Mudokon and felt my stomach churn every time I inadvertently drove one to its doom. The moment I finally beat Abe’s Odyssey after freeing the 99 Mudokons (the devoted child that I was) is etched in my memory forever, more so than most events in my actual human life.

The Oddworld series was envisioned as a five-part saga, which now seems extremely unlikely. While the games remained solid, the sequels simply didn’t capture the same magic in the right time and place of Abe’s Odyssey.

My 10-year-old self would be crushed to learn that Abe’s adventures didn’t last forever and Oddworld didn’t become the most popular series in the world. Maybe it’s better this way, with Abe’s Odyssey remaining a singular masterpiece rather than having its vision ground down and extruded like so many poor Meeches. I will forever be grateful, however, for the first video game that taught me that the medium – and the world – can be so much better, but only if we try.