The Good, the Bad, & the Oddly
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 4 (April 2005)

The Good, the Bad, & the Oddly

Beginning with the release of Abe’s Oddysee in 1997, the video game world was introduced to the twisted universe known as Oddworld, a series of fully functional ecosystems where grotesque yet adorable creatures struggle for survival against the encroaching industrial forces gathering around them.

The first in a planned five-part series, the game told the story of Abe, a hapless laborer in a meat-packing plant who tries to save his fellow race from becoming the next new delicacy. In the sequel, Munch’s Oddysee, our hero continued his adventures by teaming up with an escaped laboratory test animal named Munch as each tries to realize his own goal: for Abe, it is to rescue his captive Mudokon buddies, and for Munch, it is to save his species from extinction. And in the third title, Abe’s Exoddus, the character strives to close down a brewery after discovering that the addictive drink is made from the bones of dead Mudokons.

Focused on world simulation and simple action puzzles, these games were set in beautiful environments that served as habitats for mutant creatures resembling all manner of animal crossbreeding. Infused with spunk, attitude, and endearing charm, Oddworld’s kingdom of evolutionary rejects quickly earned legions of dedicated fans around the world, while defining an aesthetic and appeal as unique and distinctive as the characters of Looney Tunes or Disney.

For the latest chapter, Oddworld Stranger’s Wrath, series developer Oddworld Inhabitants (OWI) heads to the Old West to explore a new frontier for the company: the first-person shooter genre. The game, for the Xbox, invites players to step into the boots of a large, toad-like creature known only as the Stranger, a cowboy drifter cut from the same grizzled mold as Clint Eastwood’s characters in the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone. Working as a bounty hunter, the Stranger tracks down outlaws for moola, hoping to earn enough to pay for a mysterious operation whose purpose and nature the player unravels slowly over the course of the game’s 15-hour adventure.

Concerned by the violence of games such as Halo, the developer wanted to rely more on humor and visual creativity than the rampant bloodshed that typifies the medium. Hence, instead of the standard arsenal of high-powered assault weapons, the Stranger is armed only with a crossbow, which shoots-quite literally-live ammo, including chipmunks, skunks, porcupines, bees, bats, and various marsupials.

According to OWI cofounder Lorne Lanning, several revelations influenced him to take the series in such an unlikely direction, including what he believes makes a game great and shooters like Halo undeniably successful. He also found a way to make these factors work within the Oddworld philosophy set up by himself and his partner, Sherry McKenna: that of responsibility and accountability for the effect that these types of games have on those who play them.

“I was fascinated by the conceptual differences of a ‘shoot-out,’ like you might find in an Old Western, versus a ‘shooter,’ which you find all over modern-day Hollywood and gaming,” Lanning says. “I wanted to inject some strategy and mind games into an otherwise mindless function. Also, we have always wanted to populate the Oddworld universe with more species and characters. These new gameplay ideas seemed to coincide nicely with the introduction of a new hero and story line.”

Oddworld Inhabitants conceded to the popularity of the first-person shooter genre with Stranger’s Wrath developer didn’t lose its sense of irony.

Aside from injecting the formulaic genre with a refreshing dose of strategy and “Oddworldly” fun, the game is one of the first to combine a first-person perspective, used primarily for shooting, with elements of third-person play, which require a view of the Stranger and his relation to the environment so he can execute jumps and other intricate movements.

But, such motions can’t be performed effectively in a first-person view. Therefore, the game allows the player to switch between views at any time during play. Interestingly, unlike the third-person perspectives seen in other shooters, in which the character merely becomes a new axis of rotation for the camera, the third-person view in Stranger’s Wrath functions more like a platform game, in which the camera can frame the action from any direction.

In Stranger’s Wrath, each time the Stranger apprehends an outlaw, he is directed to a new town, each a bustling hub of activity inhabited by chuckleheaded chicken-men called Clakkerz. After buying ammo and armor at the general store and collecting information from the Clakkerz, the Stranger acquires his next mission at the Bounty Trading Store. These tasks can range from storming a fort to apprehending an outlaw boss running an illegal mining operation to taking out a gang of no-good varmints stirring up trouble and terrorizing the Clakkerz.

From twisted Old Western towns, lush forests, and reed-choked wetlands, to fertile farm country, snow-mantled Tibetan-inspired mountainscapes, and large industrial facilities, the player is taken on a expansive journey through diverse settings that, while evoking a semblance of the familiar, are all skewed through the lens of the Oddworld aesthetic. Hence, amongst the weathered wood and rusted copper pipes of towns such as New Yolk City mingle flashing neon signs and fluorescent lights.

To create the textures for the game, OWI artists painted texture maps to conform to the Oddworld style-which Lanning describes as a dirty, industrial, and heavily saturated look-and then finessed them in Adobe’s Photoshop to ensure that they remained organic to the story and characters. “For instance, the areas where the Clakkerz live look like the Old West, but we painted the textures to reflect the tacky culture that characterizes their way of life, which is suggested by the neon signs,” says Lanning. “When you head into a native village, you’ll see that the architecture changes to more of a ‘found-object’ style, as the Clakkerz are poor and have to live off of what they can scavenge.” So, while every town is unique, each has to retain a unifying visual signature, which makes for a noticeable contrast with the more natural regions of the game.

Rather than rely on stock textures, the artists acquired a range of dirty, industrial-like surfaces from real-world objects and later tweaked them in Photoshop to give them a richer, more organic look, as seen in this scene from a Clakkerz village.

As the artists created content for each level, they stored common items, such as mailboxes, in an instance library, which everyone could access to furnish a level. Nevertheless, in their conceptual art, the production designers tried to give each area a unique atmosphere-from the plush, executive-style furnishings of the sleazy tycoon Sekto’s lair to Filthy Hand Floyd’s rugged wooden fort. This forced the artists to make as much unique content as possible, even for smaller sections of the game that the player may run right through without a second glance. “I think this [kind of attention to detail] is what helps our environments stand out from those in other games,” says Lanning.

The team modeled most of the diverse foliage pervading the natural environments in high resolution before importing orthographic renders into Photoshop, where the group used the renders to create transparency maps. To create some of the more exotic shrubbery, the artists took photographs of existing plants and painted them until they seemed unique and indigenous to the Oddworld universe.

In contrast to the game’s dusty, Western look, some environments are teeming with lush, green foliage whose look originated from actual plants and shrubs before being altered to fit into the unique Oddworld universe.

While some of the environments appear to stretch for miles into the distance, the team did not use any matte paintings to create the deep vista views. Instead, the artists modeled and textured all the visible imagery, and then relied on OWI’s programmers to build a graphics engine that could “portal” in and out only the necessary geometry based on the player’s location.

A major challenge for the team was to handle the sheer size of the levels, which expand across miles and miles of terrain and involve an inordinately large number of intelligent creatures. “In a typical region, there are Clakkerz walking around town, taking jobs as the Sims characters do. There are outlaws who fight you, and thousands of critters in the world that you can hunt for ‘live’ ammo,” says lead programmer Charles Bloom. “But to have all of these in one level and maintain a smooth frame rate, we had to balance the intelligence of (non-player characters), so that a group of them didn’t perform complex activity all at the same time.”

Working in Alias’s Maya, the modelers used the software’s polygon tools to surface the game characters with a density ranging from 800 to 3000 polygons. Meanwhile, the group modeled the main characters, such as the Stranger and the outlaw bosses, in three levels of detail, comprising 1500 to 2500 polygons at the highest levels and 70 polygons at the lowest level. For the real-time cut-scenes, the artists reused the in-game models, though for the five prerendered cinematics, they modeled higher-resolution meshes.

For the characters’ clothes, the team avoided using procedural cloth-simulation tools in favor of traditional modeling and skeletal deformation. The group also made extensive use of normal mapping for texturing the mottled animal flesh of the creatures, their fur and feathers, suits, overalls, and other garments, and the grain of the well-weathered leather of the cowboy attire. While the artists initially derived the normal maps from high-resolution models, they turned to hand-painted gray-scale normal maps near the end of production to achieve faster turnaround times.

To individualize homogeneous characters, such as the Clakkerz or an outlaw’s goons, OWI developed a flexible attachment system that allowed simple props, such as hats and handheld items, to be attached automatically to a character. “The designer simply chose a character and a prop, and then selected a bone on the character’s skeleton to attach the props to,” explains modeler Raj Nattam. “Our engine also allowed flexible animation sharing, so we could create entirely different character models that shared existing animations.”

Nevertheless, Stranger’s Wrath’s cast of bizarre animal hybrids confronted the team with a wide array of rigging scenarios. For instance, the Stranger walks and stands on two legs, but when he starts running, he takes to all fours, using an entirely different character model and skeleton rigged for the quadrupedal movement. To overcome these challenges, OWI grouped all the characters into types-including shooters, knife guys, and bombers-and designed scalable rigs to serve each type. The skeletons for these base character types ranged from 45 to 65 bones, and featured both forward and inverse kinematics for the arms and legs, and Set Driven Key controls for storing predefined foot roll and finger movements. Meanwhile, for the little critters shot from the Stranger’s crossbow, the animators created simple rigs with low joint counts. And unless they had hind legs, like the “chippunks,” all the live ammo was animated with FK, sans constraints.

The main Stranger character was created in three levels of detail, from 70 to 2500 polygons.

Compared to previous Oddworld titles, Stranger’s Wrath features much faster characters (and gameplay), resulting in three main animation modes: a walk, a trot, and a full-on four-legged run. For blending these animation cycles, along with attack animations, damage reactions, and so forth, the animators utilized Granny 3D from RAD Game Tools, which enabled them to set the amount of blending between the animations on a per-animation basis.

Because strategy was an integral element of the gameplay, this placed increased importance on AI and physics modeling. The player’s interactions with the NPCs and their surroundings are more complicated than in previous games, due in part to the intricacy of the environments and the strategic deployment of live ammo critters, each of which has it own purpose. For instance, zappflies are chargeable and can be used to stun adversaries and set off electrical switches to open doors, bolamites are web-slinging spiders that can ensnare victims, fuzzles are personnel-seeking porcupine mines, skunks lure enemies and incapacitate them with their stench; and chippunks distract them with their loud demeanor. In addition, the environments are laden with hidden traps that the Stranger can use to his advantage, such as activating giant cranes to drop boulders on unsuspecting goons.

All of these elements required almost universal destructibility of the environment and characters. The team wrote the proprietary physics simulation used in Stranger’s Wrath, through which all the objects in the game are associated with simple physics bodies approximating their size and shape, such as cubes, spheres, and so forth. “When objects move, it’s these simple physics primitives moving and colliding against the world,” says Bloom. “When an object is destroyed, we simply delete it and spawn new objects for the debris. When a ‘destructible’ is destroyed, we update the movement caches to reflect the fact that the space is now clear, so enemy NPCs will be able to walk through it.”

Lanning was determined to maintain the integrity and consistency of the story world through persistent AI, which is most prominently displayed in the player’s interaction with the Clakkerz. For example, the Stranger can talk to the Clakkerz or eavesdrop on their incessant chattering at any time, but if he mistreats them, they’ll scatter and hide, and even relay the player’s bad behavior to the next town. “If you annoy the Clakkerz in their town, when you return, they might be hostile and belligerent toward you,” he says. “It’s a way to support the notion that the world you are in is one that you have an effect on, while staying on track with, and perhaps even complementing, the story line.”

In Stranger’s Wrath, players can transition between first- and third-person action for different gameplay strategies. The main character’s weapon of choice is a unique crossbow that shoots ammo creature.

“Story is very important to us, but we didn’t want to restrict the players either,” notes Lanning. “You have to give them choices that have a valid effect on gameplay, without affecting the plot. One method of doing this is to get the players to the major plot points and then send them back into town a different way, as opposed to having them double back through an area they just spent an hour in.” Other methods for maximizing interactivity within the story-driven game include allowing the player to find and purchase upgrades, and choose the order in which they bounty outlaws.

Though ambitious, the project was worth the effort, judging by the universal acclaim that greeted the release of Oddworld Stranger’s Wrath. Successfully transplanting Oddworld’s award-winning imagery into the most commercially successful gaming genre not only has brought newfound innovation, experimentation, and humor to first-person shooters, but it has also proven OWI’s ability to adapt and evolve with the times.

Moreover, OWI’s new take on the first-person shooter is a welcome change, and if the enthusiasm with which the game has been embraced thus far is any indication, Stranger’s Wrath will not only expand the Oddworld universe and fan base, but the first-person shooter genre as well.

Martin McEachern, a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World, can be reached at

Aside from the frequent real-time cut-scenes, the Stranger’s Wrath story unfolds through five polished cinematics.

“These prerendered movies span a wide range of environments and end with some large-scale scenes of chaos and destruction,” says technical director Iain Morton. “They range from a dried-up wasteland to a number of dark Western town interiors and a massive snowy landscape. Bringing the natural world to life involved a lot of dynamically driven scene elements such as grass, leaves, trees, snow, and a number of water effects.”

The process required to create these extensive cinematics resembled that of a feature film, beginning with a series of storyboards that were cut together on an Avid editing system. Then, the artists re-created the storyboard animatic as a 3D animatic in Maya, which included rough animation for timing and basic choreography, before completing the animation in Maya. Next, the group assembled the finished scenes on the Avid system, and, running at 30 frames per second, rendered them at the NTSC resolution of 720x486.

Except for a few in-game characters and environmental assets situated in the background of three of the cinematics, the team modeled new environments and characters exclusively for the prerendered movies. Additionally, the cinematic’s characters sport much denser meshes, higher-resolution textures, and a more complicated skeleton and animation rig than their in-game counterparts.