“Great” game idea #1: A first-person shooter set in the Pokémon universe. You play as a… Pikachu, or something, shooting thunderbolts at other Pokémon. You can thank me later, Nintendo. Cash is fine.
“Great” game idea #2: How about a sim-game prequel to Half-Life? You play a farmer in that other dimension, breeding headcrabs and those squealing things that look like pug dogs.
In theory, these games could exist, but unless the studios suddenly stop caring about money, they probably never will.
Then comes the curious case of Oddworld. The first two games, Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus, were sidescrolling platformers, with strong puzzle and stealth elements. The third, Munch’s Oddysee, was a 3D platformer of similar ilk; a logical progression. The fourth, Stranger’s Wrath, was suddenly a first-person shooter, with next-to-no puzzles and few returning characters.
It’s not hard to imagine someone in marketing panicking upon hearing about such a drastic change. Genre-jumping isn’t a practice that many franchises engage in, and the developers, Oddworld Inhabitants, took a risk doing so.
Just this year, the reboot of Syndicate was criticised for straying too far from the series’ roots, after turning the isometric tactical shooter into a rather generic – albeit stylish – first-person shooter.
Talking to Edge in June, Mikael Nermark, CEO of Syndicate developer Starbreeze, expressed a perceived contradiction in fan expectations.
If we didn’t do an exact copy of the game, they’d hate us. If we did do an exact copy, they’d say we didn’t innovate.
While it seems that fans both crave and fear change, sometimes a franchise can successfully venture into other genres: Halo Wars did a reasonable job of translating the first-person series to the real-time strategy format, and Mario is famous for being an overachieving jack-of-all-trades (except in plumbing, strangely).
A successful genre-jump requires identifying and preserving the most iconic elements of the franchise. When does a Dead Space game stop being a Dead Space game? When it stops focusing on survival horror in favour of straight-up action? When it adds co-op? When its protagonist changes from a silent, unstable labourer with no combat training, to a quip-spouting dudebro?
If I wasn’t explicit enough, Dead Space 3 is dead to me. Sure, it’s still dark and spooky and in space, but it looks about as faithful to its survival horror roots as Resident Evil 6 (and don’t even get me started on that).
If a franchise is famous for its game mechanics, shedding them is sure-fire backlash fuel. Crash Bandicoot is about rhythmic platforming, not mutants punching things! Running really fast is iconic of Sonic the Hedgehog games – fans don’t want to slow down, become a “Werehog” and beat up enemies. You’re just baiting the creepy Sonic fan-fic community with that stuff.
So how did Oddworld successfully turn a puzzle-platformer into a puzzleless shooter? Well, as enjoyable as the platforming and puzzles were, the overarching appeal of the series isn’t necessarily locked to the gameplay. Mechanically, Stranger’s Wrath has virtually nothing in common with the rest of the series, but it maintains a distinct Oddworld vibe through its visual style, sound design, story, themes, characterisation and humour.
The first three games established Oddworld as home to many quirky creatures, with a complex ecosystem governing how they interact: The peaceful Mudokons are slaves to the greedy Glukkons, who ravage the natural environments of creatures like Scrabs and Paramites, and so on.
Stranger encounters none of these species specifically, but those he does meet still fit the established lore. They adhere to the same design principles, resembling Earthly animals with a cute-creepy twist.
Stranger himself appears rather gruff at first, but his parallels with previous protagonists, the gentler Abe and Munch, become more obvious as his vulnerabilities are revealed. He’s a reluctant hero, initially acting out of base self-preservation before being thrown into a journey with wider ramifications than he anticipated.
By bagging outlaws who have been harassing various townships, Stranger is trying to earn enough moolah to pay for life-saving surgery. However, he soon finds himself the hesitant saviour of a tribe of displaced natives, the Grubbs. A shady businessman by the name of Sekto has dammed the water supply the natives depend on, and Stranger helps them reclaim their land.
Abe had a similar journey while working at the Rupture Farms meat processing plant. When he discovered that his species’ role in the company was to be promoted from “slave” to “food product”, he fled, only to discover his destiny was to return, rescue his fellow Mudokons and destroy the facility.
Munch’s destiny unfolds after he discovers he’s the last of the Gabbits, an amphibious species decimated by over-fishing. He teams up with Abe to return a clutch of Gabbit eggs to their traditional spawning location, to save his species from extinction.
The similar story structures are pretty obvious, as is the theme of corporations ruthlessly exploiting the natural environment. An important message, sure, but the risk of getting too preachy is high. Thankfully, a whiff of humour is woven through the experience to soften the repeated blow of the Save-The-Environment 2×4.
Whether you’re possessing your own farts in Abe’s Oddysee, or launching skunks at your enemies in Stranger’s Wrath, then bagging them while they’re busy puking, the games make sure you never take the experience too seriously.
It’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but you’ll chuckle. Maybe. I did, but I chuckle a lot. I mean, one of Stranger’s targets is named Jo Mama. Cheesy, yes, but I’m a sucker for a good (or bad) pun.
Oddworld maintains this light-hearted style throughtout the Oddysees of several different characters across this bizarre planet. The tone, themes, characters and world are what’s most important to the franchise, and those key ingredients need to be preserved if more genre-jumping is to be attempted. And it could be: A potential future project – after the HD remakes of the previous games – is an RTS called The Hand of Odd.
While Oddworld may need to favour style and world over specific mechanics, that approach doesn’t fit every franchise. It’s a matter of identifying the strengths, and ensuring those are maintained. Max Payne isn’t Max Payne without Bullet-Time, and Sonic isn’t Sonic without speed.
Focus on the wrong elements, and we end up with Sonic Unleashed.