Munch’s Oddysee: Product Placement

So, Munch’s Oddysee has these vending machines dispensing power-ups in the form of soft drinks. Some can be used by both player characters, some are exclusive to Munch. A drink called “Expresso”, for example, makes either character run faster, while “Zap!” lets Munch attack nearby enemies with electrical arcs from his cranial implant. Health can be restored with cans of SoBe energy drink, from vending machines with the SoBe logo with the two lizards.

I’m informed that this isn’t the case in all version of the game. Apparently there’s a HD remake for Playstation 3 and Vita that uses a made-up “Health Up!” brand name instead. But in the version I’m playing, it’s SoBe, except for one Health Up machine I’ve seen. I don’t know what the deal is with that.

This is far from the first or worst instance of egregious product placement I’ve seen in games. The example I always think of is Lemmings 3D (aka 3D Lemmings), which stuck Jelly Belly logos all over the place, and even made a huge jar of jelly beans into a major part of one level’s geometry. To this day, whenever I see Jelly Bellies, I think of Lemmings, which is presumably the opposite of what was intended. I also think of the obscure 2002 action-adventure Darkened Skye, which was actually designed from the ground up as an advergame for Skittles, even basing its content on then-current Skittle commercials and including a Skittle-based magic system. The truly remarkable thing about Darkened Skye, however, was that, unlike most games based on junk food, it tried to hide it. The packaging mentioned Skittles only in the small print on the back, and you could play it for a couple of hours before encountering any Skittle content. Today, it’s remembered for nothing else.

And that’s why I feel the way I do about product placement of this sort: that it’s the sign of a game that’s lost its way as art. It’s letting money dictate content. Well, okay, that’s going to be the case regardless. Budgets are limited, and studios need to make games that will sell. But this is letting money dictate content in an obvious and intrusive way, and I have to wonder if the increased brand awareness is enough to outweigh the resentment it engenders. I’ve heard tell that gun manufacturers pay handsomely to get their wares included in the latest military shooters, and that’s creepy, but in a way, it doesn’t seem as bad to me, because at least guns are relevant to a shooter. They belong there in a way that Earth beverages don’t belong in the Oddworld.

The Oddworld setting even gives the whole deal some additional ironies, starting with the way that the whole story is one of struggle against capitalist excess. Putting ads in games is, when you think about it, totally something Glukkons would do. But also, beverage manufacturers in particular were the main bad guys in the previous game. Now, understand that there’s a completely deliberate irony of Abe and the Mudokons using and even relying on the products of their oppressors. Abe’s Oddysee makes it clear that Abe has eaten and enjoyed the Scrab Cakes and Paramite Pies made from his people’s sacred animals, and Abe’s Exoddus has him drinking a Glukkon-made beverage from vending machines as part of solving puzzles, much like he does here in Munch’s Oddysee. But the premise of Abe’s Exoddus is that the Glukkons are using the addictiveness of that very same beverage to re-enslave the Mudokons, and late in the game there’s a revelation about how it’s made that I won’t spoil. As such, I have to wonder if SoBe really thought this through. This is the sort of thing that advertisers tend to be sticklers about. The story of Munch’s Oddysee itself doesn’t seem to contain anything so outright negative about its soft drinks, but the game does make all the cutscenes from Abe’s Exoddus available from its main menu as a recap of the story so far. Considering how ham-handed the product placement is in the first place, I suppose it’s just a matter of nobody involved knowing what they’re doing.

Munch’s Oddysee: Glukkons

The head bad guys of Oddworld are of a species called Glukkons, which have cephalopod-like heads and slender bodies with no arms — or rather, as we learn in the final cutscene of Abe’s Oddysee, their arms are actually the appendages they walk on, while tiny torsos and stunted legs dangle between their shoulders. You don’t see this normally because they wrap their absurd bodies in expensive armless suits that constrain their movements. They are the Oddworld’s personification of capitalist greed, physically incapable of doing anything for themselves, suited only to giving orders.

In Abe’s Oddysee, Glukkons only appeared in cutscenes. Both Abe’s Exoddus and Munch’s Oddysee, however, put them into levels, where you can possess them by chanting, just like Sligs.

To be more specific, in Munch’s Oddysee, there’s a whole sequence of levels in the midgame based around stealing various Glukkons’ life savings. See, Munch and Abe need to sneak onto a flying-saucer-like lab complex, and the plan to do this involves elevating a particular low-level Glukkon’s position within the Glukkon hierarchy by making him extremely wealthy. It hasn’t been explained yet why this is necessary, but I assume it has to do with transportation to the saucer. Like, it only sends down shuttles to pick up newly-minted gazillionaires or something. At any rate, there’s a sequence of levels where you break into a series of industrial operations, find the Glukkon in charge, possess him, and make him transfer all his assets to Lulu. (That’s the low-level Glukkon’s name, Lulu.) As always, releasing your possession kills the host, so Lulu doesn’t even have to deal with lawsuits or anything afterwards, although I don’t think he’s really complicit at all.

Here’s what it means for the game. First of all, the player characters are suddenly proactive. They’re not escaping from someplace, and they’re not reacting to an emergency. They’re doing Mission Impossible stuff. Going on self-contained missions and succeeding at them. Secondly, it provides an impetus for variety, as you visit Glukkons in different lines of business. Or at least, that’s how I imagine it was intended. The fact is, the graphics of this game don’t seem to support much diversity of style. There’s exteriors with rounded cliffs, and there’s interiors with metal walls, and that’s pretty much it. The earlier 2D games definitely had an edge when it came to art.

Munch’s Oddysee: Annoyances

As I’ve said, you can switch between controlling Abe and controlling Munch at the touch of a button. But I find I prefer to use Abe most of the time, switching to Munch only when necessary. Partly this is because Abe gets around better. He can jump a lot higher than Munch, and I think he walks faster as well, although this could be an illusion caused by their different gaits. But mainly I avoid using Munch because he makes this irritating “boing boing boing” as he hops along.

It’s especially disappointing because the sound design on the first two Oddworld games was so good, to the point of being a large factor in why I liked them as much as I did. The occasional dramatic drum riffs were particularly satisfying — solid, sharp and resonant. Sure, there were cartoony bits, such as the squeaking of the floor when Abe walked on tiptoe, but that was reasonably restrained and, moreover, usefully informative.

Munch’s boing isn’t even the worst of the cartoony sound effects in the game. Abe does much worse when he falls a long distance. But Munch’s walk is much more pervasive and unavoidable, and in addition, Munch is perilously close to being the game’s Scrappy-Doo anyway, being a suddenly-introduced character who doesn’t quite fit in stylistically with what’s gone before and who takes over the story. He’s even proportioned kind of like Scrappy, with that oversized head. I’d have complaints about his voice acting if he had more lines.

The thing is, though, all of the Oddworld games I’ve played have had their annoying aspects. In Abe’s Oddysee, it was the doggerel. All the cutscenes were narrated by Abe telling his story in terrible, terrible verse. This was quietly dropped for Abe’s Exoddus, which, however, upped the ante on fart jokes. Abe always had the ability to make fart noises as part of the same in-game speech system that let him say “Follow me!” and “Wait here!”, but in Abe’s Oddysee, there was no in-game reason to do so. Fart noises existed solely for the amusement of those players who found them amusing. Abe’s Exoddus, on the other hand, had a whole mechanic built around drinking fizzy beverages that made Abe gassy, then farting, then chanting to take control of the fart the same way that he takes control of Sligs. Munch’s Oddysee keeps the concept of beverages from vending machines granting special powers, but doesn’t use that specific power. So I’m kind of wondering now if Stranger’s Wrath, the fourth (and, to date, last) Oddworld game, will keep the pattern by dropping the boing sounds and/or getting rid of Munch entirely, but introducing some new annoyance.