Strangely enough I played the parody of Myst before I even knew the original existed, a series of postcards with brilliantly crass and surreal humour featuring John Goodman as King Mattress. I loved it, but finding Myst was a revelation I don’t think I was entirely prepared for.
The Myst series is what made Cyan Worlds what they are today, though they’ve had a few older titles that are broadly forgotten along with a smattering of mobile releases that have gone unnoticed. Myst, it’s various sequels, re-releases and spin-offs are amongst the best puzzle games ever created, due in no small part to their use of observation and deductive reasoning rather than any dependence on the Lock and Key method I spoke of last week. They created worlds by the dozen, each with their own rules and internal logic that you uncover through studying the works of others and experimenting yourself, then using that knowledge to resolve the puzzles in front of you.
The question is can Cyan recapture the magic with a new title? Obduction is a title I picked up a while back, sincerely looking forward to something fascinating, something new. And as soon as I got past the title the whole thing crashed. Ahh well, nice new computer, nice new game…
Much like Myst, we begin as a stranger in a strange world, in this case taken by a shining light to a world trapped in a bubble, a little chunk of Arizona with an alien skyline and strange mismatched features. Exploring reveals that this place – Hunrath – is home to people from all across nations, across time, and across worlds, all of which have had a scoop taken out and placed in one of the others: Soria, a scorched obsidian landscape, home to the remarkably adaptive Mofang; Maray, in which the nomadic Villein were starting a colony; and Kaptar, a soaring temple occupied by a semi-sentient hive of the insectile Arai.
The worlds appear at first to have worked together, travelling between one another using smaller “bubbles” that swap neatly from one place to another, exchanging technology, trying to discover a reason for their abduction to these cells, and a way out. Each of these worlds are filled with little spherical sections of other places, and there are records of their history, incredible discoveries to be made in each.
You arrive some time after a major conflict, almost everyone has disappeared bar one man in a homemade workshop, who sets you to run a few errands for him under the promise of getting home that much faster.
This is what Cyan do best! Worlds, beautiful and unique, and creating them in the Unreal 4 engine with all of the detail, realism, lighting, it takes some already incredible artistic talent and strips away the restraints. Each world in Obduction is distinct, and the new universe created for the game sets it apart from Myst’s own, up to a point. Visually there were only a few areas where the graphics slipped up noticeably, most obviously a point where the access ramp to a ship occupies the same space as a rock. This may be a game where world-swapping makes the terrain change suddenly but there’s no mistaking that one.
I’m left unsure about the use of real actors. Cyan may have been using real actors in their series for decades, but is it still a delightful homage or an unnecessary throwback? In the case of your main ally C.W. he looks constantly out of place, almost painfully transplanted into the world, which wouldn’t be so bad if they’d brought him out from behind the window to his workshop. Cyan have their hallmark firmly in place which is nice I suppose, and I’m sure it saved them a lot of time as well.
Transitions are a huge game element, moving from one world to another as well as passing from one side of a world to the other by walking straight into the boundary between worlds both present a very different experience. The first time you walk into the edge of Hunrath is a shock of sound and light, and you emerge on the other side a little disoriented until you pick out some of the landmarks that set you on your path. Traversing worlds is something Myst did very well, mostly by use of the classic sound of the Linking Books, but Obduction reduces the scenery to a haze of swirling lights that coalesce into your destination. All very pretty, but it puts a toll on even my new computer, and makes for an occasionally sluggish game.
I feel as though I have run a whetstone across my mind. This is what I’ve been looking for for some time, and it’s not entirely by accident that I lost six hours of my life to this game a few days ago.
The puzzles themselves are very cleverly done, and toy with the multiple-world concept Myst laid down in a way that it couldn’t have done within its own confines. The method of moving between worlds transports a piece of that world with you, meaning that you have to consider what part of the world you’ll end up with one which side of the swap, and how to re-enter while keeping everything you need intact. For example, a gap that can be spanned by moving piece of solid ground from the other side, then running back to the other access point to get across without changing anything.
My personal favourite use of this technique: a maze created by the residents of the cells, one that requires you to remove spheres to a target destination where a rotation mechanism has been set up for them, but the removed sections may not be in the right place to begin with. I will point out that while this may seem like a rather obvious puzzle set up for a game that’s all about an immersive world and narrative, it is given a rational reason to exist, enough that I can forgive it that peculiarity.
Not all of the puzzles are quite so well thought out I might add, two in particular irked me, the first being a door who’s key turned out to be a discovery you must make before you can proceed, despite the fact that you’ve already established that these doors have control panels that the entire level has been based around. The second is that the ending you get, the good one or the bad one, is based on seemingly the most arbitrary factor, only subtly hinted at in a hidden corner of Hunrath, something so easily unnoticed as evidenced by that fact that I never noticed it.
It may seem an odd thing to pick on, but the biggest issue I found while playing was that space-bar – the key usually designated for jumping in most first person games – is instead for taking photographs. Useful for puzzle solving, infuriating when trying to navigate the winding paths and occasional large rock. I rapidly found myself with a lot of useless screens taken in error that had to be deleted to keep the pertinent information readily to hand.
So Much More
I feel as though there was a lot that Obduction could have done given the time and money. Oculus Rift support and a major shift to the Unreal 4 engine delayed and dug deep into Cyan World’s budget and set there timescale back further and further, but made it worth every penny to the keen Kickstarter backers of whom I was too late to join. Knowing full well what designer Rand Miller is able to produce I sincerely hope to see… more. More what I don’t know, Obduction left a few unanswered questions and showed us so much more than we were ever able to fully discover, but there’s always hope.
But it’s one thing Cyan are not short of, and that is ideas, that much is self evident. While Obduction leans heavily on the spirit of Myst to give it strength I sincerely feel like it stands on its own, and that it wouldn’t take any tremendous leaps of faith for them to break the mould altogether with some new great experiment. Clever and beautiful games will always be in demand, and the market is wide open for them. There are games out there taking bold risks, many of which are paying off, and I sincerely believe that Cyan Worlds has the power (and the fanbase) to step confidently out of that confidence zone, and make something truly magical that no one has ever seen before.