(A warning: Spoilers tend to go with the territory in retrospectives, but I'm going to reveal Stranger's Wrath's greatest twist early on in what follows. If you're planning on playing through this game for the pleasure of watching the plot unfold - and this is one of the few games where that wouldn't be an entirely self-destructive objective - you might want to do that before reading any more.)
Pluck a favourite game from the air, and picture yourself playing it. Who are you? If it's an FPS, you may well be a grizzled super-soldier, armour-clad and shaven-headed, despatching fiery justice and grim witticisms as you avenge some manner of contrived atrocity. If it's a cartoon platformer, you're probably a wise-cracking furry of some description, or a lovable robot whose arms keep falling offat the least appropriate time .
If it's fantasy, things get even easier to predict: are you a sexy lady spellcaster with sickly skin and a complex magical necklace, a grouchy dwarf weighed down under rusty armour, or a chirpy elf with glistening eyes and shafts of spiky hair? And, whatever the game, it's likely that you're an amnesiac of some kind - a real pandemic in the realms of digital adventuring - your slowly-returning memories meshing perfectly with your escalating move-set.
Sure, it's a cliché to bang on about clichés, but videogames can be so mind-bogglingly creative, fizzing and sputtering with Technicolor starbursts as they pull you through fantastical worlds, fusing text with sound and sound with light, meshing the abstract with the intensely detailed, that it's not hard to feel that the characters these dazzling adventures revolve around haven't quite kept up.
More often than not, the role the player ends up wedged into has been constructed largely by a process of crumbling compromise, designed not to spark the imagination, but instead to avoid alienating as much of the potential audience as possible.
You may be the last remaining heir to the throne of Groamgust, the keeper of the flickering flame of the Totternose People (I'll stop here, because I'm particularly bad at this sort of thing), but you've probably been built from the ground up to ensure only that few players actively hate you from the word go, even if few really love you either. No sharp edges, no lurking surprises, no real opinions: we've been so many people, that it's becoming a blur, a fading mass of rebels, bikers, stealth operatives and cartoon ninjas. So many digital lives, and so few of them have stuck.
But one has, for me at least: a figure emerging from the dust and tumbleweed, a hat pulled low over his bright green eyes. At first he seems to be the epitome of the tired old Western Loner, but he's both so much more, and so much less too. He's the cliché, and the surprising truth behind it, the hero and - brilliantly - the supreme coward, and his game hinges upon that very point.
Let's be clear: Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath is a very clever game, its stealth elements so ingeniously straightforward (hinging, in fact, on your mini-map simply announcing whether or not you're hidden) as to make almost every other developer's solution seem like an over-complicated kludge, and its weapon-set so elegantly triangulated that you'll still be wringing new strategies from it on your third and fourth playthrough.
All the Oddworld titles are fundamentally brainy, of course, often almost to their detriment: their boil-ridden and slithery art can seem too coldly calculated at times, while the pamphleteering storylines touching on everything from sweatshops and the environment to society's attitude to disabilities often tread close to sermonizing.
One thing always saves them from lapsing into terminal condescension, however, and that's the fact that, even in a universe populated by boggle-eyed alien loons, Oddworld Inhabitants zeroes in sharply on human nature every time, rummaging around deep in its cast and almost always drawing out something poignant. So it is with The Stranger.
You can tell a lot about a game from where it hides its secrets. Stranger's Wrath doesn't dole them out in niftily edited cut-scenes, or sprinkle them into the inane soliloquies of a boss encounter. Instead, its darkest mysteries and biggest reveals are kept up close and personal, thrust deep into a dusty pair of old cowboy boots. Halfway through the game, or thereabouts, the boots come off, and the adventure is never quite the same again.
For that first half, you can feel pretty sure that you know where things are heading. The Stranger - part taciturn early Eastwood, part Harry and the Hendersons off-cut - seems like just another good man in a world gone bad, stalking the ravaged planes and splintering townships of Oddworld's wildest frontiers, hunting down grotesque outlaws in order to earn the Moolah he needs to pay for a mysterious life-saving operation.
The operation intrigues, certainly, but any lingering questions are regularly swept away by the sheer pleasure of the journey itself, the streets filled with dungareed white-trash chickens and drafty fencing, while Stranger's moody sojourns into the deep brush offer a charmingly deranged line-up of gummy-eyed, wattle-jawed biffers to track down and take out.
Things get more complicated, however, when the gravel-voiced hero encounters the peaceful and sad-eyed Grubbs, a helpless subspecies seemingly built for victimhood. Their ancient protectors, the proud and mysterious four-legged Steef, are all but extinct, and that's made the Grubbs easy prey for a villainous industrialist named Sekto, who's cutting off access to their fishing rivers with a towering steel dam.
So far, so Chinatown, but Sekto's also responsible for finishing off the Steef in the first place, and wants Stranger to help him hunt down any last remaining stragglers. When Stranger refuses, the game finally plays its hand: captured by the big meany's goons and shorn of his possessions, we discover that Stranger's hulking cowboy boots hide four legs rather than two. He is, in other words, nothing less than the last of the Steef. You may have seen that one coming, but I didn't.
And that's when the mystery of Stranger's surgery finally clicks. The operation he has in mind will free him from those incriminating extra legs, and let him live a life of freedom. Stranger's not a hero then, but something of a coward - saving scrupulously for a grim procedure that will effectively make his own race extinct, abandoning the Grubbs to their fate in the process.
Sharp as he is with that crossbow strapped to his arm, he's turned against Oddworld's problems and injustices, and all he wants an easy life. It's not the first time a title's story and protagonist have been so carefully entwined, but look at the quality of the craftsmanship: Stranger's not the game's lead just because he's some magical Chosen One born to rule, but because he's the ultimate victim, the living, breathing, hard-drinkin' symbol of everything that's gone wrong with this particular world.
Far more than a simple plot twist, Stranger's Wrath's big shocker hits with the force of a betrayal: you've been Stranger for so long by this point, it seems impossible that he could have kept something like this from you. In one move, Oddworld Inhabitants has deftly hinted at possible complications between the people on either side of the TV screen - gently undermining a relationship which is usually so simple, because games are usually so simple.
Complex, smart, and humane, there's a lot to think about in Stranger's Wrath, and while the trajectory from that point on is inevitably more heroic - there are Grubbs to protect, a dam to destroy, and a final climatic boss smash-up that reveals one last clever twist all of its own - the plot's earned the right to tidy up its loose ends in a more conventional manner: payback has genuinely been earned, for once, and the game's final stretch is as satisfying a rampage as any I've ever played through.
All of which is just lovely, but the last Oddworld game is far more than a laudable chunk of ambiguous narrative. It's also a brilliant shooter and a brilliant adventure game, with huge, rambling levels, memorable enemies, and smart controls. Shifting between first- and third-person perspectives with an ease which makes you wonder why every game doesn't do it, almost every action available to you is inherently satisfying, whether you're constructing a trap, barreling through a cluster of baddies with your giant arms flailing, or sucking a flattened outlaw into your arm-mounted capture can.
The live ammo - rather than bullets and shells, Stranger's crossbow fires a wriggling array of local critters - not only provides a kooky source of constant back-chat, but offers a range of tactical choices most games would kill for, from Chipunks, furry scamps that lure enemies off their paths with mindless yabbering, to Bolamites, bulbous - and frankly creepy - spiders which wrap baddies up in tight webbing, through to the astonishingly pleasing Boombats, a kind of squinty RPG with a leathery face and nasty splash damage.
It's a looker too. Oddworld had always provided a queasy puddle of surrealism in a videogame world dominated by shiny teeth and handsome jaw lines, but Stranger's Wrath, even now, provides a fascinating visual journey.
Fans were initially concerned that the whole thing was set on the other side of Oddworld, and with nothing much in common with the rest of the series except its political and ecological concerns (how often have you said that about the latest Doom or Crysis?) but that just left Stranger's designers free to compose a startling new suite of environments: an unbroken sweep of dunes, bluffs and crags, taking you from Old West dustbowls through lush national park prettiness, before ultimately restaging the D-Day landings against the backdrop of Sekto's massive mechanical dam.
Wobbling freaks pore in from every tunnel opening and vantage point, while regularly spaced fortune-telling booths allow you a brief teaser of what's coming next (why don't more games do this kind of thing?). Crucially, it's always something different, always something new.
And we'd all been so worried. It's not rare to see populism associated with reduced expectations, but the rarified quirks of Oddworld survive their collision with the most popular of current genres in a way that surprised almost everyone who played it. The funny voices, rubbery jowls and free-floating environmental anxiety have made the transition intact, and seem very much at home in a world of sandbox set-pieces and twitchy reticules.
In many ways, the shift in game styles sees the developer reveling in something that feels like a holiday. Oddworld's always been about the weak, and there's an almost unseemly sense of designers relishing the chance to be powerful for a change. Stranger is certainly a magnificent beast - smashing through fences, clotheslining enemies, flattening, pulverizing and bellowing; perhaps the team would have needed to compensate by making him a victim via backstory even if the plot didn't genuinely require it in the first place.
Lorne Lanning, Oddworld Inhabitant's outspoken co-founder, may talk with a lofty confidence and look like game design's very own Errol Flynn, but here he's truly delivered on a mammoth experience: glorious combat and seductive stealth in a beautiful world that never breaks down on you.
In many ways there's very little to say about Stranger's Wrath other than that it was unsurpassed on its home platform in almost every way, and we're all bastards for not making it a hit. Following disappointing sales, Oddworld has retreated to the world of cinema for the time being, and it's not hard to see why, really. The team created one of the landmark titles of a hardware generation not short on brilliance, and almost nobody ended up buying it.
Stranger's Wrath came out exclusively for the Xbox, and hasn't crawled onto the backwards compatible lists yet, an honour presumably reserved only for games as illustrious as Shrek Super Party and Scooby Doo: Night of 100 Frights (I know, a lot of it's down to friendly technology, but it still doesn't seem right), so even now if you want to play it you'll have to reach under the bed, or in the cupboard beneath the sink, or wherever it is you've managed to store Microsoft's chunky black console, and then of course you'll need the game itself, which means turning to Amazon, eBay, or the kindness of strangers.
It's worth the searching, though: worth it to explore such a weird, yet familiar world, worth it to shoot up the scenery with buzzing Zapflies and take on enemies who have names like Fatty McBoomBoom. Undersold and increasingly forgotten, Oddworld's most ambiguous hero may be retreating back into the mist and dust, but this particular bounty hunter is still well worth tracking down.