“Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows!, Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money” – Allen Ginsberg, Howl.
I think there is a deep revulsion in us for any human endeavor that begins to resemble machinery too closely. Similarly, for any machine that takes on an anthropomorphic will. When industrial progress becomes a virtue, the emergent machine spirit is granted an aura of self-governing morality. When industry becomes sainted, to deny metal teeth their feed is a sin equivalent to starving kin. Steinbeck wrote of “Snub-nosed monsters”, of banks that were something more than the men that made them. T.S Eliot of the “human engine” of industrialization. It would be years before I discovered these writers, but I was ten when I first played Abe’s Oddysee, and my own memories of revulsion are at the voice of Molluck the Glukkon. Molluck, whose mind is pure machinery.
Molluck. There’s something sloppily onomatopoeiac about that name, isn’t there? Like wretching a tentacled wad of phlegm from your throat. Molluck, whose head resembles a wrinkled cuttlefish. Molluck, whose cigar burns at his lips eternally; officious pomposity personified, more shoulder pad than man.
Gigantic steel effigies of Glukkons rotate above Rupture Farms as the slaughterhouse belches jets of flame. Bloodied conveyor belts transport haunches of raw meat like sacrifices to Ginsberg’s Canaanite god. Rupture Farms, like a place that sews wounds in the earth. Rupture like rapture; a place that is hell, paradise, and purgatory all at once, depending where you sit on the food chain.
“We used to make Meech Munchies, until the Meeches were through”
That’s Abe, gazing up at a neon poster for one of his employer’s signature snackfoods. The Meeches have been farmed out of existence. Munchies have since been discontinued.
“We still made Paramite Pies, and we made some good Scrab Cakes too”
Abe rubs his belly hungrily, fantasizing about chowing down on the byproducts of the endangered creatures whose carcasses he saws through for a living. Rupture Farms is his captor, but damned if he isn’t proud of those tasty Scrab Cakes. As a kid, I think I found it charming. Looking back, it’s clear that poor old Abe has a serious case of late capitalist Stockholm Syndrome. It’s reminiscent of people that think “but…bacon” is an adequate shield against the truths of factory farming. A defensive cognitive dissonance that fetishizes the fruits of exploitation. Just try breaking through these abundant, cost-effective chains around my ankles, and then tell me that capitalism doesn’t work, idiot.
It takes nothing less than the revelation that his entire species is next on the menu to shake our hero out of complacency. Abe gets woke, violently dragged out of solipsism through a hapless hero’s journey. He gains the power of the Shrykull, a totemic lightning god. Shrykull is half Scrab, half Paramite; the primal creatures of Oddworld combined, a visual representation of Abe’s newfound universal consciousness.
He shuts down the factory and, if you’ve taken the time to rescue enough Mudokons, things turn out pretty well. By the time Exoddus starts, Abe is a notorious terrorist in the eyes of the Glukkon industrial machine. For the crime of filling the void left by enforced otherness with a cultural identity, he’s become public enemy number one.
“As if to illustrate the totalitarian nature of colonial exploration, the colonist turns the colonized into a kind of quintessence of evil” – Frantz Fanon
But I was eleven when I first played Exoddus, and for all its relevance and thematic weight, the game isn’t a gloomy modernist poem, and neither is it a revolutionary manifesto. It’s a charming, beautiful platformer filled with silly rhyming couplets where you can possess your own farts and use them to blow up machine-gun wielding squids on metal legs. A sort of darkly subversive Dr. Suess cartoon made interactive. Mudokons are weird and dumb and adorable enough to want to rescue them anyway, even if you don’t think too hard about what’s at stake. I don’t think it’s the same as sugarcoating hard truths, the way this piece of goofy and moving interactive technology delivers a modern myth. More that mythology is technology; a coded deliverance system for archetypes and narratives that stir something vital within the human psyche. At the time, Exoddus just happened to strike all the right chords for me.
I’ve never really been a perfectionist, and I prefer playing new games to mastering old ones, but there are 300 Mudokons in Abe’s Exoddus, and eleven-year old me scoured the game for secrets and rescued every one. There’s probably some sort of clever design psychology that triggered a latent completionist instinct, but I just remember myself genuinely caring about these weirdos, being absolutely driven to make sure none of my blue pals got left behind. Exoddus is gross and beautiful and grim and inspiring, and it’s still what I think of when we talk about games able to create such a cohesive fiction that our mechanical interactions with them are given transcendent narrative significance. To this day, my proudest gaming moment isn’t a killstreak, it’s a rescue mission. A reminder that, as long as we look out for our buds, we can tear down any machinery we want.