It’s unlikely I can be objective about Obduction. I say that up front because I think it’s important for a reader to know where a reviewer is coming from, know anything that might influence the text or the score aside from the game itself.
And in the case of Obduction (US$30 on Steam), it’s pretty complicated. We’ve covered this game a lot in the past three years, starting in 2013 when my old-time editor Alex Wawro and I went down to sunny Culver City, California for IndieCade. Looking at the lineup, I saw Myst co-creator Rand Miller—“The Rand Miller,” I probably would’ve said at the time—was giving a talk. I told Wawro I needed to go, and a good thing I did since that’s where Miller announced Cyan was back from the near-dead and looking to Kickstart a new project.
We were the first big site to report that news. It was the first “story” I ever broke, and an important milestone to me.
Three years on and I’ve been out to Cyan’s studio multiple times. I’ve met and chatted with Rand Miller and the crew at Cyan at length. We were the first press to see Obduction running, and I think the first to get hands-on with the game too. And all because when I was a kid, my dad showed me this game Myst. It was one of the first games I ever played (though it wasn’t until many years later I finally finished it) and it’s a series I’m very passionate about.
All this to say my life has been tied up with Cyan for almost as long as I can remember, and I’ve spent much of the last three years of it with Obduction. If you’re looking for the most objective, the most innocent-bystander-happened-upon-a-game sort of take on this game, then you’ve come to the wrong review.
And I don’t just mean that in an “Expect undue praise” way either. I talked to my now-editor Brad Chacos about this issue yesterday and told him it’s just as much an issue of being overly critical as it is overly excited. Fandom is a realm of extremes.
Apologies if this intro seems overly-rambling and indulgent. I promise we’ll get to the meat of the review soon. One last note: There are light spoilers to follow, including some screenshots of the main worlds. If you want to go into Obduction blind, I don’t even know why you clicked on this review but this is your last chance to close the window.
A new age
Take a look at this screenshot:
A locked door, an over-engineered and mechanical-looking keypad, that sallow lighting—and just a glimpse of something in the next room. Something waiting.
A perilous bridge, its metal rusted by the interminable fog of this world. Also a wholly impractical bridge, one end terminating in thin air, waiting for you to rearrange it. “Why didn’t they just build a more useful bridge?” you think to yourself, before finding the lever that’ll swing it into place.
For Myst and Riven fans these should be immediately recognizable sights. It looks like Myst. It looks like Cyan.
I start here because that connection is important. This is not a Myst game. You’ll find no traces of the D’ni here, nor linking books, Atrus, or the rest. But it is a spiritual successor, and many people are coming to Obduction expecting the same things they’d expect from a Myst sequel—minus twenty years of lore and world-building.
A fresh start, but not too fresh.
Here it’s “Worlds” instead of Myst’s Ages. After a brief introduction you’ll arrive in Hunrath, which you’ll probably recognize if you’ve followed this project at all. It’s the orange-rocks-and-purple-sky land Cyan’s showed off most, along with the picture-perfect rustic white house plopped in the midst of it all.
It’s yours to explore. Well, not the house. Not yet, anyway. You can try the handle but all you’ll hear is the classic chuckachuckachucka of a locked door in an adventure game. There are puzzles to solve before you gain entry to the house’s secrets.
But there is a world here. The popular narrative around Myst is always concerned with the game’s puzzles, and for good reason. The puzzles are the muscle, the connective tissue that propel the player through Myst’s Ages.
Cyan is a world-builder though, and that talent is on full display in Obduction—on Hunrath, certainly, but in the game’s other Worlds too. Hints about various cultures, conveyed through their lost artifacts and their decorations and, most often, their machinery. The way a machine is built, or over-built, tells you something about the people who supposedly used it.
And yes, sometimes the bit of information you learn is “This society’s architects were sadistic to design something like this,” or “These people must love living in a puzzle box.” Often though there’s more to be inferred from the use of materials, from the shapes it favors or its power source or its decorations (or lack thereof). An attention to small details lends these worlds, these incredibly alien worlds, a credibility. They have weight. They have substance.
It’s not something most games pull off, and more notable is the fact you could probably rattle off the names of the ones that did—BioShock’s Rapture, or Dark Souls’s Lordran, or Morrowind’s...Morrowind. Places where someone (or rather a lot of someones) really cared, had thought hard about the particulars of this world and its inhabitants.
Obduction’s Worlds aren’t necessarily the best Myst Ages. They’re not given the same room to breathe as in Riven, and I wish Cyan had more time to add fluff objects and random lore. But they feel about in line with my expectations—a bit larger than Myst’s regions.
Almost too big actually, at times. You can tell there were plans at one time or another to build out Obduction into a slightly bigger game, with a few awkwardly-empty areas and a bit too much space between some of the important elements. It can be especially frustrating in the late-game if you get stuck on a puzzle and don’t know what you’ve missed and are stuck running back and forth from landmark to landmark across broad stretches of nothing in between.
Cyan’s worst would still be much better than many studios though, and Obduction is far from Cyan’s worst. I’ve fallen particularly in love with Hunrath, not just because it’s grown familiar over the last three years but because its cobbled-together machinery is so fascinating, the juxtaposition of familiar Americana with the utterly strange.
And the art is worth mentioning. While we’re still not quite on par with the photorealism of Riven’s most beautiful areas, Cyan’s turned Unreal 4 into a treat. Both aspects inherent to the engine (phenomenal lighting) and some aspects unique to Obduction (not going to say lest spoilers) are a technical marvel.
I did notice some hitching, even after Nvidia’s latest driver update. I think it’s caused by load-streaming and don’t know if it can be fixed. In any case it didn’t bother me too much, though my GTX 980 Ti is a powerful card. Woe be to all who hoped to run Obduction on a lower-end machine.
The other half of the equation is, as I mentioned earlier, the puzzles. I’m a bit more mixed on this aspect—same as any Cyan game, I guess. There are a few puzzles I think are overly obscure, some interactive objects that could’ve used more highlighting, and a few puzzles that commit the cardinal sin of being harder to execute than they are to solve.
Still, Obduction is quite a bit easier than the Cyan of old. This is no Riven. (A conclusion I came to through playing Obduction sans-walkthrough, which is something I’ve still never managed with Riven.)
But it’s generally a good mix of Cyan-style puzzles. You’ve got your “Move levers and gears around on this overly-complicated machine.” You’ve got your number codes. You’ve got journals where people accidentally write down all their key information. You've even got a few more complicated concept puzzles.
It’s a Cyan game for 2016, I think. Which is to say: A much kinder, more predictable sort of puzzle game. One with its fair share of “Aha!” moments, but also one that’s supposed to take you a few days instead of a few months (or in my mom’s case, a few decades of being stuck on Myst’s dumb subway maze).
I think some people, the Myst purists, will be a bit disappointed by that fact—those who come for the puzzles, who played Myst like a battle of wills. (You might want to check out Haven Moon, though it also has issues.) Me? I’m mostly here for the worldbuilding anyway, and Cyan’s typically-understated storytelling.
One last note: The music. Robyn Miller makes his return to Cyan (however briefly) for Obduction, and the results are pretty damned strong, adding just a hint of tension to your otherwise lonesome explorations.
I miss it, now that it’s over. I’ve waited a long, long time for another Myst game. There have been some substitutes, some pinch hitters that tried to emulate that style. But there’s something special to me about an honest-to-goodness Cyan game. Me, personally—meaning I’m not strictly sure whether there’s a real-life difference or if my opinions are colored by nostalgia. It doesn’t matter, really, except insofar as I felt like I should write that lengthy disclosure up top. I like Cyan’s work.
I think others may find it divisive. I fear it won’t be Myst enough for some longtime fans. And for the people who never liked Myst? Well, this certainly won’t sway you. There’s still a lot of digging through journals for clues, reading lore that’s almost entirely inconsequential except for what it creates in your imagination. There’s a lot of pulling levers, turning cranks, pushing switches.
I thoroughly enjoyed it all, and I hope Cyan gets the chance to follow it up with a sequel. With the era of Kickstarter seemingly behind us, I’m not sure how likely that is—but I can hope. And you can bet if Cyan does announce another game, I’ll be one of the first in line to play it.