Obduction

I can recall, with vivid detail, the first time I played Myst. It was unlike many of the games I played at the time and, being young, I often balked at games that weren’t violent and full of non-stop action. Myst had an allure I found hard to ignore. The experience of exploring the serene but impossible world was the first time I felt games could be more than point driven kill fests. After Myst, I jumped on the Cyan train pretty hard: I spent Christmas day in 1997 playing Riven, my copy of Myst III: Exile was the first Collector’s Edition I ever bought, I absorbed the trilogy of Myst novels, loved the doomed Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, was enraptured by Myst IV: Revelation, and found bittersweet closure in Myst V: End of Ages. Soon the industry would transition away from games of Cyan’s ilk. And with their key franchise over and the general lack of meaningful output, moving away from Cyan-style games felt like saying goodbye to a close friend. And now, after eleven years of nothing, Cyan is back with Obduction. In an instant, all the happiness I found in Myst came rushing back. Obduction is more than a game to be reviewed. For me, it was a righteous homecoming. And before I could take my first steps in-game, I was 14 all over again.  

Obduction couldn’t be any purer a definition of “spiritual successor." Anyone with a modicum of experience with Myst will recognize the structure of the game. In fact, Obduction is so like its ancestors that it could easily pass for an unfinished or unused Myst property rather than a new IP. There are arguments to be made against sameness in games. After all, not all remakes or reimaginings do well enough to honor the source material. In that regard, Obduction isn’t like Myst, it IS Myst. However, I freely give Cyan a pass because I’m happy to see them making games like this again.

The one part of that game that is a noticeable departure from its predecessors is the story. The narrative doesn’t involve a dysfunctional family of Age makers but rather has a few things to say about races interacting with each other after being forcibly displaced by an unknown entity.  The game’s silent protagonist (you) is abducted from Earth by a glowing alien seedpod. You arrive in Hunrath, the name given for a small human settlement built from a piece of land literally scooped out of the American Southwest. Hunrath is abandoned, with only pre-recorded messages to point the way. Casual observations ultimately reveal that the inhabitants left in a hurry leaving the player mostly alone to figure out what happened and how to get back home.

Everything about Obduction’s design, from its puzzles to aesthetic complexity, exposes its roots. There’s no UI to clutter the screen nor is there an inventory to manage significant items. The lack of a journal is an absence felt because there are so many sketches, hints, and story beats found on scraps of paper often littered in out of the way corners, far from the puzzle they are meant to offer assistance. Break out the scratch paper folks, because taking notes is extremely helpful in getting through puzzles. Any notes and hints are often quite vague and with no in-game hint system, you’re pretty much on your own. Cyan has always employed this hands off approach because it encourages the player to wander around aimlessly for a little bit and develop a rapport with how things work. With no threat of sudden death or scary ticking clocks counting down to doomsday, there’s nothing stopping you from poking, prodding, pulling, and pushing buttons and contraptions to see how things work. Don’t worry - you won’t break anything.

I have always loved the flow of Cyan’s puzzles. Each contraption and interactive system blends together with a comfortable fluidness that no other game like it has managed before. Hunrath exists to educate the player and instill basic knowledge of how the world operates, who the major players are, and provide the basic learning blocks of an alien numbering system. The lessons learned in Hunrath ultimately carry over into the other civilizations you’ll visit. Their complexity increases and often require good, old fashioned fourth dimensional thinking. Obduction’s art design is on par with the strength of the puzzle design and flow. Cyan has a knack for beautiful and striking places. Take a moment sometime and appreciate the Ages they created. Obduction is a little more unique than the Myst games because each of the four worlds you’ll visit contain small pieces of each other as a result of homebrewed phasing technology. The result is a neat visual disparity as whole spaces co-exist in ways that are not natural. They blend in so well together and create believable spaces.

Obduction is utterly enchanting, though it has a few noticeable blemishes. While it is beautiful to look at, the in-game visuals come at a cost. Obduction’s special effects (and there are some really neat effects), high resolution textures, lighting and shadows will put demands on your computer system. It’s easily played on medium and high settings, but make sure you have the graphics card to support the Epic settings. I was able to find a comfortable series of settings to make the game run well and still be pleasing to the eye. The game ran smoothly after that with the exception of a few crashes (a generous checkpoint save system prevented any loss in progress).

From a non-technical angle, Obduction suffers from a misstep in its narrative flow. Up until the game’s final act, the experience of visiting strange places and solving puzzles became an addiction that caused more than a few late night sessions. After conquering a particularly devious and confusing puzzle, the final area is dramatically empty of obstacles. Even the finale is a little lighter than what I expect from the studio. The pivot made me wonder if Cyan suddenly found themselves out of money and/or time. The conclusion of the adventure wasn’t quite as satisfying as some of those in the Myst series* and felt, in some ways, rushed to get out of a painted corner.

However weak the ending is, it was the journey that made the biggest impression on me. In that regard, the game is positively sublime. It’s the “aha!” moments that come with completing a puzzle - the feeling of success is truly a wonderful thing. Obduction is the same, perfect marriage of visual quality and clever puzzle design that made the Myst games so great to play. It’s hard to believe Cyan hasn’t made a game like this in eleven years! It’s a fantastic return to form by a studio that got me into PC gaming. Obduction is Cyan at their absolute best and it makes me feel so good to see them again.

Teen Services Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.