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Obduction: Too Much of a Good Thing

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.

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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.

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Posted by on September 7, 2016 in Video Game

 

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Myst and Riven: Holiday Retrospectives, Part 1

With the Christmas season at hand, I’ve been debating what to review that would fit the occasion. I’ve never seen It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street, the old claymation Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer is so bad I wouldn’t know where to start, and much as I love Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown it’s rather insubstantial.

It occurred to me that the key, the true meaning, if you will, of Christmas is childhood joy and family. So I’m going to talk about something that brought my family together and had a profound impact on my childhood.

In the late 90s-early 00s my family, particularly my brother and I, had one fictional work firmly at the centre of our lives: Myst, and its sequel, Riven.

Myst was a trendsetter for computer games in the 1990s. Created by the brothers Rand and Robyn Miller of Cyan, it’s a fantasy adventure game that spawned a franchise of five sequels, two spinoffs, an online multiplayer game, and three novels.

In the first game, Myst, you discover a strange book that describes an island in another world. You lay a hand on a page and find yourself teleported to the island in question, which, funnily enough, is named Myst. The island is littered with strange devices, combination-code locks and more books linking to other worlds (Ages, as they are called) with more puzzles, lost diaries and other clues to a story of betrayal, loss and dark secrets.

In the second game, Riven, you’re sent on a mission to the Age of Riven to stop a tyrant who threatens to unleash his madness on countless helpless Ages. You’re thrown into a new world of puzzles and clues, tracing the history of a fractured family, a lost civilization, and one man’s insane ambition.

There are more sequels, but the heart and soul of the franchise is Myst and Riven. Cyan was still a small company and they have a creativity and craftsmanship about them that reflects that. Later instalments were handled by big companies like Ubisoft and, frankly, developed an increasing air of money-spinning.

Myst and Riven, before they’re fantasy, or adventure, are a mystery – which makes sense, if you think about it. Weirdly, a lot of the game involves reading other people’s diaries. Journals, letters, and secret messages abound, sent by people you seldom see and which you must use to attempt to reconstruct who they are and what happened to them. We spent hours tossing around theories as we tried to discover how various clues fit together. The mystery is punctuated with logic puzzles that open locked doors, turn on power, and open the way to new clues, all the while letting you make deductions about the nature of the world – indeed, worlds – you are in.

And those worlds are remarkable. Douglas Adams described Myst as ‘a beautiful void,’ words that cannot be bettered. It can actually be quite unnerving as you wander the islands, pushing random buttons and discovering an hour later something has changed and you wonder whether you did it and whether, perhaps, you are being watched…

There are drawbacks. Myst has very 90s graphics that the revamped ‘realMyst’ version doesn’t completely overcome. The victory scenario isn’t locked off until you play the rest of the game. The only thing stopping you from going straight to the final mission is not knowing how, so a second playthrough might feel like just going through the motions.

The movement controls are a little old-fashioned. RealMyst added a fluid 360-degree motion system but Riven is still like clicking your way through an incremental slideshow.

Myst vs realMyst

 Screenshot

Still, Riven improves on most of the issues; the graphics use photographed textures for a startling degree of realism that has aged incredibly well – it’s definitely the best-looking game in the franchise. Every time you start a new game the lock combination puzzles are re-scrambled so that you still have to find them, and you have get to a certain point in the game before it’s possible to trigger the ending. Some puzzle clues are widely scattered, which in Riven’s much bigger game world gets a little frustrating. To this day there is one puzzle that I can’t solve without the walkthrough.

The sole flaw in the world building is that some locations were clearly meant to be puzzles and nothing else. We’re to understand that people lived on Myst Island, and you can examine personal items like dinnerware and inkstands in some Ages. So it is a little distracting to realize that nobody in the world of Myst appears to require a toilet.

It must be said that the Myst games are awfully mellow. There are no weapons, no explosions, and no monsters; just you and an island. You don’t have a voice or appearance, either; you’re a silent stranger. That does let you imagine yourself there rather than remote-controlling somebody else, though. Apparently the Millers are deeply pacifist, so they wanted to do a game that was challenging and immersive without using violence and gore.

And do you know what? They nailed it. The games grab the imagination with a combination of escapist fantasy and detective work. The setting is one of the most stunning and beautiful I’ve experienced in any medium, a combination of original fantasy landscapes, steampunk aesthetics and some of the most meticulous world-building imaginable. There are lots of little touches, like strange knickknacks on a bedside table, that are just there to create a sense of completeness to the worlds you move through without seeming like fluff, and without telling you too much and spoiling the atmosphere.

The sound design gives the environments so much reality that you can almost smell the pine needles and feel the sea air (the Millers clearly took inspiration from the landscape of their native WashingtonState). Robyn Miller’s imaginative musical tracks help create the emotional motif of each setting. The games get into the imagination so completely that 16 years later, the sight of wood panelling, brass fixtures, leather-bound books or the smell of pine trees on a wet spring day compels me to go play it again.

Indeed, the atmosphere is my favourite part. It’s distilled curiosity. Not only are you driven to solve the puzzles and the main mystery, but the worlds give you lots to grab onto as you try and interpret the characters, environment and civilizations around you. Scrutinizing the in-game cultures played a part in my choosing to study archaeology later in life.

What few characters there are, are played by live actors, not CG-characters, and seem real and important as a result. The pressure of trying to help them or hinder them, depending on which side they’re on, makes accomplishing that mission very satisfying. The story is a subtle one, in a way; a lot of the drama has already happened by the time you show up. But as you learn about it and bring about the resolution, a beautiful theme of redemption and closure emerges. One reason the later games, except maybe Myst III: Exile, lack this impact is that this theme is present but depersonalized.

The rest of the franchise has appeal, especially Exile and the novel the Book of Atrus, but they’re optional at best and spoil the mystique at worst. The core of the experience, and by far the best part, are Myst and Riven themselves. The story they tell is powerful, and the atmosphere makes it that much more gripping. The old-fashioned graphics are more quaint than unpleasant and the world building is second to none. RealMyst and Riven are available on Steam, compatible up to (unofficially) Windows 7. As retro and slow-paced as they may be, get them anyway (they’re cheap as borscht, I might add). It’s like being the main character in the Chronicles of Narnia as written by Agatha Christie, and you will never experience anything like it. It had a defining impact on my life, and it has all the power that effect suggests.

So give it a try. The ending has not yet been written…

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2012 in Holiday Retrospectives, Video Game

 

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