Why Abe's Oddysee was way ahead of its time

PSM3 remembers the endearing Mudokons

"Whoops". This is the moment you empathise with Abe - a former slave for the RuptureFarms meat processing plant, tasked with rescuing his species from a fate worse than death (death, then being turned into pies). It's a game with a strong message, but it's also kind of funny when the Mudokons you're trying to save end up squished by a boulder or dissected by a big revolving blade. Abe's post-failure utterance expresses a sliver of regret, but not so much that you can't enjoy the dark humour in their stupidly gory deaths. Thanks Abe. Watch out for that landmine. "Whoops".


Dying in Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee may be irritating, but it's almost always your own fault, and as a spectacle it's darkly entertaining to behold. It's a good job, because you'll be doing a hell of a lot of it - this is hard in a way that few games even dare to be these days. It's difficult enough getting through the game, let alone saving your 99 Mudokon co-workers from becoming RuptureFarms' new secret ingredient. They hide in the shadows; they stand, inconveniently, on emergency hatches; they scrub the floor next to sleeping Slig guards. They pretty much deserve to be killed.

Saving them requires a real effort on your part, but the reward - a different ending depending on how many you save, and the knowledge that some fat guy somewhere is being deprived of meat - makes it all worth it. To save their lives you have to convince them to follow you, and then chant by a ring of birds to open a magic portal. This is where the game's clever GameSpeak system comes into play.

It works like this: you hold one of the left triggers, and tap a face button to communicate with your co-workers. Phrases include "Hello", "Follow Me" and "Laugh". On a more mature level you can also make Abe fart, and then chuckle about it afterwards. Some of the phrases are irrelevant - simply there to let you experiment and muck around - but they make the visually identical Mudokons seem more like real people; people you'll go out of your way to save. It feels like an innovative system, even today - few other single-player games let you converse with their fictional characters beyond simply choosing a list of pre-set responses from a list. Sure, the conversation options are extremely limited, but they offer a freedom that few other games have matched since.

That's one idea, but this is a game brimming with invention. The world itself, Oddworld, is bleakly colourful and, yes, distinctly odd. The Mudokons (the slave race of which Abe is a member) look suitably alien with their four-fingered hands and stitched lips, while its other miscellaneous inhabitants are equally well designed. It's initially an oppressively mechanical world, but soon becomes serene and often beautiful, with pre-rendered backgrounds and masterful art direction and lighting. Despite the dated pixellation of Abe's Oddysee's 3D characters, most fully 3D games struggle to create an environment as atmospheric as Oddworld. The moody music also helps to set the scene.


Thankfully, it's not all surface innovation - the puzzles are smart, alternating between brutally accurate platforming and thoughtful use of the multi-talented Abe's abilities. He can possess enemy bodies by chanting, hide in shadows to avoid disturbing sleeping creatures, and later on transform into an all-powerful demigod. The puzzles are brutally difficult, however, with the game's few checkpoints placed agonisingly far apart. Even the joy of watching Abe explode starts to wear off as you replay frustrating sections. The sequel's quicksave feature feels like a blessing.

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