Abe's Selective Solidarity in Oddworld's Revolution

Even in a lighthearted fantasy, a liberalizing movement produces a disappointing victory.
September 22, 2017, 8:00pmUpdated on September 22, 2017, 7:10pm
screenshot courtesy of Oddworld Inhabitants

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

Games have not been, for the most part, good at addressing collective struggle. We don't have many blockbuster games rolling out this year about how people can band together, decide on how they want life to be, and then transform those ideas into reality. Under the current political regime, that seems ever-more-important, and last week's Postcript on Final Fantasy VII set me thinking about games that at least gesture toward structural issues and take seriously that this human political nightmare is taking place on top of an ecological catastrophe.

Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee is game that gives us a poisoned world overrun by murder and subjugation, and it directly points a finger at who made the world that way and why. However, it's most interesting feature is that it also tries to gesture at a way out; that "way out," however, also forgets those who helped along the way. The way that the game forgets about the creatures called elums is its most instructive quality.

Abe's Oddysee sets out the stakes of political struggle within the strangeness of Oddworld. The game's aesthetics are a cross between 1990s CGI fantasy art and good old fashioned Jim Henson weirdness, but the world that these people live in is much more familiar than either of those visual references would suggest. Oddworld has been dominated by the Glukkons, a species of suit-wearing, cigar-chomping capitalist cyphers who own and operate a giant factory called Rupture Farms. To call the facility a "farm" is charitable; it's mostly an industrial facility in which creatures like paramites, scrabs, and elums are killed, processed, and then rendered into snack foods. If a Twinkie was made of meat parts, then Rupture Farms would make them.

The facility is run by slave labor. The mudokons, a four-fingered species of green and blue humanoids who love to fart and laugh, were captured by the Glukkons and their machine gun-wielding Slig underlings to provide the basic manual labor of running the factory. They are switch pullers, box movers, and janitors. One of these mudokon janitors, it turns out, is a Chosen One who is prophesied to deliver the mudokons out of bondage and their own ending as a savory snack. His name is Abe.

The plot of Abe's Oddysee, and to some extent its sequel Abe's Exoddus, is equal parts brilliant allegory and blundering fumble. On the one handthe hand that I am ultimately interested in here, Abe goes on an adventure that is meant to liberate the radically different groups who have all been subjugated by the Rupture Farms industrial complex. On the other hand, the metaphors and tropes that build Abe's narrative are clumsy appropriations of misinterpretations of Native American religion, African tribal masks, and all around New Age-y aesthetics. The narrative of "we are all oppressed by these awful conditions" rings true, but the way that the game visualizes that argument is, frankly, bad.

Abe is given his quest by a shaman who explains that Abe needs to restore the independence of the paramites, a violent spider-hand creature who lives in deep forests, and the scrabs, a desert-dwelling group of walking beaks. The bulk of the game is spent traveling to the original habitats of these creatures in order to liberate them from the Glukkon presence.

Scrabs are made into Scab Cakes, and Abe saves them. When Abe is through, there are no more paramites being turned into Paramite Pies. If Abe did his job well (there are a few endings possible in the game), then the mudokons are liberated from Rupture Farms before he blows it up. Abe recognizes solidarity with all of these creatures, two of which he doesn't even share the possibility with language with, but there's a strange absence when the credits roll: elum.

Elum is a bipedal, horse-like animal that Abe meets in the land of the Paramites. It helps Abe traverse long distances, jump further than he would normally be able to, and generally just does horse stuff. Clearly intelligent, it helps Abe through puzzles in the way that other mudokons often do throughout the game. It will even sing along with Abe if you hit the "chant" button.

The stated goals of the game, however, don't make room for helping either this specific elum or the elums as a species. Despite the fact that they, like the scrabs, paramites, and mudokons, are oppressed by the Rupture Farms industrial apparatus, the game presents them only as labor that can help Abe reach his goal, never as figures who need to be a part of Abe's goal of liberation for everyone oppressed by the Glukkons.

Lorne Lanning, the co-creator of Oddworld, has always been open about the political leanings of the games. In a 1999 interview, Lanning specifically spoke to some of the issues that I'm bringing up here.

It's difficult to discuss deforestation, extinction, the annihilation of primitive cultures, or the over harvesting of the oceans, let alone the issues of pollution, without being offensive to those of us who have personal livelihoods at stake, lifestyles to be compromised, or have vested interests in any of the gargantuan multi-national corporations that just don't care about anything other than quarterly returns. As a blue-collar laborer it's difficult to whole-heartedly listen to the claims of a tree hugger. Especially if the only means you have of bringing home the bread to your family is by chopping down trees. . . . [W]e have reduced and distilled the awareness issue and reshaped it into more of an archetypal modern myth.

This "distillation" into a "modern myth" is what makes for the uncomfortable, appropriative imagery, and it's also what allows the fundamental problems of political organization sneak into this fantastical game about liberation from violent exploitation. It's shortcutting, and like all shortcutting, it is making choices about what does and does not get represented. This "distillation" might be making the arguments of the left social movements that he so clearly had a passion for during the original period of development, but that also means that the distillation has the same gaps in representation that those movements have. Abe's fictional movement, like real movements, still depends on the labor and support of people that it, ultimately, does not advocate for.

The elums are not liberated in the same way that the scrabs and the paramites are. They do not have their own home environment in which they can live, free, after the end of the game. Abe's Oddysee has lessons in hope and joyous social organization. It also has the worst version of that organizing: A new world created with liberation in mind that cannot, or will not, bring liberation to everyone who helped it come into being.

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