Monday, October 17, 2016

Other Media Review: Obduction

A small but powerful force in my childhood was a series of puzzle-adventure games created by the small studio Cyan, Inc. called Myst.  Myst was a series of six games released between 1993 and 2005, independently at first and later in partnership with Ubisoft.  The first game, Myst, and its sequel, Riven were some of the bestselling games of their time and had profound influences on the adventure game genre, for better or worse.
What drew me to Myst as a child, and what now drives my efforts to acquire and re-experience the series up to at least Myst IV: Revelation is the stories the games tell and the smooth integration of puzzles into those stories.  I haven’t found another computer game that has managed to achieve that almost perfect combination of difficult yet logical puzzles with a deep and story-rich world.
Then, Cyan returned after taking a gamble on crowdfunding and released a whole new game that has recreated the Myst formula: Obduction.  I was excited, and the game became one of my top reasons to get a new computer: I needed better graphics and CPU than my old computer had.
So, how does Obduction compare to my Myst nostalgia?

The basic formula of a Myst game is to drop the player into a mysterious world with only two implied tasks: explore your surroundings, and seek out hints to the plot and the end goal.  Obduction handles this near-aimless start almost as well as the original Myst.  You start out in a campsite near a lake at night, and as a woman’s voice talks about stories and mysterious lights, you go chasing after a shooting star that behaves quite unnaturally until the object appears before you, opens up, and transports you to somewhere else.  What seems at first glance to a be little, normal desert canyon turns out to be a chunk of an old Arizona mining town situated in the middle of a very alien landscape, and ahead of you is a house with a white picket fence and a strange device that projects a hologram of a man welcoming you to Hunrath.  You live here now, and there’s a dome keeping you from leaving the earth-like area.
The story unfolds as you explore and eventually meet the only living person who seems to still be in Hunrath: C.W., who asks for your help setting up a way to warp the whole area back to Earth.  He also goes on about something called “Mofang,” and you get the notion that it’s not a good thing.
Your explorations and attempts to help C.W. finish his task will take you beyond Hunrath to other alien worlds trapped under domes and, if you pay attention, the history behind this whole scenario will start to unfold.
In typical fashion for Cyan, getting around Hunrath and the other worlds requires solving puzzles, and there’s no penalty for making mistakes (in all but one late-game case), so you’re encouraged to try everything, figure out what connects to what, and read every book and scrap of paper you can pick up.  You also have a camera with you, so you can take pictures of important things... Or random landscapes if you hit the spacebar by accident.  There aren’t many codes to remember, but you will have to a lot of backtracking and running around in order to get some pathways open.  It’s annoying, but there’s a very good in-game reason for that if you can find the explanatory note.
A big part of the appeal of Myst for me was seeing the worlds and history open up to me as I explored and found more notes.  While that’s certainly present in Obduction, the expository papers are mostly limited to Hunrath since the other worlds are or were populated by distinctly non-human, non-English-speaking races, so the info available on them is limited to secondhand research notes.  
Another criticism I have for Obduction may seem strange given Cyan’s history of having a minimal number of characters in the Myst games, but I felt there was a great lack of characterization in Obduction.  In the Myst games, you would gradually learn about the major characters as you went, even if you only encountered them in person once or twice.  Myst was all about discovering the truth about Sirrus, Achenar, and Atrus bit by bit as you explored the Ages and found missing pages.  In Riven and Myst 3: Exile, the antagonists leave bits of writing lying around that give you insight into their psyches and history.  Maybe I just didn’t look hard enough in Obduction, but by the end of the game I didn’t feel like I really knew C.W., Farley, Mayor Josef, and particularly their alien friends well enough to care for or hate anyone in particular.  I had a good understanding of how the world worked and the recent history, but felt no strong ties to the inhabitants except, perhaps, academic interest in the Arai.
Finally, from a mechanical standpoint, Obduction has some big loading issues.  Obduction has beautiful, detailed worlds for you wander through, but creating those visuals takes a fair bit of processing.  Moving between worlds, and particularly going into Hunrath from anywhere else or walking out of the Tree Root chambers results in a full minute or more of waiting for the game to load the entire world you’re entering.  It would have been aggravating if I didn’t have a book on hand to read during loading periods.  I’m not sure if a more powerful computer would help reduce the loading times, but toning down the graphics settings from “Epic” does speed things up a little.  There’s a late set of puzzles that requires a lot of world-hopping, and Cyan did take steps to try and reduce the loading rate around those puzzles, but the fix works better in one direction versus the other,

Still, despite the relatively weaker plot and ridiculous loading times, I think Obduction is a great game for fans of the Myst series and anyone who feels up to the challenge of trans-dimensional, spatial-thinking puzzles and learning to count in base 4.

Oh, and whenever you find yourself in Kaptar, don’t stress over that dumb box with all the interactive buttons and dials on it.  It’s just a counterweight for something else.

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