Gaming, like drinking, can occasionally cause a hangover in those who over-indulge. I think I’ve got one of those at time I start writing. That said, I had good cause on a few levels.
I’d heard about the Kickstarter-funded project undertaken by Cyan, renowned in legend for being the creators of Myst and Riven, of which I’ve written previously. And this weekend I finished playing it: Obduction. Since it only just came out I’m going to put down a SPOILER warning for the rest of the article, in case readers do not wish to proceed further at this time.
In Obduction you are led through the woods by a mysterious hovering giant pinecone. Following it, you find yourself teleported to an alien world populated with fragments of Earth, seemingly scooped from across history. These are placed within a ‘bubble’ on this alien world, one of a trinity of realms transplanted for unknown reasons. The populace transplanted along with them have vanished, leaving signs and records of the looming threat, and the few that remain need your help to enact a plan to regain freedom and escape the alien enemy who threatens them.
Obduction definitely has a lot of what I loved about the Myst games. The game looks fantastic, on par with the graphics of Myst III: Exile, with the added benefit of high definition. The puzzles are, for the most part, the kinds of little logic challenges adding up almost fractally to bigger-picture achievements that I liked and help build a sense of discovery. The human characters – mostly encountered through barriers or in recordings – are full-motion-video like the characters of Myst, which charms me oddly.
There’s a lot of little things, especially sounds, that evoke the old Cyan standbys: creaking machinery and metalwork, door hinges, ambient insects and birdsong, give me occasional flashbacks to the old favourites. Most of the short-term puzzles offer a lot of charm as well, with the challenging but decipherable logic that anyone with a little basic understanding of physics and reasoning can usually crack with a little effort. The challenge lies particularly in the order in which to do things, like that classic brain teaser about getting the sheep, the wolf and the cabbage across the river in a rowboat.
I do like the controls and the ability to roam freely like in the realMyst remaster. Funnily, the controls and the aesthetic of the first environment are so much like Half-Life 2 that I kept forgetting that the game didn’t have jump or crouch functions.
I’ve heard it said that some people found the emptiness of Myst frightening. At the time, I never really saw it. With Obduction though, I can. Part of it is that in Myst, you can arguably infer that you chose to pick up the book and embark on the adventure. With Obduction, it’s right there in the name: you’ve been lured and abducted against your will. Whereas Myst has a very open-ended vagueness as to what is going on at first, with Obduction you have a clearer, if you like, operational objective: figure out who abducted you and what you’re going to do about it. The constant allusions to a battle add to a sense of urgency. I was surprised at one point when you arrive just at the tail end of a skirmish between alien forces, since that’s the closest I’ve ever seen a Cyan game get to having combat in it.
The connection to Riven is interesting as well. In Riven, solutions to the bigger puzzles lie in your attentively navigating between multiple interconnected islands, and in developing an understanding of how to most efficiently move between them. That mechanic is here too; as you explore and open up the game worlds – I persist in thinking of them as Ages – you streamline the process of moving back and forth more and more with every step, with a combination of banal old bridges and passageways, and teleportation devices and portals. And as you weave around in them, you gain perspective on the shape of the interconnected realms, and it’s remarkable to realize the elegance with which a huge amount of paths, puzzles and other content is condensed into complex but ingenious layouts.
I heave a sigh as I say that, because it’s time to segue into the stuff that I don’t like about the game – of which there is a lot. The three game worlds are huge. I’m not sure how you measure the size of a digital environment but each one feels almost as big as the whole of Riven. All well and good, lots of things to play with and do, the trouble is that they’re too big.
My computer is an Alienware laptop designed to be up to snuff for all gaming needs. I had to turn Obduction’s graphics down to the lowest setting so the game would only crash occasionally. Even then, the loading times for different environments were insane. Sometimes the loading screens brought on by the teleport devices went on for almost five minutes. Changing CD-ROM discs to play Riven in the 1990s took thirty seconds on a bad day! Added to that, when in free-roaming movement mode, I repeatedly clipped through bits of the world geometry, at one point falling down a hole. One of the big puzzles bugged out badly at one point as well. These are relatively easy to fix, but distressing that we couldn’t have polished them off before release.
That’s merely an annoyance, but the graphics undermined the game in another way. In classic Myst fashion, a lot of hints and details about the situation are provided by reading people’s notes, diaries and other missives. Such documents are plentiful, but somebody in the design department must have Elvish eyesight, because the writing in almost all cases is too small, poorly lit or too faint for me to read without getting a headache. And useful information is either so arcane, wordy or couched in rambling personal remarks that the headache gets worse. It was so unpleasant trying to read these that I ended up skimming them for codes and passwords and then tossing them aside.
And in so doing I probably shot myself in the foot somewhat, because while everything hints at a gripping and intense story of mystery and menaces from beyond threatening lost innocents, having played the game, I still have only the vaguest idea what was going on. It’s established that there are two alien races sharing the Ages with the humans, and one of them is an enemy, but I can’t even remember which one. I don’t understand how our objective of activating the power across all three worlds connects to the oncoming battle or what, if anything, they have to do with the story’s climax. Heck, you only see them once and they barely so much as speak to you!
The only person you regularly meet in real time, so to speak, is the human C.W., somewhat the Atrus of the piece. But he’s got his own issues. His sighing mode of speech means that, given the amount of machinery in the space you encounter him, I had to turn subtitles on to understand what he was saying. He’s the only voice giving you concrete ideas of what to do and what’s going on, so there’s no sense of whether he’s in the right or not, no conflicting narrative, like choosing between Atrus, Sirrus and Achenar in Myst. His objective seems to be to escape and get free from this prison, but again, the significance of doing it at this time with this alleged battle threatening just isn’t coming across for me.
So the story is clearly layered but frustratingly opaque from a combination of excessive vagueness and the design getting in my way. Which reflects back, as it must, on the puzzles. And now I’m going to say something that will make me sound like a complete wimpy noob, but here it goes anyway:
Obduction is too hard.
I don’t mean that it’s too intellectually difficult. The fun parts were when that was all it was. But it was usually either just very obtuse or downright laborious. There’s a maze puzzle that stands out in this regard because to get it into the right configuration you have to employ an elevator, multiple teleport devices (bearing in mind those loading times), and a rotation system. Not only were puzzles like this giving my processor particularly bad rheumatism, but it takes so long to get from one aspect of a big puzzle to another that I’m liable to forget what I’m supposed to do during the transition!
With Riven, I freely admit that some of the large-scale puzzles only make sense to me with hindsight, and I’m well-aware that I’m not the type of person to whom these sorts of things come naturally. Nevertheless, there are a couple of things – especially the alien bridge activators – that I just blindly improvised my way through. Which, incidentally, should not have been that easy in a puzzle game! There were others that seemed completely unreasonable to deduce – in particular a key code to access a room, part of the answer to which is in that room! The last puzzle, which decides whether you get the ‘bad’ or ‘good’ endings, depends on one little change but I have no idea what that change does, so it didn’t even occur to me until I read a hint.
There’s also something thematic about the game that rubs me up the wrong way. It’s the implication that a lot of the people in the game are grateful to have been abducted from their homes and families and transplanted to an alien prison-bubble-preserve thing, and moreover, that they are right to be so. Again the story was so vague that I’m not sure I’m getting this right, but it adds to my perplexity about the whole enterprise.
Look, a lot of the building blocks of what I love about the Myst games are in here. Simply being in and exploring the worlds is very immersive and pleasant. The aesthetics of nature, machinery and architecture are classic Cyan. It’s just that after a week of actually trying to accomplish anything, the game felt like work. I was actually quite pleased with myself that I only resorted to walkthroughs or hints about six or seven times, compared to a couple dozen with Syberia. But a lot of those peeks came late in my playthrough because, as cool as the premise and environments were, I just wanted it to be over. I wanted to free of the long slogs, indecipherable diaries and unwieldy puzzles, and my computer was fairly begging for mercy. I didn’t even feel like I could take a break for a few days because the game is so complex I’d forget what I’d been doing!
Myst and Riven will never lose my loyalty, but Obduction doesn’t make the lightning strike twice. It’s a cool concept but between the overwhelming scale, excessive complexity, vague storytelling and slightly distasteful subtext, I feel like it’s trying to do more than Myst rather than focusing on doing better. It was worth a try, but I deleted from my Steam client almost immediately after finishing it, because I can’t imagine wanting to do it again.
For this game, for me, the ending has been written.