The Art of Oddworld Inhabitants: The First Ten Years 1994 - 2004

Review by Chris Dickman
Graphics.com Founding Editor

I hadn't realized how much I missed Abe until I cracked open The Art of Oddworld Inhabitants: The First Ten Years, 1994-2004. I first encountered Abe almost a decade ago, when he made his appearance in Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee, the initial PC platform game from the wildly talented Oddworld Inhabitants studio. Combining tricky logic puzzles with the need for fast reflexes, all served up in a graphically lush setting populated by fantastic characters and driven forward by a relentlessly dark story line, Oddysee came out of nowhere to redefine what was possible in the game genre, then (as now?) dominated by tired formulas. And nothing personified this better than Abe, the unlikely Mudokon "hero" of the first three Oddworld games.

The success of Oddysee, and the subsequent Abe vehicles, can be ascribed primarily to the two founders of Oddworld Inhabitants, Sherry McKenna and Lorne Lanning, who brought their backgrounds in film and production design to bear on the almost epic scale of the Oddworld realm. While the production values of the Oddworld games were impeccable, what gave them their unique flavour was the studio's engagement. In the book, Manning speaks of the initial impulse behind founding the company as it being "…one that would focus on creating a unique 3D CG universe of characters and stories that would reflect the twisted ironies of our consumer-driven culture and the dark side of globalization." Sounds almost naïve now, doesn't it? But that sprit was deeply embedded in the Abe-based Oddworld games, driving both the plot, the graphical setting and the characters themselves.

And here's where the book is especially fascinating for those of us who have lived with Abe for so long, accustomed to his every fart (these functioned as weapons) and "Follow Me!". We're told that the origin of Abe was "inspired by the diamond miners of South Africa, who have long been subject to slave-like conditions while working for diamond cartels." While Munch, a bizarre aquatic creature that showed up in Oddworld's first Xbox game "…was inspired by creatures that lose the extinction battle every day to our gluttonous appetites, and the hundreds of millions of creatures subject to laboratory testing every day." Go get em, Lorne!

Expressed this way these games sound a bit dismal, as no more than a politically-correct exercise. But playing them is nothing like eating your greens – they're dark, twisted good fun, presented in a manner that perhaps we may never see again. I encourage you to seek out Abe's Oddysee and Abe's Exoddus, since their play value remains undimmed by time. I recently fired up a dusty copy of Exoddus and was struck by how much more fun it was than many of the games I've played recently!

While the graphics in the games are great, those in the book are simply astonishing. The initial character sketches look like something from the pen of Da Vinci, while the atmospheric background renderings bring to mind Piranesi's carceri series, with their almost obsessive attention to disturbing detail. Who knew there were so many ways to design meat-grinders?

Kudos to Ballistic Publishing for taking on this project and delivering such a lavish, full-color package, which will appeal not just to fans of the series but to anyone with a fascination for the creative process and a love for good illustration. And as for Abe, who was so conspicuously absent from the last Oddworld game? Come back, we miss you!

The Art of Oddworld Inhabitants: The First Ten Years 1994 - 2004, can be purchased on the Ballistic Publishing site.

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