How the Cold War Race to Weaponize Space Inspired Lorne Lanning's 'Oddworld' Quintilogy

There isn't really a "typical" path to a career in the video games industry, but Lorne Lanning's road to this year's E3 in Los Angeles has to be among the least conventional. The creator of the award-winning Oddworld series left art school in the 1980s to work in the defense industry. Ahead of the biggest event on the gaming calendar, Lanning told Newsweek his experiences working on top secret projects at the tail-end of the Cold War played a pivotal role in shaping his worldview and the creative aims of the studio he co-founded, Oddworld Inhabitants.

The studio's latest, Oddworld: Soulstorm is a reimagining of the second game in a long-planned quintilogy, 1998's Abe's Exoddus. It continues the tale of the blue-skinned titular humanoid as he attempts to rescue his fellow Mudokons from the exploitative master-race known as the Glukkons, one comrade at a time. Developed on the Unity engine, Soulstorm adds new locations and more Mudokons for Abe to protect. A fresh crafting mechanic allows him to fashion weapons and other items to navigate each scenario by choosing either violence or non-hostile trickery.

Fresh out of college and hoping to find a job designing visual effects for films, Lanning found himself in a lousy job market, and was eventually recruited by a major government contractor in southern California. He was part of a small team tasked with essentially translating the laboratory jargon of scientists into a visual representation that top military brass could immediately understand.

"I worked on the Star Wars projects, the SDI projects that were happening under Reagan," he explained. "We were visualizing real space weapons, weapons that people wouldn't even know existed today. So that was kind of my Orwellian period."

oddworld soulstorm lorne lanning interview abe
Ahead of ‘Oddworld: Soulstorm’s appearance at E3, creator Lorne Lanning shared how his experience working for a defense contractor in the 1980s shaped his worldview, creative pursuits, and the saga of Abe. Oddworld Inhabitants

Lanning, a self-described "bleeding-heart, environmentalist hippie" with long hair, was reluctant to take the job but he decided to go against his preconceived notions about the kinds of people who worked there. Looking back, he says the experience shocked and surprised him, but not in the way he expected.

"These ideas that I was exposed to made the world seem like a very fragile, small place with lots of problems," he explained. "That made me want to be a storyteller all the more ... as an artist, I was always wanting to reflect the ideas of of larger problems that we face into commercial work."

It's been more than two decades since Lanning first conceived of the Oddworld quintilogy. The Cold War is long over and much has changed; so, too, has Lanning's vision for Abe's story. He explained that while the first rebooted game, 2014's New N' Tasty, hewed rather closely to 1997's inaugural entry in the series Soulstorm and its successors will diverge from his original plans. In the 1990s, he explained, he believed globalization, militarism and corporate exploitation were the source of many of the world's problems. Now, he argues humankind is imperiled by "commerce, modern slavery and the theft of the resources of nations under the guise of lies and deception."

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Oddworld is the name of the planet on which all four Oddworld Inhabitants games are based, extant in another dimension. Oddworld Inhabitants

The struggle of the Mudokon underclass in the Oddworld games is very much informed by Lanning's views about these unseen machinations. It's far more complex than good guys and bad guys: the whole system is toxic. "The hypocrisy of how we perceive ourselves to be, versus the reality of what a lot of people are trying to live through is the core of what I wanted to shape our world around," he explained. "I wanted to find a cast of characters that would somehow muster the endurance and the capability to make it through that plight from the bottom ... from hanging at the bottom of the food chain, just by a thread, to actually climbing up it."

While he acknowledged hopes that Soulstorm and its successors would inspire players to think more deeply and critically about the world around them, Lanning emphatically asserted that Oddworld is not a politically driven franchise. He explained the development team develops a lot of time and energy to thinking about Abe's characterization and motivations, asking questions like: "How do we create a character that you could see yourself in his shoes, and it's not political? They're finding out that their life was scheduled to be short, unfairly, for the profit and greed of someone else. Who can we identify with, if someone is just trying to stay alive, but they haven't done anything wrong?"

Lanning speculated that Abe's relatability to players across the political spectrum has allowed the franchise to endure for more than 20 years. "It becomes harder to find, you know, where those truths are, what connects us," Lanning said. "They're trying to divide us from all directions, right?"

Oddworld: Soulstorm is slated to release sometime in 2020.