Oddworld: Temples

I tend to think of Abe’s Oddysee (and therefore New ‘n’ Tasty) as “that game about the alien meat processing plant”. And that’s fair: that’s where the bulk of the game takes place, including both the beginning and the ending. But there’s a substantial chunk in the middle where Abe journeys to a couple of distant temples to prove his worthiness to be the hero of his people by passing a set of puzzle-trials. Do this, and you’re rewarded with the supernatural powers you’ll need to complete the rest of the game.

It’s funny how pervasive this idea is in games, considering its lack of precedent in fiction, myth, or reality. When I see an ancient temple in a game, my first thought is “Aha, this is where I must undergo a series of trials to come into my full powers as the Chosen One!” On the basis of games, you’d think that this is the sole purpose of temples. The closest thing to this outside of games is your Indiana Jones and similar scenarios, which share the temple-as-elaborate-puzzle-mechanism idea, but are significantly different in that the puzzle-solver isn’t a Chosen One proving his worth to his gods, but rather, an outsider, cracking the secrets of a civilization other than his own. This makes it more directly an exercise in colonialism.

Bear in mind that the native Chosen One plot can still be based on colonial notions. This is certainly the case in the Oddworld, which is all about the fantasy of the exotic other and the Noble Savage. Outside of the industrial factory’s twisted and oppressive capitalist nightmare, Mudokons live in harmony with nature, build monumental structures out of crude stone and wood, and channel mysterious energies by chanting. The middle section of the game exists largely to set up this duality, to show you an environment dominated by the Mudokon way in order to contrast it with everything else you’ve seen.

But even as it does this, it kind of undercuts it by making Abe monstrous. It’s in the middle section that you learn (if you haven’t figured it out already) that you have mind control powers. By chanting, you can take over the guards that patrol the factory. And it’s presented in a way that makes it clearly hostile and unpleasant for the host body: when you start chanting, the guards start running back and forth in agitation, yelling “Ow!” and “Help!”. And once you’ve got them, they don’t come back. When you’re done making a guard do what you want, the only way out is to make them explode. Now, these guards are highly unpleasant creatures, of a species called “Sligs”. They look kind of like squids riding cybernetic goat legs, they mutter about wanting to shoot people, and they sometimes beat the captive Mudokons for kicks (or out of frustration at their inability to shoot you). Nonetheless, however repulsive they may be, the act of dominating and then exploding them crosses a line. No one can claim to be simply a good guy once they’ve done that.

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