This past weekend I finished playing Obduction, the latest game from Cyan, the folks who made the MYST series of games. I backed it on Kickstarter and played it on the Mac through Steam, starting with some of the, well, I guess post-beta but pre-final releases.
Not to bury the lede: It’s a fine game which I enjoyed thoroughly! But I wanted to write a little historical perspective about my experience with Cyan’s games.
A friend of mine introduced me to the original MYST back in the mid-90s, and I powered my way through half of it, got stuck, put it away for a few months, then came back and finished it. While I enjoyed the puzzles, to me it was primarily an experiential game, the first game I ever played where I had genuine moments of feeling like I was really there – in hindsight an amazing accomplishment since the rough edges due to the technology of the day (texture mapping, animations, etc.) were quite apparent.
I played the sequel, Riven, when it came out, and while the technology was considerably improved (the renderings were gorgeous), the story felt less expansive and a little more awkward than the first game. (I wrote a little about it at the time.) A few years later I picked up the third game, MYST III Exile (which was not made by Cyan), and felt that it shored up the deficiencies of the previous games, and despite the thrill of the new of the original game, I think Exile is the best of the MYST series. (A bit more here.) I was also a big enough of the fan of the series that I read the three novels they published (which were okay).
I thought things went off the rails a bit with MYST IV: Revelation (also not by Cyan), which, despite having a good story, had some puzzles that were very unintuitive and frustrating to try to get through without a help from a story guide. And then I only barely cracked MYST V: End of Ages (which was by Cyan), in part due to some serious problems it exhibited with a lot of Mac technology at the time (some graphics cards would cause it to freeze the whole machine regularly), and also due to a disenchantment with the rendered animated people, which felt like a big step down from the interleaved live action footage from other games. (Sadly, I bet it doesn’t run on newer Mac hardware, and it looks like the Steam version is Windows-only, so I may never return to it.)
Despite that finish, ten years later I was pretty stoked for Obduction!
It took me a little while to get into it, partly because the early releases seemed to have some bad performance problems on Mac hardware, requiring me to ramp down the resolution quite a bit to get decent performance, so I played a few hours of the game late last year and then put it away for a while. I picked it up again a few weeks ago and played a couple of hours per week before finishing it. The final version has much better performance and I was able to get pretty nice resolution out of it with only a couple of moments of stuttering (some of which I suspect involved loading resources from disk). For reference, I played it on a late 2013 model MacBook Pro, so it might play better on a newer Mac. (I did find that the “seed swap” devices were often tediously slow, though.)
Obduction has a premise similar to MYST but arguably a little more grounded: Rather than mysteriously arriving on an island, you-the-player are one of many people who have been plucked from your time period and dropped into a bubble of Earth in the middle of another world. The game’s title plays on the sounds-like word “abduction” as well as the dictionary definition of obduction (“an act or instance of drawing or laying something (as a covering) over”) and the tectonic definition (in which layers are flowing above or below each other), all of which are appropriate in the story. You find yourself in a nearly-abandoned town called Hunrath, with chunks of Earth from different time periods lying around, messages from the former inhabitants, and signs of a battle from the recent past.
As in the MYST games, you need to find clues to what happened and solve puzzles to get things working in the village again, until you eventually unlock the secret as to what’s been going on and how to get beyond Hunrath to start fixing things. There are a lot of clever bits, including ones that make you feel clever when you figure them out.
The game’s biggest problem is that some of the puzzles are still too hard, in the sense of being basically unintuitive: You need to stumble on the right thing, or put together pieces which don’t logically go together. I relied on the player’s guide which came with the Kickstarter reward for some pieces, because I just wasn’t interested in endlessly wandering around some parts of the world to look for something I’d missed. I also found the puzzles involving the alien number system a little too annoying. But, your mileage may vary. Unfortunately, the final puzzle of the game I found utterly unintuitive and ended up going onto the web to find out what I had to do to solve it the “right” way (as it leads to multiple endings). They do need to walk a fine line between making the puzzles challenging and making them understandable, and I think Obduction is just a tad over the line to not understandable, though better than MYST IV. The first three MYST games all nailed the balance, I think, but maybe they just made it look easier than it is.
Experientially, though, Obduction is a pretty amazing piece of work: Wonderfully envisioned and executed, with only a couple of spots that feel a little glossed over (in some cases by necessity, since you still can’t really interact with the few characters you meet in the game). The sense of history and tragedy conveyed in Hunrath is extremely well done, particularly the bits in Farley’s house.
So, while slightly flawed, I found it perfectly enjoyable and rewarding, and while I might not run through it a second time for a few years, many bits have stuck in my memory, as with any good story.
I hope that Obduction isn’t Cyan’s swan song with this genre of game (which has fallen out of favor since its heyday around the turn of the millennium), but if it is, then they’ve gone out on a high note.