If I could go back in time using some new-fangled time-travelling device of sorts, and tell the seven year old me, that one day, I would have the opportunity to go to the studio that would be working on the Oddworld series of games, he would have most likely stared at me in disbelief… before enviously setting a pack of ravenous Slogs upon me, chuckling noisily to himself like a malicious Slig. What a nasty little seven year old eh?
Luckily for me then, no such device exists, and no time-bending paradoxical meeting with a past version of myself (with an over-developed sense of vengeance) ever took place, and thus, I live to tell the tale of my very pleasant and exciting interview with Stewart Gilray, CEO of Just Add Water and Business Development Director of Oddworld Inhabitants.
Here I am, un-savaged by Slogs, on a sunny June morning in Otley, West Yorkshire, on my way to interview Stewart about himself, Otley, the origins of Just Add Water as a development studio, and of course, the new game. Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty is a proper HD remake of Oddworld Inhabitants’ 1997 classic Abe’s Oddysee, about to be imminently released at the end of July for PlayStation 4, with other console versions to follow later in the year.
I gaze up at the Wharfebank Business Centre, the home of Just Add Water as I cross the car park; the building itself is a grandiose old textile mill turned groovy office complex, and I can’t help but let a small, wry smile play out across my face at the irony that New ‘n’ Tasty is being made here. A game about a hero, Abe, freeing his oppressed and enslaved Mudokon people from the greedy industrial Glukkons of the Magog Cartel, is being developed in an old mill of the real life industrial revolution, infamous in the 19th Century for their appalling working conditions and high casualty rates. If Abe were here today, he’d be running for his life out of the industrial behemoth of a building standing before me, and not trepidatiously wandering into it like I am.
Don’t get me wrong though, this is certainly no Rupture Farms, or SoulStorm Brewery. Oh no, quite the opposite. The sunlight gently dapples against the majestic stone of the mill, giving it a warm and gentle golden-yellow hue against the horizon. Big leafy trees surround the outer edges of the car park and sway gently in the breeze. I pause at the edge of the riverbank, the spongy grass of the bank nestled right up to the tarmac at the far side of the car park, and gaze out at the River Wharf. Listening to the tranquil body of water, quietly but contentedly rippling along as it flows downstream, I watch the passage of the river make its way under a majestic canopy of green foliage before gradually curving out of sight. The scene is picturesque, and about as far away from the dark Satanic mills of Blake’s poem as one can imagine.
I find my way inside, and after cunningly sneaking past their Slog pens and Slig patrols, I find myself at Just Add Water’s offices. I knock on the door, and almost immediately have to resist the near-overwhelming urge to greet the friendly JAW employee that opens it with my best impression of ol’ stitch lips’ classic “Hewow” greeting. Thinking back to the original game, I half expect to have to perform a Monsaic Lines call and response style whistle and fart combination in order to be allowed to cross the hallowed threshold. Luckily for me, no such response is required, and I’m ushered deep into the land of Odd.
Out of all the treasures in the room before me, my eyes were immediately drawn to the glass table next to the sign-in book. There on the table before me, lay the original PlayStation manuals for Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus. Two bibles, if you will, of my gaming youth. I remembered pawing through these important scriptures… erm, manuals upon getting the original games when I was but a wee child, back in a now all but forgotten era when reading a game manual was the first ritualistic step to getting immersed in a new game. I quickly scrawled my name in my usual angular and spidery handwriting, eager to get a better look.
Seeing these two slim but mighty tomes of virtual wisdom on all things odd on the sign-in table just shattered what little resolve I had left mentally to remain a somewhat-respectable functioning adult and I felt myself devolve back into that seven year old Oddworld-obsessed oddity of years past (minus vicious Slog pack of course). With great difficulty, I managed to pull my gaze away from the manuals and ’90s original PlayStation beside them (no guesses as to which game was currently in the disc tray) and cast my eyes around the rest of the open plan office area.
I was in an Oddworld fan’s dream. Liberally splayed out across the walls and drawing boards are pages and pages of artwork, early concept drawings and design documents, featuring beautifully detailed artistic pieces from all the games in the Quintology so far. Jokey slogans adorn the doors, with quotes pulled directly from the games and amusingly re-appropriated for office life (‘You escape and all 28 employees in this office die!’). Awards, accolades and trophies (real shiny ones, not just those coveted virtual ones) line the shelves and are modestly nestled in amongst various magazines, props, and games consoles of years past. The passion in the room is almost overwhelming at times; part hardworking office and part glorious gaming shrine.
The office has the relaxed camaraderie of a probably very tired but undoubtedly hard working team. The JAW staff are poised at their desks, simultaneously quietly chatting away and clattering away at their computer keyboards. I try to glance at their computer monitors, hoping to catch a cheeky in-game glimpse of any characters. Abe, Elum, Mullock, hell, even a pantless Slig from Exoddus will do… but alas, my C in GCSE maths cannot decipher the strange codes of numbers and programs on their screens, no matter how much I squint at them.
With the latest E3 demo of New ‘n’ Tasty whisked away to the mystical land of LA the day before, the atmosphere here is that of the quiet but temporal eye of the storm; the release date of the remake is racing up ever closer in just over a month’s time – July 22nd in America, while we Brits across the pond get it a day later on the 23rd. The finish line is in sight, but it’s getting down to final crunch time.
In all my wide-eyed lollygagging and finding myself in this nirvana-like state of pleasant dumbfound-ness, Stewart arrives and is ready to talk. Dressed in a Star Wars t-shirt and jeans, he has a relaxed and cool confident air for someone who’s probably been under increasingly mounting pressure and rapidly looming deadlines whilst getting the E3 demo ready to go out to the States. We shake hands and I plod after him, like one of the green worker Mudokons from the game faithfully following Abe, to a quiet office where I can fling my questions at him from my word-crossbow, Stranger’s Wrath style, like a bundle of knowledge-hungry Fuzzles out for information rather than outlaw blood.
So, that’s quite enough of my yakking and incessant Oddworld reference dropping for now, without further ado, let’s hear from the main man himself.
Stewart Gilray Interview
Tom Bennett: First of all, I wanted to know how did you yourself get started in the games industry, and what were your early inspirations?
Stewart Gilray: Oh god… I’ve been working in the business now since ’88, so this is my 26th year, but I started off as programmer on the Atari ST and [Commodore] Amiga back in the day. (Adopts Yorkshire accent) Back in’t day! I literally did it from school, I got into computers when I was 13/14, did a bit on the [ZX] Spectrum and then went onto the ST, Amiga and learned how to program, and wrote a couple of games on there. So it’s been a long haul, and a lot of years.
TB: What was the first kind of game you made then?
SG: Well the first thing we did which was published was actually the introduction sequence for the game Powermonger, by EA/Bullfrog. We were hired to do the introduction sequence, which we did, and then we were hired to do the introduction sequence for the game Birds Of Prey on Amiga. We did a Populous 2 one but it wasn’t used in the end because EA cut the budget for the manufacturing of the discs, so instead of having two discs in the box they only had one disc in the box, so our intro was cut.
SG: Nevermind. But then at the same time I was writing a game called Rubicon on the ST and Amiga for 21st Century Entertainment, and that was finished in January ’91 and it came out in February/March ’91. I did a couple of other projects on the side, and then I worked for 21st Century Entertainment as an In-House Junior Producer. I did that from ’93-’97. In ’97 I joined Grolier Interactive as an External Producer working on external projects – at the time it was David Braben’s V-2000, and a couple of other ones. Then after that I went to work at Revolution Software in York, and I worked on the very end of Broken Sword 2 American version and In Cold Blood as Development Director and Gold and Glory: The Road to El Dorado, which was a licence they did. Then I left there to work at Runecraft in Dewsbury, and there I did the Soldier of Fortune game on Dreamcast and Spec Ops Ranger Elite on PS1. I left there about a year or so later, and took a couple years out the industry… no I didn’t, I tell a lie! I started up my own company, Binary9 Studios, did that for a year or so, left the industry for a couple of years, came back in to start up a job in October 2006, and here we are eight years later.
TB: Wow, so quite a plethora of different styles and games there!
SG: Hmmm! I was asked recently to give my full back catalogue of what I’ve worked on, and I worked out that including different platforms, it’s 75 titles, so it’s like (nervously laughs).
TB: Wow. That’s-
SG: A lot!
TB: Yeah that’s an impressive track record there – well, following on from that, what made you want to actually start developing games as opposed to just say, consuming them and playing them?
SG: I think in the ’80s it was different, I think if you played games you wanted to know how they worked, and you thought, there’s a game, I want to play this game, but this game doesn’t exist – I’ll write it, you know? In the ’80s, programmers, well developers were programmers, artists and musicians in one. People like Stephen Crow who did Starquake and Firelord, he did everything himself, and John Phillips as well, he did everything himself. I think it was born out of that industry, in the way it was in the ’80s, and that was it really. I just wanted to make games, and my mate Richard, who’s now at Zynga in San Francisco, we grew up together from the age of 10, he did art, I did programming, and that was it really.
TB: Wow, like you say it’s very different from today isn’t it, where you’ve got highly specific development teams made up of-
SG: Thousands, yes! Yeah I mean we [Just Add Water] employ 17 people. Out of that, I’d say 13 or 14 are development. Audio in-house, we’ve got, 6 artists, 4 programmers, a producer, a QA, office people and stuff you know, so it’s busy!
TB: Well you’ve kind of partially answered my next question; I was going to ask how many people make up Just Add Water in total and what was the inspiration behind the name?
SG: Oh the name! My wife came up with the name, but I kind of took the holistic hippy-ish view to it that human beings are 70% water; so to make something you have to add humans to it, so you’re adding water to it… too much Pink Floyd in there!
TB: No no, I don’t think you can ever have too much Pink Floyd in anything!
SG: But yeah that’s where the name came from really. As for having people, there’s 16 or 17 now, you know, a couple of people have changed, coming and leaving and stuff, things like that you know, and it’s maintained at around 16 or 17 people.
TB: Nice! What was the process in getting all these people together and how did that come about; Have you just picked up people from other various projects you’ve worked on over the years?
SG: No, well, I mean Steve our CTO, he and I worked together at Runecraft, and when I started JAW in 2006, it was just me at first, and Steve came to do some freelance work back in 2009, and then, you know, he became a member of staff properly and actually later a co-owner with me in April 2011. But since then, we’ve built up and we had 4 people in April 2011, when we did this sort of reboot if you like of the company. We hired more people, and I think over that time we hire for what we need. We’d probably like to get some more programmers in, I’d like to have 6 programmers in full-time, we’ve currently got 4 as I said, so yeah, we’re getting there. I think that the number we’ll stick at for a while is 20 people.
TB: That’s kind of a comfortable size is it?
SG: Yeah… otherwise it gets too expensive!
TB: Of course, of course! What were the reasons behind deciding to locate Just Add Water to Otley?
SG:I live here! That is it entirely! I came up here at the end of 1999, to work at Revolution in York, my wife’s family was in Otley at the time, so she wanted to come back here from Oxford, so yeah we bought a house not far from here. That was it really, but I didn’t work in Otley until 2006. Everything else was away from Otley. In 2006 when we started the company up and we started work in Otley, JAW was at the house for the first 6 months, and then it was based in an office in the middle of Otley, then an office downstairs here, and now we’re up here in this one. So we’ve had 4 moves really as a company. But you know it’s been alright; If we had to move from here it would be a right pain in the backside, because when we came up here we only had 9 people and we’ve now got like I say 17 and lots more equipment!
TB: There aren’t a lot of development studios up north are there really, a lot of them are kind of mainly down south.
SG: You’d be surprised – there’s a lot in Yorkshire, of course you’ve got Rockstar Leeds, Team 17, members of Chinese Room, some of them are based in Leeds. There’s Game Republic, which is like an overhang if you like, it used to be part of Screen Yorkshire, but then the Government binned all that stuff. We, a lot of developers put money in to keep Game Republic going – it’s basically, I won’t say governing body, but its a sort of umbrella across all of us and they’d get people up first to meet us like Sony or Microsoft would come up to meet the indies. In total there’s something like 65 members in Game Republic, and that’s companies, members of the republic. Then you’ve got Ga-Ma-Yo, which is run by Andrew Crawshaw, who is part of Chinese Room – he is 260 members as individuals. So there’s a lot of developers in Leeds!
TB: So I basically need to do better research really then! (Laughs nervously).
SG: Well, no but you’re right it’s hard to work out because you wouldn’t think it; there’s Revolution in York still, they’ve just done Broken Sword 5, [and] there’s other developers not in Leeds themselves who are just individuals, you know.
TB: So, what attracted you to the Oddworld series in the first place?
SG: I mean I was a fan back in ’97, when Abe’s Oddysee first came out, I was playing it, and my cat who’s no longer with us, he used to sit and watch us playing it. He used to sit and watch the telly like this and go left and right as he watched Abe run around on the screen on a big 32-inch CRT.
A friend of mine, Dan, moved out to America in 2006/7, and he met Lorne Lanning [Oddworld Inhabitants CCO and Co-Founder] before that, and I kept saying to Dan “You should get Lorne to remake Abe’s Oddysee or do a 2.5D game”, but he said he doesn’t want to do games anymore, and then I was actually introduced by Dan to Lorne in GDC 2009 and we kind of stayed in touch via email and things.
Then in June 2009, he asked us to do some stuff for him, we which gladly did, but then in April 2010, they had some problems with the developer they hired to do the game Stranger’s Wrath on PC, so we kind of took over that. Steve and I did that; Steve did 95% of it and I did the other 5%. So two of us did a PC port in five months basically, which got some slack and flack when it came out in December 2010. We did some patches and some updates for it which fixed it, but then we started doing a PS3 version of Stranger’s Wrath in… well, the art actually started in September ’10. We didn’t start coding until the end of March/beginning of April ’11, and we released it in December 2011. So the relationship came out of the fact of we were looking for work, Oddworld Inhabitants were looking for some people who they could trust, you know, the people they had before, they just kept breaking their promises and deliveries and stuff. We said, “Look, we’ll do it for cost price for you, here you go” and they went ok, and we went from there really, and our first project, it was let’s say $50,000 budget, the next one was $250,000. This one, New ‘n’ Tasty, is $2 million so it’s escalating scale, you know, and it’s gone alright, we’re awfully successful at that.
TB: Yeah I mean New ‘n’ Tasty is certainly a hyped game isn’t it, there’s a lot of people that are excited for it – me included!
SG: Yeah, we’ve got some pods in the Sony Booth at E3, and the trailer – well you know the Sony America are putting the press conference in theatres in the states? We’ve got the New ‘n’ Tasty trailer playing in the theatres before the press conference, which is cool. Sony of America are definitely behind us and we’re still dealing with Sony Europe on some stuff but yeah it’s good. We’ve not got a lot of time left, you know, a few weeks left to be completely finished, you know, but the E3 build is testament to us, the fact that we’re almost there. So it’s literally just bug-fixing and final balancing now, and then we’ll be done hopefully very shortly. So then the fans can get it in their greasy mitts!
TB: That’s what it’s all about!
SG: Hopefully it will do well!
TB: It’s really good to see Abe making a return because back in the early days of the PlayStation he was one of the main faces of the brand. You had Crash Bandicoot, who was kind of like the main Sony mascot and there was also Abe, and people have kind of forgotten about him, but it’s good to see he’s coming back to his original levels of popularity.
SG: Yeah I mean, what’s quite funny is that when people who haven’t seen the news in the past two years that New ‘n’ Tasty is coming out suddenly see a trailer and go “Oh wow, that’s like Abe’s Oddysee” – it’s like “Where’ve you been?” (Laughs).
It’s interesting, there’s enough things that are different in the game for it to be a brand new experience to a lot of people, including people who played the original ones. We’ve added some stuff in there, some mini-levels and things, which will and do make it different from the original. Some of the mechanics and the way they work have made it different as well, we’ve had to introduce some other mechanics to get past some of the design changes because of moving from the flip screen to scrolling environment system.
TB: I was going to ask you about that yeah.
SG: So yeah there are a few differences, but not massively. Most people will go “Oh I know that bit” – of course you do, it’s based on the original game – apart from that it’s a complete re-build from the ground up – there’s nothing in there that exists from the original game at all, which is nice.
TB: Right well yeah that’s a nice little segue into the next question! How did you first get started on remaking Abe’s Oddysee? Was there an obvious place to start or did you have to experiment and see what would be the best way into it?
SG: Well, I had a vision in my head of what it would all look like and play like, and I’ve been bugging Lorne for ages and with calls and stuff, and I said “Let’s do Abe”, and he said “Ah I don’t want to do it” and I said “Why?”I remember one conference call I had was me, Lorne, Dan and Larry [the old President of Oddworld Inhabitants] and Lorne and I were chatting non-stop about what to do in Abe for about 10 minutes and Larry just went “Would you two guys shut up and come back to topic please?”
Obviously we we’re starting to get charged up with ideas and things, but that was 2010, and we’d started pre-production on ideas and stuff probably mid-late 2011, and then we didn’t get more people in properly until 2012 so we’ve been working on it for over 2 years now. So it’s been a long time in coming and the problem is the longer a project is, the bigger the blues are at the end of the project. You know it’s going and you think, “Just one more thing”, those things, you know?
TB: It’s your baby.
SG: Yeah, it’s hard at the moment because a few of us are feeling fatigued, but also (in a sad voice) “Oh it’s going” you know? It makes it… not difficult but emotional I guess. It’s strange putting your baby out in the world and hoping that people don’t rip it apart! (Laughs).
This week at E3 our press guys have got the wall-to-wall E3 presentations and interviews with the press, so I think we’ll know later this week what people think! Even if it’s not reviews it’s previews still, so euuugh!
(Well, the previews are out by now of course, and they’re pretty damn good!)
TB: I know what you mean – from what I’ve seen it does look fantastic. New ‘n’ Tasty features a floating/scrolling camera now, as opposed to a flipscreen one in the original. I remember in the original you could get slight delay when running from screen to screen which would give you a slight split-second advantage over pursuing Sligs, and other creatures, I was wondering how that sort of thing works now?
SG: We’ve made some changes; there are three difficulty modes now. If you play it in hard mode, you know, it’s one shot – you’re dead. If you choose easy, Abe’s got life energy basically, so you can take two or three shots before you die.
TB: That’s interesting.
SG: We’ve done that for the players who probably don’t want to experience how raw the difficulty was in the original game, because the original game was criticised for being overly hard. Some people thought that was great because it was too hard, so experienced players will want to go in at hard mode but people who are not so much from that era can play easy or medium first.
It opens it up gameplay-wise, so there are areas where you’re being chased by Sligs and maybe a Slig gets a shot off and he hits you, you know, or you can tease them a bit more now than you could do in the original. They’re not so draconian shall we say, so you can almost climb up on a ledge and go “Wooooo!” and then run away again, and they’ll go “Arrrrrrgh!” and try and shoot you! So you’ve got a bit more fun and play involved this time.
I mean, this is because the game is in full 3D now, there’s a lot more animations going on, and with ragdoll physics as well when characters die too. Today I was playing it, and I’d climbed up, jumped over a ledge and didn’t realise there was a Slig there – he turned around and he shot me and just as I landed, Abe went flying backwards and got shot in the head and fell down a gap – I thought “Ah you bugger!” But we were laughing more than anything else, as it looks ridiculous, but in a good way! That’s been the biggest thing, the biggest challenge is to make sure that fun and laughter is still there.
TB: Yeah that was a huge part of the original – I was going to ask you later on, but on the topic of humour, can Abe still fart in the new game?
SG: (Said indignantly) Of course he can! You can’t possess the farts though, that’s Exoddus [Abe’s Exoddus, the sequel game released in 1999, introduced the highly underrated gameplay mechanic of possessing your own farts], but in Oddysee, in fact, there’s one part where… you have to fart!
TB: I see!
SG: But I won’t say why, you’ll find out when you play.
TB: Oh nice, a little teaser there! With the new trailer, I noticed that there’s quite a few cutscenes in there that weren’t in the original game.
SG: Yeah we’ve added two or three new ones. Well actually, one of them was in the original game, but it’s now completely different. That was because Lorne felt that the original version was just never what he wanted to see, so kind of in some ways, this is almost like a director’s cut of the first game, there’s things that they couldn’t get in the original development because of memory and other PS1 stuff that they couldn’t do, where we have now been able to pull them out of the design archive and use them effectively.
So we’ve done a bit of that, there’s also all these designs in the levels and environments as well that they couldn’t use in the original game because there’s no memory or they couldn’t work out how to do it, but because we’ve got live 3D we can do it all in real-time 3D now. So we’ve pulled some of the things out from the archives, for example the original 1993/4 sketches of the Elum bell [a giant rustic bell used to summon Abe’s trusty camel-like steed] from the start of Scrabania. We recreated that, so it’s now as the original design looked.
TB: Ah right, so is that massively different from the one in the original game then?
SG: It’s bigger! That’s all I’m going to say is that’s bigger! It looks like “Woah! That’s huge!” now. That’s been fun, and having built real-time camera transitions and stuff now, literally screwing with the camera, so for example at the start of Paramonia in the original game, you originally start at a standard 90 degree position to the environment. Now in New ‘n’ Tasty, Abe drops down the chute at the start and you’re looking at him up close and personal at 10 degrees, and as you start to walk forwards, the camera pans out gradually. It’s things like that you couldn’t do before, but that’s all real-time, they’re not pre-canned CG, it’s all real-time now. That’s nice. Even the transitions on the lifts too are real-time, and in the original game, when you would go in a door, it would be just movie-playback. One particular moment I’m thinking of is at the start of the game – that’s now a huge cargo lift, Half-Life style, where it’s all real-time. Abe puts his hand on the button.
TB: Ah yeah the three finger-
TB: Ah woops, my apologies, four, sorry!
SG: Ah, the Japanese version was three.
TB: Ah of course, sorry!
SG: He’s got four fingers again – yay! Abe puts his paw on the pad and as the lift starts going down, the camera pulls and tracks out – all in real-time. So that’s nice.
TB: How much creative control did you have to add any new elements and ideas to the game or was it more a case of did you have to stick to what Lorne had wanted?
SG: Actually, the biggest change that we’ve made is to the jump mechanism. In the original game, you pressed X and you hopped forwards. Modern players don’t expect that. Modern players expect when you press X that you just jump straight up vertically in the air, not perform a forward hop. So we’ve changed it a little bit. When you’re pressing jump now, he starts to crouch down to his jump position, and at that time if you press right, if he’s facing right, then you’ll do the hop to the right.
There’s a few changes like that. They’re more aimed towards modern game players and the new generation who maybe didn’t play the original game and don’t know about the original hop jump, so we’ve done little things like that, but nothing that will make people go “This is rubbish!” and throw away the joystick – it’s not like that. It’s more about… I’ve kind of seen it as more bringing the original into the 21st Century, to meet expectations from today’s players rather than anything else.
TB: Just to leap back a few questions, when you were talking about the difficulty, one of the things I really liked about the original game was the fact that it was hard, it was like trial and death, as opposed to trial and error; you had to try each obstacle a few times and eventually several grisly deaths later you would work out what to do – you can see how that kind of idea of needing to die and fail repeatedly to find success has influenced other games such as Limbo, et cetera. I find it interesting that you’ve allowed players to choose an easier difficulty setting; did you not feel that would dilute the original game’s feel too much?
SG: Well there is still a lot of trial and death in it. But there are some places where I think modern players will think “I know how to do that” and work out some of the puzzle/obstacle solutions right away, as it’s… formulaic to some degree, but there’s not much of that in there. There’s a lot of the game where we’ve made changes; for example, because the problem you’ve got with the original game was that if you were one screen away from patrolling Sligs, you could still hear the Sligs, and you might also be able see them occasionally, but they couldn’t see you unless they were chasing you. But now of course, because we’ve got a scrolling camera, you can literally be in the original point, where you would have originally had a left screen and right screen and now it’s literally just one screen because your camera is halfway between the two of them. So what do you do now with the Sligs then? Well, what we’ve done with the Sligs is we’ve given them radars on their visors basically.
TB: (In awe) Oh wow!
SG: So when they stop and look, they scan out with their radars, and there’s a little beam that comes out of their visors-
TB: Like a Cylon from Battlestar Galactica?
SG: Hmm, kind of, but it shows the distance of how far they can see, so as long as you don’t move within that area, you’re fine.
TB: I see, and it’s like a motion sensor is it?
SG: Yeah kind of, so we’ve had to do that because of the problem with the camera, but the nice thing is that the view distance is the same from the original game. It’s just that we’ve had to visualise it now because we haven’t got the added bonus of having the flipscreen where you can just go offscreen and reset everything again. Things like that we’ve had to do, but it’s not… I don’t think it’s going to be alien, in fact people have told me that die-hard fans of the Oddworld Inhabitants forums, have gone “I don’t like this!” and then, scrolling down, you see four posts later “Actually, I get that now” and then after that the next five posts “Yeah that’s fine now”. They kind of argue themselves into liking it, but at first they are like “Noooo what have you done!” Pitchforks at dawn! Calm down, you know!
It’s been alright actually – if those guys get it, and if people who remember the original game do too, then that’s good. The weird thing is, the amount of people I know in life who know I make video games, they’ll say to me what are you working on these days, and I’ll say I’m remaking Abe’s Oddysee and they’ll go (shocked voice) “Oh I remember playing Abe back on the PS1!” That’s cool!
The original game sold about 3.5 million copies, which for the mid ’90s was unheard of, you know, so that’s nice. There’s a huge fanbase there for it, and I just hope that what we’ve done is respectful enough that they’ll enjoy it… and buy it! (Laughs).
TB: I think it was Rod Fergusson [Studio Manager of Black Tusk studios, currently remaking Gears of War for Xbox One] who came out with an interesting comment recently about the fact that when you’re rebooting a game or franchise, in a way you’ve almost got to betray the hardcore fanbase in a way in order to innovate and try something new and ultimately win back their trust again.
SG: Yes, yeah that’s it, there’s an adage of looking at what die-hard fans want and thinking – it’s not quite screw them but it’s just a case of… what’s more important to us is, introducing the game to a new generation because some of the people who played the original in ’97 won’t be gamers anymore, because they’ve moved on. It’s been almost twenty years since the original came out, so some people will be playing the games now who weren’t even born when the first one came out, you know? The whole thought of downloading a PS1 emulated game on their PS3 might be (in mopey voice) “Ah I don’t wanna do that”. So we have to appeal to a brand new audience that have never heard of it or played it before.
We were going to release the Wii U version of Stranger’s Wrath first and then do the Abe games afterwards, but Nintendo advised us against that because you might get people who don’t know what Abe’s Oddysee is, or what New ‘n’ Tasty is, and they might just play Stranger, see a new Oddworld title coming out and think “Oh I don’t want that because I didn’t like Stranger, I don’t want to play FPS games”, and not realise that they’re entirely different genres. So they’ve advised us, for example, to do New ‘n’ Tasty first and do Stranger’s Wrath afterwards, because of that perception.
I mean I hated Stranger’s Wrath when it first came out on Xbox back in 2005. I thought, I don’t like this, but having to remake it and port it to other machines, now it’s… well I’ve come to love it! I see the first quarter of the game as pretty ‘meh’ and the last three quarters is fantastic, but you know when you’re playing a game and you don’t get past that first quarter, it’s just like “Urgh, yeah whatever” and if you get that impression stuck in your mind that that’s what all Oddworld games are like, which they’re not, then that’s the problem, so it’s trying to get rid of that perception by negating it.
TB: I suppose Stranger is kind of like the slightly odd one out isn’t it, because even Munch’s Oddysee [the third game in the Oddworld series, orignally released on Xbox in 2001] was still mainly about platforming and exploration wasn’t it?
SG: Munch’s Oddysee was still Abe and Munch, and Stranger… well there’s only two characters types in Stranger’s Wrath from the other games, which are Fuzzles and Slogs [Vykkers too actually I think, with Doc’s character]. Slogs are in every Oddworld game. In fact, speaking of Slogs there’s some funny moments in New ‘n’ Tasty actually – when you electrocute a Slog, it just cracks me up every time I see it. There’s things like that, so yeah it’s definitely a unique game and a new experience, and that’s the thing that got me to want to do it in the first place. I think the big thing, the reason why I wanted to remake Abe’s Oddysee was not that there was anything wrong with the first one, but there’s something missing from the first one for me, and that was – and this is a bit of a cheesy link, but – do you remember the original Ridge Racer?
TB: Erm, yes, er – I’m rusty but-
SG:It was basically an arcade racing game, pure and simple, but off the track, you had things happening – you had planes flying overhead, and diggers and stuff.
TB: That’s right yeah!
SG: So in Abe, I wanted to bring the environments to life, and have things happen in the background, which were nothing to do with the game. So that’s what we’ve done a lot of; there’s flocks of birds flying everywhere in Scrabania in the backgrounds and stuff, there’s Sligs patrolling parts of Rupture Farms that you couldn’t see before but they’re there now, there’s furnace areas with huge fires and big furnaces and things, there’s machines in the background mincing Scrabs and Paramites. You see them going into the machine in a cage and coming out as meat, so we’ve added all that kind of stuff, which does nothing to the gameplay, but it really brings the environments to life! It makes it more… captivating.
TB: Well yeah I think a large part of the Oddworld games is the characters like you say, and characterisation that goes into the environments and even the enemies too; you’re often terrified running from a Scrab, but you’re almost thinking “Oh wow, look at that thing!” You’re kind of fascinated by them as well as terrified in equal measure.
SG: You were in Munch because obviously you had flocks of Scrabs and Paramites chasing you in 3D! Whereas in Abe’s Oddysee and Exoddus, you didn’t have so much of that because it was still flat 2D, we’ve been able to bin that choice in some respects. Now, even the secret levels in New ‘n’ Tasty are based on the original secret levels but with some slight changes. With some of the secret levels, there’s still 2-play depth to them but we’ve also got the background as well behind that. In the original game the background would be static and nothing happened, but there’s now things going on, like there’s bits where you can run along a long bit of secret level and the environment behind it, it just looks the business! It really does, I mean, we’ve got 4 environment artists and they’ve done the entire game, you know in pretty much 18 months and that’s just… ooooph, they deserve a medal frankly! Fantastic job.
TB: I don’t know what you can say about the secret areas exactly, but as a fan I have to ask, do you still have the one in the very first screen that’s hidden behind the barrel?
SG: Oh yeah! All the Rupture Farms secret areas are still there; they might not look the same as the original ones, but they are still there!
TB: Nice, I had to ask that one! There’s about three or four Mudokons in that first secret area you’ve got to save – I remember on my completionist playthrough attempt back in the day I was like I’m pretty sure I got them all, but oh no I missed the ones hidden in the very first screen! (Laughs).
SG: There’s a secret area in what was the original second screen, a secret area in the bit with the mines you’ve got to jump across, there’s a secret area after the electric gates, and there’s a secret area a bit further on.
TB: Good, I’m glad that they’re still there! With regard to the gamespeak function, at the time of the original release that was, well it still is really, a revolutionary kind of interesting gameplay mechanic; have you made any changes to Abe’s dialogue?
SG: Yes we’ve kind of made changes, but we’ve kind of also made the system a little bit more like Exoddus. So in Oddysee you can control one Mudokon at a time, in Exoddus you control multiple. So we’ve now made it so that you can control multiple Muds in New ‘n’ Tasty. Which makes it a lot easier and lot less frustrating, having to go back and forth rescuing them one at a time. If you’ve got four Muds in a straight line, you can do it in groups now, but we’ve also made it so at the start of the game, Abe starts off with (in Abe voice) “Hello”, but the more you go on he starts going “Hi”, and “Hey”, so it’s the same instruction, it’s just we’ve added more lines.
TB: Oh wow, that’s really cool!
SG: We’ve done that kind of stuff, and that’s brought it to life. Also, with the Muds as well, before you rescue them, they’re sitting there doing their jobs like scrubbing the floors and stuff, they’ll start talking to themselves. “Why is he employee of the month?”
SG: “Oh, not again, more mess” – all this kind of stuff, but also when you rescue them, some of them go “Yay, I’m freeeeeeee!” as they jump through the gates. Things like that. There’s even some standing there whistling. We’ve got some cameo voices in there, and one of them whistles the theme tune for the TV show he used to be in, which is quite funny.
TB: Oh nice! (Laughs) Just as little nods to them?
SG: Yeah, and there’s an awesome one, but I’ve not actually found him in the bloody game yet! There’s an awesome one, which I want to find because we recorded his voice twice, and we had to re-record it a third time. We recorded the first one twice, he did two different versions of the voice, and then he did a take of another voice which was completely different, as a homage to something. We heard that, and we thought “Oh my god, we’ve got to get it in!” So we hired a studio in LA for him to go in and re-do everything again, based on that third voice, and I haven’t heard it in the game yet!
TB: I see, you’re desperate to find it!
SG: Yeah I don’t know where it is actually I’m going to have to ask him later on. Anyway, yeah so we’ve also got 20-odd (pun very much intended) fans I think it was who’ve provided voices as well. We held a competition, and we got people to use their voices and all these people have their voices listed in the credits, so it’s definitely a fan collaboration. A guy came up with a logo, another came up with a background painting, the box pack shot as a basic, and we went from there. There’s the song by Elodie Adams [her single ‘Born to Love You’ is featured in the E3 trailer for New ‘n’ Tasty], she was a fan and she reached out to us you know. There are celebrities in the game. They’re fans – I mean I remember [that] I asked one of them if [he] would like to do a voiced videogame, and he replied with “As long as it’s Oddworld!”
TB: There you go – that’s what you want to hear!
SG: That says it all!
SG: We’re doing another Oddworld project sometime later this year/next year and that guy’s doing a big character in that for us. I sent him the concept documents and stuff and he just went “Yeah I’m there, signed up”. Cool! Really? Yay!
TB: Check! Talking about Mudokons and stuff, are there any new Slig variants, because Exoddus had the flying ones, Munch had the Big Bro Sligs, have you got any special ones in New ‘n’ Tasty?
SG: There’s no Big Bros, there’s no flying ones, there is a special Slig somewhere, and again I don’t know where he is – I can’t even tell you because I don’t know where he is. The guys in the office will talk about it and I’ll say “Where is it?” and they’ll be like “Ah I’m not telling you” (annoyed grumbling). I think die-hard fans will recognise him as soon as they see it, but there you go.
TB: Nice, I’ll look forward to that one. Have you made any changes to the morality system – again that was quite a new unique thing in games at the time, and now every game has got some kind of morality system running through it, like “Press left for the good option and press right for the bad one”.
SG: Yeah, but those options are more like you choose it, aren’t they? In this, you choose it by not rescuing Muds, you know, so the more you rescue the better you are, the better karma, the less you rescue, the worse you are. So that’s as it was.
TB: Does that impact on what you were saying earlier about how the dialogue variations can change between Muds, do your actions impact on the conversation lines?
SG: It doesn’t, I have to say, and I think that’s something that we wanted to do, we just didn’t have time to do it. I mean, to be honest, we’re nine months late already anyway, so it’s kind of “Woah!” So there’s plenty of features on the wall we wanted to put in but we couldn’t do which will likely be in a future game, if we do decide to do Exoddus it’ll be in that, but we don’t know yet.
TB: Yeah I see, cool. With the PS4 and PS Vita, you’ve obviously got the new touch interfaces on these devices, have you reworked any-
TB: controls or-
TB: (Laughs) Next question?
SG: No, I mean we did Stranger on Vita a couple of years ago, in fact, 18 months ago we did Stranger on Vita, we released it with the ability to punch on the back panel, but we noticed that if you’ve got big hands, you kind of want to hold the back panels, so it’s a bit of a negative. So we ended up releasing a patch, 6 weeks later, which removed that as a default, but still gave you the option to switch it on or off in the options menu. Most people I know now play it without touching the back panel, so whilst Sony did well to add the back panel, (laughs) it’s not something we actively encourage anymore, because it’s just as soon as you become an adult, your hands just get to this size, and it’s not comfortable to hold the edge of the thing with big hands.
TB: You want to get a good grip don’t you?
SG: Yeah, and the only way to do that is to put your hands on the back bloody panel! So if you’ve got something and you’re touching it, you’re going “Ah, forget it”.
TB: Just constantly punching! (Laughs).
SG: It’s a pain, so we decided not to use the back panel. For the front panel… we have had to use a bit of front panel on Vita, not much though. For the PS4, there were a couple of ideas we had a while ago which I don’t think we put in, which was the faster you move your finger in a circle on the front touchpad of the Dual Shock 4, the faster Abe did the chant, so you could go faster and slower, but then it became too awkward to try and get it right every time, so we binned that idea. I think at the minute, you press the touchpad button and it comes up with the pause menu! (Laughs).
That’s pretty much it, you know, truth be told, the option button on the PS4 is pretty awkward. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sony changed that for a next version of the Dual Shock 4 if they do do it, but you know at the minute, for a lot of games, if you push the pad button it brings up the pause menu. It’s a big button, you can’t miss it – bang!
TB: Well, every game needs a pause menu! (Laughs) You’ve got Gravity Crash Ultra coming out in July – what specifically is it about, well you’ve already touched on it – well, touch, nice one (laughs) – cheesy pun aside, what makes you want to develop for the Vita specifically and how does it differ developing for handhold versus a console?
SG: Well… as a game or as a platform?
TB: As a platform when you’re developing for it.
SG: To be honest with you, there’s not that much of a difference; the Vita’s just a small console. It sounds a twee thing to say but it’s true! What we’re conscious of today though is that Sony last year released the Vita TV in Japan and I wouldn’t be surprised if they announced it at E3 for Europe and America (This indeed did happen, with the announcement of PlayStation TV – good predictions Stewart). So, you know we have to now think about developing games for Vita which can have touch, but as a secondary option. So, from that point of view, it is literally just a small console, but a very powerful console, which happens to be a PlayStation linked to the PlayStation Network which means we can share things between different versions.
When we decided to do Gravity Crash Ultra, that literally started off as me saying to Pete, the main programmer on Stranger’s Wrath Vita, “Go on, have a bash at putting Gravity Crash on the Vita”. He finished Stranger’s Wrath off, and he had the first playable alpha of Gravity Crash Ultra running within 5/6 weeks. I sent that to friends at Sony and said “What do you think of this?”, and they went, “Yeah great idea – who’s going to publish it?” I said that we’ll publish it if we can do, because the rights to the PS3 version are owned by Sony. We sold the rights to them for large sums of money… if only it was large sums of money! But you know I said “Look, I would like to publish the Vita version.” They went okay, and we literally agreed the deal on Twitter; Shahid and I [Shahid Ahmad, Senior Business Development Manager at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe], in tweets, private DMs on twitter, in February last year. We started doing the legwork properly in March/April time but because we had licensed music from Tim Wright, CoLD SToRAGE, for it, we had to re-do and re-license it all again and that took 6 MONTHS to sort out!
SG: So we didn’t actually start properly – we announced it at Gamescom last year, the contract wasn’t signed until mid-October last year (laughs) and we started it in the first week in November and we pretty much finished it in February this year apart from some moderation stuff, because we can create and share levels, and then it went to Sony’s submission, two weeks ago. I made a cock-up in the paperwork, so it went back in again! (Laughs).
TB: Oh no!
SG: The idea is to have it released in July. So that’s nice, but as a platform as it goes, you know in some respects it’s more powerful than the PS3. It’s got more memory than a PS3 – well, that’s not exactly true, it’s got the same amount of memory, it’s that the difference is the PS Vita’s memory is accessible by all, whereas the PS3 is 256MB of video and 256MB of system RAM. Vita’s got 512MB megs, so it makes it a bit easier, the Vita’s also got a 4-core processor where technically, the PS3’s got a single-core processor, apart from the sound chip which has got 6 or 7 cores that you can use and SPUs, but you have to program those dedicatedly. When you do Vita stuff, because it’s made basically as a single CPU with 4 cores in it, you can write proper multi-threading core technology and it goes and does it itself and things now, you don’t have to worry about it. So we’re kind of now at that stuff. I mean we’ve been working on PlayStation stuff since the PS1 days, so [when the] PS1 came along, Sony gave you libraries and you could just go write your game, it was fairly easy. PS2 came along and it was like “Oh my god!” Not that it was hard, or it was bad to program for; it was just different to program for. It was the same with the PS3, then the Vita came along and it’s just like you plug it in and you’re off – like “Wow! Really? That was what? What!”
PS4 is exactly the same again, you plug it in and you’re off within minutes really. There’s nothing like “Oh my god how do I make… oh, that’s how you do it!” You know? It’s all fairly simple. Sony have really grown up as a company and I think a lot of that’s down to Mark Cerny, who designed the PS4, but he also was made one of the leads on the Vita as well, so his involvement with Vita and PS4 is very obvious to developers. It’s been amazing from that point of view and it’s… I have to say, you know, working on Vita has been pretty good. We’ve got New ‘n’ Tasty to get done on Vita yet, and then I think we might do one other thing on Vita after that, but at the moment it’s nothing really big on Vita to come from us I think. Not saying we’re walking away from it, but we’re trying to spend more of our time on PS4 stuff, which is, because it’s a full-blown console, you have to create bigger and better experiences than you do for a handheld, and that’s what we’re doing. You know we’ve got, as a company, two other projects, which we’re prepping early work on ourselves, and you know, one of them will take us 2 years probably to do, but it’s not Oddworld, you know, and that’s going to be interesting to do and that’s been designed for PS4, so that’ll be good. (Pause) I hope I answered that in some shape or form.
TB: Yeah that was great! I remember reading a while ago that Just Add Water had appealed to Hideo Kojima-
SG: (Groans) Oh god!
TB: Yeah here we go, the Metal Gear question! Basically what I want to know is, is Solid Snake coming to Otley anytime soon?
SG: No – well not from us it’s not! The weird thing with that is, right, it started off, I kid you not, it started off as “[Do] you want something to do on the FOX engine?” Cool – we could never do that, we’re too small, I know we could never do it. “Oh you should just ask him [Hideo Kojima] for a crack at it” – that’s what it started off as, it was never meant to be serious!
TB: I remember reading your open letter at the time.
SG: Our PR guy at the time, he wrote this thing up. I said that [he should] take out line three maybe because, you know, it’s not true, well it is true in the sense that it would be cool to do it, but we’re making no bones about it we aren’t the size of company to do it, so it’s more of a case of it’s a love letter to the game and Kojima, it would be great to get the game on the platform, but not something we would actively be interested in doing ourselves on a serious level. It went out, with the note that we really really want to do it. And I literally, I kid you not, went out for a meeting with some people from Amazon, and I came back and I emailed some Oddworld CEO and heard people saying “What the fuck are you talking about?” “What? What press, I don’t know what you’re talking about? What?”
It was literally two weeks after E3 had finished, it was the Wednesday, that I kid you not, there was no other bloody news that day, and as a result, every site on the entire planet picked it up and I just went “Oh Christ!” Friends at Eurogamer said to me that if you’d released this news on Tuesday, it would have been ignored completely, but because there was nothing else on Wednesday, it got picked up! So no, we honestly have no interest in doing it – it would be cool if, but as a company we know we’re not tooled up or the size or capability of doing that project, you know? It was literally just like a love letter to Kojima, and it was never meant to be taken seriously! As it happens, I’ve heard rumours that someone else has been taken up on it… so we’ll see.
TB: It would be nice to see a decent HD remake of the original Metal Gear Solid as they’ve released the HD collection with Snake Eater-
SG: Well they’re just straight ports though aren’t they? But the thing that really got me was in Metal Gear Solid 4, when you went back to Shadow Moses, I was like “Yaaaaaaay!” I remember this and it looks good! I have to say I think Metal Gear Solid 2,3 and 4, and to some degree Ground Zeroes, they are all kind of ‘meh’ in comparison to the original Metal Gear Solid, because MGS 1 was just phenomenal. It was the first game to do those things, and the problem is he’s [Kojima] done them now so you can’t re-do them again. Like the whole thing about Psycho Mantis reading your mind and using the second controller port to beat him, you can’t do that anymore because players will expect that sort of thing now. The whole thing about reading your mind, “You’ve been playing Ape Escape“, reading your saved games off the memory card – you can’t do that anymore because it’s been done. For those things alone, the original Metal Gear Solid holds a special place in my heart. The series went too cutscene-y for me, the fact that the final cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid 4 are an hour and fifteen minutes long in total! It’s like really? Oh please! Too much man! Step away from the director’s chair!
TB: Have you played Peace Walker?
SG: No, I never got on with the PSP [PlayStation Portable]. I mean we did a couple of games on it, but I never got on with it at all. I’ve still got my original launch PSP in my drawer actually, but I could never go back to it. I know a couple of guys have got it on PS3, was it the PS3 it came out on?
TB: That’s right yeah, it came out with the HD collection for PS3 and Xbox 360.
SG: Yeah, and you know… (pause) my idea of remakes, I think when you do remakes and ports, I still think you have to make it platform centric. Despite the fact I loved Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus on the PS2, I think Bluepoint Games screwed it up on PS3, I really do. There’s no reason for those games to be running at 60 frames per second and they’re running at 30. No reason at all. The other thing they didn’t do as part of Sony’s TRC regulations is ‘X is accept, Circle is back’ – that’s in the documentation, but no no, they made it as X to confirm, and Triangle to go back, which was the same as the PS2 days. Now, it would have taken them an hour to swap that around to be current platform PS3 certified, and they didn’t, so to me that was shoddy work. Lazy work. I played it and I just thought it doesn’t feel the same, it doesn’t feel like it did on the PS2. I know it’s rose-tinted glasses but from when we did Stranger’s Wrath on PS3, we ramped the crap out of that. The main character went from 3000 polygons to 20,000 polygons – there’s more polygons in Stranger than there is in the main characters from Beyond Two Souls for Christ’s sake!
There’s more polygons in Stranger than there is in an Uncharted 1 & 2 character, because we had passion and care for it, so we ramped it up, we did the controls properly, all this kind of stuff, we remade the whole UI for it, you know, we went through the levels and put higher-res detail maps in there, we took care of it. We didn’t just say, “Lift it from that platform, put it on that one, ship it!” If you’re going to port a game, you don’t just move it from platform to platform, you have to do it properly; it needs to be a proper remake, especially if you’re labelling it as a ‘Remaster’ on the box – you’re not, you’ve just ported it. The thing with Metal Gear Solid HD Collection was, when I came to play Metal Gear Solid 2 on PS3, I just didn’t like it because I got so used to changes they made to the way the gameplay works in Metal Gear Solid 4, that Bluepoint again, they made a step backwards to what was on the PS2. No – you have to grow with your audience. If your audience has grown up and got used to something else, you don’t send them back 6 years. (Pause) I’m done now! It’s a pet peeve basically, if you’re going to do something, you do it properly; you don’t just lift it and drop it.
TB: Well, you’ve dropped a few hints, but what’s next for Just Add Water? Are you wanting to go straight into another Oddworld game; is Exoddus on the horizon?
SG: We want to see how New ‘n’ Tasty does first. We’ve said that publicly a couple of time now. If New ‘n’ Tasty doesn’t sell, which I can’t see, but if it doesn’t sell, then there is no money to make an Exoddus. We don’t have publisher money. JAW/Oddworld Inhabitants are the publishers and developers, so to make the next game we have to make money from the current game. We went over budget with this one by a huge amount because we spent an extra 9 months on it, so we’ve spent the budget for pre-production of Exoddus kind of already, so we’re going to be waiting 3-6 months to see how New ‘n’ Tasty does before we make the decision about doing Exoddus. Yeah we’d like to do Exoddus. If we do decide to do it, because we’re doing our non-Oddworld projects next, we will have to ramp up to twice the size probably to do that, because Exoddus, even though it’s the same game engine and the same gameplay, as you mentioned earlier, you’ve got flying Sligs, and there are a few other things that are different, possessing farts-
TB: Yeah, that’s crucial!
SG: But the big thing is that there are twice the number of locations, so you need more artists, so it’s chicken and egg. Before we commit to doing Exoddus, we have to make sure though that there’s enough money in the bank from ‘New ‘n’ Tasty to make sure we can do Exoddus and do it right. We’ve got a couple of other projects ourselves, I think there will be an announcement at Gamescom for one of them… touch wood. I’m talking to people on Wednesday at Sony about something else as well, we’ve already pitched another project to Sony Europe, which is the 2-year project I mentioned to you, but that will be more of a case of… we want to greenlight that, but we want to greenlight it at the right time, so we’re going to go through all our steps for Sony Europe first and make sure we come up with a project that’s right, and we’re not just wasting our time with it because it’s a big one. It’s a complete departure from anything we’ve done before, so that might surprise some people if we do go ahead with it. On top of that there’s another mini-ish nine month project that I’m hoping to greenlight by the end of June/beginning of July, so we’re going to be busy. We’ve got a new website coming as well, and it’s got 6 project icons on the front page, and two of them just say ‘unannounced’, so that will be interesting to see those when they can be announced!
TB: A few teasers there then?
SG: Yes, well we like teasing people. I get in trouble for it. Our PR guy, Alex, keeps giving me grief – “Shut your mouth!” Sorry! (Laughs) “I know you’re the boss but shut your mouth!” Okay! I’ll hide in the corner now, whoops! (Laughs).
TB: Brilliant! Well, thank you very much for your time Stewart!
SG: Not a problem at all.
E3 Demo Impressions
After the interview, I had the pleasure of seeing the full E3 demo of New ‘n’ Tasty’, which again got my heart racing. Moving to a room complete with a massive flatscreen TV and surround sound system, I set myself down into one of the chairs while Stewart grabbed a Dual Shock 4 and fired up the dev kit skulking on the coffee table below the TV like a great silvery beetle. “Wait, that’s not a PS4!” I cry, both unsettled and fascinated by the big bulky box on the table before us.
The dev kit boots up, and there on the PS4 interface is the menu picture for New ‘n’ Tasty. It felt incredibly exciting seeing how things look on the developer side of things as opposed to the fan’s side of the fence, and that difference really hit home when I saw the main logo. Seeing it there, perched on the screen made the game feel tantalisingly closer and yet still so far away.
The game loads up, and we’re presented with Abe’s apologetically smiling face leaning out at us from the Oddworld Inhabitants sign, just like he’s always done in Abe’s Oddysee. It’s as if he’s been patiently waiting here for us to return to play for the last 17 years, with that loveable yet lonely wide-eyed expression and once again I’m feeling both emotional tinges of melancholia and desperate unabashed excitement in equal measure.
Stewart points out the three difficulty options players have to choose from when starting a new game, and then we’re off. The game starts and launches into the opening cinematic, which is even more awe-inspiring and beautiful looking than I had imagined it to be. Everything looks brighter and much more vibrant, whilst still retaining that same fearsome dark and gloomy aesthetic of the original meat packing plant we ran through with Abe all those years ago.
Lorne has re-recorded his opening monologue as Abe, and he impeccably nails every line and inflection with the same precise yet comedic delivery that I remember from all those years ago. I point out to Stewart that the Glukkons sound different; they seem to have a much lower voice, which makes them sound even more gruff and menacing. Stewart laughs and says well that’s down to Lorne getting older and changing vocal chords and whatnot. Mullock’s dismissive grunt of “Watch” to the other Glukkons in the boardroom sounds much darker and more threatening compared to the original take.
The cutscene ends and we’re thrust into the opening chase sequence. The game looks stunning. Absolutely stunning. Abe dashes across the screen on a long catwalk, the classic large ‘Wanted’ sign flashes up on the screen behind him as he passes, and there’s a pack of gun-toting Sligs hot on his tail. It’s at once very familiar whilst at the same time it looks like an incredibly new and fresh experience. The camera then pulls away from the chase scene and swoops down to that familiar wall of barrels from the original game’s first screen as our blue hero descends on a large lift as Stewart mentioned earlier.
It’s a real treat to see the game running in a buttery 60 frames per second. The character animations and ragdoll physics combined with the super smooth frame rate makes the gameplay look so much more fluid. Abe in particular looks and moves with such charm, and the hideous Scrabs now barrel after you with a frightening, lurching gallop, which will make even the most hardcore of returning Oddworld fans tremble in their… ah Mudokons don’t have shoes… loincloths then. Their loincloths.
Stewart shows me the secret area in what was originally the second screen. Instead of hoisting himself down onto a hidden ledge and dropping down into the screen below in the old game, Abe now performs a new animation where he pulls open a trap door in the factory floor before jumping through. It’s small touches like these that really make you see the attention to detail JAW have brought to the project, in addition to their ingenious and playful twists on the original source material.
Before long we encounter our first Sligs, in fact immediately before we leave the first room they come charging in, and they look just as freaky and menacing as they did all those years ago as they hiss and clank about on the screen. Complete with their motion detecting visor radars, they look set to even the advantage the player now has with the scrolling screen. Stewart navigates through the early screens, demonstrating the way they scan out with their radars and look for you when you’ve eluded them, and how on lower difficulties Abe can take a couple of shots from a Slig’s machine gun before going down.
Hearing about this feature during the interview, I wasn’t massively convinced about this choice being a stubborn fan of the original, but seeing it in action I can see that it was a sensible and considered way to let players pick the difficulty that’s right for them. After all, death is never far away in New ‘n’ Tasty, and it’s easy to see how a new player could get discouraged after repeated failure to get past those pesky trigger-happy Sligs on the original one hit and you’re dead hardcore difficulty setting.
Like Stewart brought up during the interview, the game seems to strike a good balance between catering to those who are completely new to the series, whilst also still appealing to those most die-hard of Oddworld fans. Along with giving the player a choice of difficulty modes, this ethic can be seen very prominently in the improved checkpoint system. Checkpoints now appear throughout the game far more frequently; one of the complaints often levelled at the original game in comparison to it’s sequel, Abe’s Exoddus, is that the sequel had a much better checkpoint/autosave system. In Abe’s Exodus, if you so desired (as I often did) you could neck a bottle of SoulStorm Brew, let rip with a noisy stomach-churner of a fart, and possess it before blowing yourself into a nice ‘n’ tasty pile of Mudokon chunks without fear of losing much progress – the checkpoints were effectively spread out and regular.
If you mis-timed a jump or couldn’t quite outrun that vicious Scrab in Abe’s Oddysee you were usually faced with a respawn quite significantly further back in the level from where you died, which could be quite annoying. The resulting slog (sorry, I’ll stop with the puns now) back through the level to where you originally died gave Oddysee a harder and more unforgiving feel in comparison to Exoddus.
New ‘n’ Tasty addresses that issue head on; in the demonstration I saw, checkpoints were much more plentiful. Each checkpoint is aesthetically designed to match its environs too; the ones in Rupture Farms are electronic with TV screens built in – changing from the stern unflinching gaze of Mullock the Glukkon to the dopey yet loveable mug of our stitch-lipped blue friend. The ones in the more rural areas of the game are all organic and resemble totemic witchdoctor-esque poles complete with blue gems – I must say, I do like a good blue gem.
What’s more, when you do get torn to shreds by a pack of hungry Slogs (what a way to go) or get pounced on by Paramites, you’re respawned instantly, so there’s no hanging around staring at the screen and waiting for the game to load as there sometimes was in the original. It’s good to see how the checkpoints have been updated to accommodate an unfamiliar new player to the game and it’s systems, while simultaneously making the game much more enjoyable to play for returning players.
Having said that, you will find yourself staring at the screen an awful lot anyway, as the graphics and visuals look incredible. The combination of a graphical powerhouse like the PS4 and the fantastic art direction is a perfect match and the results look phenomenal. The Oddworld series has never looked so alive and vibrant, even whilst you’re still inside the grimy blood-splattered interiors of Rupture Farms.
Great big smelting vats and furnaces throw up fantastic orange embers and the glow from the swirling orange liquid metal creates some fantastic lighting effects, giving some of the early factory scenes a hellish Dante’s inferno look to them. Out in the Stockyards, the twilight evening sun that’s setting as you first set foot outside Rupture Farms is a real highlight, with lovely dynamic lighting from the low setting sun casting long shadows across the kennels and cages.
The attention to detail is impeccable too. You can see Sligs on faraway platforms diligently patrolling (and probably grumbling loudly to themselves out there in the distance), and the aforementioned Scrab and paramite meat conveyor belts can be seen clunking away in the background of the early Rupture Farms scenes. Outside the meat plant, the guard towers, glinting in the twilight now move like automated gun turrets and scan the environment in the foreground and background, with floodlights that sweep through the pens and catwalks that Abe’s navigating through.
New camera angles dynamically respond to where Abe currently is in the environment, giving the game a smooth polished cinematic sheen that massively improves on the original game’s pre-canned CG transitions. The camera gracefully arcs over the scenery to track Abe as he goes through doorways, and it cinematically zooms in to create dramatic moments, and zooms out to bridge transitions between environments, all in glorious real-time 3D.
A particularly impressive camera moment in the demo presented itself when Abe is escaping from Rupture Farms for the first time and navigating past the Scrab pens and motion-sensor laser gates in the Stockyard. Just before you exit the area to go the Free-Fire Zone, the camera pulls back and frames Abe against the full backdrop of Rupture Farms; the resulting view is both equally beautiful and horrifying. The full sight of the pulsating, smoke-belching sepulchral mass of metal and steel that is Rupture Farms engulfs the screen in its enormity, and it gives a great sense of scale to the hideous meat plant that was never quite visually achieved in the original game – it utterly dominates the horizon. Seeing the entire plant in all it’s horrifying glory at the end of the level is a fantastic move as it only encourages you to quickly hightail it out of there as fast as you can!
We’re now in the Free-Fire Zone, the atmospheric (but still very dangerous) area just after the Stockyards, with its beautiful star-lit night sky complete with numerous moons. This area was particularly dark in the original, but here, the environment really benefits from being a bit brighter. Splashes of turquoise from the clumps of luminescent fungi growing on the ground add much-needed bursts of colour to the almost entirely black foreground, and they work well with the ambient motes of light from the fireflies which guide Abe’s way. Campfires along the path add small areas of contrasting warmth to the environment, and the dynamic lighting from their flames cast flickering shadows on the rock walls. With the full expanse of the dark blue night sky framing everything, these small artistic additions and graphical tweaks give the environment a much greater sense of atmosphere and mystery as opposed to the original design.
Naturally then, this is the perfect time to check out the stealthy new additions to Abe’s moveset. Our favourite blue chump now has the ability to shuffle forward whilst crouching, in addition to his normal forward roll. This looks to be an incredibly useful way of quietly sneaking through an area in addition to just the standard tip-toe sneaking of previous games. Stewart navigated Abe through a particularly dense flying minefield at the start of the Free-Fire Zone, using the crouching shuffle, and it will be interesting to see how this move is utilised in other no doubt just as sadomasochistically difficult sections of the game.
Although during the interview Stewart said that Solid Snake won’t be infiltrating the picturesque town of Otley anytime soon, Abe has certainly learnt a few tricks from Kojima’s stealthy hero in the passing years, specifically Snake’s use of empty magazine cases as noise making distractions. Taking a leaf out of the Foxhound agent’s stealth playbook, Abe now has an unlimited supply of bottle caps (presumably SoulStorm brew bottle caps no doubt), which he can throw to distract Sligs. The trade-off to having an unlimited supply of these handy noise-makers is that they can’t be used to inflict damage to enemies or trigger off mines and explosives – you still need to source out rocks and grenades just like in Oddysee to get the pyrotechnics going.
We reach the end of the Free-Fire Zone, and the E3 demo draws to a close. It’s time for me to go, and let Stewart and the rest of the team get back to work. Try as I might to desperately think of cunning ways to prolong my stay in the JAW offices for a bit longer, my well and truly blown-mind fails to come up with suitable shenanigans. We head back to the front door, and my eyes feverishly look for a place to hide and stowaway somewhere out of sight until everyone in the office has gone so I can play some more New ‘n’ Tasty.
However, with each anguished step bringing me closer to the front door that leads to reality and the outside world, such genius childish ideas start to dissolve and ebb away, and with regret and some sadness, I feel my (only ever so slightly) more mature 24 year old mind-set reassert itself. Just in time actually, as at that moment I find I need to say my goodbyes. With a Steef upper lip, I smile and graciously thank Stewart, who reciprocates, before opening up a Mudokon bird portal for me to exit through. A friendly handshake and a running leap through the portal later, and I once again find myself standing outside of JAW’s offices, Otley’s ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ of gaming goodness if you will.
As I make my way back outside, even though I’m well aware I’m in a bit of a post-adrenaline/excitement slump, I can’t help but notice how… well… just how un-odd everything is on the outside. I trudge back across the car park, expecting to find a great big dopey Elum waiting for me at the side of the road to saddle up and ride home, but alas there’s just my car parked up instead. I sigh, and unlock the door, get in and start the drive home.
However, what little sadness I felt at my wonderful experience at JAW being over, I’m extremely heartened that one of the most beloved games from my childhood is, without a shadow doubt, in the best possible hands. The passion, care and loving attention to the smallest of details that JAW have brought with them to the project, combined with their own inspired artistic touches, have managed to bring Abe’s classic adventure into the modern day.
I’m so happy that Abe’s back, and I’m very much looking forward to going on more fantastical adventures with my blue childhood friend and hero once again in the near future. “Follow me”; of course I will Abe.