There’s a sequence toward the end of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 Soviet silent film Strike in which a massive group of factory workers are herded into a field by the military and executed en masse. Rather than directly depict the slaughter of the striking factory workers, Eisenstein intercuts shots of the fleeing proletariat and the approaching military with close-up shots of a cow being slaughtered in an abattoir. It’s a grisly bit of business. Even in grainy black and white, the cow’s wide terrified eyes, its gashed-open throat, and its spasmodic legs possess a raw and awful power. The intercutting not only allows Eisenstein to sidestep the tricky technical ordeal of simulating the murder of hundreds but also sends a clear message about the relationship of the worker to the system that exploits him or her: you’re not much more than meat.
I thought a lot about Strike as I played Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty, Just Add Water’s ground-up remake of 1997’s Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. I was twelve when Abe’s Oddysee came out on the PlayStation, and while I was dazzled by its difficulty and its deft hybridization of cartoony science fiction and gory industrial weirdness, whatever the game might have had to say about class exploitation was lost on me. For me, the appeal of playing a remake that preserves such an enormous chunk of its progenitor’s original complexion was that it allowed me to revisit Oddworld‘s thematic and aesthetic identity with adult eyes.
I was surprised to find that—for a story about grotesque farting fish-people jumping through portals made out of pigeons—Oddworld functions as a pretty trenchant proletariat parable. The game sometimes reads like a post-Tim Burton answer to Eisenstein’s Communist masterpiece. The players have changed; the collective of exploited laborers are here represented by the Mudoken, a race of adorable fish-faced weirdos forced into lives of toil and degradation by the Gluckons, bulbous-headed fiends who track profits and chomp cigars as vigorously as any pre-Bolshevik factory bosses. But the song has remained the same.
In the game’s opening cut-scene, protagonist Abe accidentally discovers that, in response to plummeting profits and disappearing raw materials, his employers at the nefarious snack-food corporation Rupture Farms have drafted a plan to process Abe and his brethren into tasty, nutritious Mudoken Pops. (The overlords at Rupture Farms are all Gluckons, divided both economically and racially from their Mudoken workforce; Oddworld doesn’t shy away from the shameful racial dimensions so often present in class disparity.) The game takes Eisenstein’s metaphorical juxtaposition of livestock and the working class and remixes it into something literal.
From there, Abe’s story transforms from one of revelation and escape into one of self-realization, empowerment, and revolution. As the game progresses, the player learns to harness Abe’s innate mystical powers to outsmart Rupture Farms’ shock troops and rescue Mudoken slaves. Those powers manifest through chanting and affect changes that range from opening portals to allow expedient escapes to controlling the minds and bodies of gun-toting Sligs. There’s a direct analogue here to techniques used by actual workers’ rights activists. Abe might as well be delivering speeches to incite his pals to put down their tools and stop production or sway the hearts and minds of those employed as agents of oppression. But the specifics of Abe’s empowerment are less important than the implications of his power. He doesn’t earn new abilities; he learns to use abilities he already had. The power differential apparent at the game’s beginning is a lie. The workers are inherently more powerful than their oppressors. And when the Mudokens of the world realize that, things don’t typically go well for the Gluckons.
Part of what helps Oddworld tell this story is its aesthetic, which is equal parts Nine Inch Nails music video and Saturday morning cartoon. The bizarre and the childish cushion the sharper edges of the game’s core radicalism and make it more palatable to audiences for whom the concept of workers’ rights might come with some spooky connotations. Certainly, Oddworld isn’t the first text to insulate its outsider politics in weirdness. The surrealist movement, for instance, comprised a number of artists and writers whose dream-like work was profoundly influenced by anarchism and communism. Andre Breton—maybe the surrealists’ most vocal advocate—even drafted a manifesto with Leon Trotsky himself, outlining a system by which a socialist government could allow for an anarchistic approach to artistic production.
Oddworld also isn’t the only piece of media to get heavy within a whimsical, even child-like paradigm. Many are the TV shows and movies lauded as being “for kids” but with “adult messages.” Basically every Pixar film apart from those in the Cars franchise receives this distinction, as have the Harry Potter books, Adventure Time, and a never-ending parade of “very special episodes” of otherwise entirely frivolous TV programs. And while Oddworld isn’t, strictly speaking, a game for kids, it borrows a lot of the language of children’s media (cute big-eyed character designs, silly dialogue, rhyming narration, etcetera). Works in this milieu manage to speak to hard universal truths about the adult experience by dressing them up as fairy tales.
But Oddworld isn’t exactly apiece with either the revolutionary art of the surrealists or the complex emotional narratives of great children’s media. It’s somewhere between. The surrealists made art in the margins, limiting the audience of their work to (somewhat ironically) the intellectual upper class and bourgeoisie academia. And while Pixar movies appeal to a wider mainstream audience and may therefore sneak the occasional subversive idea under the noses of the masses, they and works like them tend not to tackle ideas too far to the left of modern neo-liberalism. Oddworld manages to be a subversive anti-capitalist fable while at the same time functioning as a piece of mass media. That’s a tough tightrope to walk, but Oddworld manages. In 2015, when a vocal subgroup of the videogame-playing demographic rallies against the inclusion of activism or politics in games, it’s interesting to note that that war was lost as late as 1997, when Oddworld dared to tell its players that they weren’t just meat.