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  • Writer's pictureMichael Iantorno

Dismantling Capitalism II

In her previous blog post, Mia Consalvo discussed two videogames that allow players to dismantle capitalism through two distinct methods. The first title was Tonight We Riot, a brawler in which revolution is achieved through explicitly violent action, while the second was Democratic Socialism Simulator, where change is achieved by enacting policies that encourage systemic reform. The two games simulate and represent different circumstances and contexts for dismantling capitalism — ones that are often placed in opposition in popular discourses. While change from within the system (electoralism) and change from outside the system (revolution) are not necessarily mutually exclusive, these two concepts do establish an interesting milieu to consider politically motivated games. Building upon the points presented in her article, I would like to scrutinize Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee as a revolutionary game that requires players to dismantle the machinery of their oppression.

Released in 1997 for the Sony Playstation, Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee is a 2D side-scroller/puzzle game that is notable for its blistering difficulty, bizarre aesthetic, and (rather unusually for its time) heavy-handed labour themes. The titular Abe is a custodial slave at Rupture Farms, a sprawling food processing complex that processes various denizens of Oddworld into ominous sounding entrees such as “Scrab Cakes” and “Paramite Pies.” Abe is a Mudokon, a humanoid species that have long been enslaved by the business-minded Glukkons to staff their operation, whose bleak existence consists mainly of mopping floors and keeping his head down. Chomping on cigars, conversing in spacious board rooms, and adorned in intimidating business attire, the Glukkons are part factory owners and part executive board members, seemingly always on the prowl for ways to increase their profits on the backs of free labour and exploitable resources. Abe’s call-to-action occurs early in the game when he stumbles upon a secret meeting in which the Glukkons discuss their upcoming plan to liquidate their labour force into a new type of food product crudely titled “Mudokon Pops.” Panicked, Abe is spotted by his oppressors, and must descend deep into Rupture Farms to find a means of escape from certain death.

Abe’s Oddysee is loosely split into three phases — escape, empowerment, and revenge. Abe’s first goal is to elude the Glukkon’s violent security forces, composed mainly of the machine-gun toting Sligs, who fulfill the role of an oppressive police force. During this initial phase, stealth is Abe's main method of progression, as being spotted by the Sligs means almost assured death via a hail of gunfire. Being denied power, knowledge, and equipment by his captors, Abe must sneak from shadow to shadow, solving puzzles along the way, in order to elude security and move throughout Rupture Farms. In the empowerment phase, Abe escapes the factory and returns to the Mudokon homeland, conversing with green “undomesticated” Mudokons who live a peaceful lifestyle in elaborately constructed caves and wooden huts. Unlike those found in Rupture Farms, these Mudokons have a spiritual culture that revolves around simple verbal communication and communal chanting. Abe can learn to unlock (or, perhaps more accurately, rediscover) his own chanting powers by overcoming a series of puzzle-oriented trials involving other subjugated species, such as the aforementioned Scrabs and Paramites. Once Abe fully re-awakens his long forgotten abilities, he then makes his return to Rupture Farms in order to rescue the rest of the Mudokon workers from a series of Zulags — an obvious allusion to Joseph Stalin’s Soviet-era labour camps — which ultimately culminates in a direct conflict and the utter destruction of Rupture Farms’ Glukkon leadership.

Interestingly, success in the game is not solely determined by Abe’s traversal through levels. Rather, Abe is highly encouraged (but not outright obligated) to rescue his fellow Mudokon labourers throughout his quest — his ultimate victory and the game’s “good ending” hinges on emancipating a preset number of Mudokons, then serve as a makeshift jury that deems his “oddysee” worthwhile. Presented as somewhat hapless bystanders, Abe must convince the imprisoned Mudokons to follow him using simple communication cues, leading them past hazards and toward portals that transport them back to their homeland and to safety. In a sense, the title has quantified and systematized the importance of collective action — Abe’s freedom is not enough in and of itself, as he must also leverage his knowledge (that the Glukkons are planning to turn against their workers) and powers (abilities restored to him from “free” Mudokons) in order to save his colleagues. Individual victory is fleeting while collective victory is sustained, a point that is reinforced through ominous billboards and neon employee rosters that are scattered throughout Rupture Farms’ dystopia architecture.

Abe’s powers further reinforce this notion of collectivity in various ways, perhaps most obviously the role that chanting plays in disrupting the power structures of Rupture Farms. Considering the ways in which chanting is currently ingrained with labour movements and union strikes — particularly poignant in the context of late nineties anti-globalization and environmental protests in which this game was produced — Oddysee’s choice to simulate the activity is likely not coincidental. Chanting serves as a potent weapon to fight back against the machinations of oppression and requires cooperation with other workers in order to be wielded effectively. Abe can chant to take over the minds of the factory’s personnel, turning them against one another or simply causing them to hurtle themselves into the industrial abyss. Chanting with other Mudokons allows Abe to disable traps set by the Glukkon overlords (primarily explosive devices), opening new ways to progress across the factory floor, while also allowing Abe to activate portals to provide his compatriots a means to escape. In the later stages of the game, chanting grants Abe a certain measure of invulnerability by transforming him into the mighty Shrykull — a Mudokon demigod that is an amalgam of all of the enslaved races at Rupture Farms. This power is quite limited, however, and is directly fueled through Abe’s ability to rescue his fellow workers.

In contrast to Tonight We Riot, which focuses on direct force, and Democratic Socialism Simulator, which presumes a certain amount of preexisting democratic power, Abe’s Oddysee is a bit more circuitous in its dismantling of capitalism. Abe possesses neither the physical strength nor the political clout for direct engagement. His initial recourse is escape, followed by empowerment gained through a re-connection with his fellow Mudokons which are, at times, framed as a both a race and a social class. Despite its fantastical elements, one of Abe’s Oddysee’s key strengths is recognizing the fragility and precarity of the labour force while, simultaneously, suggesting that it possesses an inherent power that can be mobilized for revolution. Although Abe is meek, clumsy, and nervous, he acquires the power to reclaim the means of production by learning and working in solidarity with others. As is shown in the later stages of the game, a collectivized and empowered labour force proves to be more than a match for their corporate oppressors.

In all three of these titles, gameplay mechanics are wielded to articulate a potential solution to class struggle within a revolutionary paradigm by enabling and inhibiting particular types of player action. There is no opportunity for diplomacy in Tonight We Riot, no turn to arms in Democratic Socialism Simulator, and no option to strike off on one’s own Abe’s Oddysee. Each game presents specific contexts for revolution that, in real life, may not be mutually exclusive but, within the confines of a videogame, are strictly delimited by developer intent. Abe is guided through both his inherent fragility and the pre-designed scenarios he is thrust into. Beyond exploits and glitches, no amount of technical virtuosity or metagaming on behalf of the player can change these circumstances. Inevitably, Abe must cooperate with his fellow Mudokons to succeed in his task, lending a certain amount of inevitability to the classist parable.

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