Best Games – Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath
Games that try to do too many things are usually failures. It's the kitchen sink approach. The developers try to put a little of everything into the game and the whole thing collapses under the weight. Of course, there are times when that approach succeeds spectacularly.
Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath is a third person action platformer, a first person shooter, a stealth action game, and a character adventure game. That is a list of way too many things. There is no way this game should work. Each of those elements are handled well, but not polished to the level of a game dedicated to any single one of those genres. If you put that list before a room of game designers, they would unconsciously start crossing off items before they realized what their hands were doing. Putting all of those requirements together in one place is a terrible idea. Still, Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath is on my list as one of the best games.
Imagine that there was a much loved animated series from your childhood. It combined a western backdrop with a Jim Henson-esque attitude to weirdness and subtle humour. Some years later, a game studio got hold of that license, and set out to make an homage to all the things you loved about that old series. All the characters, all the locations, all the inside jokes. Not only did they make that game, they did right by the material, and they did right by your nostalgia. Nothing less than a kitchen sink approach to game design would have worked. There was just too much material to cover.
Of course that show never existed. The stranger isn't an old beloved character. He exists only in the context of this one game, but he, and the world he occupies, feels like it springs straight from your fond memories.
There were other Oddworld games before Stranger's Wrath, and while they are all beautifully designed, and equally eccentric, they don't share they same sense of being part of a much larger world. Stranger's Wrath feels like a story started and finished during the second act of a much longer series.
Stranger's Wrath was first released on the original XBOX. Some of the textures and models are showing signs of age. I would say, that in terms of design, it still ranks up there as one of the more visually amazing games to ever be released. There isn't a density of detail on display, in fact some areas are so desolate and barren, that the feeling of loneliness is suffocating. As you play through the game, you realize that the loneliness is intentional. It is as much a choice as the lush and vibrant setting you eventually pass through.
The environment is an equal participant in this story. Just like it was in the source material. You remember that old show. You know, from when you were growing up. Yeah that one, with the magical creatures, and the old west, and the dark undertones. The one that is an allegory for growing up and the search for personal identity, while still being a solid adventure story full of silly humour and asides to the audience. Yeah, that one.
Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath, one of the best games.
This past Thursday I put together a presentation for the local game developers group.
I said a couple months ago that I would do something based around animation. I had done a simple rundown of 3D graphics terms about two years ago and it seemed like it was high time that I did another one, but this time focused around animation. My goal with these is always to demystify 3D graphics.
I am always amazed at how incredibly simple most 3D programs are to use. The only problem for most people is getting over the very daunting introduction. I have Blender open right now, and there are no fewer than 50 input boxes that can receive numbers, letters, special characters, or some combination of all three. I won’t even try to count the buttons, sliders, and other UI elements. There are a bunch of those that can be toggled and fiddled with. I also need to use at least three fingers on both hands just to navigate the interface, something that is unconscious muscle memory to me now, but requires a learned dexterity not unlike playing a musical instrument.
I’ll revise that first bit. I said that 3D programs are simple. I still think that they are, but simple in the way a harmonica is simple. Anyone can blow into a harmonica and create a pleasing sound, but it takes hours of practice to do anything more than that. I take that time for granted, and I think a lot of the tutorials you see out there do as well. Sometimes, what people really need to know is, will what I’m doing break something. Is this tool that I am being told to use some magical thing that only works one way, or is it part of a system that I can pull apart to be used in different ways. Once you remove the mystery of how it works, maybe someone who could be an excellent animator will spend that time. They can get truly good at it.
I think the talk went okay. I could detect some boredom in the crowd, but it was tough to tell if it was because I was talking too high level, too low level, or just too rambly and all over the place. Animation is not really a topic that you can sum up in 20 minutes, especially if you are trying to explain any of the technical aspects of 3D animation. I decided to only cover a couple of topics. So maybe a bit dull and simplistic for the technical level of the room (which is quite high), but overall not a complete bomb.
On the upside, the nuts and bolts of the presentation worked perfectly. Just having the computer connect to the projector, and having a microphone stand positioned properly while using a program that requires both hands. In fact, it worked so well that I was wishing a few minutes in that I had brought more examples and talking points.
I have attached the link to all the files I used for the demonstration here, so you too can install Blender and mess around with a very basic skinned character.
I want to talk about fear.
None of us is fearless. Fear is a great driver of human nature. Fear caused us to congregate in groups and tribes to ward off large predators. Fear moved us to harness fire, and to invent weapons and tools. It can cripple or it can motivate. Even when we lack a direct threat, we have evolved minds that can conjure new fears to propel us. We all feel it and we all use it. It seems fair to say, in that way, all people are equal. In fear, we are all the same.
Let me tell you about my fears. They are probably similar to a lot of other people's fears. My fears are what ifs and could be’s. I wrestle with potential future events and tragic outcomes. I worry about impending disasters that I can address or allay with careful planning. I fear for my children. I fear damage to my home. I have fears about running out of food, or water, or air. I fear disease and failing health. I fear the loss of the good things in my life.
Most of my fears have no teeth. Things are going along pretty well, and will likely continue along that trajectory. Nothing of any substance has happened to me to make me think otherwise.
I know that I am statistically very lucky. I had the good fortune of being born in one of the safer, and more stable countries in the world. By nearly all metrics there are not many better places I could live. I was fortunate to come into a loving family that supported and sheltered me. I also had the good fortune to be born male. That matters less here than in some other places, but it still counts as an advantage.
Here is where I will lose a lot of people who read this. You might be one of them. You will read that line above, the one about having been born male being an advantage and you will check out. You are a rational, thoughtful person, and you know that in this modern western society, the opportunities afforded women, given similar education and experience, are equal. You are a rational and thoughtful person, and you don’t harbour backward notions of sexism. Besides, you never thought of oppressing anyone. I’ll grant you that. You probably believe in a meritocracy. An equal and fair society where no one is held back, but no one is offered preferential treatment either. Not for race, gender, or orientation. Not for cultural background or personal beliefs. You believe in equality. You think that way because you are a rational and thoughtful person. You don’t let your fears control you.
Let me tell you a few others things I know about me. I'm white. Heterosexual. Tallish. Nothing about me draws particular attention. No unique marks or physical conditions. I wouldn't stand out in a crowd, at least not where I live. I am unlikely to be singled out, pointed at or talked about. All of this has had the cumulative effect of me never really being scared. I have been afforded that. I have been gifted that. Of course I feel fear like any other human, but all the circumstances of location and genetics that make me who I am have also moderated my fear. My fears are hypothetical. I have to construct them myself, a stitch at a time, creating draperies of anxieties that I can use to ward off possible unsavory futures. I have made it very easy for myself to believe that we are all equal in our fear, and that fear is something to be controlled and surmounted.
All people feel fear. In that, we are all the same. Our fears are equivalent. No one person's fears should be placed above any others. That wouldn’t be fair. right?
There are a lot of people who aren’t like me. There are people who, due to random throws of chance feel conspicuous. That fear is not the same as mine. It is not hypothetical. It is the very real and immediate fear of other people looking directly at them. It is a chronic fear. It doesn’t really matter that I, or you, have no intention of oppressing them. That isn’t how people feel fear. That isn’t how fear works. It is a level of fear that I can’t really imagine.
I am able to abstract my fear and examine it. I can safely put it aside as something to plan for and deal with another day. I will not be accosted in the street today. I will not have someone take notice of me and stare at a train stop today. I will not have someone make a hurtful remark in my direction when I go to get coffee today. I will not feel conspicuous. I will not have that fear burn away inside me, making me look for a safe place to simply be a person. Some people are not afforded that luxury. They feel fear built from experiences, not intangibles. Many small jabs, some unintended, but pervasive. Continuous. Regular. Normal. Their fear is, that the same injuries and terrors that happened today will happen tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. It is the sort of fear that I have no experience with, and never will.
I can only empathize. I can’t stop someone from feeling afraid. I can’t tell them that it will be okay, and have that be enough. I also don’t have to, in the name of fairness, contribute to it. I don’t have to be party to hurtful words or actions, and I don’t have to ignore them when they are casually uttered. I can be thoughtful, and rational, and logical, and maybe even try to be objective, but I can’t tell someone that the fear they are feeling is wrong. I can’t debate away their fear. I can’t pretend that we are all equal. In fear, we are not.
I damn well don’t have to be what they are afraid of, and you don’t have to be either.
Games used to be different.
I tend to dislike “used to be” stories. You know the ones. The world used to be like this, or people used to act like that. Even when they are partially factual, they fall to close to “back in my day” stories. They reference a time that probably didn’t exist and tend to gloss over all sorts of terrible stuff in favour of some half remembered reverie.
Okay. Wait. I’m getting really close to talking about history, and that will lead to talking about politics. Let’s get this back on track.
So video games used to be different. Video games have always been as much of a commercial endeavor as they are an artistic one. You can write a song with a cigar box guitar, but you can’t make a video game without a bunch of expensive computer hardware and technical know how. In that way, making video games as an artistic pursuit is a lot like building hot rods. Sure you can make an artistic statement, but you are going to have to pay for all of those tools and time somehow. The obvious answer is that you sell the hot rods, or games, as the case may be.
Okay. Nope. Absolutely heading in the direction of talking about economics, or class privilege of certain hobbies. I should probably reset.
Video games in the arcade used to be different. The need to turn a profit on these games meant that high difficulty, heavy emphasis on action, and quick player turnover was a design requirement.
Wait. That statement was just blatantly about economics.
I was going to write something about the way games have evolved from an action to an experience based artform, but I was never really going to take a side as to whether that was a good or bad thing. It was going to be completely apolitical. I am having trouble thinking of anything to write about this stupid, escapist hobby that couldn’t have a political bent to it. It’s almost as if all the video games are made by messy humans for other messy humans and we view and enjoy them through our messy individual experiences. If I start heading down any of these lines of examination, I’m going to encounter sexism, racism, classism, economics, factions, negotiation and compromises, regionalism, marketing and propaganda, and the neverending onslaught of history.
This is what I think when people put out the call to remove politics from video games. The very notion that politics could be removed from any human communication, including this shared entertainment medium, is beyond bizarre. Objectively reacting to art is not possible, taking politics out of your enjoyment is not possible. Politics exist because humans exist. If you think that someone with a different point of view than yours is “ruining video games”. I think that studying some history, even if it’s only the history of games, might be helpful not only to you, but everyone else.
I have a fair bit more rant left in me, but I try to keep this blog to video games, and I try to keep it mostly positive. So I’ll stop there. Maybe next time I’ll write why E.T. isn’t that bad a game, and see how that goes.