Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee

As you may have noticed, Beeps & Boops has not updated in about a month. Jason and I apologize to anyone who thought we abandoned the site or checked the site in vain in the past few weeks. Updates have been intermittent lately, and that’s unfortunately just something that happens when both writers here have full time jobs and lives. In addition, we believe that it’s better to post nothing at all than crank out a mediocre post. I’m open to the idea that I’m not posting priceless blogs every time I update, but we do try to put forth an effort that at least satisfies ourselves. We considered posting an update about our hiatus, but thought nobody would really care to read an update titled “Not Actually an Update.”

We have no intention of abandoning the site, and we’re sincerely grateful that we’ve managed to attract the meager readership that we have. Please bear with us during our downs, and hopefully enjoy us during our ups. Following us on Twitter or our RSS feed might also save you the trouble of constantly refreshing this site (which I’m sure all of you do).

All that said, here’s some bullshit about a game.

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f Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee were released today, we’d probably file it under “masocore” – games defined by their punishing, trial-and-error gameplay. As Abe, the title character, you must face enemies and hazards that very quickly bring your life to an end. Stages combine platforming and puzzle solving, meaning not only do you need to figure out how to bypass an obstacle, you need to execute jumps and ducks and rolls with twitch precision to match your brainpower. As Abe can’t take damage – he dies immediately to almost everything and has no way to defend himself – players will find themselves retrying sections over and over again until they can flawlessly get from Point A to Point B. Naturally, this is frustrating. When the Brainy Gamer’s Vintage Game Club endeavored to play Abe’s Oddysee, many people simply gave up, including Michael Abbott himself.

Abe’s Oddysee wouldn’t be released today, though. The game epitomizes the sort of player-hostile design that players used to slog through but don’t have the time or patience for anymore. Even the masocore indie titles – I Wanna Be the Guy, N, VVVVVV, etc. – that grew out of the tradition of punishing platformers are manifestly more playable than this. Not only is Abe’s Oddysee difficult, but it has little regard for the time or patience of its players; its checkpoint system is bizarrely laid out, adding tedium to frustrating sections. In addition, Abe controls like a brick, lacking the tight, precise movements of other platform heroes, which causes more than a handful of accidental “fffuuu—“ deaths. As a masocore game – or at least a really frustrating one – Abe’s Oddysee has to work hard to justify itself to the player. Any difficult game needs to be worth the investment of time. You need to feel a sense of progress, of developing skill, of escalating trials that challenge your mind and reflexes more than your patience. As the Vintage Game Club declared above, Abe’s Oddysee doesn’t really do any of that – at least not well enough.

With all that said, the game doesn’t feel like a failure of design. In fact, it’s hard to argue that the game is anything but a success. As I play through the game, experiencing the same frustrations and hitting the same walls, I rarely feel like the designers have failed to accomplish something. Every frustrating element, every “oh god damnit” moment can be quickly explained and even justified by the game’s premise and goals.

Consider the main character, Abe, and how awkward and fragile he is. Every player will invariably die multiple times – probably dozens – solely because Abe doesn’t control as fluidly as expected. As a long time gamer, it’s really hard to internalize the fact that Abe can’t do the things that 99% of other game heroes can. Even as I approached the end of the game, I still suffered deaths because my gaming reflexes are trained for a different style of gameplay. To many people, this is frustrating, and needlessly so. (It’s no coincidence that the next game in the series implemented a more lenient save system.)

But Abe is not like 99% of other game heroes. Though he is something of a Chosen One, struggling to save his brethren from becoming processed food, he’s not physically exceptional. Abe is weaker and less agile than every single other creature he meets, and will succumb, embarrassingly, even to bats 1/10th his size. It makes perfect sense that he controls so poorly, as that not only makes narrative sense, but also trains the player to adopt a more considerate and analytic approach to the game. Rash and poorly considered moves will result, without fail, in your swift and certain death.

In this constant death we find probably the most severe criticism leveled against the game: as mentioned above, the game’s checkpoint system is about as inconvenient as it can be short of not existing at all. The game often forces you to master multiple obstacles before you’re rewarded with another checkpoint, and Abe’s Oddysee frequently descends into one of the most hated depths of game design: placing the most difficult obstacle right before a checkpoint. If Abe must master Obstacles A, B, and C before reaching a checkpoint, you’ll probably have to face A and B multiple times – long after you’ve mastered them – before you finally struggle past C.

Is this frustrating? Of course. But much like Abe’s clumsy movement, the level design reinforces a major theme of the game: that Abe is an extremely vulnerable individual who overcomes his foes through cleverness and strong will. With more lenient checkpoints, Abe’s Oddysee would risk descending into the cartoonish instant-respawn antics of games like Meat Boy, games which can be overcome through attrition as much as skill, and which treat death as a negligible speed bump. With the more severe checkpoints of Abe’s Oddysee, death remains a meaningful and frustrating punishment, and that threat of death helps maintain the game’s tension and narrative integrity.

At this point, an objection could be raised that just because the game is supposed to be frustrating doesn’t mean it’s any more enjoyable or worthwhile. That objection is, I think, totally valid. Abe’s Oddysee is frustrating. It requires an investment of good faith by the player. You have to be prepared to say, “This is frustrating, but that’s okay. This is tedious, but it’s supposed to be. This game could be kinder to me, but it’s worth it.”

Perhaps Abe’s Oddysee isn’t “for you,” or perhaps it’s not really worth the trouble. I am, after all, defending a game that deliberately annoys its players, which is like recommending a novel that randomly shuts itself and spits out your bookmark. But, players with the fortitude of patience to wade through the frustrations will find a clever and rewarding game underneath.

So, 1000 words later, what’s so rewarding about it anyway? There is, of course, something to be said about the game’s unique art style, which reflects that mid-90s push towards more three-dimensional and richly textured environments and characters, ala The Neverhood, Donkey Kong Country, or even Mortal Kombat. The levels of Abe’s Oddysee are presented in lush, weird detail, and the game makes excellent use of shadow, including several stages which present the foreground in silhouette – a style which has been adopted by numerous indie games (as well, I noticed, by the upcoming Donkey Kong Country Returns and Rayman: Origins).

The level design, besides being difficult, is clever and builds smartly on relatively few ideas. Entire sections of the game can be built around, for instance, a certain creature that will always retreat from you unless backed into a corner or unless grouped with a second creature – at which point they attack. This simple mechanic, which is easy to communicate and understand, is developed thoroughly throughout multiple stages, and each puzzle feels distinct and challenging. The game never descends into gimmickry or introduces unnecessary features. Your progress is measured by the development of skill, not by the accrual of power-ups and abilities.

But, ultimately, I think Abe’s Oddysee can be recommended on the fact that Abe is a fragile and frustrating protagonist, which is why I’ve spent the most time explaining and justifying that single aspect. The game’s strong points – the smart level design, the sound design, the art direction – are all experienced through this unique and, yes, annoying main character. You can’t talk about the game without talking about how hard it is, and many see the game’s difficulty as a design failure, something that gets in the player’s way.

And, yes, it does. The designers throw brick walls in your way from start to finish. But games aren’t always supposed to be fun, and designers aren’t always supposed to be your best friend. In the link I provided above about masocore titles, Anna Anthropy defines the genre as one that fucks with player expectations, and, in that light, Abe’s Oddysee has only become more of a masocore title as the years have worn on. We aren’t used to playing the sort of bumbling glass-jaw hero that is Abe, and in the year 2010, I’ve found that experience almost boldly refreshing, even if I’ve experienced the same sort of gamer-rage that caused the Vintage Game Club to throw up their hands.

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